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Beyond Therapy

November 01, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1962, a small film about two disturbed teens who fall in love and rebuild their lives became a surprise hit and garnered Oscar nominations for its director, Frank Perry, and its writer, his wife Eleanor Perry.

Now, 36 years later, ABC and executive producer Oprah Winfrey are bringing a new version of "David & Lisa" to the small screen.

Lukas Haas ("Witness) stars as David, a brilliant but troubled youth, obsessed with time and death, who refuses to allow anyone to touch him. Keir Dullea played the role in the original.

Brittany Murphy ("Clueless," "King of the Hill") stars as Lisa, a young woman--originally played by Janet Margolin--who lives in her own private world and speaks only in rhymes.

Oscar-winner Sidney Poitier plays Dr. Jack Miller, the compassionate psychiatrist who tries to help David.

Lloyd Kramer, who directed last year's "Oprah Winfrey Presents" drama, "Before Women Had Wings," directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Dr. Theodore Issac Rubin, who wrote the novella "Lisa and David," upon which both films are based.

Executive producer Kate Forte ("Beloved") says she and Winfrey both responded strongly to "David & Lisa" because it is a timeless love story.

"It expresses themes that we believe in in an unpredictable and compelling way, which is what we always go for," she says. "[A work] has to be thematically rich and it has to be told in a really interesting and unpredictable way. [This one] was memorable when I saw it years ago. I thought it was an incredible idea to do it again and update it."

Rubin, who has written more than 30 books, admits he was a "little bit skeptical" about having "David & Lisa" remade. But he changed his mind when he met Kramer and Forte. "I saw that they understood it," he says.

Rubin says there are many differences with this version.

"Some of the dialogue is left out and also there are scenes added," he says. "I must say, the first one was rather stark and this one, I would say, is just beautiful. It almost has a Renoir quality to it."

It is also more up-to-date clinically. "We know so much more now," says Rubin. "My big objection to the original movie--and it was the only objection, I would say--is that they tried to show how all of this started [for David] by having his parents fight with each other. I thought it was unnecessary. It really wasn't part of the book and, worst of all, was a vast oversimplification.

"In Lloyd's version, we didn't try to show the ideology of any of this. I hate to label anybody. I don't, after 40-odd years of practice. I think everybody is an individual and the labeling has a destructive effect on both the therapist and the patient."

Besides working with Rubin, Kramer visited several institutions and talked with psychiatrists.

"When a movie like this was made in '62, people were anxious to sort of pin things [on people]," explains Kramer. "It was when people were interested in the pop culture of psychology. You saw a lot of movies at that time where the mother was a cold woman and the father was kind of a cardboard, one-dimensional character. It was very much spelled out."

Kramer thought it would be more interesting to let "the chips fall as they may, as far as explanations. As Sidney says in the movie, 'Why is anyone like this? Nobody knows.' If you just let things fall into place and you are honest with the characters, the explanations take care of themselves. There is a kind of haphazardness to life."

Neither Murphy nor Haas was familiar with the original "David & Lisa" before the project began. "Once I got involved, I told my family about it," says Murphy. "I learned it has a real cult following. My aunt had parakeets named David and Lisa because they kept flying into walls!"

Murphy said that Lisa just "stole my heart" as soon as she read the script. "There are some characters you read on paper and, for me, they just take over my body sort of. This was one of them."

"Brittany is so emotional and wonderful," Haas says. "She was wonderful to work with. We became great friends. We had this great bond with each other. We relied on each other to feel what these characters were feeling and make it natural."

Haas also found a great teacher in the veteran Poitier. "He would discuss my role with me very generously," Haas says.

Other than discussing his role with Kramer, Haas didn't do any other research. "We both came to the conclusion that it wasn't really a diagnosable illness that he had," the actor explains. "It was an emotional disorder." And one he could relate to.

David, says Haas, "doesn't want people to touch him. He has to control everything. He doesn't want people to know too much about him. Whenever you have a built-up feeling inside that you have to let out--that is the sort of feeling that I could really relate to. I felt it very strongly."

"Oprah Winfrey Presents: David & Lisa" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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