creek3x.jpg (11717 bytes)"First, I read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' works and the two biographies on her. I called the authors of both of those biographies. Then I met with Gordon Bigelow, the definitive biographer of Marjorie Rawlings who had just published a lovely book of her letters. He was charming to me and very cooperative, and mentioned that Norton was alive. That blew my mind! So I called him up and we chatted! When I went to Florida, I met with him. He was extraordinarily generous and he actually gave me insights into playing him."

"I took some aesthetic liberties with him, but it was from his photographs of parties of the '40s that I got some major ideas about body language and his inner life. No matter how much research you do, you are still answerable to the script. In the final analysis, it didn't matter who Norton Baskin was. What mattered was who he was in the script. He doesn't do anything overly dramatic. He doesn't have the peaks in his performance that Geechee or Marsh Turner or Ellie has. But I made the decision that he was really an artist without a medium. That he had the creativity, perceptions and the sensibilities of an artist, and that his medium was reality, everyday life. He lived life with style and grace, with a sense of harmony, humor and wit. He put everything into his everyday life that Marjorie put onto pieces of paper."

After much reflection, Coyote adds: "And her everyday life was more cranky and obdurate. Unaesthetic, actually. And in that insight, I found a kind of complimentariness that explained them to me as a couple." He asks, "You know how couples often act-out their blindsides in each other? And when you think for a minute about the force of his life. Norton was one of six children born on a Georgia farm. He was like a 'cracker' by birth, yet he ran a sophisticated hotel in Ocala Florida - nothing like the little Island Grove Hotel you saw in the film. This is a man who married one of the famous authors of the day, rubbed shoulders with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins. He went on to act in a Hollywood movie (referring to Baskin's rocking chair cameo in the film as he directs the newly-arriving Steenburgen to the Island Grove Hotel), went out with actors - people literally half his age, and went on to be feted at the Cannes Film Festival. So he really was an extraordinary person and his life was elevated. And you know," Coyote says pensively, "who's to say which was the most successful life?"

Coyote maintains that Norton was an observer in the film, as was Steenburgen's Marjorie. "Norton had the same kind of clear, observational ability that Marjorie has," he claims, "but wasn't driven to be anything other than what he was. And so, I think he represented the positive side of Marjorie, a kind of maturity that knew itself. And that was the way I could, or attempted to, lend gravity to the role." In describing his focus, Coyote notes, "When he walked into the room, I wanted you to feel like this is an interesting person, that this person has something, that there's something going on inside of him that's appealing and attractive."

Coyote recalls his first meeting with director Martin Ritt. "I turned up in his office to read for Marsh Turner, the part Rip Torn played, which I misread! It was very interesting," he laughs." After I read Marsh's role, Martin cocked back in his chair and said, 'very good, young man, only one thing was missing.' I immediately started thinking 'what was missing?' and Martin said 'the danger!'" Snapping his fingers. Coyote admits, "I knew he had me! It was just - spot on. I knew exactly what he meant.'' Trying to salvage the venture, Coyote began, as he puts it, "back peddling," until Ritt suggested that he try for the role of Baskin.

"Working with Martin Ritt was a real pleasure," Coyote reveals. "Most often you run into directors who are technically proficient, but empty. They don't understand story or structure, and they don't understand when an actor has a problem, how to help him or her out of it. I knew all about Martin's reputation as a director. I knew about his films and I also knew something about his background in group theatre." He continues, "It's very liberating to work with a very knowledgable director because you can take risks and go places without worrying whether an inexperienced director will let it through."

"Martin works very intensively with John Alonzo, his cameraman," Coyote states. "John is wonderful because he's the master of the hand-held shot. You very rarely have to deal with the marks." To illustrate Coyote says, "The camera finds you, and you can really concentrate on the other person." Coyote further explains, "Martin tends to squat about 20 inches away, and he watches you as if he were watching somebody doing needlepoint. It's really intense and it's really precise. He's looking for the tiniest flickers of lapsing concentration or anything that he feels is dishonest."

When questioned whether in working with Ritt, he encountered less of a vacuum atmosphere then he would normally encounter in film making, Coyote responds: "It's the nature of film acting to be subjugated to the director. You never transcend that no matter how much you like the director. You never transcend the limitations of having to act in minute and a half chunks. But it does make a difference," he adds, "knowing who's watching. When you're performing for Martin, you feel like you're performing for a really knowledgable audience." With a laugh, Coyote muses, "He's almost enough!"


[These excerpts are from the January 1984 issue of Films in Review]


[ The Peter Coyote Official Web Site ]