Notes on a Film Festival

CHER DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT: The studio didn’t want to make the “Italian movie” and Cher outright rejected the idea of appearing in what turned out to be Moonstruck. But producer/director Norman Jewison felt he had a wonderful screenplay and wanted to film it opera-style.

Cher? “I saw Cher playing the part,” Jewison told a Santa Barbara International Film Festival audience the other day after a new print of the delightful, magical Moonstruck was shown. “She didn’t want to do it.” She wasn’t Italian, for one thing. “I told her, ‘Cher, if you [turn it down], you’ll regret it all your life.’” So Cher reluctantly took the part.

On the Beat

Then I asked Olympia Dukakis to play Cher’s mother,” explained Jewison. Dukakis, too, resisted, explaining, “‘I can’t. I’m a Greek from New Jersey,’” Jewison said. But she finally agreed. “It went that way with everyone,” moaned Jewison, a Canadian with more projects in mind at 81.

Ironically, Cher won an Oscar for Best Actress for Moonstruck and Dukakis a Best Supporting Actress.

Despite his casting headaches, Jewison said “it was one of those films” where he got everyone he wanted, which isn’t always the case. “The hardest part was Nicolas Cage’s role, to make it believable,” he said. Cage was supposed to have a mangled hand caused by an accident he blamed on his brother, Cher’s fiance.

Then there was Louis Guss, the grandfather, whom Jewison said had been in Fellini’s films. “He spoke very little English. He couldn’t hear anything.” Jewison said Guss was so old that he “couldn’t get insurance,” which studios require. They were shooting at the New York Metropolitan Opera, when Guss, who wasn’t in the scene, told Jewison that his father had been a great singer in Italy. “I used to sit on Puccini’s knee,” Jewison said the old man recalled.

They never got insurance. “You just took a chance.”

So how was Cher as an actress? “I don’t think she ever took any acting lessons,” Jewison said. “She was a singer.” But singers, he’s found, have a certain sense of rhythm that helps them when acting. Why Cher? “I thought she was so good in Silkwood that I just believed in her.” And in Moonstruck, “she was surrounded by disciplined New York actors. She was pushed. I rehearsed for three weeks. We enjoyed making it.”

Steve McQueen, who got the title role in The Thomas Crown Affair after Sean Connery turned it down, was “very introverted” and had begged to be cast, Jewison said. “We bought him a $2,500 suit” to play the cool, calm, and collected banker “and he became Thomas Crown. He was brilliant.” Though according to Jewison, McQueen was also “very strange.” He would take off for days when a full moon appeared.

Then there was Doris Day, “very insecure” about her looks on camera. “We put so many filters [on the camera] that it was like looking through fog.” Jewison finally got so tired of making light Doris Day-style flicks that he was able to break free of his studio contract when officials forgot to send him the required option letter. Then he was free to make socially conscious movies like In the Heat of the Night, also shown at the festival.

Studios, he said, “can take a film and cut it up.” That’s why he now demands final cut. Still, “every film is like climbing a mountain.” Meanwhile, the movie business has changed radically, now that major corporations control the studios, churning out mindless blockbusters, he said. “What does GE [which owns NBC and Universal] know about making movies? When you sell out to the money and the box office, you stifle original thinking. It’s unbelievable what they get away with. That’s why four of five films nominated [for Oscars] are independents. They wouldn’t make Moonstruck today.”

So what makes a movie a hit? “None of us know what’s going to make a good movie,” said Jewison. “All you can do is follow your heart.”

HELLO JAVIER BARDEM: The Oscar-nominated star of the outrageously violent No Country for Old Men accepted SBIFF 2008’s Montecito Award on Monday night and joked about his bad haircut in the movie. He had the audience laughing at his jokes all evening, except when the Spanish actor pointed out that “there was a time when actors [in his land] were not allowed to be buried in sacred ground because they were considered homosexuals and prostitutes.”

When Bardem read the script for No Country, he said, “I didn’t get it,” asking himself, “Why is this man killing everyone?” But when he talked to the filmmakers, Ethan and Joel Coen, something clicked. “I have to make this movie,” he decided.

Questioned before the Arlington audience by SBIFF’s Executive Director Roger Durling, Bardem, 38, said he realized that the film was making a statement about a society where violence begets more violence.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.

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