Oscar voters should note 'Notes'

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"Notes" notes: With Golden Globe nominations already in hand for Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, "Notes on a Scandal" is a likely candidate for Oscar attention.

However, "Notes" doesn't open until Wednesday, making it one of the year's latest-arriving awards contenders. It's already doing well with critics, scoring an encouraging 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com based on the 14 reviews that have been counted at this early point.

Not surprisingly, Globes voters honored Dench with a best actress-drama nod, Blanchett with a best supporting actress nomination and Marber for best screenplay. "Scandal" could surface in the corresponding Oscar races as well as in the best original score category given the strongly favorable early buzz for its composer Philip Glass ("The Hours").

Good film that it is, "Notes" needs to be found by Academy members before they mark their ballots. The problem is that a great many of those voters will already be out of town on vacation in places like Aspen and Maui when it starts playing. Of course, DVD screeners of the movie have already been sent out and there have been screenings for Academy members, but with the year-end crunch of films to see, holiday partying and vacation packing to do it's so easy for any small movie to fall between the cracks.

Directed by Richard Eyre ("Iris," Stage Beauty"), its screenplay by Patrick Marber ("Closer") is based on the book by Zoe Heller. "Notes" was produced by Scott Rudin and Robert Fox and executive produced by Redmond Morris. The Fox Searchlight Pictures and DNA Films presentation in association with the UK Film Council and BBC Films is a Scott Rudin/Robert Fox Production.

Starring are Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy and Andrew Simpson.

Having greatly enjoyed "Notes," I was happy to be able to talk about it recently with Richard Eyre. "It came to me via Scott Rudin, who had bought the rights when the novel was first released," he told me. "I had read the novel when it was first published. Scott called me up and (asked) had I read the novel and (told me) he'd bought it and would love me to direct it and Patrick to write the screenplay and Judi to act in it. I guess then another two years passed."

Reflecting on how hard it is to get any movie made, Eyre observed, "These things are miraculous that they happen at all. I really do think that because it's just so difficult to get all the elements together at the same time."

In the case of "Notes," Dench was the first to be cast. She'd worked with Eyre before in "Iris," for which she was a best actress Oscar and Golden Globe nominee in 2002. "And, also, I'd known her for, oh, 30 or 35 years," Eyre added. "It's not a glamorous role (in 'Notes'). I think she loved the novel and she saw an opportunity for a character that had a lot of meat. Judi has always liked to do things which are slightly out of left field. She's always liked the challenge of a path that people might think, 'Well, I'm not sure she's absolutely right for this.' She's always taken the opportunity to play things she's that she's offered that seem difficult and awkward. And the idea of playing this unsympathetic character, this mean spirited woman, I think was really attractive."

Dench really appears to be the only actress who could possibly have played Barbara Covett, the London-set film's acerbic lonely school teacher desperately seeking a relationship with her school's attractive new art teacher Sheba Hart, played by Cate Blanchett. "There's something about her luminous quality," Eyre said of Blanchett, whose character becomes involved with one of her students (played by Andrew Simpson). "She has a kind of grace about her. I think what was unusual for Cate was playing someone who is so absolutely open-faced and innocent because Cate is extremely smart and extremely intelligent and generally plays very, very powerful intelligent women. And here was somebody who essentially was not as intelligent as her and had a sort of innocence about her. So I think that was the challenge for her."

Asked about Marber's screenplay, Eyre explained, "The huge challenge with the screenplay was that the novel is told in the first person. It's exclusively a first person narrative and it's an unreliable narration. It gradually dawns on you that everything you're being told is filtered through the subjective voice of Barbara and is totally unreliable and (you must) extrapolate the real story, as it were, between the lines of the novel. In a movie you can't tell a first person story so what Patrick had to do was to find a way of telling the story that (leaned) towards Barbara's account but actually was an objective narrative. It's quite a challenge."

As for the directing challenges Eyre faced, he pointed out, "Apart from the fact that quite a lot of the scenes are quite difficult scenes to play, (it was a matter of) how did one make the characters sympathetic although most of what they're doing is inherently alienating? I didn't make any judgments about the characters and I think it's important not to make moral judgments about the characters. Had I done so, I think I would have alienated the audience."

Rehearsing with his actors is a key thing for Eyre: "I like to rehearse. The rehearsal would be a kind of sitting around the table rehearsal not a standing up rehearsal (blocking out scenes). Before we started shooting there was about two weeks rehearsal, which was sitting around the table just discussing scene after scene with Patrick present. Of course, in those sort of meetings we would flesh out the backstory of both characters so that you just do a lot of talking about how the characters think. This to me is the most important kind of rehearsal."

