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'House of Spirits' Fails to Levitate : Movies: The star-studded film does poorly in its U.S. opening, despite heavy publicity and strong European sales.

April 04, 1994|DAVID J. FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The House of the Spirits" opened in U.S. theaters Friday boasting tantalizing star power, $55 million in European ticket sales and a plot based on the popular South American novel of the same name.

But, today, "Spirits" may be decidedly lower. In its first weekend, the movie drew a poor $1.8 million at the box office at about 470 theaters. That is a disappointment for a movie that rode in on a wave of publicity with great expectations.

Although there were many favorable reviews, most were not enthusiastic. And many negative reviews were withering.

The film also generated a renewed protest from Latino actors in Los Angeles over the issue of non-Latinos playing roles that call for Latin characters.

The $25-million production shot in Portugal and Denmark is based on Isabel Allende's novel covering several generations of a powerful family in an unnamed South American nation. The lead roles of the aristocracy are played by Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder and Vanessa Redgrave--all non-Latinos. The two major working-class roles are played by the cast's two best-known Latinos, Spanish actor Antonio Banderas and actress Maria Conchita Alonso.

" 'The House of the Spirits' is not a big deal. But the film is a part of a trend that is starting not to look good," said Radames Soto, a producer with Blue Pearl Development in New York City, which also manages Latin talent. His current project in production is a syndicated series, "Hispanic Americans: The New Frontier," hosted by Latino actor Jimmy Smits.

"I just think it makes sense to start developing the kinds of stars who will attract the Hispanic audience . . . it's the fast-growing segment of the country," Soto added.

"Look, Al Pacino is becoming the hardest working Hispanic actor who isn't Hispanic," Soto said, noting that among other Latino roles, Pacino, of Italian heritage, is soon to play Manuel Noriega, the deposed strongman of Panama, in Oliver Stone's "Noriega."

On Friday, a newly formed coalition of Latinos in Los Angeles and Orange counties named Luchador Chicanos distributed leaflets to moviegoers in Westwood, Hollywood and Santa Monica.

Actor and protest organizer Del Zamora said that if non-Latino stars continue to take roles of Latino characters, "we will boycott all of their films."

"I understand the frustration of the actors who want to work," said Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of the movie's American distributor, Miramax Films. "In the ideal situation, we probably should have cast all Chilean actors. But where would it stop? These people were the best actors for the part." ("Spirits" author Allende is of Chilean descent and the niece of that nation's former president, Salvador Allende, who was deposed by the military.)

"We're the wrong company for them to protest," Weinstein said, noting that Miramax has distributed many Latin-made films, including those by Pedro Almodovar and the Mexican-made hit "Like Water for Chocolate."

Weinstein, who came in on the project seven years ago when it was still at Warner Bros., said the production was a "labor of love." "The cast worked for a fraction of their normal salaries. They believed in the material, and I personally won't stand for them being treated like this. When they (the protesters) say they should \o7 look\f7 Latin--what is looking Latin?"

Weinstein said if it weren't for the German producers Bernd Eichinger and Constantin Film and Danish director Bille August's ("Pelle the Conqueror") persistence, the film wouldn't have been made.

Meanwhile, Miramax's New York offices, faced with hugely negative reviews that came from England a couple of weeks ago, took out an advertisement last week in the New York Times on the day before American reviews appeared to quote Allende's enthusiastic reaction to the movie as "the best review of all."

In an interview Friday, Weinstein said: "That ad was just to tell the people who read the book that you can't do nine hours to (adapt the book). Bille August chose three themes from the book: love, power and forgiveness."

The London Daily Mail's headline had called the film "the star-studded fiasco from hell."

England, however, has been the exception so far in foreign reaction. A spokesman for the producer said the reception was especially favorable in Germany and other nations on the Continent. Indeed, it is unusual for a major movie to arrive in the United States with a gross of $55 million already under its belt and openings in Australia, Japan and South America still to come.

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Free-lance writers David Gritten in London and Robert Koehler in Los Angeles contributed this article.

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