It's doubtful that you'll see two bolder screen performances this year than those given by Anjelica Huston in The Grifters and Gérard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac. One role is passionate, tender, overwhelmingly romantic; the other is cool, callous, savagely pragmatic. For whatever it's worth in this postfeminist age, Huston plays the hard case.
And what a hard case. Huston does more than her best acting to date in The Grifters. This tall, sharp-featured, soft-eyed daughter of the late director John Huston confirms her position as the most exciting actress now working in movies. Meryl Streep gets the press, but it's Huston – in film after film, in large roles and small – who keeps astonishing us.
The thirty-nine-year-old Huston was a teenager when she made her screen debut in her father's film A Walk With Love and Death, a medieval clinker that prompted a prudent career switch into modeling. Nearly a decade later she started inching her way back in small roles (The Last Tycoon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, This Is Spinal Tap, The Ice Pirates). But the public saw her only as John Huston's daughter and Jack Nicholson's love until Prizzi's Honor, in 1985. Though the film starred Nicholson and was directed by Huston, she took the Oscar for playing the malevolent Mafia princess Maerose. Some wrote her off in Prizz's as a one-shot oddity. Then, working for the last time for her ailing father in The Dead, she played Gretta Conroy – an Irish wife haunted by a lost love – and proved them wrong. She's still proving it, most notably as the neurotic mistress in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, the Polish concentration-camp survivor in Paul Mazursky's Enemies, A Love Story (another Oscar nomination) and the high-camp sorceress in Nicolas Roeg's Witches. Every role was a challenge that she met triumphantly.
Huston's radically unsympathetic role in The Grifters is her biggest gamble yet. The source material is a 1963 book by Jim Thompson, the pulp master who turned out twenty-nine uncompromising and uncommercial crime novels before his death in 1977. Thompson is enjoying a cinematic renaissance this year – After Dark, My Sweet and The Kill-Off have already been released – perhaps because the lowdown scam artists of the Forties and Fifties who were his subjects seem to fit in just fine in the Nineties. Working from a pungent script by mystery novelist Donald E. Westlake, British director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons) has brewed the strongest cup of Thompson yet – it's served black, scalding and definitely no sugar.
Abounding in suspense, eroticism and dark comic twists, the film updates the story to present-day Los Angeles, but cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (Prick Up Your Ears) and production designer Dennis Gassner (Miller's Crossing) give it the look and feel of a classic film noir. Even the opening credits, featuring stark cityscapes, have a toxic allure. It's the perfect backdrop for characters whose morals are rotting in the sun along with the palm trees.
Huston's Lilly Dillon is a grifter (con artist) who has misspent most of her life working racetracks for the Mob; she bets on long shots to lower the odds. On a job in Los Angeles – which she pronounces "Los Angle-ees" – Lilly drops in on Roy (John Cusack), the son she had at fourteen and hasn't seen in eight years. Roy isn't pleased by her visit; his platinum-haired, spike-heeled, tight-skirted mom makes him nervous. But Lilly has arrived just in time. While trying to pass off ten spots as twenties, Roy got bashed in the stomach with a bat; now he's hemorrhaging. Lilly rushes him to the hospital, where she proves remarkably persuasive. "My son is going to be all right," she tells the doctor. "If not, I'll have you killed."
At Roy's bedside, Lilly meets her son's girlfriend, Myra (Annette Bening), a scamming sex kitten who's kissed too many frogs in her search for a prince. Lilly's not impressed. "What's your objection to Myra?" asks Roy. "Same as everybody's," says Lilly, deadpan. Frears and his actors – Cusack and Bening are splendid as well – bring out the threats beneath the flip humor as this darkly brilliant thriller grows progressively more vicious.
For her good deed, Lilly misses a track date and gets brutalized by her boss, Bobo Justus (a ferocious Pat Hingle), who grinds his glowing cigar into Lilly's hand and then helps her on with her coat. Hiding her pain, Lilly talks flirtatiously to this pig. She'll go to any lengths to survive, as the film's violently unsettling climax attests. Needing money to escape from Bobo, Lilly first tries to steal her son's cache and, when caught, tries to seduce him. "I want that money, Roy," she whispers, pressing her lips against his. "What can I do to get it?"
