Scorsese Perfects Etiquette As If To The Manners Born
Daily Express 13th November 1993
AT A moment's glance The Age Of Innocence, with its gilded, gas-lit ballrooms, whiskered gentlemen and ladies cocooned in clouds of tulle and lace, seems a strange project to have intrigued the best film director working in America today. But Martin Scorsese, whose previous credits include such eloquent sagas of violence as Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Goodfellas, was totally fascinated with the prospect of taking Edith Wharton's 19th Century tragedy of manners (written in 1920) to the screen. He became obsessed with recreating aristocratic 1870s New York society to perfection. Every detail had to be spot on. Everything from the lush costumes, the jewellery, paintings and elaborate set designs to the table tops had to reflect the period of Wharton's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It cost £26 million to get the feel of the movie right. "The authenticity is almost another character in the film," said producer Barbara DeFina.
Scorsese hired etiquette experts for the film. One was Lily Lodge, who is the partner of Letitia Baldridge, aka Ms Manners, who writes a popular syndicated American column on do's and don'ts.
Often, during filming the director would stop the action to ask his experts' advice. "When he goes up to her would he hold her hand?" "Would she keep her gloves on?" There would be silence and Lily Lodge would give her verdict.
Scorsese found himself investigating the mores of a milder mob than he has been used to. But it was still a violent mob — just in an altogether different way.
NEVERTHELESS Scorsese, who grew up in the tough Italian neighbourhoods of New York, admitted: "Literally anyone who asks me about this film says: 'I can't believe you are doing this kind of thing'.
"But it's only about a different tribe, it is a still a tribe. I spent two years immersed in the finer points of heritage and breeding. There's nothing I don't know about watch fobs, lobster forks, tea parties or portraits by John Singer Sargent. I just like the details of ritual.
"And tribal ritual is really what The Age Of Innocence is about. Pre-production work was anthropology. Basic good manners and etiquette are pretty much the same but when you have the choice of 70 different forks, and I mean 70 forks, that's fascinating." The director first read Wharton's novel a decade ago and says that when he re-read it seven years later he was "seduced by the love story". It centres on the love of aristocrat Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) for expatriate Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). It's a love that's trapped in the conventions of his time.
He's part of an on-the-surface absurd New York society and she has thrown off the social rules. The" other complication is that Archer is engaged to Olenska's cousin May (played by the wonderful Winona Ryder).
The film, which opens in Britain in January, has besotted the American critics. When the Oscar voters post their nomination ballots in February they will have a contender they will surely like — a costume drama of the style done so well by the British but this time conjured up by a very American director.
Michelle Pfeiffer is convinced that Scorsese has not moved too far away from the mean streets he's famous for portraying: "There isn't a lot of blood spilled — at least not the kind we think of. But a lot of emotional blood is spilled. Marty described it as his most violent film.
"I have never seen research like this on a picture," said the actress who, like her director, insists on getting everything right.
Pfeiffer worked and worked to get the cadences of her 19th Century upper class speech correct by listening to recordings of the voices of the writer Louis Auchincloss and Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Ethel.
The "look" she worked on with the costume experts. There is one scene in which Pfeiffer is covered in jewels, wearing a jet and emerald green ballgown and with her golden hair in braids wound around her head: she looks just like a Victorian cameo.
THESE modern filmmakers have succeeded in creating an era — but there was a little mishap in terms of the authenticity. There's one frame where Pfeiffer is involved in a passionate embrace with Daniel Day-Lewis, and the actress is clearly holding the American equivalent of a packet of Polo mints in her hand.
"Oops!" said Columbia Studios marketing and distribution president Sidney Ganis to that.
The mints were airbrushed out. What was not so simple for the film studio was timing the release of the film. It was completed a year ago, but Scorsese was allowed those months to edit what is being called^his "masterpiece of manners".
"I think the most important thing is to release the film at the proper time," said Pfeiffer. "Marty takes as long as he needs in post-production. It is really rare that a director is willing to do that and not rush a film out.
"Rushing it jeopardises the quality of the film and I actually have the the utmost respect and admiration for him for doing it his way. It's a film for now, for the fall and the winter."
Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder and scores of extras suffered for their art. During filming of the opening scenes, corsets were laced so tight that two of the extras fainted. Others complained of blood blisters and aching muscles from the binding Victorian undergarments.
On the second day, wardrobe assistants didn't pull too tightly but by then the extras had lost their innocence — they hid their corsets in dressing rooms and pretended they had never received them.
Of course, in the world of Edith Wharton that would simply not be done. Deceit was on a level with fish knives and cruets. Etiquette is as much a weapon in The Age Of Innocence as Robert De Niro's fists in Raging Bull or his attitude in Taxi Driver and his guns in GoodFellas.
The trifles of etiquette are as important to the people of The Age Of Innocence as the Mafia code in Scorsese's earlier movies. And such trifles can be just as fatal in a world where there is usually more at stake than using the correct fork.
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