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MOVIES : 'Rose's' Rambling Journey : Martha Coolidge's efforts to film a tender tale of sexual awakening were fruitless--until the director of 'Die Hard 2' read the script

September 15, 1991|KIRK HONEYCUTT | Kirk Honeycutt is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A comic but tender bedroom scene between Laura Dern and 14-year-old Lukas Haas in the movie "Rambling Rose" has been drawing astonished laughter from screening audiences and others who've seen the film in recent weeks. That scene, says Martha Coolidge, the film's director, "is one of the two compelling reasons to make the picture."

The film, based on Calder Willingham's seriocomic novel, reflects on a time in the 68-year-old Southern novelist and screenwriter's childhood, when a coltish, flaxen-haired country girl named Rose became his family's maid in Rome, Ga., in 1935. This good-hearted girl searched for love and knew of no other means to achieve it than through her budding sexuality.

At first, Rose attempts to seduce the father of the household, played by Robert Duvall. When that fails, she slips into the bedroom of the young narrator, Buddy (Haas), with the intent of pouring out her heart. Buddy, however, has other thoughts.

"It's the most honest, first-person description of sexual awakening that I've ever read. Calder told me it was the most painful thing he ever wrote in his life. It's a scene you read in a book and assume you could never do in a movie."

The reaction the scene has been getting is testimony to the touch that Coolidge brings to this tale of a woman out of sync with the sexual mores of both the era and Southern manners.

Dern says, "On the written page, Rose reads as manipulative and, in some ways, oversexed. So it's important for the movie to reveal how what's implied is not true. The girl needed love. Emotionally, it was a plus to have a woman (director) to deal with a central character who is misinterpreted on the basis of her sexuality."

Coolidge says only this: "Meeting Calder, it was clear to me his life has been deeply and beautifully affected by his relationship with women and he's extremely expressive about it. That's rare. As a woman directing this piece, I was particularly sensitive to making sure the women were well-rounded characters."

When Coolidge first read the "Rambling Rose" script five years ago, "I felt I had to make this picture. I've not had that feeling since I was making documentaries."

That hasn't been the response from film executives. The screenplay, adapted from Willingham's highly acclaimed novel, bounced around Hollywood for nearly 19 years. "It was considered too small, too personal, a period piece and not a blockbuster," explains ICM agent Barry Mendel, who spent four years trying to set up the project.

At that point, Coolidge was probably best known for the unusually intelligent 1983 teen comedy "Valley Girl" with Deborah Foreman and Nicolas Cage, or 1985's "Real Genius" with Val Kilmer and was being offered more teen comedies. Mendel, who represents Willingham and now Coolidge, notes that "Martha hadn't yet demonstrated (to Hollywood) an ability to work on a serious, important movie. When, in fact, she had. Her independent documentaries are really serious, but people didn't know about that or give her credit for them."

"I was in a rut," Coolidge says. "That's why I did television. I was getting more mature material." She directed several episodes of "The Twilight Zone," the pilot for the ABC series "Sledgehammer" and the CBS-TV movies "Trenchcoat in Paradise" and "Bare Essentials."

When she read the "Rambling Rose" screenplay, Coolidge immediately thought of her friend, Laura Dern, to play Rose. After she directed Laura's mother, Diane Ladd, in "Plain Clothes," a 1988 limited release, she asked Ladd to play the mother in the household. As a "package," though, the project got nowhere at first.

But through persistence, luck and some old-fashioned clout--supplied not by Coolidge but by producer Renny Harlin, the director of "Die Hard 2"--"Rambling Rose" will open Friday.

Seated on a couch in her Coldwater Canyon home, the morning after wrapping "Crazy in Love" for TNT with Holly Hunter and Gena Rowlands in Seattle, Coolidge, 45, is the picture of a director consumed by her work.

Her struggle, in common with most filmmakers, resulted in "economic and personal deprivation." But that deprivation has been accentuated by both gender and typecasting.

Hollywood has warily embraced women directors. Due to their increasing numbers and the success many, including Coolidge, have enjoyed, they can no longer be dismissed. Yet as Coolidge puts it, "your being attached (as director) to material is not often considered an asset."

Certainly that was the case with "Rambling Rose."

Willingham--whose film credits include "Paths of Glory," "The Graduate," "Thieves Like Us," "Little Big Man" and "One-Eyed Jacks"--wrote a screen adaptation of his novel for producer Edgar J. Scherick in 1972. In 1980 the project was nearly set up at Universal to star Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau and Lily Tomlin. That deal fell apart.

"Obviously, it was perceived as a more broadly comic piece," Coolidge comments.

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