It's hardly surprising when a film maker claims that the finished work is partly autobiographical. In the case of England's "The Dressmaker," which opens the American Film Institute's European Community Film Festival today, the claim doesn't belong to its director, Jim O'Brien. It belongs to one of the film's stars, Billie Whitelaw, a renowned actress who has dazzled audiences in work that has ranged from the recent plays of Samuel Beckett to "The Omen."
The 43-year-old O'Brien wasn't even born when the film takes place--1944 Liverpool during World War II. Whitelaw, born in 1932, knew wartime Liverpool well.
She doesn't suggest that she lived "The Dressmaker's" story (by John McGrath and based on Beryl Bainbridge's novel), about two aunts vying for influence over their teen-age niece who is smitten with a Yank soldier. But from its portrait of repressive Victorianism to the otherworldly presence of American soldiers in a Liverpool nearly emptied of civilian men, the film triggers deep, sometimes disturbing memories for Whitelaw.
"All my relatives are from Liverpool," she recalled. "My family, though, lived in Coventry, where we were victims of the war's first blitzkrieg by the Nazi Luftwaffe. I was 8--but it was like yesterday--and my parents sent me, for safety's sake, to Liverpool. They didn't know that Liverpool was the Nazis' next target.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 25, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 2 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 13 words Type of Material: Correction
Contrary to an article in Friday's Calendar, there is no screening today for "The Dressmaker."
"But nothing was as bad as Coventry. You're scared, waiting, and then the bombing stops, you go outside and look at the sky. It's blood red, filled with a crackling sound which is coming from all the houses on fire. At one point, a telephone pole fell and crashed into our house.
"The most frightening thing was hearing the machine-gun fire from the German planes. And Coventry had no defense, no ammunition. My playground was the craters and bombed-out buildings."
In the marginally safer working-class Liverpudlian 'burbs were the spinster aunts and Yanks that make up "The Dressmaker's" volatile human chemistry.
"I was one of those snotty kids who ran up to the Yanks demanding some gum. To us, they were like movie stars come down off the screen. And incredibly generous. But we're island people, very reserved, so we didn't quite trust the generosity. There was this British sense that Americans were flaunting their wealth."
She paused, reconsidering this last remark. "I want to be careful in the way I say this, because we (British) feel eternally grateful to the Americans. This feeling of being patronized and the American confusion toward British reserve is very, very complicated," she said, noting the crux of the moral drama at the heart of "The Dressmaker."
Further tossing of this cross-cultural salad came from Victorian mores confronting the easygoing, sometimes randy Yanks.
"I had these extraordinary aunts, even more Victorian than Joan (Plowright, who plays the spinster sister to Whitelaw's liberal Aunt Margo). Once they were widows, they couldn't re-marry."
She remarked that novelist Bainbridge, whom Whitelaw met as her London neighbor even though both were wartime Liverpool children, describes the unmarried Margo as "a giddy girl of 50. She was longing for some fun. She wasn't willing to bury herself in a celibate box as her sister was."
Whitelaw, who rocked the British stage of the late '50s and early '60s in a ground-breaking wave of plays on working-class themes, and later showed a larger audience her gifts in films like "The Omen" and "Charlie Bubbles," also happens to be playwright Samuel Beckett's favorite actress.
He has written several plays expressly for her (including "Footfalls" and "Rockaby," which she performed at the Mark Taper Forum in 1984). Benedict Nightingale in the New York Times remarked that she "is to Beckett's work what Sarah Bernhardt once was to that of Racine's."
The actress' own life has been one of great acclaim intersected with very painful episodes--an attempted rape by a British soldier at age 6, her father's lingering death by lung cancer when she was 9, her own son's five-year bout with sickness (he turned 21 last Monday). But she was unhesitant in declaring that she puts these experiences to use in her art.
"I feel just the opposite of (conductor-pianist) Daniel Barenboim, who denied that the tragic death of (his wife and master cellist) Jacqueline Du Pre would be channelled into his music. When I read (Beckett's) 'Not I,' I didn't understand this woman howling away. But I began to feel that it was the scream I had contained during my son's illness. It's what I built my performance on."
After her short visit to Los Angeles for the "Dressmaker" premiere, Whitelaw flies to West Germany for a tour of three Beckett pieces, including "Eh Joe," originally written for a man.
"We've been rehearsing over the phone the past few days. He's a bit tired right now. What's amazing about him is that he always seems to be writing the story of my life. Even 20 years before he knew me! There's this idea of him as a cold, emotionless fish. But, God, he's a powerhouse of emotion."
"The Dressmaker" screens at 7:30 tonight and Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Monica Theater, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica.