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Max Von Sydow, 'the Swedish Laurence Olivier'

Movies * With attention to detail, veteran actor brings depth to his role as a defense attorney in 'Snow Falling on Cedars.'

December 27, 1999|CHARLOTTE INNES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One morning on the set of the recently released movie "Snow Falling on Cedars," Max Von Sydow blackened his thumbnail. He had decided that his character, Nels Gudmundsson, the 79-year-old principled but physically frail defense attorney, had "fumbled" that day.

"He was hammering away at something and the thumb got in the way," Von Sydow says on a recent visit to Los Angeles. At 70, he is clearly robust and not at all like his shaky character who, though mentally astute, is blind in one eye, sometimes poorly shaven and given to tottering around the courtroom as if any day could be his very last.

This attention to tiny details is typical of Von Sydow, say those familiar with his work. And it goes a long way toward explaining why many film experts consider the veteran Swedish actor to be one of the giants of international cinema.

"It's really an adventure every time you work with Max," says Swedish director Jan Troell, who has worked with Von Sydow since 1963, most recently in the widely praised "Hamsun" (1996). "It all seems so uncomplicated and easy when you shoot a scene. Not until I sit at the editing table can I fully understand how fascinating he is, the way he plays the part, the small details."

Fraser Heston, who directed Von Sydow in "Needful Things" (1993) calls him "the Swedish Laurence Olivier."

With "Snow Falling on Cedars," based on the award-winning, best-selling novel by David Guterson, just released by Universal Pictures, Von Sydow has made almost 120 films, about a third of them in the U.S.

Although he's had his share of working in lightweight Hollywood movies--out of "curiosity" and a need for "change," he says--many of his films are considered classics, beginning with his early work with Swedish icon Ingmar Bergman in such films as "The Seventh Seal" (1957) and "The Virgin Spring" (1960).

Von Sydow continues to work with Bergman, most recently in "Private Confessions" (1998), written by Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman, a frequent co-star of Von Sydow's.

His portrayal of an impoverished farm worker in "Pelle the Conqueror" (1988), by Danish filmmaker Bille August, is often called Von Sydow's greatest role and it brought him worldwide acclaim. That role went against the grain of his usual authority figures, from priests ("The Exorcist," 1973, and "Private Confessions," 1996) to novelists ("Hamsun," (1996), to the sinister Blofeld ("Never Say Never Again" 1983) to the most influential guys of all, Jesus Christ ("The Greatest Story Ever Told," 1965) and the devil himself ("Needful Things," 1993).

In "Snow Falling on Cedars," Von Sydow is back in a weighty role as a small-town attorney who defends a Japanese fisherman, Kazuo (Rick Yune), against a murder charge after a local fisherman drowns under suspicious circumstances off the fictional island of San Piedro, north of Puget Sound.

Although the film weaves many strands, including the unrequited love of Ishmael, a newspaper reporter played by Ethan Hawke, for Kazuo's wife, Hatsue, played by Youki Kudoh ("Picture Bride"), Von Sydow's character, Nels, is clearly the moral fulcrum of the story. Nels struggles throughout the trial, and then in a powerful summation speech, to combat the racial tensions between Anglos and Japanese Americans, who are still living in the shadow of the wartime internment at Manzanar.

Casting Von Sydow in this central role was "obviously the right choice" from the beginning, says Kathleen Kennedy, co-producer of the film with her husband, Frank Marshall ("The Color Purple," "Schindler's List").

"If there was any reservation, it was over whether or not we should cast a more known actor," Kennedy says. "I mean, Max is definitely an icon, but I wouldn't say he is someone who is mainstream. But once we had immersed ourselves in looking at examples of his work, it was clear that he was perfect" as someone with "real depth."

For director Scott Hicks ("Shine"), Von Sydow has been an idol since he was a teenager watching Bergman movies in 1960s Adelaide, Australia. Hicks has wanted to make a movie of the book ever since he read it during a layover at Orlando Airport while he was still working on "Shine."

"I wrote to Max and told him he had been part of my initiation into film and I would be honored if he would consider working with me. And he wrote me a very gracious letter back accepting. His response to me was he loved the role because so seldom does he get offered full human beings to play.

"It made me reflect a little on the way Hollywood has often treated foreign nationals as actors. They often get squeezed into a certain box, where they play villains or stereotypical roles."

His role in "Snow Falling on Cedars" is hardly stereotypical.

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