Telluride 2014: Hilary Swank Tribute and “The Homesman”

At her Telluride Film Festival Tribute, a relaxed Hilary Swank joked that she didn’t feel old enough for a Tribute. She recently turned 40. After she received her first Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999 without many notable credits, Swank was called an overnight success. She said amusingly, that it was “one long night.”

Swank said she doubted such success could happen, but her mother believed in her. She began acting at 8 years old in school plays like “The Jungle Book.” She said she enjoyed making characters come alive.

Unlike her most celebrated films, Swank started out in comedy. She had a role on TV in “Beverly Hills 90210”, but her character was cut from the show. She said she felt she was “not good enough for 90210”, but 2 months later came “Boys Don’t Cry”.

Hilary Swank (left) in "The Homesman"

Hilary Swank (left) in “The Homesman”

Swank described her collaboration with Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman on “Million Dollar Baby” (2002), for which she received her second Oscar, as a highlight of her life. She said her role of a boxer coached by Eastwood, who also directed the film, paralleled her off-camera relationship with him.

In both of her Oscar-winning performances, Swank’s characters died before the end of the film. She said she would like roles where she can “live to see the credits”. On films, she added “I love what connects us all” and that the quality of the script is important for her in making choices.

Hillary Swank’s latest film “The Homesman” with Tommy Lee Jones, another actor/director, was shown as part of her Tribute. She believes the film is “richer and better because of Tommy Lee” who also co-wrote the screenplay. She described Jones as “so specific” and said he “stands apart” because he is both “book and people strong.”

In preparation for a film, Swank always writes a sentence about her character on her script. Of Mary Bee Cuddy whom she portrays in “The Homesman”, Swank wrote “she goes where angels fear to tread” and also described her as “so selfless.”

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in "The Homesman"

Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank in “The Homesman”

Swank said it was “a dream come true” for her to work with Meryl Streep, but they have no scenes together in “The Homesman.”

Like Jones’ previous directorial effort, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (2005), “The Homesman” depicts a Western journey, but though well-acted, lacks the freshness of the earlier film.

Mary Bee Cuddy (Swank) lives alone and independently in Nebraska. The film begins as Mary Bee prepares a meal for a neighboring landowner, with disappointing results, as she’s considered “too bossy and plain.” Swank gives another impressive dramatic performance, showing her character’s calm and forceful determination which is unable to hide her disappointment.

The plot has the unusual starting point of a trip to take three young women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter), severely traumatized by life in the remote West, back East to a church where they can receive care. The 3 actresses are very compelling. Gummer is Meryl Streep’s daughter.

While none of the local men will agree to take the women East, Mary Bee who considers herself “as good as any man” volunteers. Early on, she spies the grizzled George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) sitting on his horse, with his head in a noose, punishment for claim jumping.

Hilary Swank and  Tommy Lee Jones in "The Homesman"

Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones in “The Homesman”

Mary Bee rescues him, as he agrees to join her on her quest to help the damaged women. Jones gives a colorful performance. Initially his character looks like comedy relief, but he is formidable in the trail and a dangerous opponent.

The film contains striking scenes of the desolate Western landscape as Mary Bee and Briggs continue on, with the constant threat of any of the young women trying to run away. As director, Jones maintains a lively pace.

The different characterizations of Swank and Jones play well off of each other and enliven the somewhat conventional Western plot. Though the setup is uncommon, during their travels Mary Bee and Briggs encounter familiar Western characters like Indians and greedy businessmen. The sexism of the era depicted is overlaid on the film, particularly in a key scene.

Telluride 2014: Volker Schlondorff Tribute and “Diplomacy”

The Telluride Film Festival Tribute to German director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) was one of the most memorable in the 20 plus years I’ve been to Telluride. Schlondorff wept when presented with his Silver Medallion Tribute, saying it was given by friends. He added “Old men have emotion.”

