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Michael Douglas: It’s My Turn

Claudia Weill’s new film is about real people with real problems and nobody lives happily ever after, but that’s life, and it’s all right

Michael Douglas, Jill Clayburgh, Claudia Weill

American actors Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh on a sidewalk on set and in character for the film 'It's My Turn,' directed by Claudia Weill in New York, New York. Circa May 1980.

Susan Wood/Getty

I am female, white, single, college-educated and I have a good job. I have three brothers, one sister and have had the same mother and father for thirty-two years. My family is Irish Catholic and middle-class.

This is simply to let you know that I am, well, average. There is nothing extraordinary about me. I enjoy playing a little tennis, skiing, watching The Rockford Files, hanging out, reading, drinking beer, sliding through rock & roll clubs and going to the movies. I love the movies. I’ve seen almost every film ever released, and I have been known to see three in one day. Or at least I used to.

It’s not that I have developed a particularly lofty attitude. I loved Jaws, Star Wars and every movie Clint Eastwood ever made. But I find life complicated. Most of the time I don’t get it. So I look to my friends, to books and films to help me sort it out a bit. But most of the films I have seen recently have let me down. I see Woody Allen’s films and think, “Who are these people? What are they talking about?” I see Kramer vs. Kramer and, I don’t care what anyone says, I simply don’t know any woman who would abandon her baby, no matter how trapped in a marriage she felt.

I feel even less connected to the so-called women’s films, and they’re supposed to be about people like me. Most of them start out okay, but sooner or later they go phony on you; they cheat, or worse, they go theoretical. In The Goodbye Girl, Paula goes after one of the ten greatest guys in the country, and what does she do when she finally lands him? She decorates their apartment. What is that about? And in An Unmarried Woman, why doesn’t Paul Mazursky show the scene after Erica decides not to go to Vermont? The scene where she goes back to her apartment, alone, and pigs out on Pepperidge Farm cookies. None of these films ring true to me. None of them have anything to do with life — not my life, at least.

None of them, that is, until It’s My Turn. Written by novelist Eleanor Bergstein (her first screenplay) and directed by Claudia Weill (Girlfriends), It’s My Turn is the story of a love triangle involving Kate Gunzinger (Jill Clayburgh), a brilliant mathematician faced with a difficult career decision and her father’s remarriage; her live-in boyfriend, Homer (Charles Grodin); and Ben Lewin (Michael Douglas), a baseball star whose career suddenly ended in his prime. Ben is also about to become Kate’s stepbrother. They meet when Kate flies to New York for the wedding and her big job interview.

I knew I would love this movie minutes after the lights went down. Kate has just finished a hard day teaching and is heading home, her Volvo laden with the oversize pillows she has bought for her new couch. She parks in the basement garage and studies the distance from the car to the elevator. She scoops up all the pillows (no easy task) and desperately makes her way to the elevator, almost losing control as her high-heeled shoes take off on their own, down the ramp leading to the elevator. But Kate makes it to the elevator, heaves a huge sigh and smiles. I smiled, too. After a hard day, you really do want to make only one trip to the elevator.

It’s My Turn is full of such wonderful moments-real moments. This movie is about me and the people I know.

Family relationships are central to It’s My Turn. There is a scene in which Kate, vulnerable and eager to make a good impression on her father and her new family, walks into Tavern on the Green tugging at her clothes and getting her sunglasses tangled up in her hair. Later, Kate’s father says he wants to dance with his favorite girl. Kate stands up as her father turns to his bride-to-be. I died for Kate. No matter how old you are, you always want to be your father’s favorite girl.

Kate’s parents had had a good marriage. Her mother’s death and her father’s remarriage have forced her to recognize that the home she always had doesn’t exist anymore. She knows she should be happy for her father, but she isn’t. She can’t go to his new apartment, because her father will be sleeping with another woman. Kate realizes that she has to make her own home, and that the one she has with Homer isn’t it.

It’s a relief to see a “women’s film” in which the woman is not a role model. Kate reminds me of my friends. She has been totally absorbed in her career and has gotten into a relationship that, more than anything else, accommodates it, one that gives her all the “space” she wanted. Homer is a good guy; he’s sweet and tries to be supportive. He makes her laugh. After years of hard work, Kate has finally gotten her professional life in order, and she suddenly sees that the emotional side of her life is impoverished. She doesn’t really want all that space after all. But Homer does.

