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October 04, 1999 - Image 11

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1999-10-04

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The Michigan Daily - Monday, October 4, 1999 - 11A
Hollyood discovers writer after twin successes

'Pe Los Angeles Times
Standing on the flagstone terrace
behind his home in the Hollywood
Hills, writer Alan Ball looks over at his
pool-spa and says with a sigh: "In
ne ways, I've turned into a hideous
Hollywood cliche."
A lot of people in his position would
become just that. He has two freshman
projects - the film "American
Beauty" and the ABC comedy "Oh
Grow Up" - which debuted at the
same time, and both are generating
tremendous buzz, propelling him from
obscurity to Hollywood It Boy.
The sheepish, almost apologetic
e in Ball's voice provides a sense of
true nature, however. He's a small-
town Southern boy who has somehow
stumbled into the Dream Factory and
remains dazed by it all.
"I feel like I have such an embar-
rassment of riches right now," he says.
At first glance, Ball's back-to-back
arrivals seem about as different as can
be. "Oh Grow Up" is a buddy comedy
Ball created about a trio of thirtysome-
4g male roommates, while
erican Beauty" is a startling mix-
ture of dark comedy, stark drama and
free-floating fantasy about suburban
families unable to achieve that myth
known as the American Dream.
At least one quality spills over, how-
ever: a profound sense of human inter-
connectedness.
The guys in "Oh Grow Up" are
always watching out for one another
and, although the lost souls in
nerican Beauty" are too preoccu-
pied with their own problems to be of
much help to anyone else, they do
mnanage, now and again, to connect
just long enongh to experience a flash
of clarity, a moment of beauty.
Trying to explain where such ideas
come from, the 42-year-old Ball says
that writing is "a sort of spiritual disci-
pjine, almost meditative. You can get
r oa certain psychological state
re you're not forcing things to hap-

pen, and what comes out of you, or
your subconscious, can be very infor-
mative about what you really believe."
Even before "American Beauty"
opened in limited release Sept. 15,
word had spread that its writing,
directing (by Sam Mendes, the British
theater director behind such sensa-
tions as the re-imagined "Cabaret")
and acting (a cast led by Kevin Spacey
and Annette Bening) had galvanized
into something rare. By the end of its
opening weekend, it had grossed more
than $1 million, playing in just 16 the-
aters.
Word about "Oh Grow Up," mean-
while, has been mixed.
A self-described "terrible student"
who didn't complete his college theater
degree, Ball learned how to write by
simply doing it. He finally caught
Hollywood's attention with his charac-
ter comedy "Five Women Wearing the
Same Dress." He moved to Los
Angeles in 1994 to work with produc-
ers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey,
writing for their sitcom "Grace Under
Fire" and later rising to co-executive
producer on "Cybill."
The premise for "Oh Grow Up"
comes from his New York theater years
in the late '80s and early '90s, when he
shared an oldBrooklyn brownstone
with three other guys and a dog named
Mom.
Life there meant congregating on
the roof to drink tequila and discuss
such wacky things as the most humane
way to dispatch a mouse caught in a
glue trap.
"There were many nights like this -
these goofball guys involved in this
really serious, philosophical debate
about something really weird," he says.
"A lot of laughing went on in that
house."
Though he has trimmed the number
of roommates to three, he has kept
Mom (whose barks are subtitled), as
well as the Brooklyn brownstone set-
ting and much of the original house-

