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MOVIES : Walken's New Turn : The actor who has made a career playing brooding psychos is in London making a romantic comedy; he calls it a nice change of pace

April 11, 1993|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten, a frequent contributor to Calendar, is based in London. and

LONDON — "I'd love to make a movie where there were no guns," Christopher Walken once said in a magazine interview. "Or a comedy with a woman. Jokes, a happy ending and all that."

Well, here he is, looking sleek and affluent in a tuxedo at Royal Albert Hall as he strolls off the set of a new romantic comedy, "A Business Affair." Walken relishes this detour in his more than 20-year career.

"It's a good part--I hope," Walken says. "Hopefully, it's very light spirited. I haven't done anything quite like this."

Since appearing in Sidney Lumet's 1971 film, "The Anderson Tapes," (1971), Walken has been in a score of movies for a variety of directors, including Woody Allen, Michael Cimino, Jonathan Demme, David Cronenberg, Abel Ferrara and Tim Burton. Many of these films share a decidedly off-center quality, and Walken's performances are original, intense, brooding.

In "A Business Affair," Walken plays Vanni Corso, a brash Italian-American book publisher living in London. After Vanni signs Alec Bolton (Jonathan Pryce), an author highly esteemed in literary circles, he then meets Alec's wife, Kate (Carole Bouquet), a glamorous model who is working on a novel of her own. A love triangle is soon established as Kate, to Alec's dismay, ends up in Vanni's bed and on the bestseller lists.

Walken and the cast and crew of "A Business Affair" are at the vast, 6,000-seat Albert Hall to film a scene in which Kate, who has split from her husband, arrives at a theater with Vanni (hence Walken's tux) and spots Alec across the crowded foyer with a new date. Beneath her coat Kate wears a revealing outfit, and on seeing it Alec gazes at her with regretful longing.

For this scene Bouquet, the French actress best remembered as the cultured, attractive wife deserted by Gerard Depardieu in Bertrand Blier's "Too Beautiful for You," has been poured into an extraordinary glittery dress. It plunges so low at the back that it exposes the cleavage of her buttocks, a fact Pryce registers with an eloquent arching of his eyebrows. Walken looks on, his eyes twinkling with humor.

After the scene is shot to the satisfaction of Swedish-French director Charlotte Brandstrom, Walken returns to the empty circular auditorium to talk. He is not given to chatter, and answers questions economically and cautiously. In the words of one of the film's producers, he's "a hard man to draw out."

Walken, noting his tendency to be picked for heavy, tough-guy roles, says: "Any thing similar I might have done (to "A Business Affair") has been in connection with something ultimately darker."

He cites his work alongside Mickey Rourke in the 1988 film "Homeboy": "I played a crazy nightclub performer and crook, and there was funny stuff in that." Much of the rest of the film, he acknowledges, was quite grim.

"Comedy's hard to play," Walken notes. "Some of the best actors around are comic actors, people like Mastroianni. They're not always recognized for it--Cary Grant appeared to be doing nothing, but just try it. I've been impressed by people you don't always think of. For me, Alan King is terrific. Billy Crystal's a wonderful actor. Comedy's quick, and it takes a real intelligence to do it."

Walken has gradually developed a cult reputation over 15 years. After his work with Lumet, he appeared in Paul Mazursky's "Next Stop Greenwich Village" (1976) and Allen's "Annie Hall" the next year. But his work in Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" (1978) helped set the course for his movie career; he dazzled as a young Pennsylvania steelworker who went to fight in Vietnam. At the beginning of the film, Walken is a shy, awkward bridegroom; by its end, he is a traumatized war veteran, playing Russian roulette in a Saigon opium den. It won him an Oscar as best supporting actor.

Cimino later recruited him for 1980's "Heaven's Gate," which was infamously withdrawn from release, and the odd meanderings of Walken's career began. He co-starred in "Brainstorm" (1983) with Natalie Wood, who drowned before the film's completion. In Cronenberg's "Dead Zone" (also 1983), he played in heartfelt manner a man blessed and cursed but finally destroyed by his gift of second sight. In "Biloxi Blues," Mike Nichols' 1988 adaptation of Neil Simon's stage play, Walken was chillingly memorable as a martinet drill sergeant. And in Ferrara's "King of New York" (1990) he delivered arguably his most remarkable performance to date as the doomed Frank White, a gangster just out of jail who sets about wresting control from an underworld elite, and who aims to use huge drug profits to prevent the closure of a neighborhood hospital; he's public enemy as pillar of the community.

Even in the more tongue-in-cheek films Walken has graced, his contribution has been to darken the atmosphere: as the villain in the 1985 James Bond film "A View to a Kill" who wants to destroy Silicon Valley and as the megalomaniac Max Schreck for director Burton in last year's "Batman Returns."

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