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Tribeca Takes: Bette Gordon on Handsome Harry

Amy Taubin talks with indie film pioneer Bette Gordon about her authentic Tribeca history and her latest film, which premiered at TFF 2009 and opens April 16.

Jamey Sheridan in Handsome Harry


Bette Gordon's Handsome Harry, which premiered in 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival, opens at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles on April 16. At first glance, it seems at the opposite end of the spectrum from her debut feature, Variety (1983), the feminist neo-Noir that branded Gordon as the bad girl pioneer of American independent filmmaking. But Handsome Harry, a road movie about a 50-year-old man (Jamey Sheridan, wonderfully reserved and vulnerable) attempting to find out the truth about an ugly incident in his past that left one of his former Navy buddies disabled for life, shows that Gordon is as fascinated as ever with genre filmmaking and just as empathic to the sexual confusions of her male characters as she was to those of her female characters in Variety. Each of the five actors playing supporting roles (Steve Buscemi, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, and Titus Welliver) has roughly ten minutes of screen time to create a distinct version of what it is to be a man, and they are all memorable, as is Karen Young as a tough-talking waitress who's wild about Harry and can't understand his indifference to her.


A resident of Tribeca for roughly 30 years, Gordon is a tenured professor who teaches directing in the film department of Columbia University, where her daughter Lili is a sophomore and one of her colleagues is Nicholas T. Proferes, who wrote the script for Handsome Harry.


Bette Gordon circa Handsome Harry


Amy Taubin: Why did you want to make a movie about middle-aged men?

Bette Gordon: I wanted to examine male friendship, betrayal, and forgiveness, mainly because they seem so different from women's relationships. I was drawn to the male characters in the story because of their rawness, possessing a male energy reminiscent of actors I grew up watching and loving—Lee Marvin, Ben Gazzara, Steve McQueen: men who didn't say much, but exuded a physicality and deep internal life. The film is about masculinity or the image of masculinity and how it changed from the end of the Vietnam War, when Harry and his buddies met each other, to the present day of the story. All the characters are trapped by that image, but also by the failure, or the perception of failure, at the end of the Vietnam War. American culture's traditional notion of masculinity changed then too: the history of conquest and dominance became displaced. Because of the shift in values, Harry is finally able to acknowledge [a self-truth], but he is unable to act on it, based on his inability to forgive himself.


I have always been interested in the secret language of men, especially the handshake (when women shake hands, there's not the same kind of acknowledgement or sharing of a language), the pat on the back, the bear hug, the unspoken bond of trust between men—in short, the world of men, money, and power. My interest in this story, in Harry's story, comes out of my fascination with the codes of male behavior.


AT: Could you talk a bit about working with Jamey Sheridan? What drew him to this role?


BG: Jamey and I met when he auditioned for the role of the father in Luminous Motion (1998). He brought a beautiful sense of sadness and vulnerability to the “dad” character, who was written as rigid and controlling. As an actor, he was able to turn the character's strength into a liability. I loved that. Also, Jamey is an actor who loves process, and so do I. We work well together; we like to investigate. I enjoy watching what he’s doing, and then shaping his performance over multiple takes, so we get closer and closer to something just below the surface.


Jamey could see parts of himself in Harry, and we had the great advantage of working to develop the character during a 2-year period in which we were raising money. We'd just get together to hang out and begin acting out the movie, talking forever about jazz, about what’s hidden, about the element of Greek tragedy for Harry: like Oedipus, once he starts to look for the truth, he can't stop, like a moth drawn to the light. We had a long rehearsal period in which we would investigate the nuances of character, dialogue, and story.  


Jamey Sheridan with Steve Buscemi (l); with Karen Young (r)


AT: How did you recruit such an illustrious supporting cast?


BG: I wanted to cast male actors whose physicality and rawness could be seen and felt. Steve Buscemi is an old friend, and we always wanted to work together. (I knew him when he was a fireman.) Nobody had ever seen him as a tough guy with a secret, a physical actor who can reveal his anxiety by way of a confession, rather than an aggressive “fuck you” mentality.


Aidan Quinn is traditionally handsome, but I knew he also had an edge, which I wanted to key into. He presents himself as a man of reason, but once the scab of the past begins to come off, he allows the painful memories back in. John Savage brings the history of Vietnam War movies with him from The Deer Hunter, a stunning actor with wild energy. I liked that he keeps us off guard; he can explode at any moment, you feel his volatility. I followed Titus Welliver as Silas on David Milch's Deadwood and simply fell in love with him. He did a staged reading of a Frank Pugliese play that had me in tears. Frank had invited me to the reading, and there was Titus—it was meant to be. He has enormous presence on camera.


And the incredible Campbell Scott was on our list from day one. We did a reading together, and he and Jamey had worked together before, on stage in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and in a film version of Hamlet that Campbell directed. I never thought of anyone but Campbell to play Kagan. He is the most charismatic guy in the room, the one everybody falls in love with. I think if you imagine something with your full power, you can will it into existence. I know that sounds crazy, but sometimes it really does work.