Kate’s professional dilemma is the real thing as well. Should she take a prestigious job as head of the math department at Columbia University? She would be one of the most important women in her field. As she says to her father, “You’ll have a fancy daughter.” But she would have to give up her research. A tough choice. And there were many tough choices offscreen too.

Eight years ago, Claudia Weill, who was making documentaries, read a political novel called Advancing Paul Newman, which was about two girls in the Sixties. Weill contacted the author, Eleanor Bergstein, and asked if she would like to write a screenplay (Weill had Bergstein in mind to write Girlfriends). Bergstein, who had started her second novel, wasn’t interested.

“Eleanor is a knockout writer,” says Weill, sitting among the leftovers of an extravagant breakfast in her suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “Most screenplays you read are sketches, a scheme, an idea for a film. It’s My Turn is a story. All the characters are her creations.” Weill pauses, nibbles a strawberry and smiles. “I bugged Eleanor for years.” Nearly four years, to be precise.

“Finally,” says Bergstein, picking up the story over eggs Benedict at the Plaza Hotel in New York, “Claudia said, ‘Under what conditions would you write a script for me?’ I said, ‘It would have to be between books; I would have to get paid in advance; there would have to be a high probability of getting produced; and I would have to be involved in every stage of production from the casting to the lighting.'” And there was one more thing. Bergstein explained to Weill that if a scene didn’t work, she would write 100 different ones to get what was needed, but there were things her characters just would not do. Bergstein agreed that Weill would have final say as director, but she wanted to be the final arbiter on what her characters would not do. “I thought those were pretty impossible conditions,” says Bergstein.

Not so impossible, as it turned out. Weill called Bergstein a few months later and told her about a project that she thought would fulfill her conditions. There would be a one-in-three chance of production, a $200,000 grant if produced, the work would be shown on educational television, and there might be a limited theatrical release. “My agent told me the money was low but I was dealing with people with taste,” Bergstein says. More important, Bergstein had finished a draft of her novel. Expertise, which is about obsession and murder on a movie set.

Bergstein and Weill sat down to discuss what they could do with $200,000 in terms of setups and locations. Then Bergstein and her husband, Michael Goldman (an author and professor of Shakespeare, modern drama and poetry at Princeton), leased a house in Vermont, and she went to work.

“At the time I was writing, Luis Tiant got his contract,” recalls Bergstein, an avid baseball fan. “There were all these papers saying, LUIS TIANT, 37, GETS CONTRACT. In what other field would thirty-seven be so incredibly old? Then I thought about mathematicians and how most of them, from Einstein on down, do their best work and have their major breakthroughs in their early twenties, or certainly before the age of thirty. They can go on to do good work, but it is usually based on that original insight.”

Bergstein sees both mathematics and baseball as “pure, more perfect than the world around us.” So it was set. Kate would be a mathematician and Ben a baseball player. Bergstein has a particular gift for dialogue. She remembers how, as a little girl, her parents would take her to restaurants and tease her for listening to conversations at nearby tables. And unlike playwright David Mamet, who scribbles down everything he hears in a notebook, Bergstein has almost total recall. She can repeat, word for word, conversations she had a month ago.

Seven weeks after disappearing into the Vermont woods, Bergstein re-emerged, script in hand. It was her first dramatic writing, and it had gone well and fast. She loved doing it. Her script was submitted to see if it qualified for the $200,000 grant. Meanwhile, Girlfriends had come out, and suddenly Weill was the hottest new filmmaker in town. “None of us had anticipated this,” says Bergstein. “Here was Claudia, sitting in Hollywood being offered everything in the world, and she kept saying, ‘No, thank you. I want to do this little educational-television thing.'”

The $200,000 came through, and Bergstein was ecstatic. Then Weill said she thought they could make a Hollywood picture. Weill was excited. Bergstein was furious: she wanted no part of Hollywood. Weill kept trying to impress on Bergstein the difference between making a big movie and a small one. “At the time,” says Bergstein, “the differences didn’t seem extreme to me. But for Claudia, it was like the difference between writing a story and a novel.”

