by Kathleen McInnis
"Eternity for me began one fall day in Paris..." So speaks Peter Coyote's latest character, Oscar, in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon. His distinctive voice slides into a crooning, rolling narrative designed to unlock his tale of cruelty, folly and passion; emotional greediness. Coyote's Oscar is a wheel-chaired expatriate, failed novelist and dedicated storyteller on a Mediterranean cruise with his voluptuous wife, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner). He entraps the very proper Nigel (Hugh Grant) with nightly tales of his and Mimi's sex life, while Mimi herself is unleashed at both Nigel and his wife Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas). The tale transcends any acceptable comfort zone as Oscar's story of sexual greed crashes all barriers and rolls into a quest for redemption from human greed.
"I want to remind people it's very, very funny," cautions Coyote at the start of this interview. "In every theater that I've opened it in, I've reminded people that they are in the hands of a master and whatever they feel, they are supposed to feel; there is so much wicked black humor in this film. Once you realize that Oscar is a bad writer and when he talks that talk - it's terrible! But you've got permission to laugh. I don't think the film is as sexually graphic as it is cruelly graphic. What's shocking about the film is its cruelty, not its sexuality."
Coyote's Oscar is incredible, has debasement of Mimi so complete - "don't we love Oscar" growls Coyote wryly over the phone - at times it's a struggle to see the redemption.
"What the story is, from my point of view," continues Coyote, "is the story of two people without limits. And it's a cautionary tale. Because if you think about the trouble we're in during the end of the twentieth century, we're in trouble because we don't have limits. We don't set limits for ourselves; we don't set limits about how much of the natural world we're going to use; we don't set limits about how much we'll promote ourselves or what we'll do to win. So it's (Bitter Moon) kind of operatic, and it's kind of exaggerated, and yet it touches everybody. Every love affair goes through these kinds of phases. There's a lack of pity about Oscar, a kind of ruthlessness in that he's made up his mind he's going to die and that gives him a fearlessness that I loved."
Released in Europe last year, Bitter Moon has already garnered some success for Coyote. Known for his independent films which fall into cult status (A Man in Love, Heartbreakers), Coyote may find Bitter Moon added to the list.
"I can't get a meeting (in America) for the second roles... I think I must be blacklisted for some political thing I did."
"It could achieve a kind of cult status. That would be great for me; but I no longer have any expectations to do anything," muses Coyote. "People tell me all the time they love my work, or I'm their favorite actor. But you're talking to a guy who hasn't done a feature film in the United States in seven years. Who just left his agent because I've only had four meetings in four years. And yet I'm a guy who the best directors in the world - I mean I think it's fair to call Polanski and Almodovar the best - call up and ask to do the lead in their movies. When I'm paranoid, I think 'well, I must be blacklisted for some political thing I did,' who knows. Because I couldn't get meetings for third roles. I'm so used to the cold bath. I'm not vain about it at all. I don't expect to be up for Harrison Ford's parts. I don't expect to be in competition with those guys. I've given that up. What shocks me is that I can't get meetings on the small, high I.Q., quirky Hollywood movies that are getting made. I can't get meetings for the second role."
So why can't this guy get a job in America? Why does this "viable movie star in Europe" cross the Atlantic and become one of the career homeless?
"A funny thing happened to me once in Seattle. I was in this movie called Heartbreakers, and the producer, who shall remain nameless, just sort of dumped it. It made fourteen critics' top ten lists in the year it came out, but it wasn't playing at any theaters. So we took it to Seattle and we opened it at the Egyptian. We did our own publicity, and it ran for 14 weeks, tied with Back To The Future week for week. So on the basis of this, we were going to engineer a sale to another distributor. When the first distributor heard about it, they dumped it to television for twenty thousand dollars. It was a total insult; they didn't want someone to run off and make something of their film.
So I got drunk, and I went to lunch with some interviewer in Seattle and gave a long spiel about larval scum bags in gold chains. A guy who owned a competitive theater (to the Egyptian) Xeroxed it and sent copies to everybody in L.A.. What amazed me was I got about fifteen calls - everybody thought I was talking about them. People were falling all over themselves to be the larval scum bag in gold chains. So this might have something to do with 'why can't this man be hired?'"
His remarkable voice is heard in voice-overs and narrations for documentaries in an effort, Coyote remarks, "to pay the bills and avoid doing bad movies." It's the same voice that lulls the audience and shocks Hugh Grant so effectively in Bitter Moon.
"Roman and I watched Laura over and over again trying to get this fabulous ironic tone that Clifton Webb had in it," Coyote confides. "Ah, Laura," he slips into his Webb voice, 'I'll never forget the first time I saw Laura...' it's just dripping with irony and subtitles. We worked very hard on that."
"Roman was a ceaseless inspiration," Coyote reveals as we continue to talk about the directing styles he enjoys working with. "I was frightened all the time I was with him that I was not going to be up to his level of acuteness and excellence.
And, of course, it doesn't help. We were watching the Tour de France at his house, and he said, 'Peter, look at the winners here. It is five men separated by one, two-one hundredths of a second. And the winner is one-one hundredth of a second faster than all the others. What is this quality of dedication, of perseverance, of training that allows this man to be one-one hundredth of a second better than everyone else? This is what I want from you.' That's where Roman starts."
"And he is so funny. The toaster scene was my idea. I just threw it out as a gag during filming, and we stopped, took the morning, re-wired the toaster and made it happen. He's like that, he's like a big kid."
"The problem with Hollywood is that people want to be hot, and they've forgotten about making something excellent."
A writer before he was an actor, Coyote continues to pursue his literary projects. But don't expect him to speak kindly about anyone who is in a position to alter his artistic vision.
"When the Oscars happened last year, all these little companies got started and said, 'we want to do new things. We want to do impeccably crafted, character-driven scripts.' So I wrote a script last year that's impeccably crafted and character-driven. I could have done it at ICM with a big star, but I didn't want to do my directorial debut where a big star brought the money in, because it wouldn't be my film. And I already have two really good actors for it - Michael Madsen and Elizabeth McGovern.
So I went around the theater circuit meeting all these young kids, twenty-eight-year-olds, running the production companies. It's not an expensive film. And they were all exactly the same. They wanted Kathleen Turner, or they wanted Jessica Lange, or they wanted this one or that one. Finally I blew up at one of these kids and I said, 'If I had Jessica Lange, why would I be talking to you for four million dollars? Get f---ing real, are you that scintillating?'"
"So, basically, the problem with Hollywood is that people want to be hot, and they've forgotten about making something excellent. I've got no problem with people who want to be rich and famous. The difference is that in Europe, people want to be rich and famous by doing something well.
In America, they want to cut to the chase and just get rich and famous, and anything which will produce that is okay. You don't get people over here anymore wanting to make a four-million-dollar film to get five million. You only get people wanting to make fifty million."
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