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A look inside Hollywood and the movies : Taking a Long-Range View of 'Short Cuts'

September 12, 1993|JANE GALBRAITH

"Short Cuts" is a three-hour-plus film, but not an epic. It's got major speaking parts for 22 actors, none of them major stars. Raymond Carver's short stories are its inspiration and director Robert Altman its adapter, though neither is a "bestseller" in the conventional sense.

If these factors don't present marketing challenges for any movie distributor, probably nothing does. Then again, Altman's last iconoclastic ensemble piece, "The Player," had a similar set of obstacles and yet brought the director newfound critical respect, grossed $21 million domestically and became one of the more talked-about pictures in recent years. The cameos alone by such stars as Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Cher generated impressive amounts of copy.

Still, the film has every potential to draw in a bigger audiences than "The Player" despite its long running time, fragmented plotting and strictly adult themes, assesses Ira Deutchman, president of "Short Cuts" distributor Fine Line Features. (The R-rated movie, which cost $12 million to make, contains much frank talk about the sex act, considerable frontal nudity--mostly female--and rampant infidelity among the couples depicted.)

" 'The Player' in a sense was more marketable," Deutchman says of his company's campaign on that picture. "More people were interested in the subject matter on the surface (a satire on the Hollywood moviemaking process involving a murder cover-up). They came out for lifestyles of the rich and famous."

As brilliant as "The Player" was, Deutchman added, "the fact there were no sympathetic characters, that the humor was over (many peoples') heads . . . ultimately that word of mouth capped off the grosses."

Deutchman believes because "Short Cuts" is about working-class characters in commonplace dilemmas, it is a more accessible picture to mainstream moviegoers who may more easily relate to the characters on screen. In the cast are several Altman alumni like Lily Tomlin, Buck Henry, Tim Robbins. Lyle Lovett and Peter Gallagher--joined by Jack Lemmon, Madeleine Stowe, Tom Waits and Robert Downey Jr., among others.

The action crisscrosses the lives of several Los Angeles-area couples--replacing Carver's original Northwest setting--and how they deal with love, betrayal and death in such diverse locales as a hospital, a trailer park, a coffee shop, nondescript suburbs and a nightclub. Altman adapted Carver's stories with co-writer Frank Barhydt.

Like the marketing of "The Player," Fine Line will exploit the positive buzz that began months ago with early press screenings by alluding to Altman's cachet with critics in the film's one-line tease used in advertisements: "From two American masters, a movie unlike any you've ever seen."

Also like the movie art for "The Player," that for "Short Cuts" will feature no actors' pictures, but rather an iconographic representation of the movie's theme. For the former, it was a strip of film shaped in the form of a noose; for the latter it will be a Medfly trailing through a fragmented heart carrying with it the copyline "From two American masters. . . ." Nighttime shots of helicopters dumping malathion over anonymous L.A. neighborhoods to kill the agricultural pests open the picture, acting as metaphor linking the city's disparate inhabitants as well as the movie's characters.

"Short Cuts" has already been heralded at the Venice Film Festival and won out over competitors to open the New York Film Festival on Oct. 1. All 22 cast members are said to be attending the event, with two tickets being reserved for Fine Line's new owner Ted Turner as well. Daily Variety's Todd McCarthy, for one, said in his review Tuesday that Altman's adaptation of Carver's work was "startling" and "his most complex and full-bodied human comedy since 'Nashville.' "

Mindful that it needs to build through word of mouth, Fine Line will immediately follow the festival unveiling with an exclusive engagement of the movie at the Cinema I and II in Manhattan. Staggered showings on two screens will mean the picture will play every two hours instead of three. The film will widen out a week later to open in Los Angeles on two Century Plaza screens. Prints in both cities will be projected in 70-millimeter. On Oct. 22, the run expands to 45 screens in additional major national markets and, if all goes well, to a few hundred more screens around Thanksgiving, traditional Oscar-contender season.

Deutchman conceded that competition is stiff starting this fall, mentioning Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence," Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" and James Ivory's "Remains of the Day" as those he perceives trying to reach the same literati/art-house crowd. He also acknowledged that "Short Cuts" was finished in May and could have been released earlier as counter-programming to this summer's action-adventure fare.

But, Fine Line, with Altman's support, thought better of it. The director wanted to unveil the picture slowly--first to his filmmaking friends on an invite-only basis, then to interested Hollywood bigwigs and selected members of the press.

If the director wasn't available himself to answer to all the critical fuss (he's currently in Paris scouting locations for his next picture about the fashion business, "Pret-a-Porter"), Deutchman says it for him: "Underneath it all, we're talking about an American masterpiece."

Whether that means anything to ticket-buying audiences at large remains to be answered.

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