No choice but to surrender

Film: `Dorothy' director Kevin Di Novis was forced into the act when his star dropped out. The results speak for themselves.

May 05, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The biggest shock about "Surrender Dorothy," the underground hit that is showing at the Charles tonight, isn't the explicit heroin use, or the explicit scene of self-gratification, or the sight of the film's director, Kevin Di Novis, vacuuming a loft apartment in a slip dress and pumps.

The biggest shock is that Di Novis didn't want to play the part.

"Never," Di Novis says emphatically, responding to whether he always had himself in mind for the role of Lanh, the main character of "Surrender Dorothy." In the movie, Lanh starts out as a heroin addict who moves in with Trevor (Peter Pryor), a sexually repressed busboy. In time, the manipulative Trevor supplies Lanh with heroin as long as he dresses in women's clothing and acts as a sexual surrogate. As the story of deviance and obsession grows darker and more unsavory, Lanh emerges as an unexpectedly vulnerable character, thanks in large part to Di Novis' vivid, memorable characterization.

Di Novis, 30, had initially written the role of Lanh for a Vietnamese actor and he had one cast when the actor dropped out one week before "Surrender Dorothy" was going to start filming, in 1995. Faced with the choice of shutting down production or jumping into the breach himself, Di Novis bit the bullet.

"I knew the lines already and I had been rehearsing with Pete, so I just stepped in, to the chagrin of almost everybody in the cast and crew," he said recently from his Los Angeles home. "I had the biggest ulcer during the shooting. I thought, `What am I doing? I'm ruining this.'"

Gratefully, quite the opposite was true. Not only did Di Novis' performance prove to be one of the most appealing things about "Surrender Dorothy," but the film as a whole has received wide acclaim on the festival circuit. The movie won the grand jury prize at the 1998 Slamdance Film Festival, where it made its world premiere, and has garnered similar honors at underground film festivals in Chicago and New York ("We say in our press kit that we have the underground triple crown").

"Surrender Dorothy" has played at more than 25 festivals, including Baltimore's MicroCineFest and Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert's recent Overlooked Film Festival. Even though "Surrender Dorothy," which Di Novis filmed in Philadelphia in 1995, features drug-using slackers and a healthy dose of nihilism, Di Novis says sex and drugs weren't at the core of the story when he started.

"I wanted to do a story about domestic violence," explains the director, who started the script while he was studying English literature at Rutgers University. "It started out as a very traditional story with a man and a woman in a traditional relationship, where the man is the abuser and the woman is the victim. But ... it didn't have the impact I wanted it to have."

Di Novis decided to make the female character a man, and suddenly, the film's axis changed. "Readers [of the script] were more concerned with, `How do we label this relationship?' than, `Oh God, there's abuse going on here."

In one of the movie's most telling scenes, Trevor shouts at Lanh, "You tried to cut me!" and Lanh responds, "But you tried to kiss me!"

Di Novis explains: "Do you remember `In & Out?' In the middle of the film there's that scene where Kevin Kline kisses Tom Selleck for about a minute. And the audience in the theater sounded collectively winded while they were watching it. They were fidgeting. But in a James Bond movie, when Bond slaps a woman, nothing at all.

"Our society would almost rather see an expression of violence in the proper context versus an expression of love in the improper context. Those presuppositions are what the audience unknowingly brings to `Surrender Dorothy.'"

`Surrender Dorothy'

Where: The Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St.

When: Tonight at 7: 45 and 9: 45 Pub Date: 5/05/99

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