The Comedy of Wiest & Birkin

Two merry divas, Toback goes screwball, Campbell’s million-dollar soup

The film “Merci Docteur Rey” is a wacky Parisian mélange, with Dianne Wiest playing, in her best “Don’t speak!” manner, the opera diva mother of a gay son, obsessively looking for love on the Internet, and Jane Birkin as a madcap actress who does French voice-overs for Vanessa Redgrave movies. Rookie director Andrew Litvack, a protégé of the filmmaking team of Merchant and Ivory, also wrote this cinematic fiesta which for me wasn’t half as much fun as meeting these actresses, together no less!

Two-time Oscar-winner Wiest is anything but the lofty diva in life, with eyes brimming with fun and an infectiously explosive laugh. She saw her role as “sort of a madcap Callas, but because it’s such a farcical film I didn’t really study the great divas. I sort of made it up as I went along, but I did watch Callas. I got an envelope in the mail with this script that said Merchant Ivory and thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to be in one of those beautiful costume pieces in the South of France and wear long dresses and corsets and speak with an accent. And it was ‘Docteur Rey’!”

Birkin’s brilliantly unfettered mind proved the cause of much of Wiest’s adoring laughter. I can’t make up my mind whether I want to have Birkin’s life or just be a member of her celebrated family. Utterly ageless, she had that coveted, costly Hermès Birkin bag named after her. Famously attached to brilliant songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, she has had a thriving career as both actress and singer, while being the mother of two It Girls, actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Lou Doillon.

A dream interview, you just have to turn on the tape and let her breathlessly rip, like Carole Lombard in “My Man Godfrey”: “I was sitting at the bar at the end of my street in Paris, borrowing a can opener to open food for my bulldog and there was a voice behind me, saying ‘Hi, it’s Jim [Ivory]. To my amazement, he was staying on the same street and no longer did he seem austere the way he did years ago when I went up for another film. Now he was as merry as anything and said, ‘Would you mind looking the way you do in this film? And your dog can be in it.’ I said that would be wonderful because if she were in the film, she would never die. She did it beautifully, jumping out of a car many times. I didn’t do my bit quite so well because I was supposed to play the piano, and my fingers didn’t match the music. Andy Litvack wrote this part in for me, which was nice because it had been so long since I had done comedy. I started out in comedy in France, falling off trains, being caught in sardine nets, mustard going up my nose in family films. I was rather missing those roles. It was fine being Andromache, but there weren’t many laughs. I thought I’d rather take a comedy film with Billy Wilder or Woody Allen. Ingmar Bergman I love and admire, but would ‘The Silence’ be the one you’d like to eat a banana with? Not necessarily. My daughters said, ‘What a pity you’re never funny in movies whereas in everyday life you are. But they only take the tragic side of you nowadays.’ Getting older, you have to bring out the old handkerchief quite a lot and as I cry quite easily it’s been a rather easy part to play and highly commendable because you get sent up for prizes and things if you cry well.”

Wiest concurred: “It’s been the same for me. I guess because of Woody [Allen], but I used to do more comedy and now all I get offered are the tearjerkers. But with this, I’m like a duck to water; it’s just delicious.”

When I told Wiest how much I enjoyed her performance in “In the Summer House,” my favorite play, by Jane Bowles (Lincoln Center revival, 1993), she cried, “Oh my God, you saw that? Thank you! Hardly anybody came. Jane, he was one of the three people who came! It was heaven. I got so into their lives, Paul and Jane Bowles. I read everything I could about her, just a stunning writer. And Frannie Conroy was so brilliant in it. Jane, for sure, I want you to see ‘Six Feet Under’! She’s the star of it. I’m gonna buy Jane the DVD because it’s not out in France.”

I asked Wiest and Birkin what they made of the Internet, and Wiest said, “I just learned how to do it from my daughters and now I am getting obsessed with my e-mail. As I’m not great on the phone, it’s a wonderful way to communicate with people.” Birkin added, “At first, I didn’t know what it meant. I thought that ‘e-mail’ was ‘he-male,’ and don’t men get all the luck? As if it’s not enough, they get this named after them, as well!”

At the opening of James Toback’s “When Will I Be Loved,” star Frederick Weller told me that the Broadway backers had just bailed out of the Edward Albee two-hander, “Zoo Story,” and the newly written prequel to it, “Peter and Jerry,” tried out in Hartford last June. “They got scared,” he said, “because it was opening around election time. What a shame, as I loved playing Jerry, a brilliant role.” He added that film co-star Neve Campbell also had her backers retreating from the play she was supposed to do, Allan Knee’s “Syncopation,” a dance-driven romance with Michael Hayden.

Toback wrote and directed “When Will I Be Loved,” an absorbing film, which would have you believe that Campbell could command a million dollars from a lustful tycoon (Dominic Chianese) for a single tryst. (Remember Barbra Streisand playing a high-priced hooker in “Nuts”?) Toback liked my analogy of his film to classic screwball comedies, with Campbell a modern-day Ginger Rogers or Jean Arthur: “I really wanted to evoke the spirit of Howard Hawks and George Cukor. And thank God, I had three actors with the talent to really carry off this style.”

Harvey Keitel, who made “Fingers” with Toback in 1978, popped up to congratulate him. I hadn’t seen him since one wild night years ago, at pioneering gay disco, 12 West, of all places. I remembered how we discussed studying acting with Stella Adler, and him telling me that I needed both her technique and Lee Strasberg’s. I chose not to remind him of how he graciously shared a certain contraband with me that evening, which epitomized the different time and style of partying, which once existed in this formerly more fun town. Less loquacious now, when asked what was coming up for him, he said, “Movies, more movies.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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