Killer Joe’s Gina Gershon, William Friedkin, Matthew McConaughey at NY Times Talks: Review
Tom Stoppard, Alan Rickman, Tilda Swinton, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Carrie Mulligan, Gary Oldman, Helen Mirren. I had seen these talented Brits live on the stage (Broadway or Off Broadway) and in film. I appreciated their brilliance, their humor, their uniqueness, their prodigious efforts! The New York Times Talks were a venue where I witnessed these actors with their vibrant spontaneity in live interviews. Prior to attendance, I anticipated each of these Times Talks with enthusiasm. I always walked away satisfied.
Today was different. I was going to see mildly talented American actors and a director who hadn’t hit it big since the dark ages before Twitter and Facebook. And on a blazing, torpid evening no less? Already, I was bored and annoyed with the prospects, especially since I wouldn’t be sneaking any digitals with my unobtrusive, insect-sized camera that could be whipped out and secreted away before anyone, least of all the officious, martinet ushers could bully me about it. Well, almost. At my last Times Talks go round, I was clipped by some weak mouthed serf to “not take photos.” At his muling whine I contemplated that the next time, if there was a next time, I’d get a press pass. Unfortunately, for this round of David Carr interviews with Gina Gershon, William Friedkin and Matthew McConaughey, I couldn’t get it together in time to call the publicity department.
So here I was a coolie nonentity and in this role, I did not enact the usual routine: go early, move down front, get ready for some fun. I was hot, tired and disgruntled, a sloppy frazzle after minding the gaps and evil perspirings of oversized Long Islanders sweltering and swining through Penn Station. Taking the train in from Kew Gardens was one more moted stupidity in addition to wearing a white Michael Kors outfit in a city where dirt grows on “the absence of colored” clothing like feathers on a chicken. What a crass ho-hum venture this promised to be: no Brits, no photos, probably no celebrity interludes (Often famous friends people the audience to shore up their buddies being interviewed and I would briefly speak to them). Rats for a crank of wasted time.
After I returned from the ladies room, noting flecks of black on my lower left pants leg, I gnashed teeth in my seat and waited for the non event. I didn’t know too much about the film Killer Joe. Nor was I hopped up about McConaughey’s latest career tweaks in embracing the “go forth and be sexy-naked” role in Magic Mike or his ominous shift to the wickedly nonchalant, indifferent, bad-ass law man Joe Cooper. I certainly hadn’t seen any of Friedkin’s opera direction, much of it far from New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and other city opera companies. His most recent endeavors were in Europe, and unless he was directing Verdi, a favorite of mine, I probably wouldn’t make it a point to go, reeling from all the other activities I’d engage in in Rome or other cities where his work might appear. Actually, I hadn’t watched a memorable Friedkin film in the last decade. But he was forgiven this because of his incredible direction of two of the most marvelous films to come out of the 1970s, the groundbreaking, spellbinding The Exorcist and The French Connection (for which he barely used a script and which won 5 academy awards including Best Picture and Best Director).
Reflecting back to the hover over the month’s New York Times Talks’ offerings, at the time I was making arrangements, I gamed seeing whether McConaughey was as ravishing as the media and friends seemed to think. I loved him in Amistad; the film was brilliant as a historical record of the event which, like an explosion, breached institutional slavery’s pitted walls in America. McConaughey played his lawyerly part beautifully, complementing Spielberg’s sterling actors’ ensemble, though the standout performances were Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams and Spielberg find, Djimon Hounsou as Cinque.
No matter. Coming here was a mistake and now I must deal with it. Deal I did. I raged, annoyed at my unpreparedness. I vowed, if David Carr wasn’t striking fire and it was a total blackout of wits, I’d leave. Better yet, I’d catch up on my sleep, snoring my disdain to surrounding audience members. Turns out, I did take a blip when the talking heads disembodied themselves and Carr was as somnambulant as I. But overall, I’m glad I awakened for most of the discussion, if not to eventually see the NC-17 rated film, but because the director’s intellect and vision enlightened me and I enjoyed catching snippets of Gershon’s and McConaughey’s sage, scary talent in bringing the frighteningly human characters to life.
