Duvall's Stalin: All made up, no place to go

November 20, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

HBO lost its Joseph Stalin halfway between the script and the screen.

The ambitious, meticulously photographed film has its moments, but in the end, it drowns in a mass of rubber-face, glue and cosmetics.

This big-name, skillion-dollar production, lavishly photographed on location in some of the very places Stalin lived and ruled from 1924 to 1953, gets lost in pounds of Silly Putty applied too heavily to actor Robert Duvall's face.

There are other problems with HBO's "Stalin," which premieres tomorrow night. But let's start with the Silly Putty.

In going for look-alike accuracy, the filmmakers put so much makeup on Duvall he couldn't use his face to act -- the only thing that moves on his Stalin are the eyes.

The result is that Duvall -- who can be good enough to take your breath away when he's on his game -- seems like a theme park character wearing a Joe Stalin head.

And that appears to have caused a chain of bad acting choices by Duvall and director Ivan Passer.

Perhaps, because he feels so immobilized under all that makeup, Duvall plays Stalin as a guy in concrete. His movements are those of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in "The Godfather" -- even when Stalin is a young man. When he dances, for Pete's sake, the only things he moves are his hands.

Duvall uses the Method (capital "M" of Method Acting), but it's not nearly enough to free his performance from the madness of his makeup.

The other candidate for worst choice made by a filmmaker this year is the decision to explain the almost unimaginable suffering Stalin inflicted on the Russian people with what is essentially pop psychology.

According to the film, the reason for Stalin's monumental paranoia and incredible ruthlessness is that he was the most common of men come to the big city of Moscow from the sticks of the Soviet Republic of Georgia. As a result, he was parochial, suspicious and had feelings of inferiority, for which he overcompensated. He was a Russian Andrew Jackson gone bad who went on to become an Al Capone of the Kremlin. (Tell me, Joe, when did you start feeling that Trotsky and the others thought they were so much smarter and better educated than you?)

There is no argument here that producer Mark Carliner -- a Baltimore native with an advanced degree in Russian history -- got the facts of Stalin's life right. But the interpretation of the inner life of a leader and its meaning to a country's history are complicated matters too oversimplified in "Stalin."

Maybe that's what makes the performance of Julia Ormand as Stalin's wife so impressive: There's nothing simple about it. Ormand takes her character from loving Stalin for a poem he wrote as a young man to killing herself in the face of his later sadism and savagery. She is one of the only real, contradictory, believeable characters on screen. Or maybe it's just Ormand actually gets to use her face in all those tight, two-shot scenes with the frozen Duvall.

Duvall is not the only talent underused in this 2-hour, 50-minute film. Maximilian Schell turns in an uninspired Lenin, and Joan Plowright is one-note as Stalin's disapproving mother-in-law.

"Stalin" is wonderful to look at. Facially, Duvall is a double for the dictator. It is shot on film, not lesser-quality videotape, by the gifted Vilmos Zsigmond. Visually, it has the texture, richness and unpredictability only location shooting can offer.

But looks are not nearly enough. And the price paid to get them in "Stalin" was too high.

'STALIN'

When: Saturday at 8 p.m. with numerous repeats throughout the month.

Where: HBO.

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