Swayze's Dirty Sun-Dancing a Hit
The Sundance Film Festival kicked off its first full day of screenings with the least likely person to star in indie films: Patrick Swayze. The box office champ from hits like Dirty Dancing, Ghost, and Road House, debuted in not one but two indie features today — and acquitted himself well.
Swayze has a largish cameo in a very hip, wildly stylish feature called Donnie Darko, directed by Richard Kelly. In it he plays an inspirational speaker, a little like Tom Cruise's character in Magnolia, whom the audience can tell at once is a hustler. But Swayze is cool and convincing in the role which actually becomes pivotal to the main story.
His other feature, and the one that has important written all over it, is Green Dragon, the first feature by Timothy Bui, written by him and his brother Tony, whose Three Seasons was a hit here a couple of seasons ago. Indeed, Green Dragon — about the lives of Vietnamese in a California detention camp in 1975 — was the strongest, most coherent, and artfully accomplished film I saw here yesterday. It should find no trouble getting a distributor immediately. And then look out next fall. The movie has Oscar written all over it.
In Green Dragon, Swayze — with a regulation Army crewcut — is the staff sergeant in charge of Camp Pendelton, where Vietnamese refugees are flooding in on a daily basis just as Saigon is falling and the war in Indochina is over. The Bui's — sort of the Vietnamese Coen Brothers — use Swayze's character as plot device from which they explore the various lives of the camp's inhabitants. Primary among these is a man (Don Duong) watching over his young niece and nephew. Their mother has been left behind in Saigon and now the children wait for their mother, whom the audience senses will not be making the trip.
At the same time, Minh, the nephew, is befriended by the camp cook, played by Forrest Whittaker, who teaches him about painting and life. In other hands, Green Dragon might be a little too saccharine. But Bui pulls the whole thing off deftly-and Swayze's understated performance is what holds the movie together. Green Dragon is full of wonderful acting, in fact, and among the standouts is Vietnamese actor Duong. His compassionate portrayal of a man torn between two cultures is memorable.
After the screenings, I got a chance to chat with Patrick. I asked him what motivated him to turn his career in this direction. "I have too much energy not to," he told me. "These are projects we went after aggressively. I didn't want to keep doing the same things over and over. I wanted to grow and get as much out of this business as I can."
Swayze came to Sundance from Canada where he and his wife Lisa are busy shooting Without a Word. This is the film first described in this column about a year and half ago in which Patrick and Lisa re-create their early years together as dancers. "We're working with three major choreographers," Patrick said, " and of course my mother, who's also a choreographer. People are not going to believe how great the dancing is in this film."
And what about that rumor from last spring concerning a Dirty Dancing sequel with Ricky Martin? "It's ludicrous," he said. "I turned down so many bad scripts for the sequel, it's hard to believe there's suddenly a good one."
There's always one big screening that gets buzz on day one, and this year was no exception. The object of everyone's interest was most certainly In the Bedroom, a first feature debut by actor Todd Field (you may know him from TV's Once and Again). Tickets were hard to get outside the Park City Library Theatre — and among the people spotted inside were Jacqueline Bisset, who debuts herself tomorrow in a new film, director Field, and co-star William Mapother, Tom Cruise's first cousin and one of the main actors in the film along with Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, and Nick Stahl.
The verdict on In The Bedroom? A little long and in need of some editing, but full of wonderful stuff. If Sundance audiences are looking for this year's You Can Count on Me, they may have found it here. The first hour particularly is jam-packed with plot, characters, and energetic direction. Marisa Tomei co-stars as a 30-ish mother of two who's having an affair with Spacey and Wilkinson's 25 year old son (Stahl). The snag is that her violent ex-husband (Mapother) won't give up.
Mapother has appeared in this column before, since we wrote about him as a minor player in most of Cruise's movies. He also appears in John Travolta's forthcoming Swordfish. But those are all, shall we say, part of Mapother's apprenticeship and you could easily say he got those parts through family connections. In Bedroom, though, he's on his own in fairly large role and he's just great. Tall and thin with blondish streaked hair and a mustache he looks nothing like his cousin so comparisons cannot be made. It's safe to say that with Bedroom, Mapother (which is Tom Cruise's real last name by the way — their fathers are brothers) is on his way with a real career. Nice to see.
It's snowy here and colder than last year but that hasn't deterred various stars from showing up. Christine Lahti is here with her directorial debut, My First Mister, which opened the festival and has nice performances from Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski — both of whom are here. Also present: Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, who was absent last year due to illness but is back in a big way this year with a full acquistions staff. Today also brought out actress Katharine Ross — most famous I guess for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — who doesn't appear too often anymore but has a small part in Donnie Darko. For some reason director Kelly made her abandon her famous raven locks for a blonde gray combo. Who knows why? Perhaps the answer will become clearer as the weekend proceeds.