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He's a woman's kind of man

Henry Jaglom, known for his female-centric films, finds the perfect woman to embody his first play, 'A Safe Place.'

September 21, 2003|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

The world's most perfect woman, in Henry Jaglom's eyes, lives in a photo perched on his bathroom sink. Audrey Hepburn is jumping in the air in a full skirt and a little top and nothing on her feet. In that frozen moment, she is lightness and grace.

Hepburn is the object of Jaglom's magnificent obsession. She's someone he wants to have. She's someone he wants to be.

"It's amazing the degree to which I go back and forth," says the notoriously candid director. "I've spent some time in therapy talking about it because it's a problem. Because I'll brush my teeth and I'll suddenly feel, 'Oh, my God, if I don't look in the mirror I'll feel like I'm Audrey Hepburn.' "

Jaglom's heart belongs to the gamine sophisticate Audrey of "Sabrina" and "Roman Holiday," but it's Holly Golightly Audrey, the kooky sprite from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," whose spirit emboldens the heroine of the filmmaker's first play, "A Safe Place," which runs through Oct. 19 at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz.

Jaglom, 62, makes movies about and for women because the twice-married father of two identifies with them to an unusual degree, so closely in fact that he used to call himself a male lesbian. Jaglom's fearless embrace of his feminine side even inspired Orson Welles, his late friend and mentor, to tell the French press, "Henry and I are girlfriends."

The voluble director has explored male-female relationships from his singular female-centric perspective in most of his 15 films, which have attracted both loyal fans and angry catcalls. (His 16th, "Going Shopping," is in post-production.)

"He kind of worships women," said the play's director, Kim Furst. "You can see it in the way he portrays them and really goes after their innermost thoughts and feelings. It's unique. To a degree, he really has the ability to and the interest in seeing himself as one of the girls."

While that tradition continues with the current run of "A Safe Place," which marks Jaglom's public debut as a playwright, the play actually predates his film career and had a huge effect on it. The play, which he wrote in the late '60s as a student at New York's Actors Studio, morphed into his controversial first film, "A Safe Place" (1971), which starred Tuesday Weld and Jack Nicholson and set the template for much of his later work.

Indeed, Jaglom may have made his reputation as an almost frighteningly independent filmmaker long before the John Sayleses and the Steven Soderberghs, but playwriting was his career goal until Hollywood called and serendipity stepped in. Serendipity is back again, and this time it's reuniting Jaglom with the written word. It arrived with 26-year-old Tanna Frederick, an actress whom he met a couple of years ago through mutual friends. The effervescent Frederick somehow reminded him of Noonie, the play's lead character, who was modeled on his close friend Weld.

"A Safe Place" examines Noonie's love triangle with a man whose love she can't return and another she adores because she knows he'll leave her. Frederick was the first woman he'd met since Weld who'd struck him as right for the part.

"I see in Tanna another one of these special girls who throughout my life I have really become close friends with," said Jaglom, who lives in Santa Monica with his actress-wife and collaborator, Victoria Foyt, and their children, Sabrina, 11, and Simon, 9. "I identify with their feelings, their emotions, what I think they're going through. I feel an empathetic connection with her.

"She's another one of those Noonies," he added. "It's a category for me."

Jaglom's Noonies live by their own rules. He said Weld was unconcerned with social niceties, which can be a tremendous freedom or terrible flaw, depending upon the eye of the beholder.

Once, after seeing a movie with Weld, Jaglom began talking animatedly. "She crossed the street and walked away. She disappeared for two days. It took me a long time to understand that she was so affected by the movie that what she wanted was not to talk," he said.

"We've all felt that way, but what most of us do is say, 'Excuse me, I really don't feel like talking.' With Noonie, there's an immediacy of response without the censorship of social conventions."

Identifiable character

Jaglom has come under fire for focusing on women's weaknesses and neuroses in films like "Eating" (1990) and "Baby Fever" (1994). But Frederick said that she identified strongly with his Noonie character as soon as she read the play.

"I said, 'This is completely me,' There's a mercurial neurosis to this woman that I wear on my sleeve."

It's early afternoon on a recent sun-sparked Friday, and Jaglom is settled into a tufted red booth at Mirabelle in West Hollywood, across Sunset Boulevard from the offices of his production company, Rainbow Films. The company name and logo were inspired by a scene in the film of "A Safe Place," in which Welles plays a magician who cups a rainbow in his hands.

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