Woody Allen is unarguably a great director and so was George Cukor.
Cukor – Sylvia Scarlett (1935), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), A Star Is Born (1954), My Fair Lady (1964) and uncredited on Gone With The Wind (1939) – drew outstanding performances from female actors that became his legacy.
He WAS Katharine Hepburn’s director and part of the reason she got a start at all, as those around him bridled at her clipped New England accent.
Allen has built a similar record directing outstanding female performances – at least those lauded as Oscar winners.
Dianne Keaton (Academy Award for Annie Hall (1977), Mariel Hemingway, nominated Manhattan (1980), Dianne Wiest won for Hannah And Her Sisters (1986) and Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Mira Sorvino won for The Mighty Aphrodite (1995).
It is for this reason that I always look hard at the acting credits in Allen movies to find actors who went on to bigger things and it was no surprise when reversing that technique to find Paul Giamatti in a minor role in the last-mentioned film.
You see, for all his genius, one of Allen’s greatest strengths is his ability to recognise talent and directing Giamatti as ‘Extras Guild Researcher’ in The Mighty Aphrodite would have been a stepping stone for this actor who seems to ooze frustration with the world in nearly every role he plays.
Whether as the merlot-hating wine buff in Sideways (2004); the almost-spurned genius cartoonist in American Splendour (2003); or the man who would be president in the TV series John Adams (2008), Giamatti has a world-weary look of disappointment for his fellow members of the human race. The look is right – because it’s them he is disappointed with.
It is a look he carries in part into Barney’s Version (2010), a deep and moving film with genuine comic moments, exploring the life of a TV producer whose two short marriages are a prelude to meeting the right woman.
Barney is one of those hard-exterior guys with a heart of gold – a soft touch for those who need him – but outwardly a crusty man, not to be trifled with – although many seem to.
Director Richard J Lewis – who cut his pre-Barney teeth on CSI Crime Investigation episodes after a sparse movie career including the James Belushi vehicle, K-9: P-1 (enough said) – has fashioned a beautiful film about love, friendship, death and absolution of sin.
The performance he draws from Giamatti is compelling. I loved this guy. Barney is a great friend, a duped groom, a cuckolded husband and a con man – he makes his living producing daytime soaps from his Totally Unnecessary Productions, a title he claims is true to the core.
Barney makes money producing fodder of which he ain’t proud but at least he produced something, unlike his friend Boogie (Scott Speedman) a handsome wastrel, whose drug and booze-fuelled life is shortened in an incident involving our hero. Boogie’s disappearance and suspected death leaves Barney carrying the soubriquet ‘only suspect’ through most of his adult life.
Minnie Driver as Barney’s JAP second wife and Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s ex-policeman father, Izzy, are engaging. Their roles are important to the story and they are responsible for a lot of the humour.
However, it is the luminescent Miriam (Rosamund Pike) who is the dominant other lead.
She becomes Barney’s third wife after a cross-border, one-way courtship which takes place from Barney’s wedding day (to wife No. 2) to his signing the divorce papers. When Barney, in Montreal, invites her to lunch where she lives in New York and Miriam asks him if the ink is even dry on this document, he pauses to look at the document, before affirming he thinks so.
My companions liked this film so much they insisted on watching the credits to the end and I was struck by the number of French names in the mainly Canadian production. A cynic – perhaps Barney would even say it – may suggest Americans or Canadians couldn’t make a film with such empathy and heart. Okay, if Barney doesn’t say it, I will.
Despite the French influence of the crew, it is directed by a Canadian and dominated by an American actor, one of the best of his era, so perhaps this opinion is too harsh.
Barney’s Version is a very, very good film, a beautiful adaptation of the 1997 book by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, to whom the film is dedicated.