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Ready for His Closeup

Tony Award winner Des McAnuff makes his feature film debut with 'Cousin Bette.' But he's been preparing for the screen for a long time.

May 31, 1998|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Pity the poor American theater. It suffers from a bad case of the "how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?' blues. Its most talented directors, it seems, often move on to greener pastures in other mediums.

A case in point: multiple Tony-winner Des McAnuff, who announced in 1993 that he would be stepping down from his post as artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse to pursue other goals. He had heard the siren call of celluloid.

Five years later, the general public is now about to see if the stage's loss has indeed been the screen's gain. McAnuff makes his feature film debut with an adaptation of Honore de Balzac's "Cousin Bette," featuring Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue and Bob Hoskins, due from Fox Searchlight June 12.

If his track record in the theater is any indication, it's a promising moment. During the 12 seasons McAnuff spent at the Playhouse, he proved both bold and savvy. He took many worthwhile artistic risks--both in his own stagings of new plays, Shakespeare and musicals, and with the artists he chose to promote, including directors Peter Sellars and Robert Woodruff, and musicians Roger Miller and Ray Davies, to name but a few. And McAnuff met with an impressive share of both popular and critical success.

McAnuff also furthered a reputation as an agile artist open to new challenges--which should bode well for his work in a new medium. And yet making the change, as he himself notes, is in some ways more complicated than it might appear.

"Some of the areas that you would expect to be most comfortable in making the switch, I think you have to be more cautious or skeptical about," says McAnuff. "When you've directed onstage, one of the first things they'll say about you is 'Well, at least he knows how to talk to actors.' But you have to be careful how you apply the knowledge.

"If you just come lumbering in assuming you know all there is to know about acting, you'll get a nasty surprise," McAnuff continues. "It is a different art, coaxing a performance. It is a different discipline and requires different preparation, process and so on."

Fortunately, McAnuff knew to heed his own advice. "In the last year, I've done three films--all with new directors, two of them first-time directors--but this was a completely different experience," says Jessica Lange, who plays Cousin Bette. "You would never have assumed from the way Des approached the work and knew the material that he was a first-time [film] director. I didn't have the feeling of first-time, and believe me, I know from first-time."

Just hours after flying into Los Angeles from New York, where he lives with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, the 45-year-old McAnuff is sitting in a tiny Indian restaurant around the corner from the secondary residence he keeps here in town. He shows no signs of fatigue, despite an early flight, and fairly teems with a peripatetic energy that seems tied directly to enthusiasm for his work.

In fact, this kinetic quality in McAnuff's engaging persona has changed little since the days when the Canadian-born artist was a hot writer-director on the New York theater scene of the early 1980s.

Back then, he was known for his audacious work at the New York Shakespeare Festival, where his productions included a 1981 "Henry IV, Part I" and his own "The Death of Von Richthofen as Witnessed From Earth" in 1982. He was committed to both classics and new works, and remained so even after the move to La Jolla.

Reviving a theater that was first active in the 1940s and 1950s but had been dormant for decades, McAnuff became artistic director of the reborn La Jolla Playhouse in 1983. Although he quickly established the theater's reputation as a haven for top-drawer artists, McAnuff also continued to direct productions there himself.

Most widely known from his Playhouse years are his Broadway hits: The Roger Miller-scored Huck Finn adaptation "Big River," which stopped at La Jolla en route to New York, where it won seven Tony awards, including best director, in 1985; the rock musical "Tommy," which added another best director Tony to McAnuff's collection in 1993; and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," which opened in La Jolla in late 1994 and went on to Broadway success, featuring Matthew Broderick in the lead.

Despite the fruitful years of the early '90s, however, McAnuff announced in late 1993 that he would be resigning, effective after the 1994 season. Four months later Michael Greif was named as his successor.

The reason McAnuff chose to leave was that he wasn't able to balance his duties at the theater with his ambitions in film. "While I was at the Playhouse, it really became clear to me that I wasn't going to be able to do a film easily and continue as artistic director," he says. "The two things just wouldn't work together."

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