She sips her coffee thoughtfully. “My hierarchy is clear, I think. The greatest novel is greater than any film. A great film, like, say, a Godard film, is better than a pretty good novel. Most fairly good novels are better than most films. Nevertheless, all that being said and established, there are things you can do in films, materials you can use, that you just can’t use in a novel. I can spend six or seven pages of prose describing how the coffee cup goes this way instead of that way [she tilts her cup ever so slightly], but even if I got it, it simply would not have earned that prose. I cannot really describe parents and children dancing together or the way higher mathematics looks. You can do it in words, but you won’t have earned the reader’s efforts.”

Bergstein relented, and a new deal was set with Twentieth Century Fox. Bergstein began expanding her little film into a feature. “It was an interesting time,” she recalls. “Budgets, setups and locations were no longer a problem. I found I could get back to the reasons I had wanted to do a movie in the first place. It was the happiest time for me, actually. The material was suddenly finding its natural form. And I really knew how I wanted stuff. I even had lighting and editing suggestions. I had a clear sense of what I wanted it to be. I was very happy, finally. I took this time out from fiction to write a script, and if it had stopped as a small, truncated thing, the material would never have found its natural form.”

Bergstein expanded her script, then honed it down to an impeccable 119 pages. She did this only after Weill promised that all the actors would get the long version once shooting started. Weill sent a copy to Jill Clayburgh. “I thought it had good things,” says Clayburgh, snuggled up on a couch in the beach house she has rented near Los Angeles. “My husband [playwright David Rabe] read it and liked it. We started a series of meetings; Claudia and Eleanor were pretty open to my suggestions, and we did a lot of rewriting.

“Kate is the closest person to myself that I have ever played,” Clayburgh adds. “That part at the beginning, where she is so self-absorbed and kind of frantic, and then when she’s with Ben, she becomes more vulnerable and open — well, I feel connected to those two parts. It’s very much like me.” She smiles and sips decaffeinated coffee. “People always say, ‘Oh, An Unmarried Woman, that’s you.'” Clayburgh pauses. “But really, of course, it’s not.”

Bergstein, who had only seen Clayburgh in Semi-Tough, was delighted with the casting. “To me,” says Bergstein. “Jill is one of the few actresses who looks like she has imagined her life, made her life happen. I think that divides women in a way, women whose intelligence animates their faces. They have willed themselves to be beautiful, to be exactly who they are. Their minds in form their faces. I think Jill is like that. Lots of actresses are just the opposite.”

Clayburgh and Bergstein spent many days together in Clayburgh’s apartment. Clayburgh wanted to know everything about Kate. What did she do when she was sixteen? Fifteen? What happens when she walks into a coffee shop? Does she know what she’ll order, or does she ask for the menu? When she looks around a room, what does Kate, a mathematician, see? Does she see things in terms of systems and ideas? “Jill called me one day,” says Bergstein, “and said she had started looking around rooms and seeing things in threes. If I were walking down the street. I might be aware of the couple on my left or the weather, but I wouldn’t notice that the pigeon next to me skipped every third step. I simply wouldn’t organize what I see that way. Kate would, and Jill started looking at things that way.”

Clayburgh went over every line in the script with Bergstein. She went to Princeton and spent a day with the mathdepartment faculty. She was tutored by a Princeton math professor. “We had selected this problem for Jill to do in the film. and this professor was coaching her.” Bergstein says, laughing. “She asked me to call the professor and tell him that she could play it wonderfully and it would be just fine, but that she would never understand the problem. I called the math professor and told him to get off Jill’s back, that she would never understand it, and he said, ‘She’ll understand it.’ Then, when it came time to shoot. I asked Jill if she wanted to write her problem on the board. She said, ‘No. Have someone else do it!’ When she walked on the set and looked at the board, she said, ‘Oh, no. This is all wrong.’ She erased it and put it up herself. She did the scene several times, wonderfully.

Daniel Stern, who plays Cooperman and also studied math at Princeton, came up to Jill and said, ‘God, I thought what I had to learn was complicated, but this,’ and he pointed to the board, ‘really looks hard.’ Jill said, ‘It’s really not that hard.’ Then, in her own words. she explained it all to him. Jill caught herself, looked up and smiled. She did understand.”