It's particularly interesting casting to have Bill Nighy, who's done lots of comedy over the years ("Love Actually," "Curse of the Pink Panther"), playing the very decent husband to Blanchett's unfaithful wife-mother character. "I think he's very, very original," Eyre said. "Casting Bill was much discussed and it seemed to us that it was an absolutely key decision as to how we cast that part given that the character was much older than Cate's character. If we cast somebody unsympathetic or less sympathetic then we would have been saying, 'Oh, she's a victim of an unhappy marriage. She's escaping the unhappy marriage.'

"But what we wanted to say was actually much more complicated than that. This is on the face of it a perfectly happy marriage. This is a guy who may be a bit self-interested, but he's committed to (his marriage). He looks after the family. He's not unkind to her. There's a sort of generosity about him. So the question of why she does it -- why she has the affair with the boy -- becomes much more of a question of, 'Is it a kind of existential act trying to affirm an existence that otherwise feels unacknowledged?'"

Was it a tough film to shoot? "It was quite difficult," Eyre replied. "Maybe this is true of any film, but there were no easy scenes. I would say the confrontation between the two women at the end was a killer. That was a really, really hard scene. It's a hard scene to pull off because it's the two women absolutely and on the edge of hysteria. And so (it was challenging) to try and keep it truthful and at the same time to generate that degree of intensity -- there are probably something like 20 setups in the scene to sustain that -- plus the choreography of the scene needed a sort of feeling of wild spontaneity. The illusion of spontaneity is the hardest thing to create."

Another important character in "Notes" is the film's memorable score by Glass, an Oscar and Globe nominee for "The Hours" in 2003, a Globe co-winner for "The Truman Show" in 1999 and an Oscar nominee for "Kundun" in 1998. "What we wanted was a score which in some way helped to reinforce the subjectivity of the narrative," Eyre explained, "what we were talking about earlier about the method of the novel being to take a wholly subjective account of events through Barbara's voice. The score tends to reinforce Barbara's point of view. It's very much the inner voice of Barbara. I think it helps both to give a tremendous impulsion to the film and to, as it were, vocalize her inner thoughts."

Glass became involved in the project, Eyre added, "fairly late, about half-way through cutting the film. He had about three months (to do the score). His dummy score was really quite sophisticated. Nowadays, the samples are so good it's really possible to get a very, very sophisticated temporary score."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 14, 1988's column: "Over the years, whenever the phone rings and there's talk of one or another studio chief departing, it has invariably come to pass. And so it was with last Friday's call about Alan Ladd Jr. and MGM.

"In all honesty, most of the time those who follow this industry don't shed tears over exiting executives. For the most part, they have themselves and not their stars -- the celestial ones, not the Hollywood brand -- to blame for their downfall. In the case of Ladd, however, I feel quite differently as, I believe, do many other industry observers.

"Typically, departing studio chiefs have failed to accomplish the goals set by their bosses, the financiers or corporations that own the studios. We've seen studio heads topple because too many bad movies were made or because not enough movies -- whether good or bad -- were put into development.

"None of those conditions appears to apply in Ladd's case. He seems to have been sandbagged in a hopeless situation stemming from the financial problems plaguing MGM/UA principal shareholder Kirk Kerkorian. Without going into a long, dull and probably incomplete analysis of how much money Kerkorian owes and how he came to be saddled with such studio debts, let's just say that apparently from Kerkorian's point of view it would be nice to sell some or all of MGM, UA or MGM/UA and thereby reduce his debt load. We can't hate the guy for that.

"On the other hand, one can only shake one's head in bewilderment on realizing that under Ladd MGM was at long last making its way back into the major leagues. The first sign that Ladd was on the turnaround track came two summers ago with Mel Brooks' 'Star Wars' satire 'Spaceballs...' The real turnaround came last Christmas, of course, with Norman Jewison's 'Moonstruck.' I recall seeing the film at a screening in early December and assuring Ladd and Jewison afterwards at a reception at Chasen's that they had a big hit on their hands. Clearly, this was a marvelous picture ...

"What Ladd brought to MGM was taste, something that's always been in short supply in Hollywood ... Ladd would have given Kerkorian a moneymaking MGM. Such things don't happen overnight, but the turnaround was already well under way."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel updatehollywood.com
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