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NEW YORK There was an article not long ago in Variety, the show-biz bible, saying that Sigourney Weaver was third on the list of stars who could "open" a movie, worldwide. That placed her right up there with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other male action heroes, mostly on the basis of her work in the "Alien" series. But the article didn't make much of it.
"It went on and on," Weaver was recalling, "about Arnold and the other top box-office men, and what that meant about their careers. But it didn't even say, `Isn't it interesting that there's a woman in the top three?' They sort of went, like, it was a fluke."
The article could have gone on to say that Sigourney Weaver is the only Hollywood star who is among the top three action stars and also makes serious art films, like her latest work, Roman Polanski's "Death and the Maiden" (which is in its opening weekend at Chicago area theaters). That would have made her unique, too. Or it could have pointed out what uncanny taste she has in choosing projects, so that in the years since she first came into view in "Alien" (1979), she has had essentially one box-office success after another. There have been disappointments, but look at "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1983), "Ghostbusters" (1984), "Half Moon Street" (1986), "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988) and "Working Girl" (1988), not to mention the "Ghostbusters" and "Alien" sequels.
That the same woman could appear as a science fiction icon and the star of Polanski's visceral new drama about political torture is remarkable. That she could be completely credible in both - battling a slimy alien spider and then engaging in a struggle of words with a charming, elusive torturer in a serious art film - is also remarkable. If the same could be said about Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis or Jean-Claude Van Damme, you can be sure you wouldn't have had to wait until this article to read about it.
"It's funny," she said. "I seem to fall between the cracks. I'm not considered a legitimate action hero because I'm a woman. But I'm not considered in the same category with high-toned actresses like Glenn Close and Meryl Streep because I'm an action figure. See what I mean?"
I told her I effortlessly thought of her in both categories, and that in fact her "serious" work in movies like "The Year of Living Dangerously" or "Gorillas in the Mist" - where she was a smart woman living in a dangerous environment - made her more credible in the action movies.
"Well, that's lovely," she said. "But people don't see me that way. I've been in so many different kinds of movies, some people think of me with gorillas, and others, the little ones, know `Ghostbusters,' you know, and the sci-fi fans analyze the `Alien' movies. So I have this sort of spotty support group; it looks like I almost can't win. I'm amazed that overseas my movies are very much seen. I would not have been asked to do `Death and the Maiden' if that weren't so."
We were talking in New York last month after the first U.S. screenings of the film. It opened on the coasts to qualify for Academy Award consideration (Weaver is considered a very possible Oscar nominee).
In "Death and the Maiden," she plays Paulina, a woman who was a political prisoner in an unnamed country (for which we should probably read Chile). She was imprisoned, tortured and raped by a man whose face she never saw, but whose verbal style and physical presence she could never forget: Even his smell is indelible for her. Time passes. She is released. A new regime takes over the country.
In prison, she held out because she was loyal to her husband, a political dissident. After she was freed, she discovered he'd been unfaithful. A deep bitterness takes hold, and she resists sex with him. They live in a lonely house on a deserted landscape.
One night her husband's car blows a tire and he is given a lift home by a charming stranger. Feigning sleep, hiding behind the bedroom door, she realizes the stranger must be her former torturer. That sets up the main body of the film, in which she surprises the man, ties him to a chair and puts him through an inquisition - while he uses his considerable intelligence in an attempt to convince her, and her husband, he is the wrong man.
The movie was based by Polanski on Ariel Dorfman's play, a success on Broadway and elsewhere, and also stars Ben Kingsley as the possible torturer and Stuart Wilson as her husband. They are the only three characters onscreen: a woman and two men who each, in his way, has made her a victim.
Why did Polanski cast Weaver in this role? Possibly because he saw both her intelligence and her strength. She has always played smart women - particularly in the "Alien" series - and yet she is identified in our minds as a tall, sinewy woman who probably could tie a man to a chair and contemplate killing him. (Can we easily see Glenn Close or Meryl Streep doing that? It is an interesting question.)
"In the beginning," Weaver said, "I was very afraid of physically hurting Ben Kingsley by accident, and Roman would have to take me aside and say, `When you tie those knots, it's all right if you give them a little tug; it's all right to hurt him just a little bit. He'll be fine.' And I knew Ben was in some pain because of the tape I put across his mouth. I had such a horror of actually hurting him. Then, as we got to know each other better, it was sort of like a wonderful high-wire act. I always knew that as far out as I went, he would be out there to catch me.
"Of course, the thing that may be hard for people to accept is that the relationship between torturer and victim is very complicated. There have even been incidences where the victim has married the torturer after prison. It's a very complicated thing. I really felt, and Roman let me go with this, that there've been two bad men in this woman's life. One of them is her husband, who, in many ways, has been a torturer because he doesn't want to talk about what happened to her.
