A key to Steven Spielberg’s special gift for filmmaking is his casting acumen. According to Dee Wallace, Spielberg cast her in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial “because I was very childlike. And I ended up as practically the only adult in the story.”
Wallace, who was 32 at the time the film was released, nonetheless came off as an unusually young and vulnerable single parent to Robert MacNaughton, Henry Thomas and, of course, that enfant terrible Drew Barrymore. “We didn’t necessarily know it was going to be so huge. For Steven, it was his ‘small’ movie,” Wallace said last week by telephone in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Wallace will be in Durham this Saturday night to kick off the Carolina Theatre’s FEMME FATALE FILM SERIES, in which iconic actresses well-known for their work in the 1970s will make personal appearances on behalf of selected films. Wallace will appear this Saturday night to discuss CUJO, her 1983 film in which she single-handedly fights off a rabid St. Bernard. (She will also appear at a separate screening of E.T., set for Saturday afternoon.) After a three-week hiatus, the series will resume on three consecutive weekends with Nancy Allen and DRESSED TO KILL (Oct. 6), Jessica Harper and SUSPIRIA (Oct. 13) and Adrienne Barbeau and THE FOG (Oct. 20).
Wallace isn’t the only actress coming who has the distinction of working with Spielberg. Allen appeared in one of Spielberg’s few bombs, 1941, and Harper showed up much more recently in Minority Report. And, in a couple of cases, directors were more than temporarily charmed by these women. As the Carolina’s Jim Carl notes, “Nancy was married to De Palma when Dressed to Kill was filmed, and Adrienne was married to John Carpenter at the time of The Fog.”
Although the film titles suggest that Femme Fatale is an outgrowth of Retrofantasma, the long-running fantasy/horror series at the Carolina, Carl stresses that this is not the case. After identifying the theme of “Femme Fatale,” they began looking for actresses who were available. “We offered the actresses the opportunity to select a film from their own résumé and each picked her personal favorite. It just turned out that each one selected a horror film.”
In fact, none of the women really fit the standard definition of femme fatale, if what is meant is a seductive, murderous vixen, usually photographed in black and white. But as Allen says, “I’ve always wanted to play a femme fatale! That’s my favorite genre–The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity–I love all those films.”
Allen, speaking by telephone from Los Angeles, says that De Palma, to whom she was married from 1979-1983, had movie tastes far beyond the Hitchcock-inspired sexy thrillers that form so much of his reputation. “Brian has a great sense of humor, and he loves comedy. He introduced me to [the work of] Preston Sturges, and he loves, loves David Lean, and also Les Enfants du Paradis. Hitchcock was special, of course, for his visual style.”
In addition to Spielberg and De Palma, Allen counts Steven Soderbergh, Robert Zemeckis, Hal Ashby and Paul Verhoeven among her notable directors. She seems particularly fond of the man who directed her in Robocop. “Verhoeven was like a mad scientist. He was wild, he would act all the parts and then say ‘Don’t copy me,’” she says of the man whose career would subsequently crest, peak and crash with, in order, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
Allen appeared in an exceptionally fertile period of De Palma’s career, making her film debut as the bitchy nemesis opposite Sissy Spacek in Carrie, as an imperiled woman in Blowout with John Travolta and as the call girl who seduces and destroys the cross-dressing Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill. Allen remembers Caine as “a typical English actor, smoking and laughing off camera. He came out in lipstick and a wig and said, ‘I always knew that if I worked long enough and hard enough, I could play me mum.’”
Wallace chose Cujo despite having a number of more famous movies to her credit, including The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling, in addition to E.T. “I went with Cujo because it pushed me as far as I could go,” Wallace says. She spends much of the second hour of the film trapped in a Ford Pinto with a rabid dog outside. “It took six weeks to shoot that sequence–honey, we had five dogs and a 4-year-old.” And, Wallace adds, a man in a dog suit for the shots of Cujo headbutting the car and attacking Wallace. “At the end of that shoot, I was treated for exhaustion.”
These days, Allen and Wallace are still working. Wallace makes it to a select few sci-fi and horror conferences, and she’s got a number of indie films that she’s recently completed. She’s looking forward to traveling to North Carolina, because lately she has been interested in relocating to Asheville. “It’s beautiful, it has fall leaves and it’s new age-y.”
The 56-year-old Allen, meanwhile, wouldn’t mind an opportunity to play a real, old-school femme fatale. “You might say I’m getting too old, but older women can still be seductive and manipulative!”
Dee Wallace will be at the Carolina Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 2 p.m. to host E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Tickets are $12 for adults, $7 for kids. Later, at 8 p.m., she will be on hand to launch the Femme Fatale series with Cujo. Tickets are $15, $50 for the entire four-film series. For more information, visit www.carolinatheatre.org.
Over at the University of North Carolina’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center, this season’s DIASPORA FESTIVAL OF BLACK AND INDEPENDENT FILM will consider the relatively unexplored topic of relations between African Americans and South Asians. Director Joseph F. Jordan notes that there are a couple of noted films (not showing at the festival) that present this scenario in the context of a romantic relationship: Mississippi Masala with Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury, directed by Mira Nair (Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding, Salaam Bombay!), and Bhaji on the Beach by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham).
It’s an unusual topic, but Jordan says, “You want audiences to be challenged. If they see the same thing they see on BET, there’s no challenge to their sensibilities.” However, Jordan was hoping to break a certain pattern with his programming. “All films revolve around a black man and a South Asian woman. It’s very rare to see a depiction of a South Asian man and a black woman.” After an unsuccessful search for films of this nature, Jordan nonetheless located recent work by young directors from abroad.
An amusing British short called LIBRARY MANJU offers the spectacle of a black man making a stand for his Indian girlfriend in the Bollywood way: by standing up and singing in Hindi. Another short film, Leena Pendharkar’s THIS MOMENT, covers this territory in non-musical form, while the feature film DREAMS AND PASSIONS is even more disorienting, as an Indian-Norwegian woman pursues a relationship with an African-American man. The filmmakers behind this one, Sophia Kaushal and Jon Poindexter, are a real-life couple, and this film offers a glossy fictionalization of their relationship.
On the documentary front, Beheroze Shroff’s WE’RE INDIAN AND AFRICAN: VOICES OF THE SIDIS is a fascinating look at a virtually unknown subculture within the 1 billion who live in the Indian subcontinent. The Sidis are Indians of truly ancient African descent, probably arriving in the 13th century as bodyguards and servants to the ruling classes.
Also screening, as part of Diaspora Festival but apart from the South Asian theme, is Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s sterling documentary THE TRIALS OF DARRYL HUNT.
Dreams and Passions will screen at the Stone Center Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. The filmmakers will be present for a post-film Q&A. The three shorts will screen together Monday, Sept. 18, in the Hitchcock Multipurpose Room in the same building, also at 7 p.m. The Trials of Darryl Hunt will screen at 7 p.m. on Oct. 24 in the Stone Center Theatre. For more information, visit ibiblio.org/shscbch.