25. The Contender (2000) [Rated R for strong sexual content and language.]
summary from imdb.com:
A political thriller about Laine Hanson, a senator who is nominated to become Vice President following the death of the previous office holder. During the confirmation process, Laine is the victim of a vicious attack on her personal life in which stories of sexual deviancy are spread. She is torn as to whether she should fight back, or stick to her high principles and refuse to comment on the allegations.
directed by: Rod Lurie
starring: Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Jeff Bridges, Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, William Peterson, Saul Rubinek, Philip Baker Hall, Mike Binder, Mariel Hemingway, Kathryn Morris
Joe Taylor: Any ideas you’d die for, Governor?
William Peterson: Obviously I’d die for this country. I served, you know, not in Vietnam but Desert Storm.
Taylor: Right. The Bronze Star.
Peterson: There wasn’t a lot of s### to get into there, but I was in it.
Taylor: What I meant was, would you take a bullet to advance abortion rights, flat taxes, things you’ve been behind for years?
Peterson: I’d like to think that I’d die for civil rights.
Irene Ziegler: Tomorrow morning Congressman Marshall is gonna ask you questions. He’s going to hit you with abortion. I promise you that Shelly will find some way to call you a baby killer.
Mike Binder: We’re ready for him, Mrs. Runyon. Our position papers are first-rate. Every one of them.
Irene: You let him finish. And then you look him in the eye and you ask him: “Mr. Runyon, 20 years ago your wife Maggie had an abortion. Do you think her a murderer?”
Mike: He’s a hypocrite.
Irene: No, he’s not. Shelly has no idea.
Bev Appleton: Are you saying you would appoint a Supreme Court justice based on his being pro-choice?
Joan Allen: Mr. Marshall, the vice president does not appoint Supreme Court justices.
Bev: Should you succeed the president or even advise the president?
Joan: I would be inclined, though not without flexibility to disregard any man or woman who is pro-life from serving on the High Court.
Bev: So you would allow a personal political belief to enter into such a decision?
Joan: Abortion isn’t a constitutional issue. The fine ladies and gentlemen who serve on the Supreme Court, which is now stacked with right-wing appointees, have no business deciding whether the women of this nation have to resort to back-alley abortions–
Bev: You mean they have no business deciding whether women have a license to commit murder.
Gary Oldman: Mr. Marshall, your time has expired.
Bev: Sir, if the distinguished “gentle lady” from Ohio would answer the question…
Gary: I think the lady has made clear her propensity for abortion.
Mike: Come on, Mr. Runyon!
Gary: Mr. Lewis, you do not have speaking privileges in these proceedings.
Joan: Mr. Chairman, I find your term, “propensity for abortion” misrepresentative of my position. I have a propensity for a woman’s right to choose.
Gary: To abort a child!
Joan: A fetus.
Gary: No. To kill… To kill a baby as it grows in the womb. Now, Personally, Senator… I do not believe that it is the right of our citizens to… to butcher a defenseless human being simply… simply as a matter of choice. At the risk of my own future, I tell you this: If you… support the right… of a woman to choose, you are supporting… nothing less than a-a-a holocaust of the unborn.
Joan: Mr. Chairman, are you calling me… [very long pause] I believe my position on this issue is clear.
Gary: Yes, madam, it most certainly is.
Joan Allen: Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen of the committee: Uh, remarkably enough, it seems that I have some explaining to do. So… let me be absolutely clear. I stand for a woman’s right to choose. I stand for the elimination of the death penalty. I stand for a strong and growing armed forces because we must stomp out genocide on this planet and I believe that that is a cause worth dying for. I stand for seeing every gun taken out of every home. Period. I stand for making the selling of cigarettes to our youth a federal offense. I stand for term limits and campaign reform. And, Mr. Chairman, I stand for the separation of church and state and the reason that I stand for that is the same reason that I believe our forefathers did. It is not there to protect religion from the grasp of government but to protect our government from the grasp of religious fanaticism. I may be an atheist, but that does not mean I do not go to church: I do go to church. The church I go to is the one that emancipated the slaves… that gave women the right to vote. It gave us every freedom that we hold dear. My church is this very chapel of democracy that we sit in together and I do not need God to tell me what are my moral absolutes. I need my heart, my brain and this church.
Also making some bold comments is the character of Shelly Runyon. Oldman’s portrayal of this hypocritical, semi-psychotic right wing zealot (in terms of the movie’s own viewpoint) proves once again that he is extremely talented in portraying a wide range of characters. Even so, it is the character itself that, again, is an example of an agenda-based, propagandistic plot, even though he delivers a rousing speech in favor of eliminating abortion.
How utterly Hollywoody! There people really do believe that we are doing something noble and inspirational “for our daughters” (the film’s dedicatees) by making it possible for them to take part in promiscuous sexual adventures with multiple partners simultaneously! What a victory for civil rights! And so, naturally, in the new, gender-blind paradise no one will think the less of them for it. I think Mr Lurie’s delusion in imagining such a thing beyond the hope of reason to penetrate, but you’ve got to give it this much: there is already no Republican with the slightest prospect of national office, as the Bush/Gore presidential race reminds us, who would ever dare to make half so forceful a speech against abortion and moral degeneracy as his Rep. Runyon does in the course of interrogating his hapless witness in committee. If Lurie’s moral vision is quite unconnected to any non-Californian reality at the turn of the millennium, the traditional one, too, appears to be receding into the distance in history’s rear-view mirror.
