BACKSTORIES: “We don’t go to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival,” a well-known woman from this area told me. “We don’t want to sit around watching movies.”
Ah, but what they’re missing is not just the flicks but the stories behind the films. Like when Oscar nominee Viola (The Help) Davis told an Arlington audience how she grew up in “abject poverty” and ran a winning race at school in her bare feet because her outgrown shoes were too small.
And when Oscar nominee Christopher Plummer, raised rich and admittedly “spoiled rotten” in Canada, quasi-affectionately called The Sound of Music “S&M.” And when he told the story of how Sean Connery threatened a Hollywood studio boss to prevent him from cutting the part of late author Rudyard Kipling out of The Man Who Would Be King. The studio felt that the part would slow down the action, Plummer said.
Hearing that Peter Gruber was flying to Africa to kill the part of the beloved writer, Connery roughly grabbed Gruber on his arrival and told him, “If you cut Kipling from the film, I’m going back to London tomorrow.” Kipling, played by Plummer, stayed in. Michael Caine costarred in the 1975 film about two former British soldiers who wanted to rule a remote region of present-day Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, “wild and macho” director John Huston would leave the set for weeks “to shoot elephants,” Plummer recalled, not approvingly.
At Saturday’s writers’ panel, Tate Taylor, who hails from Jackson, Mississippi, where The Help is set, told how 60 literary agents rejected Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name. “The idiots!” snorted Taylor. Stockett, who also grew up in Jackson, turned the film rights over to Taylor, who, as the novel became a runaway hit, had to fend off a blizzard of calls from those who wanted a piece of the action.
But Taylor, himself an actor, hung tough, kept writing the screenplay on speculation, and insisted on directing. “No one wanted to finance it with me as director,” he said, because he had only sketchy directing experience. He was asked, how about turning The Help into a TV series or an HBO special? Taylor said no.
He had a vision for the story about maids back in the early 1960s and the racism and bias they had to endure. He knew the town and the people. His mother was a single mom, and he had a nanny. What he didn’t want in the film were “lynching scenes and the KKK.”
He very much wanted Viola Davis for the lead role, and incidentally she had wanted to option the novel for herself but lost out. She had the “dignified glue” that would hold the film together, he felt. But when the time came to finally shoot the movie, Davis’s agent said she wasn’t available due to a stage commitment.
“Who the hell is this Tate Taylor?” Davis wondered when she heard about the offer, Taylor said. He was at a Christmas dinner when she phoned. “This is Viola Davis. Talk to me about The Help.” Of course she’d be available.
“I hate writing, and I love writing,” Taylor said, reflecting the ambivalent feelings of many writers who struggle to get the right words out. He said that although it’s set in an ugly period of blatant racism, “To me [The Help] is about relationships, with a backdrop.”
Plummer, whose storytelling talents nearly rival his gifts as an actor, wrote in his memoir, In Spite of Myself (Knopf, 2008), that “this young bilingual wastrel, incurably romantic, spoiled rotten, tore himself away from the ski slopes to break into the big, bad world of theatre, not from the streets up but from an Edwardian living room down.” He became famous for his tantrums.
During the making of the 1964 sword-and-sandal extravaganza The Fall of the Roman Empire, producer Sam Bronston brashly knocked on Sophia Loren’s villa door outside Rome and handed her a million-dollar check to play the lead. Only Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn had ever been paid that much.
In one costly scene, the Imperial Guard was lined up with menacing swords and shields, hundreds strong. Plummer (Commodus) waited in a chariot for Stephen Boyd (Livius) to come riding up on horseback. It took forever to prepare for the money shot: Boyd was to get down, walk up, and say, “Lucilla has returned to Rome.” Loren was playing Lucilla. With light fading there was only time for one shot, Plummer recalled. Boyd rode down through the ranks, approached Plummer, and said, “Sofia’s back in town.”
The shot was ruined. The film was a financial