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Fall Sneaks

Muscled aside

Adult-oriented dramas were once a staple of the film industry, but now it's hard to compete with big-screen thrill-ride fare. Fall offers a welcome respite for the serious-minded.

September 07, 2003|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

"Drama: A composition in verse or prose intended to portray life or character or to tell a story usually involving conflicts and emotions through action and dialogue and typically designed for theatrical performance."

Remember dramas?

Remember the electricity you felt the first time you watched Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird"? Or Paul Newman in "The Hustler"? Then think back on such other memorable dramatic screen performances as Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," James Dean in "East of Eden," Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in "Midnight Cowboy," Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in "The Godfather," Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline in "Sophie's Choice," Ralph Fiennes in "The English Patient," Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich" and Tom Hanks in "Cast Away."

There was a time when Hollywood studios seemed to churn out dramas and melodramas the way the Denver Mint spits out FDR dimes. In the process, the studios made stars of actresses like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford and actors like Peck, Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy. Their films weren't always great, but they enjoyed major runs in cities across the land and, in the process, helped younger audiences appreciate drama as well as other genres.

But today, the drama is under siege. Studios have soured on making them and audiences avoid them like the plague. Some observers of the entertainment scene say that an entire generation of young moviegoers has turned off of dramas and won't be coming back until they're middle-aged.

Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who recently directed the drama "A Soldier's Girl" for Showtime, said dramas today "stand the least chance of being made at a major studio."

Each autumn, sandwiched between the summer fluff and big-budget holiday spectacles, Hollywood traditionally releases many of its smaller, character-driven dramas -- and this fall's lineup is no exception. But given the fate of big-screen dramas in recent years, it will take more than clever marketing for the films to find a wide audience. Some of this fall's higher-profile offerings present particular challenges:

* In "The Human Stain," Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins star as May-December lovers in a big-screen adaptation of the acclaimed Philip Roth novel. The film poses an intriguing premise: a college professor hiding his past battles against accusations of racism that lead him to quit the faculty and go on an odyssey to clear his name. But Roth's novel is complex and downbeat, usually not a winning combination for literary adaptations.

* In "Mystic River," Clint Eastwood is back behind the camera in a gritty adaptation of Dennis Lehane's popular crime novel about the murder of a young woman. The film comes with a knockout cast -- Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon just for starters -- but despite receiving raves at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the disturbing nature and stark violence contained in some sequences may be a turnoff for some.

* "Secondhand Lions" is a drama/black comedy/fantasy rolled into one. It stars two certified giants of acting, Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, as eccentric old-timers with a mysterious past who take under their wing their teenage nephew (played by a squeaky-voiced Haley Joel Osment). But is this film too quirky for its own good?

* "Veronica Guerin" and "Wonderland" are gritty dramas ripped from the headlines. In the first, Cate Blanchett stars as a crusading Irish journalist whose life is threatened when she delves deep into the drug underworld, while the second is a drama about the late porn star John Holmes and the brutal 1981 quadruple murders on Wonderland Avenue in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon. Neither story is the kind of feel-good real-life tale (think "Remember the Titans") that plays well in the megaplex.

* Meg Ryan trades her usual perkiness for graphic and steamy sex in the erotic thriller "In the Cut," director Jane Campion's big-screen adaptation of Susanna Moore's bestseller. But will audiences want to see Ryan in this kind of role?

And those are the projects with brighter commercial prospects.

At the movies, the disparity in box office between drama and other genres is stark. This year's highest-grossing films are "Finding Nemo" (animated); "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Terminator 3" (sci-fi); "Bruce Almighty," "Anger Management" and "Bringing Down the House" (comedy); "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Bad Boys II" (action-adventure) and "X2: X-Men United" and "The Hulk" (comic book).

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