Page 12


Movies on Movies A Double Dose of Cinema a Clef BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART Directed by Clint Eastwood POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE Directed by Mike Nichols HIS FILM’ IS a work of fiction,” according to a statement during the closing credits of White Hunter, Black Heart. And yet it is impossible not to translate fictional director John Wilson back into John Huston and fictional writer Peter Verrill into Peter Viertel, whose 1953 novel which drew on his experiences with Huston during the making of The African Queen he helped adapt into this film. The characters played by Marisa Berenson, Richard Vanstone, and Jamie Koss look and behave remarkably like Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall in Africa four decades ago. The titillation of veiled gossip about the making of a Hollywood classic pales pretty quickly. What is most notable, however, about White Hunter, Black Heart is its critique of the code of machismo, which Clint Eastwood has embodied more successfully than any other actor since John Wayne. In his latest film as producer, director, and star, Eastwood sends Dirty Harry to the showers and sends up the mystique of the silent, selfish, and brutish male. “A violent man given to violent action” is the first thing we hear about Wilson, about anyone for that matter, in the voiceover of film. “In a well-ordered society,” exasperated producer Paul Landers \(George asylum.” White Hunter, Black Heart provides no evidence of a well-ordered society, either in the rural English estate on which Wilson is sponging at the beginning of the film or in the African bush brushed by British imperial boors. So Wilson, in debt for $300,000, is placed in charge of a movie production. He cajoles the younger Verrill, whom he patronizes as “kid,” into helping him write a screenplay and coming with him on location to Africa. Verrill complains that Wilson’s version of the script is too downbeat for audiences Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature University of Texas at San Antonio. “People don’t go to pictures to be lectured to,” he declares. Wilson’s indignant response is a majestic refusal to “let 80 million popcorn-eaters pull you one way and another.” “To write a movie,” says Wilson to Verrill, “you must forget that anyone’s going to see it.” This credo of the proud artiste might reflect Eastwood’s own determination to prove that he is not just a Hollywood hack and hunk. It is also further evidence of Wilson’s self-absorption, a narcissism masquerading as audacity. In fact, Wilson has only incidental interest in making a movie. He insists on moving the production to Africa, not particularly to be faithful to the script, which he and Verrill are vague about anyway, but in order to go on safari. Wilson is determined to kill an elephant. “You’re either crazy or the most egocentric son-of-abitch I ever met,” concludes Verrill, after Wilson keeps crew and cast fuming while he goes off to hunt an elephant. The viewer is under no obligation to choose between the two descriptions. Much of the film is a matter of providing opportunities for Wilson to strut his stuff, often with an awestruck Verrill serving as foil. The dialogue is smart, though rarely wise, but Wilson often plays the man of high principle, sometimes because of the increased opportunity for bravado it affords. “You gotta fight when you think it’s the right thing to do,” Wilson insists to Verrill after being carried to his room, bloodied and battered by the racist manager of the Lake Victoria Hotel, whom Wilson rashly challenges to fisticuffs after he sees him bullying his native employees. Wilson is a foe of racism whose admirable actions seem motivated most powerfully by self-esteem. The most effective scene in White Hunter, Black Heart occurs earlier at the Lake Victoria Hotel. Wilson, Verrill, and a haughty English lady named Margaret McGregor are having dinner a trois. Wilson is intent on seducing Mrs. McGregor, Verrill is present to admire the work of the master, and McGregor is inclined to dispel her boredom with the famous Hollywood director. However, she soon begins peppering her prandial conversation with vicious anti-Semitic comments. “I must warn you that I am a Jew,” says Verrill. “I’m a kike.” Yet she continues her rant. Wilson then proceeds to insult her so thoroughly that she is soon walking off in tears. Verrill thanks Wilson for sacrificing an evening’s fornication to the cause of ethnic tolerance, but it is clear that self-righteousness is more seductive to Wilson than a mere woman. Not a single frame of the film-within-afilm has yet been shot as White Hunter, Black Heart concludes. Wilson’s obsession with bagging a behemoth causes unnecessary, expensive delays in the production and the pointless death of a native guide. In proud, satanic rebellion against the order of the cosmos, Wilson sets about desecrating a majestic tusker. “It’s not a crime to kill an elephant,” he barks. “It’s a sin.” In these more enlightened times, it is both. LIKE White Hunter, Black Heart, and like 81/2, Singin’ in the Rain, Day for Night, and hundreds of lesser works, Postcards from the Edge is a movie about movies. It begins with one of the oldest tricks in the genre, a dramatic scene from which the camera pulls back to reveal it was the take for a movie all along. It concludes on the set of a different production, as Suzanne Vale, the actress character played by Meryl Streep, wows the crew with .a rousing rendition of country-and-western song “I’m Checkin’ Out.” Postcards from the Edge is worth checking out for Streep’s performance and the revelation that she can belt out a tune with the best of them. One of them, Shirley MacLaine, plays her mother, Doris Mann. Based on a screenplay that Carrie Fisher adapted from her own first novel, Postcards from the Edge seems, like White Hunter, Black Heart, to offer fictionalized gossip, an example of cinema a clef, with the added fillip that the clay that director Mike Nichols kneads is the true experience of movie stars. Just as obviously as John Wilson is an approximation of John Huston, Streep is a version of Fisher and MacLaine of her mother, Debbie Reynolds. It is like substituting garlic when the recipe calls for ginger. The result is pungent in a different way. Early in Postcards, Suzanne is rushed to an emergency ward after a near-fatal over dose of drugs. After surviving the operating room and the earnest concerns of a rehabili tation officer \(“Do you always talk in bumper ers that her acting career is threatened. Pro ducers, even of junky films, are unwilling to risk their investment on a certified junkie. To satisfy the insurance company, Suzanne must agree to swear off drugs and to live with a 26 SEPTEMBER 28, 1990