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SCREENING ROOM

The Return of 'Exodus'

LACMA's screening of Preminger's epic 1960 film marks the 50th anniversary of the Jewish state.

September 10, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, LACMA is presenting at 7:30 p.m. Friday and again on Saturday "Exodus," Otto Preminger's epic--210 minutes plus intermission--1960 film version of Leon Uris' novel on the struggle of the Jews to create a homeland in Palestine in the wake of the Holocaust. A shrewd blend of history and Hollywood heroics, "Exodus" holds up remarkably well, thanks to astute craftsmanship and a story that is unfolding still. Although a bit slow to the windup, "Exodus" is an absorbing, potent work of pop mythology that leaves you with a powerful sense of the challenge and magnitude of the Israeli achievement.

From the opening strains of composer Ernest Gold's familiar theme, you are in the capable hands of Hollywood pros, with Preminger's masterly, vigorous direction, Dalton Trumbo's script, which lays out with clarity the complex and tortuous history of Israel's birth and sustains several story lines, and Sam Leavitt's cinematography, which sweeps over the Jewish detention camps of Cyprus to the ancient settlements and rugged landscape of Israel itself.

Trumbo's dialogue has its corny moments, purple patches and inevitable preachy passages, and the cast is jarringly uneven--with John Derek, for example, as an Arab nobleman straight out of a Maria Montez movie--but on the whole "Exodus" is a formidable accomplishment embracing suspense, danger, passion, romance, politics, religion, intrigue, sacrifice and bravery in an entertaining fashion for 3 1/2 hours.

"Exodus" is blessed in its stars; Paul Newman is outstanding as a young officer--based on Yitzhak Rabin--in the Haganah, Palestine's Jewish underground, who springs more than 600 Jews from a Cyprus internment camp in 1947 and places them on an old freighter renamed "Exodus," where they go on a successful hunger strike in protest of a British blockade. So is Eva Marie Saint as an elegant American woman who has lost her news-photographer husband, killed while covering a border skirmish in Palestine, and eventually casts her lot with the Jewish cause and gradually falls in love with Newman, although they haven't much time for romance. Newman and Saint have been given complex, mature characters to play. Saint, it's also worth noting, has a wardrobe designed by Rudi Gernreich with such timeless simplicity and understatement that she could wear it today.

Once Newman et al. have arrived in Haifa the plot thickens with the intensifying conflict between the Haganah, which perceives United Nations approval of a Jewish state within grasp, and the Irgun, the Jewish terrorist organization which the Haganah sees as a threat to that approval. Conveniently, Newman's father (Lee J. Cobb) is a Haganah leader while his brother (David Opatoshu, in a wrenching portrayal) is an Irgun leader. Trumbo's script is notable for its fair-mindedness to Arabs and even the British.

What you don't expect of so stirring an epic is that it ends not on the expected note of triumph but of tragedy--and an expression of a dream of lasting peace between Arab and Jew that is yet to be fulfilled. (323) 857-6010.

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Two years ago, a Salt Lake City high school senior named Kelli Peterson, sick of feeling miserable and isolated, helped co-found the Gay-Straight Alliance for gay students and for straight students trying to understand better their gay relatives. Her 15-member group unwittingly unleashed a firestorm, with the state Legislature voting to ban all extracurricular clubs in high schools rather than permit any on-campus meetings involving gay men and lesbians. The unfolding of Peterson's story and her ultimate victory become the frame of Jeff Dupre's outstanding documentary "Out of the Past" (Grande 4-Plex Friday for one week), which premiered at Outfest in July.

Here, Dupre discusses the lives of Puritan cleric Michael Wigglesworth, 19th century novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, pioneer activists Henry Gerber and Barbara Gittings, and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington but was not allowed to lead it because he was gay. Dupre makes a strong case for the importance of reclaiming gays from history in giving young people a sense of identity and in breaking down stereotypes. The Grande 4-Plex is on the lower level of the Marriott Hotel, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-0268.

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It's been said that the films of Jacques Demy are like a series of intersecting circles. His people part only to meet again years later--that is, if they're lucky. Along the way there are points of tangency with others seeking to round out the arcs of their lives. Thus, the structure that emerges in a Demy film lends itself perfectly to the lyricism of his collaborator, composer Michel Legrand, and to the director's recurrent theme of the search for love.

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