TO CELEBRATE THE END OF A LONG DAY OF PROMOTING HIS NEW FILM, Mike Leigh's All or Nothing, an elegantly dressed Timothy Spall, 45, is sitting in the empty dining room at the Chateau Marmont, treating himself to a $12 glass of merlot. How did the junket go, Tim? "I've said nothing but shit all day long," the actor admits, followed by an explosive laugh and a light shrug. "But, hopefully, it was interesting shit."
In England, Spall is famous. But over here, only fans of imported British television and Mike Leigh movies would know his specialty: tubby, mouth-breathing gasbags who are filled with big, crazy dreams and are equal parts repulsive and oddly touching. (If you're looking for a comparison, think somewhere between Charles Laughton's dramatic heft and John Candy's big-man affability.)
Last month, BBC America reran a Spall slob-o-rama tour de force -- a 2001 TV movie directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) called Vacuuming Completely Nude in America. In it, the actor plays Tommy Rag, a chain-smoking, whiskey-chugging, totally amoral mountain of flesh who would con a homeless person into buying a Hoover.
"He's one of the most absymal people I've ever played in my life -- and I loved it," Spall cheerily says. "He was almost regal in his nastiness, wasn't he?"
Spall has thought a lot about his creative niche. "What I find attractive about these characters is that there's a certain poetry in their lunacy. They're out on a limb. Particularly Tommy Rag. He couldn't give a fuck about what people thought of him -- he was on a personal insane quest heading a thousand miles an hour toward a brick wall and was relishing the fact. He was not only vile, cursory and bizarrely poetic in his language, in a visceral, mad, blank verse way, but also knew he was going to burn out -- which he does at the end. He dies on the beach in his underpants. A very nice image, don't you think? I don't advise anybody to be eating when they see that." With that, Spall jumps up from his chair so abruptly that he almost knocks it over.
Hey! Where are you going?
"I'm just taking my coat off," Spall explains, and begins punching his way out of his lovely black suit jacket. As it turns out, he's only half dressed-up. Beneath his crisp white shirt with the long, starched Oscar Wilde cuffs are wrinkled pale-blue drawstring cotton pants. He sits back down and decides that he's not done having fun with his misinterpreted gesture. "I'm so sick of the sound of me own voice, I'm going to leave," he jokes.
Instead, he settles in and begins talking about his performance in All or Nothing, one of Leigh's more depressing films. Even something that sounds like it should be funny, a glimpse at the working life of Spall's character -- a sad-sack minicab driver, Phil, who lives in the projects of east London with his common-law wife, who has nothing but contempt for him, and two enormous teenage children -- is decidedly grim. In a montage that looks sort of like a highlights reel from Taxicab Confessions (but without the glaring key lights and skeevily goading driver), various passengers go about their back-seat business, each of them behaving as if they're in the car all by themselves.
"People aren't really interested in Phil," says Spall, who is the son of a beauty-parlor owner, was raised in Battersea, London, and has the juicy working-class accent to prove it. "And why should they be? He's just this rather fat, greasy-haired guy getting them from A to B in this rather tacky old cab. He's just the back of a head."
Harder to ignore was one of Spall's most celebrated fools -- Aubrey Furlong in Leigh's Life Is Sweet (1990). To this day, any self-respecting, art filmgoing foodie can still recite by memory the items on this horny chef/new restaurant owner's ultimate loser menu: Chilled Brain Mousse, King Prawn in Jam Sauce, Bacon Consommé . . . "My favorite one was Pork Cyst," says Spall of the series of mock nouvelle cuisine entrées co-invented with director Leigh during an improvisation (you know, part of the five-month-long technique that Leigh uses to create all of his movies). "We actually went to a flat and cooked all those hideous things up to prove they could be eaten."
Disgusting food aside, by the end of Life Is Sweet, Aubrey has trashed his own customerless restaurant in a drunken rage and lies passed out under a table (again) in nothing but his underpants. With typical Spall flair, he turns the moment into something much deeper than a joke about a fat guy in skivvies. "If you play these kinds of characters in a three-dimensional way, the audience, despite themselves, feels a bit sympathetic towards them," says Spall. "Aubrey is so vulnerable at that point. The image I like to think of is King Kong. In the movie, everybody is so terrified of him and they want to get him killed because he's terrorizing the place. But when he's up on the Empire State Building and being attacked by those planes, as much as you've feared for your life, you can't help but feel sorry for him."
Spall rises from his chair, this time more slowly, as he spots his wife, Shane. A limo is waiting for them in the narrow Chateau Marmont driveway, and now he really must leave.