Jamey Sheridan with John Savage and Mariann Mayberry

AT: What role has living in New York played in shaping your filmmaking career?


BG: As filmmakers, artists, musicians, writers, and performance artists in the early ‘80s, many of us lived in downtown neighborhoods like Tribeca and the East Village. The spirit of collaboration was very strong; in those days, nobody was thinking about the money—you just went out and got friends together to make art.


When I first moved to New York City, I worked with a group of filmmakers who started the first cinema in Tribeca, called The Collective for Living Cinema. I met tons of people while working there, but what was so incredible was the program. We would show films weekend evenings, anything from old Hollywood B movies like Kiss Me Deadly by Robert Aldrich to horror movies like Larry Cohen's God Told Me To, to the underground experimental work of Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, the Kuchar brothers, and performances by people like Jack Smith. Every night at The Collective was an event. The audiences were interactive and devoted; we did filmmaking workshops and conferences, and I remember we were the first cinema to show John CassavetesShadows when it had not shown in NYC for years.


Right down the street was the Mudd Club, and a few blocks away, The Performing Garage aka The Wooster Group, and The Kitchen. Magoos, a restaurant down the block, showed local work by artists, and everyone would go eat there late at night.


The world of art/music/film felt smaller then, more special, and the only galleries worth going to were the few in Soho, like Castelli/Sonnabend. In the early ‘80s, since we all hung out together in clubs, galleries, and lofts, it was easy to tap into the energy of the time. Kathy Bigelow was around, John Lurie, Jim Jarmusch, Kathy Acker, Laurie Anderson. Music venues like the Mudd Club or CBGB's were the catalysts around which everyone gathered—a band, a film, and several good performances on any given night. It was easy to meet people and become part of the scene.



As a visual artist/filmmaker moving to New York City in the ‘80s, I was attracted to the underside of New York, the city I’d seen in movies like Sam Fuller’s Pickup On South Street or Naked Kiss. Exploring the city, the underground, late at night, I came upon the Variety theatre, its neon marquee something out of the past—I couldn’t stop looking; I wanted to investigate the theatre. It had once been a vaudeville theatre, and before that, a stable for the Stuyvesant family. Now it was a porn theatre. More than just a setting or an environment, I wanted to make New York City a character with its own personality, seen in the garish nighttime quality of Times Square, the hyperreal, overly lit look of the Fulton Fish Market, the baseball game at Yankee Stadium looming like a backdrop from a Hitchcock movie.


I have always considered place an important aspect of my filmmaking. In Luminous Motion, I treated the highways of the New Jersey Turnpike as a kind of post-industrial landscape integral to the story of fugitives, while Handsome Harry explores the small towns of Hudson Valley, like Peekskill and Cornwall, as a safe place to hide.   


AT: Similarly, how has raising a daughter affected your work? Luminous Motion, your second feature, dealt with a troubled mother/son relationship.


BG: Luminous Motion was made in response to having a child and thinking about the question of motherhood and sexuality. I wrote a piece in Bomb Magazine after making the film to understand better why the sexuality of the mother was so unsettling to people, that mothers are usually not seen as sexual beings. In the article, I looked at films from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, films that show the mother stepping outside her allocated place in culture—films like Stella Dallas, Imitation of Life and Mildred Pierce, where the mother character is “punished” for transgressive behavior. One of my challenges in making Luminous Motion was to find a way to make the complexities of the mother character sympathetic. I wanted to give her an unusual sex life, yet maintain her devotion to her child.


Bette Gordon circa Variety


AT: Variety made you the bete noir of one wing of the feminist movement—the women who believed that pornography and rape were one in the same. How did you cope with that, and do you still think of yourself as a feminist?


BG: Actually, the most controversial aspect of Variety was not the inclusion of porn or the fact that the filmmaker (me) was embracing porn as a kind of expression. More disturbing to people was the ending of Variety, which didn’t provide an absolute conclusion. The dark empty street at the end says that between desire and gratification lay an Empty Space—but that space is full of possibilities!


I will always think of myself as a feminist, as well as a risk taker, adventurer, trouble maker and seeker of the truth that lies just underneath the surface.


AT: What's your next feature and when do you plan to go into production?


BG: I’ve optioned a book called Border Crossing by the British Booker Prize novelist Pat Barker. It’s the story of a forensic psychologist who is dragged back to the case of a child murderer he helped to put into prison 12 years earlier. It’s a psychological thriller, a cat and mouse story about the young man who demands to be saved from himself before he crosses the fatal line again. I am currently working on the script with a co-writer. I’ve partnered with two of the producers from Handsome HarryJamin O’Brien and Elizabeth Kling.


Amy Taubin is a critic for Film Comment and Art Forum.


Handsome Harry opens April 16 in New York and Los Angeles. See the IFC Center site for more info.


IFC Center is paying special tribute to Bette Gordon as an indie pioneer, with a screening of Luminous Motion on Monday, April 12, and of Variety on Thursday, April 15, both at 7:00 pm. Bette and special guests will be in attendance at both screenings, so get your tickets now!



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