An Ode to Self-Centeredness



Back in 1982, the Broadway musical Nine opened and won a Tony for Best Musical. An adaptation of Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film classic 8-1/2 with a book by Arthur Kopit, music by Maury Yeston, and direction by the great Tommy Tune, the show was a perfect blending of the cerebral and heart, a slightly tongue-in-cheek exploration of the creative process, and a fond but critical look at a man whose relationships with women were based either on his adoration for his mother or his pleasant encounter with a robust prostitute when he was a mere child.

Helping spur the show on to greatness were Raul Julia as Guido Contini, the solipsistic director; Karen Akers as his wife; plus Anita Morris, Camille Saviola, and the knock-‘em-dead Liliane Montevecchi as several of the women in his life. I still recall Akers singing, with her back to the audience, "My Husband Makes Movies," a disconsolate accounting of being subservient to an egocentric spouse. Those three minutes and 53 seconds constitute one of the most powerfully moving moments in modern musical theater. As for redheaded Morris, she became the nation’s sex siren with her performance as Guido’s mistress. Attired in a skintight, see-through lace jumpsuit, she fueled the libidos of many an American male at the time, especially after repeating her number in costume on Johnny Carson’s desk one late night.

But after watching Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the show, I wondered if my memory was playing games with me. This sumptuous film version with its cornucopia of lovely stars (Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Judi Dench, Fergie, Nicole Kidman, and Sophia Loren) delivers on the glamour quotient but is lacking in both humor and pathos.

The problem possibly lies in Daniel Day-Lewis’s Guido. His take on the character lacks the unconscious, lovable self-mockery that both Julia and Marcello Mastroianni (in 8-1/2) brought to the part. Day-Lewis, at least after just one viewing, has concocted a depressed misogynist who loves women but not as much as he cherishes his own ability to agonize nonstop over the costs of his own celebrity. While you wanted to hug and slap his predecessors, you just want to slap Day-Lewis.

The addition of some horrendous new songs and the omission of some of the old ones don’t help either. Just listen to the Original Broadway Cast album’s finale where Cameron Johann as the child Guido sings "Getting Tall" to his older, less mature self, who has a gun in hand:

"Guido . . . Guido . . .

Scraping knees
Tying shoes
Starting school
Paying dues
Finding there’s no way we can spend a lifetime playing ball
Part of getting tall

Learning more, knowing less,
Simple words, tenderness, part of getting tall.

Guido, you’re not crazy, you’re all right.
Everyone wants everyone in sight ...
But knowing you have no one if you try to have them all
Is part of tying shoes,
Part of starting school,
Part of scraping knees if we should fall
Part of getting tall."

Numerous numbers such as this one are now in the scrapheap.

Additionally, Marshall’s constant cutting from Guido’s memories to show numbers stifles feelings. For example, in the "Be Italian" sequence, the lovable whore Saraghina (Fergie) agrees to show her wares to a group of boys for a handful of coins. The black-and-white footage of the group frolicking on a beach and then in the water is perfect, but the intercutting with showgirls singing on chairs garrotes the episode’s power.

Yet for all of its faults, Nine is filled with treats for the eye and ear, because in the end Marshall is no slouch in the talent department. Under his direction, Cruz has never been more gorgeous, Cotillard elicits empathy as the put-upon wife, Fergie surprisingly makes a believable singing hooker, and Dench, even with her wandering accents, is as grand as she always is. And Day-Lewis has worked out his body, Loren makes a most welcome return to the screen, and Kidman is able to play a major screen siren believably.

So on a scale of ten, Nine is an 8. Well, maybe an 8-1/2. - Brandon Judell

brandon.jpgMr. Judell is featured in Rosa von Praunheim's forthcoming documentary New York Memories. In the spring, he'll be teaching "The Image of the Jew in Post-World War II European Cinema" and "Gay and Lesbian Literature" at The City College of New York. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi).