Maryland Film Festival

The movie of her lifetime

Director's 20 years getting film made

May 07, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Toni Kalem's A Slipping-Down Life will wow you when she presents it today at 3 p.m. at the Maryland Film Festival. So will the story Kalem tells about the making of the movie.

Kalem, an actor turned writer-director, is one of those performers baby boomers probably know even if they think they don't. Her movie-acting high point came in one of the all-time-great adolescent sex scenes - the fixed strip-poker game in Philip Kaufman's 1979 gang movie The Wanderers. In that cult classic she plays Despie Galasso, the Italian-American princess of her Bronx neighborhood (circa 1963), who lets Ken Wahl's Richie have his way with her when he finally tells her that he loves her. She conjures a hilarious and poignant combination of desire and girlishness. In the strip-poker scene, Kalem's Despie strives to preserve her dignity even after she realizes Richie only has eyes for his best friend's date (Karen Allen). Describing her fingernail polish to her rival, Despie says it's "glittah" as if that were the most eloquent slang for "glitter."

Despie led to a slew of other Italian-American roles, including one in Private Benjamin and the part of Sal Bonpensiero's widow Angie in The Sopranos - for which she has also written and been a story editor. Over the phone from Los Angeles, Kalem confesses that she's not Italian. She was a Jersey girl, but the kind of Jersey girl other Jersey girls knocked for not having enough school spirit, because she would miss the football games on Saturday to take classes at the HB (Herbert Berghof) Studios in New York. The parts she played on the New York stage before she broke through on-screen included Shakespeare's Juliet and Laura in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.

The role closest to Kalem's heart is one she never ended up acting at all: the heroine of A Slipping-Down Life. Evie Decker (Lili Taylor) is unlikely-romance incarnate, a clumsy yet somehow beautiful small-town North Carolina girl who falls for an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter named Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce). For Kalem, Evie's plight epitomizes the struggle of any woman to find her own voice. Evie's feeling that Casey addresses her personally when he interrupts his songs and "speaks out" at his concerts ("If I were on fire, would you burn up with me? Burn down with me?") connects with her search for true love, "which is," says Kalem, "the search for someone you feel understands you and sees you as you are."

She first got ahold of Anne Tyler's novel when she was working as a secretary at Random House - "my mother said that if I was going to be an actress, I better have good secretarial skills." She exacted her revenge on a demeaning supervisor by making off with as many books as she could carry every night. One of them was A Slipping-Down Life. Kalem optioned the novel almost 20 years ago "as my investment in myself," and eventually prepared an outline, thinking that she'd give it to a "real" screenwriter to finish. But when her friends read it, they said she had a script.

Then she started showing it to European filmmakers whose movies had the patient, intimate touch she felt the material required - Billie August (Pele the Conqueror), Pat O'Connor (Cal) and Bill Forsyth (Local Hero). They liked it but said, "This is your story." Kalem had gotten used to rejection as an actress: "I always figured this was just another way to say no. ... Then I was directed on a very violent film by an actor who had done a lot less than I had - but was 6-foot-2 and macho. That's when I figured, `If this guy can do it, I can do it.'"

Along the way, she married and became a mother and ceased to be the best choice to play Evie herself. But she connected more than ever with the feeling Evie has after she suddenly snaps Casey's picture and carves his name into her forehead. She began to let her deepest impulses out. Like Evie, she felt, "If I started acting this way a long time ago my whole life might have been different; I could have been the engine instead of the caboose."

And Kalem kept using Evie as her inspiration. Kalem directed a short film of scenes from her script, starring (among others) Adam Arkin and Kathy Najimy. "I had been so focused on character as an actor I had never paid attention to what lens was on the camera and what lights were going up - and I needed to be familiar with that to have the confidence to make this movie. But as soon as I started directing actors, I felt like I'd come home." A couple of years later, she was shooting her feature film.

To Kalem, faithfulness to Tyler's characters was paramount. But she was never slavish about it. For example, the book's Evie is an overweight high school girl. In the movie, she's slender and more adult.

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