Volker Schlondorff with his Silver Tribute Medallion at the Telluride Film Festival     (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff with his Silver Tribute Medallion at the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Schlondorff told fascinating anecdotes of his of his development into a celebrated international filmmaker. Born in 1939, Schlondorff grew up in Wiesbaden, Germany under US occupation and was exposed to American culture, including Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and the films of Marlon Brando.

At age 16, he thought, “I can’t stand it here” (in Germany). He intended visiting France for 2 months, but stayed 10 years. He wanted to “escape from childhood”. He believes that because of his country’s history, “guilt befell” the Germans, “whether we wanted it or not.” What he wanted was to “become a little Frenchman.”

Schlondorff told a very amusing story about doing live spoken translations of German films at the Cinematheque in Paris. He described it as freely translated, making up probable lines In French. He said this was “how I learned to write dialog”.

Volker Schlondorff at his Tribute during the Telluride Film Festival     (c) Ed Scheid

Volker Schlondorff at his Tribute during the Telluride Film Festival (c) Ed Scheid

Schlondorff worked as assistant director on a “Zazie dans le Metro”, a 1960 film by his Parisian film school classmate Louis Malle. He also assisted directors Alain Resnais (“Last Year at Marienbad”) and Jean-Pierre Melville, before returning to Germany to direct his first feature, “Young Torless” in 1966. He described his 1976 “Coup de Grace”, about unrequited love during the Russian Civil War, as his “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

His most celebrated film “The Tin Drum” (1979), based on the Gunter Grass novel, received the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. There was difficulty in casting the lead role of a boy who stops growing as a protest. 90% of the film would be the presence of the boy, according to Schlondorff, who said he stayed with the film because of the insistence of the producer. In LIFE Magazine, Schlondorff read about the physical condition of young David Bennent who was cast In the film. David ended up being the son of Heinz Bennent who portrayed a lawyer in Schlondorff’s 1975 “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.”

American films made by Schlondorff include a 1985 TV version of “Death of a Salesman” with Dustin Hoffman and “The Handmaid’s Tale”(1990).

Schlondorff has dedicated his latest film “Diplomacy” to his friend Richard Holbrooke, deceased US diplomat whom the director said was ‘a privilege to know.” Schlondorff said he met Holbrooke through playwright John Guare. They were fellow theatergoers.

Schlondorff said “Diplomacy”, screened as part of his Tribute, shows that “words may be more powerful than weapons.” The film is also a tribute to his beloved Paris.

“Diplomacy” is set in August, 1944, when World War II is turning against the Nazis. Hitler orders General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet”) to set bombs around Parisian monuments and bridges and to detonate them when the Germans retreat. The bombing of the bridges would cause severe flooding, leading to untold casualties. Von Choltitz has loyally followed orders before, reportedly even to killing Jewish civilians. The General gets an unexpected visit through a secret stairway from Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (Andre Dussollier, “Wild Grass”)

Niels Arestrup in "Diplomacy"

Niels Arestrup in “Diplomacy”

Schlondorff collaborated on the screenplay with Cyril Gely, based on Gely’s play. The film is an imagined meeting between the 2 historical characters who knew each other in the period of the film. “Diplomacy” shows a master filmmaker in peak form. Focusing on some engrossing conversations between the general and the diplomat, Schlondorff skillfully builds tension.

The clever Nordling desperately tries to save Paris, appealing to von Choltitz about all that Paris represents, even as the German capital of Berlin is in ruins. Hitler had threatened the families of his officers if orders weren’t followed, so von Choltitz considered his family as hostages to Hitler.

Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in "Diplomacy"

Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier in “Diplomacy”

Even thought the fate of Paris is known, what makes the film fascinating is dramatizing what led to the outcome, and revealing what happened to von Choltitz, his family, and Nordling. Niels Arestrup and Andre Dussollier, 2 of Europe’s top actors give masterful performances of a remarkable battle of wills.