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3 Films Trace The Blending Of Art, Identity And The Creative Process.

September 12, 2004|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

When creative types launch into a discussion of their "process," it's usually a cue for outsiders to leave the room. Like watching paint dry, or a writer gaze off into space, deconstructing an artist's inspirations and influences isn't necessarily a spectator sport. But a handful of films this fall frame the creative process in visceral, revealing ways by weaving inner life, outer life and art.

Director Richard Eyre's "Stage Beauty" finds witty and touching psychodrama in the lives of 17th century actors struggling to adjust when women are suddenly given the legal right to act onstage -- displacing the men who'd built careers around playing women's parts. Jeffrey Hatcher's screenplay, based on his play, tracks the fall and rise of narcissistic, effeminate London theater star Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), who is forced to become a man onstage and off, and Maria (Claire Danes), a backstage dresser with onstage aspirations, who wrestles with making the transition from novelty act to artist.

As both play myriad parts, grope toward new identities and ultimately find their way to a more emotionally versatile kind of acting, Eyre keeps them circling around the question: "Who am I now?"

"I'm fascinated by the notion that the better you act a character, the harder it is to distinguish between who is the real person and who is the simulated person," says Eyre, a former actor and acclaimed stage director. "That's pushed to the limits in [the film] because it bears on the idea of sexual identity as well as personal identity."

The question of how a person's sense of self shapes and informs the creative process is also central in the Ray Charles biopic "Ray," which chronicles the way a blind man from the poor South with a gift for musical mimicry developed a sound wholly his own, and in "Finding Neverland," which dramatizes how Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie came to create the timeless children's fantasy "Peter Pan." What each film ultimately reveals is the importance of an artist's core identity -- whether it's a writer's playfulness, a musician's fearlessness or an actor's curiosity -- to what he or she creates.

Tapping that core doesn't always come easy, though, stresses Taylor Hackford, who directed "Ray." "Whatever the medium, whether it's a typewriter, the piano or your voice, you only make your mark on it by revealing who you are," he says. "And when you do, you're terribly vulnerable, because you're no longer copying somebody."

Charles, played with uncanny, head-and-torso-swaying vigor by Jamie Foxx, was a skilled keyboardist and performer from early on, but in the beginning of his career he was mostly imitating popular performers such as Nat King Cole. It wasn't until he fused call-and-response gospel with sexually charged R&B that his legend was assured. "Ray" draws a connection between the singer's drive to experiment -- adding backup singers, mixing genres, demanding that he own his master tapes -- and a sight-afflicted young man's conviction, instilled in him by a tough-loving mother, that the world wouldn't do him any favors.

Hackford had a visual strategy to accompany Charles' evolution. "In the flashbacks, with Ray at home with his mother, in a place he's totally comfortable, the camera never moves," the director says. "It's like he's rooted in that red earth of Georgia. But once he goes across the country, the camera never stops moving. I really believe being on the road, his blindness, his getting into drugs, allowed him to cut away a lot of the extraneous material and focus on what he was creating. He broke the mold on a number of things, and I think part and parcel of that is: 'What do I have to lose?' "

Further obliterating the lines between life and art in "Ray" is how the film's soundtrack of signature Charles tunes dovetails with momentous occasions in his life: "I Got a Woman" with meeting wife Della (Kerry Washington), "Unchain My Heart" with the singer's protests against the segregated South and "Hit the Road, Jack" with the dissolution of his relationship with backup singer Margie Hendrix (Regina King). "It's like a suite," explains Hackford, who took dramatic license with this mode of storytelling but still had Charles' approval and dedication to the project up until his death this year at age 73. "The music is emotion, and it's a skeleton for the film. The music delivers you into the story, into his life."

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