by Bob Strauss
DIRECTOR RE-SHOOTS THE CRIME COMEDY CLASSIC WITH HAND-HELD CAMERAS AND WAHLBERG AS 'THE ANTI-CARY GRANT'
It was a crazy idea, even for a filmmaker of Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme's eclectic accomplishments.
But Demme did not just remake Charade, the impossibly effervescent, romantic crime comedy that Stanley Donen perfected in 1963, with stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at their most incomparable. In this version, called The Truth About Charlie, the director of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia cast as stars the different-as-can-be team of Boogie Nights' Mark Wahlberg and Mission: Impossible 2's Thandie Newton. He also trades Charade's classic Hollywood high gloss for the jagged, free-form style of the French New Wave directors who were hitting their stride at the time Donen and company were shooting in Paris.
Different as he tried to make it, though, he admits that comparisons are inevitable.
"At one point, before the part was cast, somebody said, 'This is a great George Clooney movie,' " said Demme, boyishly trim and brimming with impish, movie-geek enthusiasm at the age of 58. "And you know what? I'd like to see that movie. But I didn't want to make that movie. I didn't want to get into that head-on a contest with this other picture, and try to duplicate Cary Grant and try to duplicate Audrey Hepburn."
Indeed, Demme refers to Wahlberg - the Boston street punk turned rapper/underwear model Marky Mark turned respectable but hardly ultra-elegant movie star - as the Anti-Cary Grant.
"Mark Wahlberg is not doing Cary Grant," the director said. "Before we started shooting, Mark's thing was like, 'Me, Cary Grant?' and I'd go, 'No! You're not Cary Grant. You're Joshua Peters, a character who shares the name of a character once played in a very different way, clearly Mark, than you're going to do it.'
"If I wanted to do a remake of a movie where you cast someone because you want to try to capture what the original actor did, I would pick a Steve McQueen movie to do with Mark Wahlberg."
Uh, that sounds like a directorial vote of confidence.
"Jonathan thought I was the right guy for the part, that I could bring something different and interesting to the role, so I said sure," said Wahlberg, 31, who nevertheless looks mighty dapper in a black Armani suit and pink silk tie. "I wasn't a huge fan of the original, though I thought it was a beautiful film. And I wasn't a huge fan of this script. I was a huge fan of Jonathan Demme's. I'd work with this guy in whatever role; I would play the guy on the bus who doesn't say anything.
"Jonathan cast me, obviously, to do the complete opposite of Cary Grant," said Wahlberg, who took a plane from the Hawaiian set of Planet of the Apes to Paris for Charlie (and whose next film is his third re-make in a row, of the 1960s British caper The Italian Job).
Some think that Newton, at least, bears a few traces of the sophisticated gamine Hepburn. Maybe it's the British accent, although that's more pronounced in the younger, English-Zimbabwean actress than it was for the Dutch-Irish screen legend. Whatever it is, Newton, who played the title role in Demme's last film, Beloved, seems to have been his inspiration for the new project.
"The first time I ever saw Charade was at Jonathan's house," she said. "We watched the film, then he said, 'Don't you think that would make a great update?' And, yeah, I thought it would. Then he goes, 'With you in that part.' I said, 'Oh, please - shut up.' Then, two years later, we were doing just that.
There were no concerns about living up to Hepburn's image, though.
"I read a new version, The Truth About Charlie," Newton said. "I didn't have time to reference back to the other one. And this was a very different, different character and so on. I take my job very seriously, and I don't tend to look outside of what I'm doing. I tend not to look at what other actors have done to inspire what I'm doing, either. I concentrate solely on the piece.
"But I was aware that I was playing Regina Lambert, not playing Audrey Hepburn playing Regina Lambert. Maybe I was in denial, because I was playing a role that she played."
Faithful in many ways to Peter Stone's Charade script, Charlie's screenplay - by Demme and three credited co-writers, who brainstormed with Boogie writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson - re-imagines many key sequences along with the characters. It's still a romp in which a young wife returns from holiday to find her mysterious husband of a few months murdered. Three of his shady former associates, as well as a spooky U.S. embassy operative, want to know what she's done with the big bucks they believe the late Charlie had, but that she knows nothing about. Her only ally seems to be the smitten, sexy Joshua Peters, whom she met on vacation and who has conveniently followed her to Paris. But should she trust him?
Similarities end there, though. For example, Newton proves far less of a pushover than Hepburn was to Peters's charms, and it is her, in the buff, who has a shower scene in the new movie, unlike the fully clothed Grant in Charade. Dozens of other variations abound, which Demme feels will give fans of the original extra entertainment pleasure.
"I studied the original a lot, because I had to understand the story Charade perfectly," Demme said. "Also, there was much more material that I boosted from Peter Stone's spinoff novel than there was in the original movie. I felt that I really had to know exactly everything about this complicated story, so that I could then, with confidence, move away from it, and know more or less where I was going."
That new direction led right to...Shoot the Piano Player?
François Truffaut's 1960 classic, which was a seminal experience in the young Demme's movie-going life, is referenced several times throughout Charlie by footage from the film and the appearance of its star, Charles Aznavour, as himself, crooning through some reality-breaking musical sequences. One of Truffaut-contemporary Jean-Luc Godard's favorite actresses, Anna Karina, also performs, as does the New Wave director Agnès Varda.
And like many of the New Wave's greatest filmmakers, Demme and his crack cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shot practically all of Charlie in quick, non-rehearsed, hand-held camera takes on the streets of Paris. Not employing a tripod, apparently, enables one to film without permits in the City of Light.
"This whole New Wave idea that you can mix styles and genres and tones, and that can be fun for an audience and it can bring another dimension of participation. That's what interested me and my collaborators on this movie," Demme said. "We all adored French films. What I see we did now was - I wasn't consciously thinking this at the time - to go there with this constant attitude of, 'Oh, and wouldn't it be great to...' Not, wouldn't it be great to salute, but wouldn't it be great to have a little of that magic."
For the younger, less-cineastic actors, however, New Wave methods could be disorienting.
"It was different," said Newton, who turns 30 next month. "Sometimes I wasn't even aware of what they were doing -- we were having to shoot quickly in daylight because, in 10 minutes, the train was going to come in and loads of people would show up. We were really relying on what was happening at the time in Paris. Jonathan didn't want to control crowds or do anything like that. But we had to rush through and do things so quickly that I kind of lost sight of what we just did, and was I good and did we get that?"
Wahlberg seems to have enjoyed the hip-shooting method more, with one caveat.
"I wasn't that familiar with the French New Wave," the actor said. "I had seen a bunch of their films and was intrigued by it. But the process was fantastic, just being able to jump out of a car with a hand-held camera. I loved that.
"The only thing that sucked about it was that you're working in France and you're required to drink a bottle of wine at lunch. So by the time you're in the second half of the day, you're a bit sluggish and it's hard to keep up with that sort of pace that they're used to."
Demme does not expect contemporary moviegoers to keep up with all of his nostalgic Gallic references.
"The film buff in me loves that some of my idols are in this picture," the director said. "But the rule was never to let the love of French movies become an obstacle to people in North American movie theatres who couldn't care less about the Nouvelle Vague [New Wave]. And why should they?"
Dunno. Maybe for the same reason folks still like Charade?
"I like re-makes, and I don't think it's any more necessary to justify re-making a previously existing movie than it is to justify making a movie out of a book," Demme said. "It's fine, as long as the movie's good. It's only in moments like this, when someone asks me to somehow either justify or explain it, that there would be any sense of trepidation."