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'Speechless' Star Addresses the Issues

NEW YORK -- "Speechless" is a movie about two political consultants for different parties, who fall in love. So I'm talking with Michael Keaton, the star of the movie, and I say, "I gather this screenplay was written before Mary Matalin and James Carville became a couple."

"I got news for you," Keaton says. "This screenplay was written before James Carville and Mary Magdalen became a couple."

The screenplay had been around, in fact, for a couple of years before Carville, working for Clinton, and Matalin, working for Bush, fell in love on the 1992 campaign trail. Now they've co-authored a bestseller about their polarized relationship, and here is the movie - which is not based on the book.

Was the screenplay altered because a reallife situation had developed? I asked.

"I don't think so. Although I'm kind of proud and embarrassed to admit I was three weeks into the movie before I knew that the screenplay was written before they met one another. I thought it was based on them, too, just like everybody else."

Did you see that documentary, "The War Room," which followed Carville on the campaign trail?

"Yeah, I saw it. He was a very interesting character. But I knew I wasn't going to try to play him or any version of him. I found the documentary pretty depressing in the picture it painted of Spin Doctors, and creating images to get somebody into office. They never dealt with the issues."

Of course, Keaton's character never deals with the issues in "Speechless," either, and neither does the character he falls in love with, played by Geena Davis. He's a Democrat, she's a Republican, and they're both speech writers and consultants for a couple of Bozos running for office in New Mexico.

The movie makes it pretty clear both candidates are vacuum-headed crooks, and Keaton and Davis spend a lot of their time trying to get their man photographed with a cute baby bear at the local zoo, which has crawled into a drain pipe and upstaged every other story in town. They are, however, both insomniacs, and one night they get into a fight over the last bottle of Nydol in the local convenience store, and that leads to a conversation, and love at first sight, and blissful romance - until they discover they're working on opposite sides of the fence.

"I was doing Larry King," Keaton said, "and he told me Carville and Matalin are just crazy about one another and get on really well and they're totally, totally different. I think that would make it easier. You accept that the other person is different, and you're never going to try to change them or shift them. It's those little gray areas that drive you crazy, you know: You're almost there, but you're not there. That's what makes it hard." We were talking in a New York hotel room, during one of those December weekends when every studio in the world decides to premiere its new movies all at once. "Speechless" is one of the hopefuls for a big share of the box office dollar this holiday season, but never has the field been so crowded, with something like 20 other releases also going for the brass ring. Return to comedy

For Keaton, the movie is a return to light comedy after the relatively heavier experiences of "My Life," a 1993 film in which his dying character videotaped a farewell to his infant son, and such other films as "Clean and Sober" (1988), where he's fighting drugs; "The Dream Team" (1989), where he's a mental patient; "Pacific Heights" (1990), where he was the tenant from hell; "The Paper" (1994), where he was a harassed newspaper editor; and of course the two "Batman" movies (1989 and 1992), where he played the Caped Crusader on mean streets darker than noir.

If "Speechless" is a comedy, however, it's not exactly an optimistic, Capraesque view of the American political landscape. The director, Ron Underwood, seems to specialize in strange people who live in or near New Mexico; his previous films were "Tremors" (1990), about giant burrowing worms attacking a small Nevada town, and "City Slickers" (1991), about three lonely guys on a New Mexico dude ranch. His new film evenhandedly shows both of the candidates as dishonest, shallow and unworthy of office. The movie really takes a bleak view of politics, I said to Keaton. I guess that reflects the view that America has about politicians right now. "That's what I'm thinking." How do you feel about that? "It's disturbing because, on the one hand, I'm glad everybody's kind of cynical and rising up and calling people on their stuff. But you've gotta maintain a certain respect, even a symbolic one, for the president. The other day that guy took a shot at the White House. It's like, shoot at it! Geez, where's that going to lead?"

Did you find out anything about politics while making this film that enlightened you?

"No; not really, because the film's really not about that. There wasn't any real research besides watching `The War Room.' It's a romantic comedy with a political backdrop; that's all." Sleepless in New York

All during the weekend, people with too many movies on their minds kept slipping and calling the movie "Sleepless" instead of "Speechless." And when I talked to Underwood, the director, he nodded grimly and said, "I sometimes go a whole week without a good night's sleep."

How do you function?

He shrugged. "I function fine."

"I liked the idea of the characters both being insomniacs," Keaton said. "I thought it was a nice way for two people to connect. They share this thing in common. And also, it lends itself to maybe a kind of sexual tension - knowing somebody's across the town in their hotel room and they're not sleeping and they might be thinking about you and you're in bed and it's in the middle of the night. I liked all that. And it also lends itself to acting kinda goofy if you haven't slept in a couple of days."

You make a nice couple, I said.


You smile good together. And you both seem to come loaded with an attitude.

"An attitude. Yes."

Is Geena taller than you?

"She's got a good 6 inches on me. No, she's a little taller than me, but you don't notice it."

In this film I didn't think she looked as tall as she usually does.

"Right. Because she's actually not."

Or you're taller than what we think you are.

"Well, there you go; there's your answer." `Batman'

Val Kilmer has been announced as the lead for the forthcoming "Batman 3," and Keaton raised some eyebrows last week when he said he had "retired the cape" for Batman.

"I gave a speech at the National Press Club and then they asked me questions. I answered the questions. They edited me a little out of context. What I said was, until our `Batman' came around, the general perception of `Batman' was from comics and the TV show. Then we came and did our version, and that seems to be the version right now: Batman as the Dark Knight. Now there will be another Batman movie, without me or (director) Tim Burton involved, and it'll be whatever it is, and I don't know what that will be. And so, in that respect, I like to think I retired the jersey on our Batman. And I really liked what I did in the first one. I liked the way I did it an awful lot."

I got a question, I said, from a reader who wanted to know who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman. I said Superman, obviously, since he was superhuman - unless Batman had kryptonite. Then I got a letter from a man at Marvel Comics who gave me the ranking of all their heroes. Thor would beat everybody because he was a god. They actually have at Marvel Comics, a rating system of who would beat whom.

"Who's the lowest?"

I can't remember.

"Probably Accountantman."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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