A CURSE IN MIRACLES: The Politician, the Guru and the Consultant
GOOD OLD MR. GRANT. THE ALWAYS-huggable Ed Asner kicked off a political gathering at his Laurel Canyon home this past weekend, sputtering angrily and joking darkly over the Democratic leadership's endorsement of war with Iraq. "If I ever find myself giving these guys anything but spleen," he said to a living room full of invitees, "then I'll . . . I'll . . . hire myself out as a sex slave!"
The three or four dozen guests -- the cream of Local Liberalism, from Elliot Gould to Ed Begley Jr. to Antonio Villaraigosa -- all heartily applauded and then readied themselves to hear the guest of honor: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.
The boyish-looking and unshakably dovish Democrat -- a dead ringer for Our Gang's Alfalfa -- had once again come out to Hollywood, as he has so many times this year, speaking before sympathetic crowds, meeting and greeting present and future funders, and firming up what could be his base if he becomes the progressive candidate in the 2004 presidential race. This time he was being feted for having organized and led the 126 House Democrats who voted "no" on the Iraq war resolution.
"The truth is," Kucinich told the guests in the Asners' living room, "there's an emerging force within the Democratic Party for a new direction in foreign policy." When asked if he would, in fact, make a leftist end run for the presidency, Kucinich obliquely replied, "I know there's a constituency out there -- and I'm going to keep speaking out and see where it leads."
Of course, if the folks gathered at the Asners' turn out to be his constituency, then he's going to be led in about 10 different directions at once. Indeed, as soon as the floor was opened to discussion, what could only be called a liberal muddle emerged -- lots of disconnected ideas and damn little hardheaded political strategy. One participant said the real problem we face is Florida -- where state officials might already be conspiring to steal the 2004 election. Another said the port workers' strike was the most decisive political arena of the moment. Yet another urged us to go right away and see Michael Moore's new film. Santa Monica's Green mayor, Mike Feinstein, wanted to talk about instant-runoff voting and proportional representation (he also put in a word for veganism). Someone mentioned solar power. Then, Ed Begley Jr. said that because "Iraq was all about oil," the best thing we could do is go out and buy a 52-mpg hybrid-power Prius.
Kucinich deftly juggled the mishmash of ideas, gallantly finding the good in each one and painstakingly trying to keep them somehow all tied together. He must have more experience than can be imagined speaking to similar gatherings of well-intentioned but strategically impaired liberals.
The real problem came when one of Kucinich's own entourage, a friend of his, took the floor. New Age guru and best-selling author Marianne Williamson keeps popping up at just about every local Kucinich event. And she sat quietly through most of this one. But when she finally spoke, she unleashed a torrent of psychobabble so grating that I could hear a chorus of grinding mandibles all around me.
Looking at my notes, I've tried to reconstruct one whole sentence from her touchy-feely sermon, but frankly, I couldn't keep up with her word flow. Instead I find a scramble of her catch phrases: "allopathic issues . . . addictive behavior . . . holistic interconnectedness . . . politics as a psychological, emotional and spiritual discussion to be had . . ." Something about Republicans psychologically intimidating Democrats. Oh, wait. Here's one complete phrase I've reconstructed, a sure-fire loser in trying to build an oppositional political movement: "America must atone for its errors." Uh-huh. Run that by a focus group of soccer moms -- and then, stand back.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the writer, former political consultant and onetime White House pollster Pat Caddell literally twitching and rolling his eyes as Williamson went on. Anyone who watches cable-TV talk shows knows of Caddell's passionate if not volcanic temperament, and now he was in full eruption. Williamson had the mike, but Caddell the lung power. It wasn't about the psychology ä of Republicans, Caddell bellowed. "The reason that Republicans win," shouted Caddell, "is that they fight for what they believe in. While Democrats no longer even know what it is they believe."
Williamson briefly regained the floor after Caddell's outburst and was sliding into yet another indecipherable sermon. But before she could presumably explain something like why our inner child favored gun control, the fearsome and fearless Lila Garrett, the recently purged leader of the local Americans for Democratic Action (and upon whom Barbra Streisand's The Way We Were character is based) mercifully just plain shut Williamson down. "I think you've spoken enough," Garrett barked at the guru. "It's time for others to have a word." Williamson relinquished the mike and, soon after, quietly slipped out the front door.
Kucinich, it should be said, shows the sort of principle and courage rarely found in politicians. And he'd make one hell of a good president. But, Dennis, if you do decide to put together a real national campaign, please lose the guru.
