I was hesitant to ask Jonathan Demme why he decided to make The Truth About Charlie, his contemporary take on Stanley Donen's 1963 Charade, a widely adored romantic thriller that stars Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Walter Matthau. The original oozes with such sexual chemistry and Hitchcockian twists that it would be a fairly impossible movie to outdo and, worse, might seem like a desecration. And Demme is such an original filmmaker that it would be preposterous to think of him trolling the past for story ideas to borrow. So I stammer out something about this "re-imagining" of a classic -- "or whatever word of the week you want to use," Demme genially interrupts.
"The fact of the matter is The Truth About Charlie is a remake," the director plainly states. "When you take an old movie and you do a new version of it, you've remade that movie. You may have changed it a lot. We changed it, I think, an awful lot, though we hung on to the spirit of the original, which is what made me want to do it in the first place."
Demme has been making films for nearly 30 years in a wide-ranging career that has included early efforts for the Roger Corman school of cheap and quick filmmaking (Crazy Mama, Caged Heat) to an Oscar win for directing The Silence of the Lambs to guiding a treasured American novel to screen (Toni Morrison's Beloved) to filming political and musical documentaries (Haiti Dreams of Democracy, Stop Making Sense). His work is marked by the lively spirit and warm humanism that suffuses everything he does, and his career is distinguished by an ability to move back and forth between the worlds of studio and independent filmmaking. Explaining his attraction to The Trouble With Charlie Demme offers, "After three pictures of relative heaviness -- Beloved, America's tormented racial history; Philadelphia, people with AIDS fighting injustice; The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster trying to save the life of another young woman -- I think I was in the mood to do something lighter."
Okay, but still, why remake Charade? It's not enough for Demme to say that The Truth About Charlie is "the same, just very, very different." So he begins to describe what a great actress he believes Thandie Newton to be, even though she's so often cast in the role of an "outsider," be it in Demme's Beloved or Bertolucci's Besieged, or miscast as an odd action figure as in Mission Impossible II.
"I became really buzzed by the idea of making a very contemporary movie, with Thandie right up front playing a very contemporary young woman -- not an outsider, but what she really is: a charming, engaged, funny, deep, brilliant, adorable person of the 21st century. And when I saw Charade again, it struck me as a great Thandie Newton vehicle. So I called up Universal and asked if they'd be interested in a remake and they said yes. Then I made the important call, which was to Stanley Donen, asking how he'd feel about it. And he was really gracious and generous. And he said, 'You know, I'd enjoy seeing your remake of Charade. Go ahead.'"
I had expected some kind of answer about the timelessness of Charade's themes of trust and deceit -- not this business about Thandie Newton. Demme is equally enthusiastic about his movie's co-star Mark Wahlberg. "I think it's a very different part from anything we've seen Mark in so far. The part really takes advantage of Mark's edginess and dark side, and then he's got this other preposterously sweet side. He had to stretch out and play about three or four different guys within this one guy. In the original, Audrey Hepburn takes one look at Cary Grant and that's it. She just wants to get into bed with him. What I wanted to do here was play this so that Wahlberg falls head over heels for Thandie, but ... cannot be straight with her; he's in a tough spot because he's falling in love with this enchanting young woman but circumstances make it hard for him to be real upfront with her."
Will love strike twice? Austinites will be among the first to decide when Demme appears at the Paramount on Wednesday, Oct. 9, for an advance screening sponsored by the Austin Film Festival and the Austin Film Society.
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