The role of Ben went to Michael Douglas. It’s the best performance he’s ever given, combining just the right mix of smarts and jockese. And with Clayburgh, he’s so sexy and charming that the sparks just fly.

“The first attraction.” says Douglas, explaining how he became interested in the project, “was to work with Jill. I am a total fan of hers. Also, I liked the romantic part of it, and I was attracted to the idea of a career being finished at thirty-two. I am a frustrated jock and the analogies were pretty close: well-educated Eastern guy who chose to jock it up, and it’s over for him just at the time that he would have begun his practice if he had studied medicine.”

Things were cooking. The parts were cast, the deal was set. But in the best Hollywood tradition, there was a revolution at Twentieth Century Fox, and Alan Ladd Jr. and his executive team walked off the lot. Suddenly, It’s My Turn was on the shelf. Everyone was thrown in great despair. But not for long. The project was picked up by producer Ray Stark and Columbia Pictures. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

But not for long. “It was the most grueling movie I have ever been involved in,” says Clayburgh. “And not just the struggling at the end, but the actual work was hard. There were a lot of last-minute changes, so we would rehearse in the evenings and a lot on weekends. We had very little free time.”

Weill is a relatively inexperienced director, but more important, this was her first Hollywood movie. “From my point of view,” says Weill, “it was great. I really liked it. It was Hollywood that had the problems. You know, ‘Who is she? What does she know?’ If you’re on the set and you know you don’t have it yet, you know it’s not right, but you’re not sure why or exactly what it is you want, you are relying on a sixth sense, and you say, ‘No, do it again,’ and you hold up 100 people. At $50,000 a day — well, that takes a lot of guts. With a Coppola or a Kubrick, this is considered genius. But in a first-time woman director, the identical behavior is seen as a sign of insecurity, of not knowing what she wants.” Even so, Weill brought It’s My Turn in on schedule and on budget, and she gets high marks as a director from her actors.

“Claudia has a very relaxed way of working,” says Clayburgh. “She made everyone extremely comfortable and would always try it your way if you had an idea. She is not very imposing in terms of it having to be this way or that way. She was very appreciative. As far as being a woman. I don’t think that mattered. I think the tricky part came because this was Claudia’s first time in Hollywood. She had a certain lack of experience and she was learning. She was new and we were the big company. That was really difficult.”

Michael Douglas’ eyes light up when he talks about Weill and her directing. “I have not had many directors come up to me and say, ‘You are such a dish.’ I am spoiled. There is a moment every actor has when the director goes over to the leading lady, puts his arm around her shoulder, walks her around and whispers, ‘What’s wrong, darling? Let’s talk.’ And you stand there like a bump on a log. Well, I’m sorry, guys like to be complimented too. I just loved having the director come up to me, put her arm around my shoulder and ask me if I’m okay. She made me feel confident.”

“It seems to me,” says Weill, “that the whole notion of the director is fucked: this macho, authoritarian sort of figure. I think you have to be able to command the set, keep things moving, communicate. The purpose of the director is to orchestrate all the talent into his or her vision. But ultimately, you have to create a situation in which people feel free enough to really start offering up, to be spontaneous, to be original. First and foremost, a director is an audience, a good listener, open to what people are giving you. I think actors feel very reassured and trust you if they know you are really paying attention. I try to avoid telling the actors too much of what I want, especially if you’ve cast properly and are working with people as talented as the people I was working with. I always like to see what the actors are bringing me. Fulfilling your idea of something is never as good as the actors spontaneously being it.”

It’s My Turn was shot for seven weeks on the Burbank lot and one week in New York. It wasn’t long before the little whispers started about the film. Then there were the screenings that were abruptly canceled. Then came the item in Marilyn Beck’s gossip column about how Douglas hated the movie and would not promote it.

“I never said that,” says Douglas, shaking his head. “I heard that the rumor had come out of my office, so I called Marilyn Beck. She said it had come out of Stark’s office — not from him personally. The whole thing was planted. It was some kind of manipulative thing. It was just unfortunate. I decided the best thing was to let it pass. I called Claudia, who was shocked, and explained that I had never said it.

