Dolemite Is My Name
Dolemite is My Name is a typical biopic buoyed by its unrelenting hilarity, its affection for its subject and commitment to the time and place…
NEW YORK -- We were going out for lunch, Melanie Griffith and I, and the question was, did Alexander want to come along?
"Hey, Duke," she said to her son, sitting down next to him on the floor. "How about it? You want to come to lunch with us?"
He did not. He shook his head firmly and looked down at the floor.
"You're supposed to look at people's faces when you talk to them," Griffith said, and Alexander kept looking down, and so his mother stood up and said, quietly but firmly, "All right, then, you can have your lunch here." And then the floodgates burst, and Alexander ran to his mother's arms, and she took him and kissed him and planted him back on the floor, and he ran to get his tricycle.
"You like Liza?" Griffith asked. She put a compact disk in the portable player in the dining room. Minnelli began to sing "I Happen to Like New York." Then said she would just take a minute to go upstairs and get herself ready.
Alexander had a good range for his tricycle, the hardwood flors that stretched without interruption through the living and dining rooms and the kitchen of this rented townhouse in the Village. He circled the dining room table and got up steam and came roaring toward me, stopping at the last minute. Griffith came back downstairs and left Alexander with the nanny, and we walked out into a fine spring day. She is tall, and currently she is blonde, and she speaks with that very particular voice that makes you think of Jean Arthur without quite knowing why. Some of the people on the street recognized her, but most did not, because she has been a chameleon in many of her most successful roles. She was wearing a black wig, for example, in the unforgettable opening sequence of "Something Wild," which began when she picked up Jeff Daniels outside a restaurant, and ended when she handcuffed him to a motel bed and made him call his office.
"I was on the Staten Island ferry last week," she said, "playing a secretary from Staten Island? I had my hair all long, you know, like they wear it? With it all up in front here, and then it drops off behind? And...I...was...tawking...like...dis...and there was a cop there, and he asked us what we were doing, and I said we were making a movie.And he asked if there were any stars in the movie. And I said, well, yeah, I guess I'm the star. And he asked me who I was, and I told him, and he said, oh, yeah, I was the one in `Something Wild,' only I had black hair then. And then he said, `You look older now,' and I said, `F--- you,' and just for a moment there, a look came into his eyes, a very strange look, for just a second. And then the second passed and he laughed and asked me if I was really into handcuffs, and I said I noticed he was carrying some."
We were walking past the art galleries and the bookstores, the tofu parlors and the bars. There were some children's cartoons in the window of a video store. "Amy Irving and I took Max and Alexander to see 'The Lady and the Tramp'," she said, "in a real theater. Then he looked at it on tape. But he's not like a lot of kids, who want to see the same tape over and over. He makes up his own stories. He's intelligent. I'm not saying that just because he's mine. I really think he is."
We walked along in the sunshine. She said her new movie, "Stormy Monday," had gotten some good reviews, and that she had also enjoyed making "The Milagro Beanfield War," but that many of her best scenes were not in the movie.
"Never filmed. It snowed and they had to revise the whole production schedule. I did the movie because I wanted to work with Robert Redford. Now, on this new one, I'm working with Mike Nichols. It's called 'Working Girl,' and it's about a Staten Island secretary who beats the odds. She is very bright but seems like she isn't getting anywhere, and then...one...day...she does!"
We turned into "5/1," one of those restaurants where the floors and walls look recycled out of old Paris brasseries. There was a table in the corner. Melanie Griffith ordered cafe au lait and a Caesar salad. She said that she could never be a director. "As an actor, I try to do my job and then let it go and hope it all works," she said. "I can't be responsible for everything. I don't think I could handle the responsibilities of a director. Like with Mike Nichols. The crew can be working for hours to set up a shot, but if it doesn't work, he has to say, `No, that's not right, put the camera over there.' I don't know if I could do that. It might seem too impolite."
"Is it going to be a good movie?" I asked.
She looked at me over her cup cafe au lait. "It better be," she said. "If you ask me, it's gonna be. I think it's gonna be terrific. Mike Nichols is wonderful to work for."
She sipped the coffee. "Kevin Wade, who wrote the screenplay lives right upstairs here," she said. "I think he's out of town. Brian De Palma lives in this building, too. We could call him, but no, of course not, he's in Thailand now, making that picture."
"You made 'Body Double' with him."
"I liked that picture," I said.
"Not everybody did."