Thompson's fatalism is summed up in that kiss. Near the end – we won't reveal it – Lilly releases a raw scream packed with repressed emotions, then desperately wills her heart to turn back into stone. By then, Frears has stripped The Grifters down to the haunted and haunting landscape of Huston's face. Her performance is as devastating as any in film. And it brings this pitiless psycho-drama disguised as a B picture very close to greatness.
Gérard Depardieu revitalizes a warhorse of a part in Cyrano de Bergerac, a lavish ($17 million) and lengthy (but not overlong at 135 minutes) film version of the Edmond Rostand play about the brilliant poet and swordsman of seventeenth-century Paris who allows his oversize nose to crush his courage in love. Cyrano sees himself as a freak, so he must pour out his feelings to his beloved Roxane (Anne Brochet) in letters she thinks are written by the handsome Christian (Vincent Perez).
A classic to some, Cyrano is sentimental drool to others, especially those who've endured amateur productions or the stagy 1950 film version – relieved only by the vigor of Oscar winner José Ferrer in the title role. Steve Martin's update in Roxanne (1987) poked fun at the old conventions by having Roxanne dump her dumb jock and hop in the sack with Cyrano. But the antique charms of the story can still seduce us when done well, and director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who freely adapted the play with Jean-Claude Carrière, knows how to fashion a sumptuously beautiful, hugely entertaining spectacle that also stays alert to the cadences of the heart.
You may be thrown at first by the rhyming subtitles, a translation by Anthony Burgess of the original text's alexandrine couplets. During the famous duel between the Vicomte de Valvert (Philippe Volter) and Cyrano, who provides a witty assault on his own nose ("a monument, a peninsula") to match every thrust and parry, it's hard to keep your eyes on both the action and the subtitles without looking like you've entered an apple-bobbing contest. But the powerful images soon take hold.
Shooting on location in France and Hungary, cinematographer Pierre Lhomme approaches everything from the intimate balcony scene to the raging battle of Arras with a painter's eye for light and shading. And Rappeneau does wonders with the actors. Brochet brings welcome spark to the usually doltish Roxane, while Perez is impressive as the inarticulate but not unsympathetic Christian. Roland Bertin bursts with comic energy as Ragueneau, the pastry maker who feeds the starving poets of Paris in return for a few lines of verse. And Jacques Weber is outstanding as the Comte de Guiche, the vengeful aristocrat who proves himself a man of honor in war.
Above all there is Depardieu. Now forty-two, he has acted in more than sixty French films since he made his debut in 1965. He scored his break-through as a lewd petty thief in Bertrand Blier's Going Places (1974) and went on to win raves for richly varied roles in such films as The Last Metro, Jean de Florette, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Camille Claudel and Too Beautiful for You. Cyrano, for which he won the best-actor prize at Cannes, is Depardieu at his peak. Beefy and barrel-chested, he is the most unconventional looking of all international male sex symbols. But his oddball appearance only seems to enhance his charm. And Depardieu makes that work for the movie. The Cyrano nose that Michele Burke has designed is oversize but not overstated. He doesn't look freakish. Depardieu's Cyrano is a man whose ugliness is in his own mind. It's not Roxane's romantic ideal he can't live up to; it's his. That's his tragedy.
Cyrano is more than a career culmination for Depardieu; it's a startling surprise. You expect his verbal and physical dexterity, but Depardieu's Cyrano is most memorable in stillness and silence. The play is a constant barrage of verse, but Rappeneau's film takes the time to catch Cyrano watching Roxane out of the corner of his eye or tidying a room in expectation of her arrival or sitting rapt and tongue-tied in her presence. There is something unexpectedly touching in the sight of this hulking warrior lost in love. Other actors have given more flamboyant interpretations of the role, but Depardieu is the definitive romantic Cyrano. He makes you ache with him. As an actor, he has found the confidence to do less. It's a towering performance, magnificent and moving, that does just what any honest telling of the Cyrano legend should strive to do: set us all dreaming.