“What I said was that I couldn’t shoot my wad like I did with The China Syndrome. I am overexposed. I told them I was willing to do some interviews, but not to count on me for all the talk shows. I am an actor, and I cannot go out like that after every film. That’s what I said.” Douglas rolls his eyes. “My company has a production deal with Columbia, and I had to formally go and explain that I wasn’t bad-mouthing their picture. Jesus.”

The actors have been told not to talk about the whole mess, so it is difficult to pin down what actually happened. “I don’t think it is useful for me to be specific.” says Weill rather cautiously. “I think I had the same problems any filmmaker has when you are dealing with $7 million that isn’t yours. People involved in the money side [Ray Stark, in particular] have different opinions on what the film should say, how it should be put together, and we got into some discussions about it. When you are working with a group of people, you have to go through that process.”

Bergstein says she wasn’t around for the struggles at the end, but she has only good things to say about Ray Stark and his company. “Ray and his people treated me great,” says Bergstein. “There was one scene I really wanted in the picture, one with the original family: Kate, her father and her mother. Now, I did it in a rather gross way. I had them go to the cemetery. Ray Stark hated that scene. Jill and Michael and Claudia were protecting me and defending the scene. It was a battle. I sat down and tried to think of why it was there, what it was establishing, and I thought, ‘Well, the original family re-forming, and what else can do that?’ I thought about Kate cutting her father’s hair with her mother’s scissors. It’s a better scene. Ray was dead right. The cemetery scene was like a lead note in there.”

According to sources, Stark hated the film. He took it away from Weill and completely recut it. The recut version was shown to the principals, all of whom preferred Weill’s version. After much fighting, the film went back to Weill, and the version you will see in the theaters is very close to her original.

“What I did, basically,” says Weill. “was tighten it up. The film shifts tone a lot. It’s witty, oblique, romantic, charming, serious, and when it moved into last gear, it had to move much quicker, and I really tightened up that part. The changes in this film were basically of pace, but those are important changes. I mean, I don’t like to bore people. This film is ninety minutes long, and it is still too long for me. This is my film. I stand behind it absolutely. I feel very good about it. I think the whole thing worked out just fine.”

Indeed. Whatever the battles, the film is the winner. It’s My Turn is full of life. In a way, it’s very old-fashioned. It offers up all those bad values, like someday a man will walk into your life and pow! Well, why not? The film tells you that real love is work and sacrifice and thinking of the other person first; love is understanding who that person is and what he or she is going through. Kate crosses over when Ben tells her, “There’s no great catch in the old-timers’ game.” She suddenly knows what Ben is going through.

I liked the end, although I understand there was great controversy about it. I’m glad Ben doesn’t bag his wife and child after seven years of marriage, even if the marriage isn’t good. He has responsibilities and obligations (more bad values). “There were so many endings,” sighs Bergstein.

“Politics entered this one,” says Douglas, “and it was the only time I disagreed. They say, ‘You can’t have Mr. Wonderful come back and solve all her problems.’ Well, I’m sorry. I would have said, ‘Look, I have this wife and kid, but we love each other and I am going to leave my wife and we’re going to make it work.’ I mean, by falling in love, the guy’s problems are solved as well as the woman’s. We had some healthy, political discussions about that one.”

“For me,” says Bergstein, “it was important to show that maybe there will be a future for them, maybe not. But most important is what they’ve shown each other: that whether they get together or not, it will be better.”

At the end of the film, we see Kate back at work on her math research. She tells Cooperman — her student nemesis — that she has been looking in the wrong place for the solution. Just like in her life. At the beginning of the film, Kate, like so many of us, had everything wrong. She thought her life with Homer was terrific. She’d been offered a great job and thought she was happy that her father was getting remarried, even if he had chosen the wrong woman. But as the story unfolds, she gradually realizes that she’s been fooling herself. Everything she thought was the problem wasn’t. Like in her work. She thought she was stuck in one place when she was really stuck in another.

It’s hard to put together a life that has everything. It’s hard to turn down a job that offers you power, security, money, prestige. It’s hard to leave a nice, comfortable relationship with a man who makes you laugh. It’s hard and scary to go for broke. I love Kate, because she decides to go for broke.

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