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MOVIES : What Took So Long? : Randa Haines waited four years before taking on another movie after 'Children of a Lesser God.' She rejected many scripts, then chose 'The Doctor,' about a surgeon who becomes a patient himself. It reunited her with William Hurt.

July 21, 1991|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

Randa Haines sits high in a director's chair--a tall, slim woman with a cascade of dark curly hair and an array of silver and turquoise bracelets--the only woman in a semicircle of men. Peering at the screen in the final days of post-production on "The Doctor"--her first feature movie since the much-acclaimed "Children of a Lesser God" five years ago, and her second movie starring William Hurt--her voice is soft, her manner calm and long fingers seemingly do a dance in the air as she makes fine-point decisions about which sounds she wants where.

Yet these are crunch days for Haines. Along with 15-hour days required when Disney's Touchstone Pictures moved up the movie's release date by more than a week to this Wednesday, she knows the industry is wondering: Can she do it again? Or was "Children of a Lesser God" "just a fluke?" Despite a high quotient of confidence, Haines sometimes wonders herself.

And there's another question: What took so long?

With "Children of a Lesser God," drawn from Mark Medoff's 1980 Tony-winning play about deafness but changed to a significant degree for the screen, Haines became the first woman to direct a best-picture Oscar nominee, though, like Penny Marshall ("Awakenings") this year, she was not nominated herself. The movie drew five nominations, including a best-actor nomination for Hurt, and Marlee Matlin won an Oscar as best actress.

"In a way the second movie is harder than the first because there is that pressure to do as well or to do better," Haines says on a fast lunch break at CBS-MTM in Studio City. "Second movies are (sometimes) disappointing. So it's scary. Everybody watches to see whether (talent's) just a fluke. Or that she did it right the first time."

The movie she finally chose to direct is loosely adapted from the book "A Taste of My Own Medicine" by Dr. Edward E. Rosenbaum, an Oregon internist who developed cancer of the larynx at 70 and wrote about his experiences as a patient.

The film's doctor, Hurt's Jack McKee, is 40 and at the top of his game. He's a cool, talented heart surgeon who plays rock 'n' roll during operations, and gives the early frames of the movie a "MASH"-like quality. "Surgery is judgment," the surgeon pronounces to the residents who trail in his wake. "To judge you have to be detached."

Christine Lahti plays McKee's wife Anne, whom he also keeps at a distance. Elizabeth Perkins is June Ellis, dying of brain cancer, who teaches him how to see patients as people first, to accept illness as another part of life even while fighting it, and to enjoy that life, however fragile. She becomes McKee's closest friend and the person who helps him shed detachment and grow into a caring human being.

But it is Hurt who dominates this movie. The actor, who won an Oscar for his "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and a nomination as well for "Broadcast News," is in every frame.

By many accounts, Hurt gave Haines so much trouble on the set of "Children" that it was a surprise they would work together again. Indeed Hurt said he was "a little bit surprised and just gladdened" when she phoned him in Australia where he was making a movie. "I didn't know if she wanted to get back in the water with me . . . because I didn't check my bets, I didn't really pull any punches (the last time). And sometimes people get stung and they don't want to come back."

According to Haines, Hurt has changed. "He's changed a lot in the last few years. I mean it's personal stuff, just working on himself. . . . He used to have more of a need for conflict, for edge ."

And Hurt, who praises Haines for "the patience and the courage" to wait for quality work, concurs: "That was another time." Asked what happened, what changed, Hurt said with a light laugh, "Oh, me . You get riper (more mature)." As for the personal stuff, he demurs: "I feel blessed; I'll tell you that much."

For Haines, the central idea of "The Doctor" is the transformation of the surgeon who "literally holds people's hearts in his hands. And what the whole story is about is a man who gets a new heart.

"There is just something mythological about the story," says Haines. "He's a God-like character who reaches in, fixes other people's hearts and gives them life. In a way he probably believes he's immortal himself."

"And that led me to thinking," the director continues, "to literally putting him in the penthouse of the hospital, bright and shiny and skylights, and then when he becomes ill he goes down into the underworld, to the basement, to the bowels of the hospital where death is very present. He's literally switched physical positions. He lies down and other people look at him. He hears other doctors refer to him as he has referred to other people . . . they call him The Throat."

But will people care about this man who can't stand sitting in the waiting room "like one of the herd"?

Haines maintains that they will, though "that was certainly a challenge. (But) the

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