Killer Joe is based on a true story according to Friedkin. A hit man is engaged to kill a family member for their stash to pay off debts or the hiree will be killed. Tracey Letts, Pultizer Prize winning playwright of August, Osage County, (film slated to open in 2013) adapted the screenplay from his play Killer Joe (1993) which has been performed in NYC and in 15 countries around the world. Friedkin, Gershon and McConaughey couldn’t sail enough accolades toward Letts for his script’s edgy, sardonic humor and complex familial renderings. Each of the characters, in their attempts to strive beyond their trailer trash lives and aspirations entangle themselves deeper in their own webs. The more they struggle to break the gossamer/steel chains that stick them, the more they cocoon themselves in their own demise.
In typical Friedkinesque, the story telling is macabre and surprising as it bends the envelope toward laughter and bizarreness. The characters’ human weakness wacks us silly and when we watch reality unfold, glad “that it’s not us up there”, the circumstances wrap us in the Jerry Springer moment of upending comedy. We laugh though we shouldn’t, but we can’t help ourselves because these folks are just plain dumb-ass, ego-baited, desperation-cracked ninnies. It’s the kind of humor found in Pinter’s The Caretaker. Pinter is a playwright that Letts and Friedkin admire. It is no coincidence that the relationship dynamics of the Smith family and Sheriff Joe Cooper, coupled with their foolhardiness, which plunges them in their own fetid swamp are reminiscent of the characters and situations in Pinter’s plays.
Interesting that McConaughey and Gershon didn’t get the point of Killer Joe on a first read. They were ready to garbage the script, even though Friedkin was attached to the project. McConaughey changed his mind after a female friend pointed out the black (as in dark) comedy and suggested it was an amazing piece he should do. Like Gershon, he reconsidered the novel role as a boon because it was unlike any project he had accomplished before. Gershon realized she could empathize with Sharla Smith’s hungers, manipulations and mammoth insinuations as the character endeavors to reach her goals, regardless of the cost to others. Her character’s rawness and her miserable flame out were the icing on Gershon’s cake.
Friedkin praised his dream cast, including the vulnerable Emile Hirsch, the dead-pan funny Thomas Haden Church and vibrant Juno Temple for their gifted performances and right on appropriateness (mentioning he had not been as astute with his casting choices in other films). He credited McConaughey’s risk taking in accepting the role of Joe Cooper, which for him was contrarian and counterintuitive. Sheriff Cooper is emotionally cold, an unappealing killer on the surface. It was up to McConaughey to see his likeability and that wasn’t easy. Much easier to accept the roles he’s been doing since the 1990s. Friedkin bore out that McConaughey’s looks peg him for chick flicks. The next two generations of female audiences would appreciate his face and physique in tragic or happy love stories. Heck, he could easily age into sixty-seventy something romantic leads (He’s 42.) and directors would be thrilled to nail him on the cross of such senior lover man roles twenty years hence. McConaughey knows that and is swimming upstream against the current of big money. He reaffirmed the shift in role choices and voiced the need to vibrate his career with twists and turns constantly moving in other directions.
At this juncture in the Talks, I had zzzed off. McConaughey is absolutely stunning in person, much better looking than in film and Gershon is interesting, but the discussion was without steam, pepper or spice. My head was thrown back in the seat, my eyelids had drifted shut, my mouth was sliding open to distill rasping throat sounds. Then I chortled to wakefulness, startled by an audience stir and a demure announcement by a jaunty blonde in a black semi-bowler hat. She was standing to my left not four feet away and was interrupting David Carr’s monotone. Yeah! An intrusion upon the droning bees onstage. Could it be? Was she an ally in my indignation against fatuous ushers and pretentious Times’ policies? Yes! I mentally polished my middle finger, “Take that, New York Times Talks, ha, ha!”
The frenetic and pissy blonde in the black bowler was leveling up a forbidden digital camera, pointing it straight at Gershon and McConaughey. She ambled forward proclaiming, “I am a paparazzo and I am recording you here…muffle, argh, garble.” Audience eyes turned to look in the direction of the soft, feline voice and were struck deaf by the silence of the vision. The pretty, flouncy blonde, was jiggling her naked boobs. Her perky cream white breasts flapped prodigiously, her fur flew, as she stood proudly naked claiming her glory to Carr, Gershon, McConaughey and Friedkin. The ushers and audience, were stunned in a reverent suspension of disbelief. None of us got it, except maybe for the Gershon, McConaughey and Friedkin who remained wryly nonplussed, probably used to crazy public antics that appeared like stupid pet tricks when their stars crossed the heavens. Recovering from their cloudy haze, the ushers sprang into action. Three of them scrambled to block views of her blanched T & A, which were a stark contrast with that zany, obsidian hat and redness of her lipstick. I wiped the sleep from my fogged consciousness, grabbed my insect digital and snapped as many shots of the stage as I could. By that point the ushers were distracted, shuffling her away while peeking at her savory flesh full throttle. Amazing. No one laughed, though the incident was as wacky as the dark intent of Killer Joe. Either Friedkin or Carr quipped about how her appearance enlivened the dullness of the static camera interview, which “usually reaches a lull right about now.” Did someone hear me gently snoring in the background or see my head bobbing back in dreamland, I chuckled quietly to myself.