The Caesar salad came, and she looked at it with the attitude of someone who was going to drive the salad crazy with wondering when it was going to be eaten.
"Mike Nichols let us rehearse for two weeks for `Working Girl'," she said. "that was a wonderful luxury. Harrison Ford is in the picture. He is so great. And I really do think I've done my best work ever."
"I liked you a lot in 'Stormy Monday'," I said.
"Do you remember `Brief Encounter'?" she said. "It was a little like that. A story where you meet somebody, and right away you know there's something there. And I don't just mean sex. Something is in your heart, for a reason."
In the movie, she feels that way about a young Irishman played by Sean Bean. The two of them become lovers in the dark and rain-swept streets of Newcastle, where Tommy Lee Jones is a crooked Texas millionaire who wants to launder his dirty money by buying up the waterfront, and Sting is the nightclub operator who doesn't want to sell out cheap. It's one of those movies with street lights and neon signs, cigarettes and fast red cars, and broken arms.
"Sting is so intelligent," she said. "Also he was born in Newcastle. He grew up there, but he hadn't been back for years."
"Why do you suppose they used you, as an American woman, in a British film?" I asked.
"Well, because the film is sort of about America," she said, lighting a Benson & Hedges. "About how the Americans are buying everything up. But here is an American girl who doesn't want to be bought up along with everything else. The film was directed by Michael Figgis. I don't think he wanted me at first. I met him before 'Something Wild' came out, and maybe he didn't know what I could do. But we got along well, and he allowed me to collaborate on changing Kate, my character, a little bit, so she was a little stranger. The movie isn't about this huge message. It's a film noir about...well, about what happens to these six people."
"Sometimes a movie isn't even about the plot and the dialog," I said. "It's about the way the light falls on a wet street, and the way a woman blows out cigarette smoke and looks a man in the eye." "The great thing at the end," she said, "is that Sean and I become the cause instead of the effect."
"After this current picture, what are you going to do?" I asked. "Who knows? I'll be out of work."
She picked up her fork and held it menacingly over the Caesaer salad. Then somehow the subject of Alfred Hitchcock came up. "He was a real bastard," she said. "Do you know that he sent me a toy coffin with a doll of my mother inside of it? I think I'm pretty intelligent. Even when I was six years old I didn't think that was a very funny joke. What kind of a girl would want to play with a doll that was your mom?"
I said I had read all about Hitchcock's relationship with Melanie Griffith's mother, Tippi Hedren, in a couple of books that basically said the Master of Suspense tried to seduce her while they were making "The Birds" and "Marnie,", and when he failed, treated her with cruelty.
"I have no desire to read about the [12-letter-word]," she said. "He hurt my mother. He never actually did anything wrong, but he was really cruel. I had a lot of doubts about directors. But the first movie I made was 'Night Moves' , when I was 16, and the director was Arthur Penn, and I guess he thought I was a crazy kid, but he was very nice to me. Directors can be nice. Mike Nichols fought--I happen to know he fought --to get me this movie, because he believed in me."
It was getting on towards 2 p.m., and Griffith said she wanted to walk over to a parking garage and pick up a Jeep belonging to her new boy friend, Lian Dalton, who is a vice president of Bear, Stearns. "See?" she said, holding out her arm to model a new Rolex. "I'm gonna get the Jeep and take Alexander for a ride. Here's Lian." She took out a photograph of a handsome dark-haired man on skis, with a mountain behind him.
"Where's this?" I asked.
"I don't know. I wasn't there. I just like the picture."
We left the restaurant and walked again through the sunny spring seats to the parking garage, where Griffith had one of those conversations you can hear only in Manhattan.
"He wants to know about being approved as a monthly parker," she told the garage attendant.
"Yes, well, when you come back, I may know more about that." "He's very successful and reliable, and he's a really nice man," she said.
"Yes," said the attendant thoughtfully. "We got a couple of good reports on him."
"I think you can count on him, I mean," she said.
"We got some good reports," the attendant conceded.
We drove out of the garage in the Jeep.
"I wonder if you have Mike Nichols's address," I said.
"I want to write him a note," I said. "What happened was, I referred to him as `another one of the hacks brought in to direct a Neil Simon picture,' but I didn't mean that he was a hack--I meant that he was too good to be another one of the hacks brought in to direct a Neil Simon picture. But I don't think it came across that way."
"I'll be sure to get you the address," she said. "I think it's on East 81st or something. I don't think it came across that way, either. Look at this. The windows on this thing zip down."
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