Allesandro Nivola has the appellative of a gaucho lover, though he's made a sedate name on screen in period British dramas such as Love's Labours Lost and Mansfield Park. In real life, he's an American and Boston-born, and resides in LA. But he's back portraying another Brit, a rock star named Ian, who gets romantically linked with his several-decades- older American record producer, Jane. She's played by Fargo's Frances McDormand, in the movie, Laurel Canyon, written and directed by High Art's Lisa Cholodenko.
"Laurel Canyon is a real place in LA, an interesting enclave with a history of music people, art people, and I was curious about it," Chologenko said last May, at the Cannes Film Festival. "I started the screenplay right after High Art. At the time, I was enamored of Radiohead and other British pop bands. Alessandro walked in with his guitar, did a couple of songs, and that was it. He said when I cast him, 'God, why am I always playing British guys?'
"I don't think I had a political agenda. I just thought it was interesting: this cute guy who could have anyone is attracted to her, Jane. Will they drift apart? With any couple, there are questions of fidelity. Whether they will stay together, I feel different about it on different days."
"Lisa was always encouraging a true affection with Jane," Nivola said. "Early in the film, Jane talks about us having a real 'connection.' It sounds hilarious. By the end, you see she's speaking the truth. It might not last, but there's something enjoyable for both of them. Lisa wrote a male character who was in no way stereotyped, either as a male or as a rock star. He's not chasing 18-year-old girls, but someone old enough... to be his sister."
Nivola was being diplomatic, not saying "mother" as he was sitting next to McDormand. McDormand, an Oscar nominee for playing a mom in Almost Famous, was unfazed.
"Before I read the script, I turned 45," McDormand said.
"I'm going for longevity. I want to work until my 80s. I feel secure as a woman now. I've got stretch marks, as most women of my age do.
"I thought High Art was an amazing film, and Jane is a great part. Not to be a [reverse] sexist, but I was interested in working with a [younger] woman director.
"I don't necessarily feel that female filmmakers of my generation are totally successful. As a woman, I don't feel that our stories have been complex enough cinematically. I don't want to be in 'chick flicks.'"
Nivola: "I worked before with women directors [Patricia Rozema], but there's a difference when a woman director has written the script. It gives you a head start, and questions have an answer.
"I did I Want You with Michael Winterbotten, which was very erratic and we didn't know what the perameters were. For Laurel Canyon, we were very safe. Filming the most intimate scenes, Lisa was shy about them. As a result, the sexuality is suggested, not overt, and it doesn't settle into a territory of indulgence."
Maybe Laurel Canyon should have been more openly sexual. Consider the subplot, in which Jane's disapproving, conservative son, Sam (Christian Bale) and his repressed fiancee, Alex (Kate Beckinsale) come visiting, the Rocky Horror Picture Show couple before the decadence. Was there ever a scene in which pansexual Kate makes a pass at Alex, who is madly attracted to her? In line with the lesbianism of High Art?
"The earlier drafts were more salacious, perhaps more softcore," Cholodenko admitted. "An advantage of writing drafts of a script is you can pare them back, make them more elliptic and subtle. It did happen in an earlier draft that Sam walked in on everyone naked. Yes, there was a scene in the script, maybe a year-and-a-half ago, of the mother kissing Sam's fiancee."
"Alex really likes his mother," McDormand added, " which is more a betrayal for Sam than actual sexuality."
Was the hippy sexual maneuvering in Laurel Canyon influenced by that 1969 West Coast free-love classic, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice?
"I didn't see it until after I wrote the script," Cholodenko said. "I appreciated it, but it's a little corny after all these years. I don't think I have an attraction to 'soft-corn.' My film is influenced by the cinema of the 70s, Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby, Truffaut and those sorts of people."
Would she direct a film she didn't write?
"Being in a space away from the material might be healthy. Screenwriting is hard, isolating, causing a lifestyle I don't like very much. I don't like hanging around three years by myself. I'm really keen to do someone else's script."
(Boston Phoenix, April, 2003)