Onward soldiers. The rest of the “Talk” fled past with a rapidity I couldn’t gauge, beginning with Gershon wondering aloud why the woman characterized herself as a “paparazzo” as Friedkin, with erudition, supplied the derivation of the word. Then there were more particularly ominous film clips and it was time for audience questions. I thought the following information worthwhile. Friedkin did only one take for most of the scenes, throwing out the window all notions of arriving at perfection after 15-20 takes. The actors felt his immediacy created alertness and surprise; you were ready out the gate, like racehorses to the finish line, without the burden of stale repetition. Friedkin remarked that the first movie that inspired him to pursue film craft was Citizen Kane. And if he could even begin to make a film like that, well… Carr flattered him by saying he had. For me Citizen Kane and The French Connection are indeed art, but cannot be spoken in comparative terms.
Two questioners were notable in the responses they elicited. A lawyer commented that he thought Bernie, a McConaughey film, underrated and ignored by critics and fans was astounding. The actor was flattered into revealing that a potential career path he had chosen was the law. He had been accepted to law school then at the last, changed his mind and went to film school instead. Considering all the lawyer roles and law enforcement officers he has portrayed, the law remains with him.
A young and clothed female actor was brave to question what was needed to be an actor. McConaughey’s rapid retort, “Keep this in mind. There are no help wanted signs out there.” All three affirmed security is hired to “keep you out” of a tough business. Gershon did mention one needed to check one’s motives as to exactly why one would be an actor. Friedkin spoke like a director from the old studio system about the importance of “looks.” Indeed, one’s face does the casting or type casting. Actors have made money from appearing like Italian mobsters or heroes or beauties. Sadly, looks and appearance have held too much sway over the years. Oftentimes, those who have tremendous talents and gifts fade away, having fallen pray to resignation while others which much less talent but other elements make it. Friedkin waxed into a beacon of hope with this counsel. “One needs these three things to make it: 1)ambition, 2)luck 3)the Grace of God.” The last smacked me in the head. It was the first time I had ever heard a director mention the Grace of God in the context of “making it.”
Another questioner having to wait for one of Friedkin’s particularly long responses to be finished, jerked with anxiety and impatience until Carr finally called upon him. With tongue in cheek reference to bowler-hat blonde, Carr adjured the young, frail looking fellow not to disrobe. Well, that was enough for McConaughey and Gershon who encouraged him and the audience, giving the “go ahead” for more of the same, kind of to keep the naked flow going. If most of the women in the audience looked as good as the paparazzo, they might have bared breasts and butts and paraded for the cameras, talk about getting a shot at a few moments of fame. But it was not to be so for this shy crowd where I had the distinct impression that it would have been a public humiliation if anyone else were to follow the blonde’s lead.
So the audience feeling its limitations responded with a good natured-laugh, and when they quieted down, the young man in a squeaky high voice and jittery motions which were creepy, like the Golum in The Hobbit said, “Ms Gershon, you look radiant.” then bowed. He complimented McConaughey, bowed again, and to Friedkin he said something about still “shivering” from The Exorcist. When he bowed a third time, I thought the moon must have been ripe for peculiar human reactions this evening. Either a savant or an Asperger’s, he was certainly weird. But Friedkin with great grace showed kindness. He thanked the young man, saving the moment with aplomb and skill. In my book Friedkin scored big for that. He made my severe scrutiny something akin to Scout’s when she sanctioned Cunningham for pouring molasses all over his plate of food in To Kill a Mockingbird and Calpurnia upbraded her about treating guests hospitably. Friedkins’ sweetness chided me like a Calpurnia scolding
After a rough beginning, the evening waxed clear and the stars twinkled in a blue black sky. Thanks to the blonde, the breathtaking McConaughey whose intellect is consonant with his beauty, Gershon’s frankness and Friedkin’s sensitivity and brilliance, my exasperation had melted like mist in sunshine. But next time I will get a press pass.