I

ii

a father. ... I definitely have father
issues.
His own dad "was not a bad father"
he hastens to add about his childhood
in Atlanta-area Marietta, Ga., as the
youngest of four children of a quality-
control engineer for Lockheed and a
stay-at home mom. "But he was a
deeply, deeply unhappy man, and he
was very distant."
"American Beauty" - inspired, in
part, by the Amy Fisher-Joey
Buttafuoco case - is not intended as a
grand pronouncement about the state
of the American family, Ball says. His
intent is simply to tell a story about
"people looking for love and accep-
tance, like everybody else."
The story focuses on next-door
households headed by an unfulfilled
trade-magazine writer who is growing
ever more estranged from his appear-
ance-conscious real estate agent wife
(Spacey and Bening) and by a brood-
ing, recently retired Marine Corps
colonel and his browbeaten spouse
(Chris Cooper and Allison Janney).
The teen-age children in each home
(Thora Birch and Wes Bentley, respec-
tively) are borderline misfits, out of
sync not only with their parents but
also with most of their peers.
Each of these characters is unhappy
because life hasn't turned out quite as
planned. It's a frustration shared by
many, Ball senses, in an America that
believes that beauty and happiness are
the airbrushed versions in advertise-
ments, magazine photo spreads and
much of the entertainment media.
"The life that we are encouragedto
aspire to is, for the most part, moanU-
factured," he observes. "And I think
there is something deeply, deeply
wrong with that."
"Real beauty is not manufactured,"
he adds. "Beauty and truth are inextri-
cably connected, and when a moment
of truth happens - when you see what
is really there (in a person) - that is a
moment of beauty."

Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times
Alan Ball relaxes on the set of his new TV show "Oh Grow Up."C

hold's spirit.
Two of the roommates - Hunter
(played by Stephen Dunham), a ladies'
man who runs a construction company,
and Norris (David Alan Basche), a
high-strung but nurturing sort who's
struggling to establish himself as an
artist - have lived together for so long
that they behave like an old married
couple. They've taken under their wing
their former college roommate, Ford
(John Ducey), a lawyer who has just
separated from his wife because he
realizes he's gay.
"They are a family," Ball says, "and
they're going to be there for each
other"
In the real Brooklyn household,

Ball's being the only gay guy was
never an issue, something else he
duplicates in the series.
"I didn't put the gay character in
there because I wanted to have this guy
on a soapbox," he adds.
"I put the gay character in there
because that was one of the realities of
the situation in the house I lived in in
Brooklyn. Also, from a purely practi-
cal storytelling point, if you have one
of the characters gay and the other two
straight, it's going to give you more
interesting areas to go than if they're
all three straight."
Central story lines include Ford's
determination to remain close to his
wife (Rena Sofer) -- trying, in Ball's

words, "to redefine their love for each
other"- and Hunter's crash course in
fatherhood when the 18-year-old
daughter he didn't know he had
(Niesha Trout), born ofa long-ago love
affair, shows up at the door.
Ball has come up with detailed
backgrounds for each of his charac-
ters, which he is only too happy to
share - at length.
"He falls in love with his charac-
ters," series co-star Ducey explains
later. "He falls in love with the work
that he creates."
Though he hesitates to compare "Oh
Grow Up" to "American Beauty," Ball
does volunteer: "Both have questions
about fatherhood, what it means to be

Remake gives 'Animal Farm' hopeful spin

&"W-

The Los Angeles Times

It takes longer to watch Sunday's
m stly admirable two-hour "Animal
1n" than to read George Orwell's
deceptively slender novel on which it
is based.
And what a novel. Traveling across
decades with timeless relevance is
Orwell's anti-totalitarianism theme
that remains as valid today as when
"Animal Farm" was first published
in 1945 as a not-too-veiled satire of
Stalinism and the miseries it
i osed.
bsef Stalin is long gone, as are the
Kremlin of old, the Berlin Wall and
other vestiges of the Cold War. Yet
authoritarian peril still looms global-
ly along with insidious mind-shaping
through manipulation of words,
which Orwell warned about in
"Aninal Farm" and later in "1984."
-This is not Dr. Doolittle speaking
animalese.
In most of its basics, the "Animal
S " that TNT presents - by merg-
i computer graphics, humans and
animals and Jim Henson animatronic

