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MOVIES : South Africa, Take 2 : What happens when Bruce Beresford brings 'A Good Man in Africa' to the country as the first post-cultural embargo film

May 30, 1993|SCOTT KRAFT | Scott Kraft is The Times' Johannesburg bureau chief

Friels is the husband of Judy Davis, an Oscar nominee this year for her supporting role in "Husbands and Wives." His limited work in American films included the role of a villainous attorney in "Class Action," starring Gene Hackman.

In Boyd's novel, Kriel's character is an anti-hero--an overweight, bored, amoral, ambition-less and oversexed man who drinks too much.

"It's very hard to find people in their 30s who look like Morgan in the book," Beresford said. "What I really had to capture was his attitude, his disillusionment, his bitterness about being stuck in a backwater. And Colin was perfect."

Friels observed that "I love Leafy. It's great to play him because you can draw on all the terrible things that have happened to you. He's quite bright, just lacking in character."

When Beresford called him for the part, Friels said, "he said he had a terrific script that Kenneth Branagh couldn't do." Friels admits that the film "has a nobody in the lead." But, he added, "this is the best role I've ever had."

Shooting in South Africa turned out to be more difficult than Beresford or the producers had expected. Beresford was able to find locations, in a township near Pretoria and at a home for wayward youth in Johannesburg, that were reminiscent of the steamy capitals of West Africa.

But the weather here has been cool, as is typical in a Southern Hemisphere autumn at an altitude of 5,500 feet. Beresford has had to work to keep actors' breath from appearing on film in night shoots and makeup artists have been constantly spreading petroleum jelly on Friels' face to make him look sweaty.

South Africa appears, on the surface, to be a country where everything works, and, indeed, such things as the hotels and telephone communications system are among the best on the continent. But South Africa's long economic isolation has taken a toll.

"Some of the things that are never a problem are a problem here," Tarlov said. Getting film was one problem. Kodak wouldn't provide film directly to the company, because it was operating in South Africa. Cameras were another. Although Panavision had recently returned to the country, local crews were not familiar with the equipment.

"You can go to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, even Tibet, and these are not problems," Tarlov added. "The only problem there is money. Here they have had money, but they couldn't get anything because of sanctions."

The producers have adopted a low profile for the shoot, eschewing most local publicity. "We haven't wanted to draw attention to ourselves," Tarlov said, "because we didn't want to become a political target."

Although the actors haven't always felt safe, they say they've relished the chance for a close-up look at South Africa, which is a far more complex place than the usual televised scenes of rioting and mayhem might suggest. "It's been fascinating and terrifying at the same time," Lithgow said. "You have to come here to understand it."

However, the actors haven't gotten as clear a view of the country as they'd like, being cloistered in a hotel attached to one of South Africa's fanciest shopping malls.

"I've never been on a location where you felt so much like you were on a luxury ocean liner," Lithgow said. "This mall was invented for white South Africa. All your needs can be met without ever having to venture out into the cold, cruel world. I've never seen so many malls or so many locked gates. It's very disheartening about the human condition."

South Africans have been particularly fascinated with Gossett, with his Brooklyn-accented English and his ready smile. "People have treated me very well," Gossett said. "They've invited me into their homes--a large number of them, both black and white. It's been a very pleasant surprise."

Gossett said he plans to encourage other African-American actors to come to South Africa, and he has some ideas for future film deals here. But even though he hasn't experienced racism first hand here, he knows that he has been treated differently by South African whites because he's an American.

"When I walk into a room, I get mean stares sometimes," Gossett said. "Then I hear people say, 'He's that American actor,' and everybody relaxes. Getting things right in this country is going to be difficult."

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