VELVET-ROPE STORIES: Smells Like Mean Spirit
YOU'RE STANDING ON THE SIDEWALK IN FRONT OF Chanel on Rodeo Drive about to be velvet-roped by three gorgeous devils of the pit. What do you do? More precisely, how did it come to this, when it started so well? The invitation arrived in the mail -- a pearly-white square that unfolded, lotuslike, into a blossom of bakery-box pink: "You are cordially invited to celebrate the launch of Chance, the sexy, daring, unexpected new Chanel fragrance." No mention of the three Heathers, devils of my destiny. It is evening, a half-hour before the launch is scheduled to start, and already the sorting process has begun: publicists in front of the rope, press behind, the maddening mob across the street.
"You can't come in unless you're on the list," says Heather No. 1, rapping fingernails on clipboard. The list is a quarter-inch thick.
"But I RSVP'ed?"
I am an ant. A gnat. I should have worn a dress. I should have had lipo. Granted, I am not sexy, but tonight I am daring and unexpected. Heather No. 1 is in needle-heeled boots and tiny leather skirt made from the skins of tiny slain mammals. Heather No. 2 has hazel hair and, possibly, hazel eyes, which refuse to hold a gaze. Heather No. 3, the master, is an icy blond, cruel as a varsity cheerleader. "Check it again," I plead -- "again" being strictly figurative. Before us, the store beckons, two stories of gleaming white marble and glass and bright-eyed caterers with sparkly champagne flutes.
Fine, then, who wants to go to your stinky little perfume party anyw--
"Oh, all right, just . . . go in," Heather No. 3 relents -- Yes! -- and waves me inside. "We'll make an exception just this once. Don't let it happen again." Thank you, Miss Heather, may I have some more?
It's clear I'm getting the hang of things because as soon as I'm inside, I want to be out. The celebs are descending. Jules Asner arrives in a flurry of flashbulbs. Next, Christina Ricci, one of the party's two hosts, in strapless Chanel tweed. She fiddles with a brooch on her matching tweed shawl. "Should I keep this on?" she murmurs to her publicist. The crowd gasps a collective "Oooh" as Chloë Sevigny, co-hosting in royal-purple tweed pantsuit, struts in. Ricci, pale and ethereal, stands by herself in the middle of the room, an awkward island amid the sea of A-listers.
"Are you having a good time?" I want to ask her about Wednesday Addams, about beheaded dolls, Sleepy Hollow, Uncle Fester, Morticia.
"Super," she says wild-eyed, as she's swept away by an incoming crowdlet.
Downstairs are purses, jewels, shoes and makeup. Upstairs are suits, shirts, more jewels and fortune tellers. The hand railings are upholstered in leather. The sofas are upholstered in the same tweed as the suits. Even the furniture must wear Chanel. The hosts don't actually host. And nobody's talking about the perfume. Waiting in line for their fortunes are Dawn and Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Across the room: Mimi Rogers and Tori Spelling blowing air kisses to a man in a white turtleneck. Waiters in pink baby-T's circulate with plates of stuffed cherry tomatoes and trays of desserts iced with pink Chanel C's -- let them eat cupcakes! A model-actress-bartender pokes a raspberry into my drink, which I set down next to a folded French-maid T-shirt. White bib, black ribbon -- $115 for a T-shirt? No, make that $1,115. Two seconds later, an actual maid, in actual maid's shirt -- white bib, black ribbon -- spirits my glass away. Clearly, what I don't know about fashion is a lot.
Downstairs I run into a girl I dormed with in college. She's working the makeup counter. "Cecile?"
"How are you!" We air-kiss. She's wearing a slinky Dries Van Noten, but they make her cover it up with a pink Chanel sweater. At a loss for what to do, we climb the stairs. Blend, goddammit, blend. Cecile, toting a basket of pink plastic-wrapped samples, crosses her eyes and squirts me with a bottle of perfume. She offers a squirt to Carmen Electra, but is promptly reprimanded by Heather No. 2. "Whatever you do, do not spray the guests."
"Busted!" Cecile whispers, grinning. A girl in a blue dress floats by. "Hey, you were in The In Crowd!" I say, emboldened by Cecile's faux pas.
"No," she answers, pertly, before stalking away, "No. I wasn't."
This happens again and again, like some kind of nightmare. To an older red-haired woman I say: "You were a devil in The Devil's Advocate!"
"No," she answers, "No. I wasn't."
To her companion, a young blond who looks vaguely familiar: "You were on Buffy. You were a demon!"
"No," she answers, "I was a vampire."
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Two cupcakes later, in the active-shopping area, I trail a group of young socialites examining the shoes. There's a knee-high boot encased in a column of leather, and another encased in a column of tweed. They look like pants. They look like boots. "What do you call these?" I ask a hovering salesclerk.
"These are pant-boots," she purrs.
"Of course," I say, and head for the exit. On the way out, I break open the sample test tube's little pink seal. "It's your Chance . . . ," it reads, "Take It!" But this Chance spills everywhere. Oh, the sweet smell of destiny.