doubles with human voices - is the
one Orwell began writing before the
end of World War II. It offers thought
controland disinformation, purges
and show trials, with "crimes against
animalism" code for crimes against
the state. And unlike recent feature
films "Babe" and its darker sequel,
"Babe: Pig in the City," TNT joins
Orwell in deploying anti-animal bru-
tality and exploitation primarily as a
means to another message, even
though an aging horse being sent to
the glue factory becomes as tragic as
any scene in literature.
In the story, abused animals that
speak like humans capture Manor
Farm from its drunken, incompetent
and cruel owner, rename it Animal
Farm and establish it as a model
community where four-legged crea-
tures and birds all exist equally.
Two boars, Snowball (the voice of
Kelsey Grammer) and Napoleon
(Patrick Stewart), vie for leadership
of this revolution. A counterattack by
the deposed Farmer Jones (Pete
Postlethwaite) and neighboring
humans is beaten back. Napoleon
runs off the idealistic Snowball and
declares him a traitor, then allies
with the human enemy to consolidate
his personal dictatorship over the
farm, whose downtrodden inhabi-
tants learn that "some animals are
more equal than others."
Among the unequal is Boxer (Paul
Scofield), a noble, but gullible and
obedient cart horse who is trucked
off to slaughter when no longer able
to work.
Ultimately, Napoleon, his propa-
gandist Squealer (Ian Holm) and the
other ruling pigs revert to Manor
Farm and become indistinguishable
from their human neighbors.
In other words, Orwell's big finish,
his shrill warning whistle - which
he blew at once wittily and chillingly
by having Napoleon and his pig pals
ultimately walk on their hind legs -
was that if unchecked, wickedness
triumphs.
With that in mind, Orwell in his
book has Benjamin the donkey offer
this grim barnyard epitaph: "Life
would go on as it had always gone on
_ that is, badly."
Which proves how naive even a
donkey that talks can be. What
Benjamin had not foreseen was the
upbeat rewrite.
The first came in a 1955 British
film animation of "Animal Farm"

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The collie Jessie (Julia Ormond), narrates the TV version of "Animal Farm" in a departure from the book.

that U-turned the ending by having
the victimized animals retake the
farm from the despotic pigs and live
happily ever after.
Another comes in Sunday's TNT
version, whose teleplay by Alan
Janes and Martyn Burke applies its
own rosy beam to Orwell's bleak out-
look. "Hopeful" is what this new
ending is called by "Animal Farm"
director John Stephenson, who man-
ages Jim Henson's Creature Shop in
London.
Perhaps Orwell would have
approved. Perhaps not, given the
sour, pessimistic mind-set of his sub-
sequent futuristic novel, "1984,"
which he never claimed was the
future, only that it could be.
In any case, it's presumptuous for
filmmakers to read his mind posthu-
mously by capping his "Animal
Farm" with their own totalitarianism
of words, however well-intentioned.
The script's less-significant
changes largely work fine. That
includes having the collie, Jessie
(Julia Ormond), serve as narrator;
having Napoleon use television to
pacify his farm subjects; and having
humans electronically bug the farm
to spy on the animals.
Inexplicably, though, Janes and
Burke have added a sex scene early
in the story, which may seem trivial
given that "Animal Farm" is no kids
tale to begin with, and that some of
its scenes are too gruesome for most

young eyes.
Yet what if you should want to
watch it with your 10-year-old, say,
as a point of discussion about tyran-
ny vs. democracy.
Suddenly, the sex scene! It's fleet-
ing. It's no big deal. But there they
are - Jones and the wife of another
farmer - going at it under the cov-
ers.
And for goodness' sake why? The
snippet of action supplies absolutely
nothing but a possible deterrent to
parents wanting to watch with their
kids.
Orwell's vision is not entirely
20/20 in "Animal Farm." Just as
Napoleon is meant to be Stalin, the
virtuous Snowball is surely a stand-
in for Leon Trotsky, Stalin's great
rival in the early days of the Soviet
Union. Yet Trotsky was no Snowball.
He, too, was a ruthless Communist,
and his regime might have been no
less brutal had he prevailed instead
of Stalin.
Otherwise, Orwell is a highly lucid
observer whose farm metaphor is
acutely on the mark. Although TNT's
production marches to the same
music as his profound wisp of a
novel, its rhythms are different, and
the pen proves mightier here than the
camera..
That includes the author's conclu-
sion, for some stories are not meant
to have happy endings.

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Uoturiesor 1 i
Boxer (Paul Scofield), the cart horse,
loses the battle for equality.

I

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