Thursday, October 18, 2001

Behind the camera

Award-winning actress turns into passionate director with 'My First Mister'

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There is no formula for building a long-lasting career in the movie business, but if there were, Christine Lahti's version would do just fine.

        Start out by knocking the socks off critics and begin collecting awards (Swing Shift). Show your chops in terrific films (Running on Empty) and prestigious TV movies (No Place Like Home). Join a fine TV series (Chicago Hope), win an Emmy.

        When it's time to direct, be sure to win an Oscar for your first effort (in Ms. Lahti's case, the live-action short Lieberman in Love).

   Film critic Margaret A. McGurk will discuss fall movies. Log on to Cincinnati.Com Friday from 12:30-1 p.m. and join in.
        That Oscar paved the way for Ms. Lahti's first feature-length film, My First Mister, opening Friday. It's a frankly sentimental tale about the friendship between an alienated teen-ager (Leelee Sobieski) and a middle-aged man (Albert Brooks).

        Ms. Lahti spent a year reworking the screenplay with former Seinfeld writer Jill Franklyn.

        “This was literally the first thing that I read that I thought seriously about making,” Ms. Lahti said. “I had to make sure that the script was something I felt passionate about. We deepened it, and made it more of a two-way Pygmalion story.”

        The movie boasts a cast rich with what Ms. Lahti called “old friends from the days we all spent on stage in New York,” among them Carol Kane, John Goodman, Michael McKean and Mary Kay Place. “It was like having family around.”

        She had not, however, worked previously with Mr. Brooks, best known as a comic actor and auteur of such beloved films as Lost in America and Defending Your Life.

        “I thought of other people for the role,” said Ms. Lahti. “But our mutual agent insisted that I meet him. He was just so passionate about wanting to play this part, and so convinced he could do it. . . . That really moved me.”

        She said Mr. Brooks more than proved himself in the filming.

        “His innate humor helped the potentially sentimental parts of the movie,” she said. “It's so easy to get maudlin or mawkish or sentimental in the bad sense of the word. Albert's natural instinct is to not indulge the feelings, use humor to deflect them.

        “I really just hope this opens doors for him in terms of being seen as an actor who can do everything,” she said.

        While seeking to cast the female lead, Ms. Lahti said, “I read everybody for this part, every young actress in New York and L.A.” before auditioning Ms. Sobieski.

        “When I first saw her on screen, I thought she was way too beautiful for this character. I thought, "Oh no, she's too confident, too gorgeous and why would this girl have any problems' because she's just like, you know, a goddess.”

        When they finally met, Ms. Lahti discovered a complexity beyond Ms. Sobieski's looks. “There was a dark place in her that I sensed immediately,” the director said.

        With two fine actors on board, Ms. Lahti said she was determined to steer clear of cliches in their on-screen relationship.

        “I had people say, "Oh, you gotta have 'em sleep together.' That was so absolute opposite of everything I wanted to explore,” she said. “That would be every Hollywood movie made; the older man sleeps with the younger girl, and she's infatuated with him, and when is she going to lose her virginity?”

        Instead, she said, “I really wanted it to be about the commonality that they share under these seemingly completely opposite exteriors, (about) the need to be loved and loneliness and how you can find a real friend in the most unlikely places.”

        “I hope some teen-agers will come see this,” Ms. Lahti said. “For girls in particular, it's hard to find characters that are three-dimensional at their age, young women 18, 19, 20. I can't imagine looking at the movies and saying, "Well, wait a minute. How come I'm just this accessory to these boys? It's all about how sexy I am, and how revealing are my clothes? It's so demeaning . . . because it's so superficial.”


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