Gary Oldman also has the distinction of being one of a handful of great actors for whom an Oscar nomination has proved elusive. That could all change with his latest film, The Contender. The Dream Works release is a riveting political drama, telling the story of Vice-Presidential nominee Laine Hansen (Joan Allen) who is put through a grueling confirmation hearing, led by one Senator Shelly Runyon (Oldman), a veteran politico who is determined that Hansen will not make it to the nation’s number two office, especially when his staff uncovers a possible sexual indiscretion during her college years. Oldman’s performance as Runyon is a deliciously layered, complex piece of work which the actor pulls off with panache. Oldman just wrapped work on Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, the long-awaited sequel to Silence of the Lambs, in which he co-stars with Julianne Moore and Anthony Hopkins.
Just when the Oscar buzz for Oldman seemed like a sure thing, ugly rumors of internal strife on The Contender’s set started to surface, highlighted by a controversial Premiere Magazine piece on the subject. What followed was a Rashomon-like series of allegations and accusations with writer-director Rod Lurie on one side, saying that Oldman, whom he calls “a conservative,” suffered from “Stockholm Syndrome” and over-identified with his character, feeling that Runyon was the moral hero of the piece. On the other side are Oldman and manager/producing partner Douglas Urbanski, claiming that they were both quoted and interpreted out of context, including (according to the Premiere article) Oldman’s accusation that DreamWorks re-cut the film to have a more liberal agenda. Oldman has long had a reputation as a man who speaks his mind and doesn’t suffer fools. The actor sat down with Venice Magazine recently in Urbanski’s West Hollywood offices to set the record straight, and to shed light on one of the most distinguished acting careers of his generation.
There seems to be a difference of opinion on how things transpired during the making of The Contender. Where should we start?
Gary Oldman: Well, (Rod Lurie) is something of a revisionist, really. All this talk of me suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome” with my character is ludicrous. It’s one of Rod’s theories that is based on nothing. If he were to get in the ring with me and go toe-to-toe on acting, who do you think knows more? He says these things, just runs off at the mouth. He said them when he was a critic. He said them in his film class. And he said them on the radio. You go ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ One gets taken over by a character. Many years ago, Laurence Olivier was playing a character that he really didn’t like. He was sort of standing outside the character looking at it, and was being sort of patronizing towards the character. And a good friend of Olivier’s said to him “If you don’t find something nice about this character, if you don’t love this character, you will never be able to play him.” If I stand in judgment of the characters I play, where does that leave me? There’s a lot that Runyon does, that actually does make sense to me. I find a lot of that “Stockholm Syndrome” stuff really insulting, both to me and to actors in general. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t want to sit here and take cheap shots. This feud, this thing that has bubbled up, has become this sandstorm. I don’t even know if it’s interesting. It is odd that the word “conservative” has become the sort of politically-correct bad word to call someone. We’ve even had people call here and say “I didn’t know Gary was a conservative,” like they were saying I was a Communist. It’s been really strange. I have never, politically or publically, claimed affiliation with any party. So this is just a story that got out there, maybe based on a few comments I made in the Premiere piece. And these things just have a way of spinning out of control. They talk about movies, and TV, and video games being the new kind of evil towards kids. It’s replaced rock and roll, hasn’t it? The Internet, I think, is a more insidious weapon, because it’s like an expressway to the world. It’s not just in one paper, one edition. If I’m misquoted in Premiere magazine, then a bastardized version gets out there, and the Daily Mirror are writing about it in England. Years ago, it was tomorrow’s fish and chips paper. Now, it goes into the file. So this sandstorm that’s been kicked up, it’s all been a bit bemusing, and rather hurtful.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you see The Contender as story. How did you see your character Shelly Runyon, and what drew you to the project as a whole?
It’s not only how I saw it. There was a creative team. Two of that team are myself (executive producer) and Doug Urbanski (co-producer). The other half was Rod Lurie and Marc Frydman (also a co-producer). If you’re going to make a movie with anyone, you have to meet a lot, talk the thing to death, and you have to be on the same page. We never used the words “bad guys” or “villains” or “heroes.” What was very interesting initially about the material was that ambiguity. We discussed with Rod the complexity of Runyon’s character and that we had to be careful not to let Shelly Runyon twirl his mustache, so to speak. This indirectly brings us back to Rod’s “Stockholm” comment and why I object to it so much. Firstly, an actor doesn’t have to suffer from a psychotic disorder to be good. Second, the comment is saying that I’m out of control. Thirdly, I didn’t invent any of this. Rod and I discussed Runyon. It was never black and white. Never good guys vs. bad. One could argue that (Jeff Bridges’ character, the President) Jackson Evans is an egomaniacal man obsessed with food and ending his term with a controversial bang by appointing a woman. Runyon doesn’t invent the sex scandal. If there’s a weakness in his character, it’s the (way he uses the) scandal. Instead of fighting her on the issues, i.e. abortion, her atheism, her wanting to ban handguns, and wanting a centralized, Orwellian government, he goes for the cheap shot. The turning point for me was the score. That was the big red flag for me. Everytime Runyon appears, there’s this dark, sinister music playing. I believed it would contaminate the audience. The movie we discussed allowed the viewer to make up its mind. Now they’re being told “This person’s good, this person’s bad.” Music isn’t Rod’s forte and on viewing Deterrence (Lurie’s directing debut) one of our big talking points going into The Contender was the music. We felt the music could be more quirky and witty, a bit like in Rushmore. The music playing at the end of The Contender now, you could put on the end of Hannibal because it’s like horror movie music. The other disappointment was the poster and trailer adverting. The line reads “You can assassinate a leader without firing a shot.” I thought I’d already made that movie. (laughs) I thought that was an obviously partisan shot, saying isn’t that what happened to Clinton?
And you feel that the final product didn’t reach the height you originally saw it reaching?
I liked an earlier cut that was more ambiguous and more loyal to what was originally on the page. That was not a four and-a-half hour cut, by the way, which I’ve also read somewhere. This also wasn’t a longer cut with me in it more. (laughs) It was, I thought, an edgier, more ambiguous film.