LAUREL CANYON written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, produced by Susan A. Stover and Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, with Frances McDormand, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Natascha McElhone and Alessandro Nivola. 103 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (April 4). Rating: NNN
Start with the cleft in Frances McDormand's chin. It's not starlet. It's the navel that leads inward to the obvious secret of her face: it belongs, at least in part, to a man.McDormand projects androgyny onscreen, and, like the feminine beauty that haunts Tom Cruise, it's one of the keys to her success.
In Laurel Canyon, she plays Jane, a veteran rock producer who's steered Bowie, Springsteen and Joni Mitchell through the studio on a combination of strong weed and big balls. The film has her trying to wrap work with a British band as she navigates the currents playing out among the band's frontman (Alessandro Nivola), her uptight son (Christian Bale) and her son's grad-student girlfriend (Kate Beckinsale).
In fact, there are no such veteran women producers in rock. Jane, admits writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, is "a total fiction."
At a raucous set of interviews during the Toronto International Film Festival, Cholodenko explains why McDormand, with her reckless chin and clear-eyed wisdom, had to play Jane.
"Well, because, look!" she says, craning around to find her star. "How perfect is she?
"Not only did she look like the character I wrote, but her essence, her persona, was so similar."
When McDormand approaches a little later, we get the picture. Taut and outspoken in a fitted black shirt, she's clearly the top in the room.
"I wanted to project a real sense of security in her sexuality," she recalls. "It didn't end up feeling like female gestures for me. It was much more classically male, because that's what I'm attracted to. I'm attracted to male gestures and sexuality. Hanging out with Alessandro and the guys in the band, I just found it really natural to be a part of their physical lexicon, their gestural lexicon. It made me feel really sexy, really macho and swaggery."
So macho that she flashed her breasts. It's a hilarious little moment in the film that McDormand says she cooked up with the band.
"We got together and I said, "Look, if we make this work it'll end up in the movie.' So we worked out this little fight thing, and I just flashed them, basically to get a reaction from Russell Pollard, who's playing the drummer. It worked every time, so we kept it!"
What sets McDormand apart, in Laurel Canyon or in the films she's made with her partner, Joel Coen, is that she's alive in every scene. She's watching, listening and responding. You don't get baroque line readings from Frances McDormand, which is what often passes for impressive film acting. Instead, you get behaviour, and intelligence. Not just in her eyes, but in her whole being.
While making movies, she says, "I've never been someone who needs a lot of takes or enjoys a lot of takes. I like the fast thing of it," she says, snapping her fingers. "I love flying by the seat of my pants, going at something instinctually."
In Laurel Canyon, Jane's freewheeling appetite for sex culminates in a knife's-edge threesome. Not especially shocking, says McDormand.
"A major thing for me in the film is a definition of betrayal, how you define betrayal. When I talk to a young friend who's been in a relationship for three years, I realize the difference between that and 20 years.
"I've been in one for 20, and sexual betrayal is not necessarily the ultimate betrayal in a relationship. Unkindness, being unkind, can be the worst betrayal. And it's defined by each relationship.
"You can't make a rule about it," she says, in what sounds like hard-won wisdom. "The minute you make a rule, it's like putting your wedding pictures in In Style magazine -- you're divorced."
LAUREL CANYON (Lisa Cholodenko) Rating: NNN
Frances McDormand (Fargo) stars as a kick-ass rock producer and reckless mom. Her uptight son (Christian Bale) comes home to L.A. just as she's struggling to finish her latest record with a hot British band, and he brings along his distractingly hot girlfriend (Kate Beckinsale). What's a mother to do? Laurel Canyon too often has the familiar arc of life-lesson drama, but two things set it apart -- Cholodenko's warmth for her tribe of artist layabouts and McDormand's performance, which is detailed and balls-out at the same time.