Pictures and Stories

Manhattan's privileged frog pond is rocked and connected by the same cultural ripples.

Click! It's the decisive moment for a clutch of characters, the anointed and the struggling of New York's arts scene, during 24 fully packed hours. The moment for renowned actress Diana (Glenn Close) to decide if her long-standing marriage can weather yet another liaison. For Isabel (Elizabeth Banks), her photojournalist daughter, to test the tepid temperature of her engagement to Jonathan (James Marsden), a rising lawyer. For ambitious fringe actor Alec (Jesse Bradford) to question the consequences of catching Diana's acquisitive eye at a crucial audition. All of their lives will soon be upset by the imminent arrival of a Robert Mapplethorpe–style show of nude photos.

Why we should give a damn, and what makes Heights (which opens Friday, June 24, at the Harvard Exit) so compulsively watchable, is not just the warmth and brio of this excessively handsome cast but the feeling that—for once—a film has caught these urbane, interlocking worlds so acutely.

When a Vanity Fair editor (Isabella Rossellini) seals an assignment with a cheery "Super duper!" it's funny—and it feels real, i.e., goofy, trendy, discarded by tomorrow. Wit, warmth, and a comforting level of intelligence seem to be the hallmarks of debuting director Chris Terrio (see interview, this page), working from Amy Fox's screenplay.

He opens the movie by moving fluidly from Diana, breathing fire at a pair of hapless Julliard students who've added a gun to their scene between Macbeth and his lady, to Diana, managing her daughter Isabel's wedding via cell phone—or trying to. Although Alec will have the story's soul (and Bradford its MVP award), the push-pull between Diana and her daughter is at the film's heart, and for the first time I can remember over Close's long and decorated career, she lets us see she has one.

Close has been a strange kind of movie star, always larger than life and in some ways older than her years, the perfect mother for Garp, but oddly mumsy as Kevin Kline's wife in The Big Chill or Redford's sweet inspiration in The Natural. She has an edge of relentlessness that makes light comedy leaden (Maxie), although it's worked in comedy with a mad edge (Cookie's Fortune or those Dalmatians). Fearless about tackling monsters, her wild-haired bunny-boiler in Fatal Attraction caught the Medea in every scorned woman, but her underlying humorlessness kept the initial attraction a mystery. Directors have been drawn to her strength, not always to her advantage: As Malkovich's ally/adversary in Dangerous Liaisons, she glittered, but she was so far from gay that no one would have been taken in by her basilisk stare. A year later in Valmont, same role, different approach: Annette Bening was deception itself, lightness, "sincerity," followed by real heartbreak.

Well, Heights has that real heartbreak. Just past the midpoint of her career, looking as fabulous as Diana must, Close is almost a different actress, with an openness that gives her final reconciliation scene the sting of real tears. What's the key? If it's Terrio, now 28, he's a wunderkind; and from his touch with all the actors, he may be. But he's said that Close has been part of the production since the beginning, so perhaps playing her mirror image, a star and a single mother of a daughter, has deep reverberations. Also, in the past, Close has never had that saving grace that Meryl Streep was born with, of being able to take her work and her image lightly. Heights has a running joke about Diana's celebrity, as her face pops up on billboards, television, and bus cards all over the city, impinging on everyone's consciousness. This time, though, Close seems to be in on the joke.

As the multiple stories unfold silkenly, full of secrets, lies, and a toxic level of self-deception, Heights' bonus feature is its ensemble. Terrio has tucked marvelous actors into minuscule scenes for their sizzle and authority. Eric Bogosian is Diana's unflappable theater director, unfazed even by staging (ssshhh!) Macbeth. (The Thane is nowhere to be seen, even in rehearsals; this may be the first production ever of Mrs. Macbeth.) Michael Murphy has a forceful moment as a photo editor who tempts Isabel away from her wedding. George Segal is a mensch of a rabbi counseling non-Jewish Isabel and nonobservant Jonathan (whose problems are deeper and unacknowledged). In a brief turn, Rufus Wainwright is both flammable and curiously touching as the voice of a lot of experience.

The production's glowing perfection is the signature of Ismail Merchant, who died on May 25. Beginning in 2001, he developed Heights and assigned it to Terrio. Merchant's lifelong dedication—legendary thrift that saved everything for the screen—isn't ever likely to be equaled. Heights is a fine and fitting legacy to that spirit.

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