Saturday, March 17, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #69: Curtain Call

Cast: James Spader (Stevenson Lowe), Polly Walker (Julia), Michael Caine (Max Gale), Maggie Smith (Lily Marlowe), Buck Henry (Charles Van Allsburg), Sam Shepard (Will Dodge), Frank Whaley (Brett Conway), Marcia Gay Harden (Michelle Tippet), Frances Sternhagen (Amy), Peter Maloney (Maurice), Nicky Silver (Lee), Phyllis Somerville (Gladys).

Crew: Peter Yates (director), Andrew Karsch (producer), Todd Alcott (writer), Richard Hartley (music), Sven Nykvist (cinematography), Hughes Winborne (editor), Stuart Wurtzel (production designer).

Synopsis: Stevenson Lowe is a publisher of literary novels in New York. When his family business is acquired by a corporation, Lowe finds himself fighting to retain his integrity. Stevenson’s personal life is also in crisis. He is unable to commit to his long-term girlfriend Julia. Stevenson buys an old brownstone building haunted by the ghosts of a theatrical couple from the 1920s, Max and Lily, who are constantly bickering with each other. Only Stevenson can see the ghosts. Romantic complications ensue with Julia getting involved with a senator and Stevenson dodging the attentions of an old flame. Finally, Stevenson resigns to start his own publishing company and asks Julia to marry him. Max and Lily are reconciled and slowly fade away…


Curtain Call was based on a story by producer Andrew Karsch, whose previous credits include producing the Oscar-nominated Barbra Steisand vehicle Prince of Tides (1991). Actor James Spader was going to make his directing debut with this film, but bad to step aside due to scheduling difficulties with other acting assignments. Experienced helmer Peter Yates was brought in as a replacement two weeks before shooting began. British-born Yates had been Oscar-nominated for Breaking Away (1979) and The Dresser (1985), and also directed the much loved Steve McQueen action picture Bullitt.

Curtain Call began production in February 1997, shooting at locations in New York City and Washington D.C., with a budget of just under $20 million. The picture’s name went through several permutations during filming, including Later Life and Trouble with Stevenson. The picture reunited Caine and Maggie Smith, who had previously appeared together as husband and wife in California Suite (1978). ‘When I saw this script I went nuts,’ Caine told Premiere magazine in 1997. ‘I mean, we’re two old actors and ghosts. We could just do what we liked – camp it p and do it over the top.’

Yates told Premiere the supernatural comedy was not an outright farce: ‘It’s a comedy that doesn’t rely on any reaction from twelve-year-old boys. Nowadays, unfortunately, that passes for sophistication.’ The film disappeared into limbo for more than a year after completing post-production.

In November 1998 Curtain Call was one of six films acquired by the Encore Media Group (EMG) for its Starz pay-TV network in America. EMG’s senior vice president of programming, Bob Leighton, told Variety Starz was buying pictures that had been denied a theatrical release because box office returns might not offset the additional $3 million minimum cost for film prints and advertising. ‘These are not the kinds of movies in favour at the box office right now,’ Leighton said. The pay-TV network paid an average of $750,000 for each film. Variety reported Curtain Call would get its world premiere on Starz in December 1998. Two years later the film was released in full-screen format on VHS and DVD in the US, rated PG-13. Curtain Call has recently been released on DVD in the UK.

Reviews: ‘Curious, slowly paced blend of supernatural whimsy, romantic comedy and relationship drama never really gels.’ – Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide
‘Curtain Call got no theatrical release and didn’t earn one. It features strained performances from good actors working with a weak and tired script.’ – Apollo Movie Guide

Verdict: Curtain Call is a gentle romantic comedy that is guilty of recycling too many ideas from better stories, like Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit. The script is all too predictable, with a subplot about a literary publishing firm having its reputation strip-mined that has little connection with the rest of the film. Caine and Smith give the script more class than it deserves, but they are swimming upstream against a torrent of banalities. Curtain Call offends nobody and excites even less.

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