"The only thing that kept her going through this terrible experience was the feeling she was saving this man, and when she got out, he'd be there for her. So when she discovers him in bed with another woman, nothing in her life has hurt more than that. That is the biggest crime in the film. He wants to make love anyway, even though she's terribly upset. There are many different kinds of rapes going on. She also tortures him with recriminations and guilt.
"And in the case of Ben's character . . . the few moments of tenderness she experienced in prison were also with this man. He'd been kind to her, he'd cleaned her, he played music to her. In other words, it was very complicated, and we wanted to make sure that it was not black and white. That they shared an intimate animal memory. Not that any part of it was good or pleasurable for her, but that she responded as a helpless child would to the few instances of tenderness during that experience."
Seeing the film for the first time, Weaver said, she was surprised by some of the editing choices Polanski made. There were painful scenes, for example, exploring her sex life with her husband: "There were takes that went much further, where she really struggled against him. Roman didn't think the audience could take it. But I think that's the truth of their relationship, and, in fact, I've always felt it was hard to believe that they end up together. Most relationships don't survive the experience of someone being tortured and imprisoned.
"Then the scene we did of her behind the door, when she first hears the doctor's voice, was some of my best work, and he's included about half a second of it. If he'd included more of it, maybe it would be clearer to the audience. I was astonished by how little of my emotional work in the beginning he did use, and I can't see it objectively. . . ."
There was a distant quality to her voice, as if she was remembering a somewhat different film from the one she had seen, a film assembled from her memories of shots that had been filmed but not used. Yet she seemed more contemplative than unhappy. I asked her if she'd like to have an "actor's cut" of the film.
"Not really. You know, I feel so fortunate that it was Roman's. Another director might have made this more Paulina's picture, because that's the way it was written. He resolutely makes it like `Rashomon,' where you're with each of the three characters, trying to decide whose point of view is most valid.
"At one point I said to him, `You know, the camera's often at my back when I'm saying something that I think is important for the audience to know about what happened to me.' He laughed and said, `You only think it's interesting when it's on you.' I said, `No, I want to make sure that they're following what I'm saying about this man and what I feel about it because they're all thinking, is she crazy or is she sane?' Seeing the film, I'm surprised by how little it was on Paulina for key moments. I know he has the material because I saw all the rushes, and he chose not to because he doesn't want her to dominate this story. He wants you to have your sympathies tugged from one to another all the time - which I respect enormously. It's not the conventional way of doing it."
She seemed to be holding back a little. I asked her if she missed the shots that weren't there.
She shrugged very slightly. "Well, I do feel that at several points. But at least I know that I did it, so if he doesn't want to use it . . . it's one thing if I wasn't able to do it, then I would feel funny about it. But the fact that he had it all and chose to do it this way, I guess, he feels that she gets there in the end . . . which is fine, you know. . . ."
The film was shot in Paris, she said, which created an odd experience for her. "If you're from a theoretically healthy democracy and you read in detail one firsthand account after another of what happened of another long-standing democracy overnight, you can never see the world the same again.
"In fact, working in Paris, what was strange, when I walked around, I always felt the Nazi presence. I was so conscious that there had been a time in Paris where this very thing was going on. I found it so chilling to walk down those streets. I would notice people of a certain age, and I would I wonder, what were they doing?"
If you looked back over your career, I asked, would you see anything revealed that you didn't know at the time about the characters you've played?
"I think I do my work for women mostly. I want to feel that a woman looks at the screen and says to herself, `I know what that is, and I'm glad that that's expressed.' I'm drawn to women who, for some reason, are cut off from other women because of their experience or their passion. Like Dian Fossey's great passion for the gorillas. They isolate themselves from other people for a certain purpose. There's so many people within each of us, and to be able to play with that in a story. . . I remember with `Alien,' since I'd never done a film before, telling myself, gosh, now I have a choice; do I try to play the character consistently from beginning to end? And I went, gosh, well, I'm not very consistent as a person, so why should I think that this person is? So, then you learn to play each scene for all it's worth, and if you string them all together, then you have sort of a recognizable human being."
You always play competent women. In so many movies, women are so weak. They never seem able to run, for example, without being dragged by the hand by the male hero. Have you ever noticed that?
"Yes, yes; with the tight skirt. Inevitably. When I was at Yale, they did a production of `The Tempest,' and I went to the director and I said, `Miranda grew up on an island. She wears buckskins, she knows how to hunt and fish, she hasn't had the benefits of a courtly upbringing.' I thought he was going to fall over with a heart attack. It was so alien to his concept of Miranda as this lovely little creature with long hair and a long dress reading her book."
Definitely not Sigourney Weaver.
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