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Although it received enthusiastic reviews, Citizen Ruth did come under fire from some pro-choice quarters. "They're more rational people than the right-to-life side," Payne says, "but almost because of this they're more vulnerable to hypocrisy, and are more savagely attacked in the film than the pro-life people. Some of the negative reviews revealed the liberal biases of the critics. They wanted a clearer pro-choice agenda, and when they didn't get it, faulted the film for being cowardly and taking the easy way out."
Citizen Ruth was also rejected by at least one non-critic. "A screenwriter friend of Alexander's cut off her friendship without even having read the script," Taylor says. "She told him she couldn't accept anyone making fun of the subject of abortion rights." Taylor also believes uneasiness over the film's ideological ambiguities may have caused its distributor, Miramax, to yellow-light the publicity campaign. "They didn't want to exploit Citizen Ruth's political nature, so they held it until after the  election," he says. "Harvey was trying to cozy up to the Democrats," he continues, referring to Harvey Weinstein, Miramax's co-chairman and a Clinton stalwart. "It was kind of weird -- Sling Blade won the Miramax lottery that year and got all the marketing."
CITIZEN RUTHWON PAYNE FAVORABLE PRESS comparisons to Jonathan Swift and Preston Sturges -- which didn't exactly cripple his chances to direct his next project, an MTV-optioned novel satirizing the 1992 presidential campaign. Election, penned by an obscure Harvard writing instructor named Tom Perrotta, had been inspired by Ross Perot's wild-card candidacy, which, for a fleeting moment, seemed to promise a broadening of the American political conversation. In it, a popular high school teacher, mortified by the inevitable rise to power of a ruthless girl in an uncontested student-government race, persuades a football hero to throw his helmet into the ring. Democracy returns as the apathetic student body is suddenly given a real choice -- although things soon fall apart left and right, including the teacher's life.
Payne and Taylor jumped on the project. According to Taylor, who now lives in New York, 99 percent of the time they write in the same room together, each with a keyboard connected to one Macintosh. "We have instant feedback," he says of their collaborative process.
One of the first things the two did was to move the book's setting from New Jersey to Omaha. For Payne this was primarily pragmatic, as his hometown is a place he knows his way around. More philosophically, he's tired of seeing films with an L.A. or New York look. "I was anxious to see the Midwest on film, because you don't see it that much," he says. "I'm sure [such films] are there, but they haven't really got those rhythms."
Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon were cast as the leads, he as the teacher, Jim McAllister, and she as the overachiever candidate, Tracy Flick. Payne had trouble finding the right Hollywood teen actors for the secondary characters, however, and so turned to local kids. It was during a campus tour of an Omaha high school that he met Chris Klein, who got the role of the jock. "I was 18 and coming out of the weight room," Klein remembers, "and we literally bumped into each other. The principal introduced us, and I thought Alexander was a real cool guy. Later he contacted me through the Nebraska Film Commission, and I got the part of Paul Metzler."
The charismatic Klein is one of the year's true screen discoveries -- his Paul Metzler is an affable lug whose unfading optimism and indelible smile protect him from the insults and reversal of fortune that come his way. Payne likens Klein's portrayal to Dostoyevsky's naive Prince Myshkin.
And Klein isn't the film's only revelation. When Payne needed someone to play Paul's sister, Tammy, an alienated loner and emerging lesbian, he remembered being impressed by an audition tape made by a St. Louis teenager named Jessica Campbell, even though up to that point her acting experience had been confined to one Bible infomercial and a TV movie. Today, Campbell, all of 16, recalls the moment she read the script: "Omigod, I thought, it's a lesbian part! A lot of people in St. Louis are conservative about that, but people supported me for doing it, because Tammy's the most caring and sensitive person in the story." Campbell, whose Tammy is the only character to escape with her dignity intact, is riveting as the typical wrong teen living in the wrong town, a role that is demanding in its oscillation between insecurity and anger.
Payne, in fact, would ask a lot of his cast. But though almost no one in Election has a halo, the actors accept- ed their roles because of their unfailing resemblance to real people.
"I think of Jim as human," Broderick says of his character. "He feels very pleased with everything in his life, but he is really quite miserable. Some people need to get in trouble and make a big mistake -- to steal something or wreck a car -- before they can change their life."
Both Klein and Campbell speak of Payne as an exacting taskmaster, but in youthfully affectionate terms. "I thought he was awesome," says Klein. "He made us understand the importance of the work we were doing and to appreciate the tenacity it took to get the shot we wanted to get." Recalls Campbell: "Omigosh, he was one of the most incredible, nice, funny people I've met! He didn't just stand there and say, 'Do this.' He showed you what he wanted from you."
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