If there are, as Steven Soderbergh is fond of saying, three types of filmmakers — those who don’t know what they’re doing, those who know what they’re doing and you like what they’re doing, and those who know what they’re doing but you don’t like what they’re doing — then until recently, I would have placed James Gray squarely in the third category. Speaking to The New York Times’ Dennis Lim in 2007 as his third feature film, We Own the Night, was about to be released in U.S. theaters, Gray acknowledged the curious fact that his movies had thus far generated considerably greater enthusiasm from French critics and audiences than their American counterparts. “Apparently I’m the dramatic version of Jerry Lewis,” Gray told Lim. “Someone wrote that I’m the object of Gallic fetish.” As it happens, that someone was me.
Gray certainly knows what he’s doing. That was obvious from the stark opening minutes of his 1994 debut feature, Little Odessa, which starred Tim Roth as a professional killer who agrees to a hit in his old neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and insinuates himself back into his estranged Russian-Jewish family, with ultimately tragic consequences.
In marked contrast to the era’s countless gory, self-consciously hip crime stories spawned by the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Gray’s film was in tune with a decidedly more classical set of influences. (Lim went so far as to dub Gray the “anti-Tarantino.”) Shot in long, somber wide-screen takes, with Russian choral music on the soundtrack and the chill of a bleak New York winter in the air, Little Odessa seemed less like a gangster movie than a family tragedy by way of Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky (whom it directly referenced), in which some of the characters merely happened to be hoods. That Gray, then a newly minted graduate of the USC film school, showed considerable command of the medium was undeniable, although so was his habit of exploiting the angst and suffering of his characters at the expense of any other emotions — a tendency that became increasingly problematic over the course of his next two films.
Family and lawlessness were also the dominant concerns of Gray’s second feature, The Yards (2000), in which a recently paroled felon (Mark Wahlberg) is stunted in his efforts to go straight by a childhood friend (Joaquin Phoenix) who helps Wahlberg’s subway-contractor uncle to sabotage the competition. Once again, the film was handsomely crafted and powerfully acted, the mood unrelievedly bleak — so much so that the movie’s producer and distributor, Harvey Weinstein, forced Gray to shoot a positivist epilogue for the film’s theatrical release (subsequently excised for the DVD version). For We Own the Night, Gray reunited his Yards stars for the story of two brothers in conflict — one (Wahlberg) the dutiful good son in a family of cops, the other (Phoenix) the flamboyant manager of a night club frequented by Russian drug runners. It is a morose morality play seemingly cobbled together out of odds and ends of Gray’s previous films (to say nothing of countless superior New York police stories), which I found the least impressive of Gray’s work when it premiered in competition at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. But by that point, Gray had already become nearly as loaded a subject in Franco-American cultural relations as California wines and “freedom fries.”
In 2006, when We Own the Night was still in the editing room, a writer for the French cultural magazine Télérama traveled to L.A. for the express purpose of interviewing Gray about his forthcoming feature, and upon my arrival in Cannes the following May, the buzz around the film had reached a veritable fever pitch. When We Own the Night finally screened, it earned (as The Yards had before it) some of the most glowing French reviews of the festival. Even Little Odessa, the only Gray film to premiere at Venice instead of Cannes, had been warmly embraced in France, earning one especially valuable partisan in the form of legendary French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol, who deemed it “the American film that most struck me in the past few years.”
Meanwhile, U.S. cultural tastemakers greeted Night with a now-familiar mix of polite dismissals and hostile sarcasm. “There is certainly nothing fancy or gimmicky about this movie. But there is nothing especially interesting or new, either,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, while Baltimore Sun critic Michael Sragow quipped, “The plotting is so rickety that the action hinges on suspicions roused by a character carrying a cigarette lighter and matches. Is that more rare or suspect than a man wearing a belt and suspenders?” Whereas in France the film received almost unanimously positive reviews in major publications, stateside it topped out at a mere 55 percent “fresh rating” on the review-aggregator Web site Rotten Tomatoes. Even the movie’s detractors, however, seemed to agree that its pièce de résistance — a third-act car chase conceived as a rain-slicked homage to none other than The French Connection — was pretty damn cool. And, for the first time in Gray’s career, the audience took note, giving the director, whose previous films had struggled to get to $1 million at the box office, a modest $28 million hit.
Gray, of course, isn’t the first case of an American film artist being taken more seriously abroad than at home. In the 1950s, it was the critics (including Chabrol) at the influential French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma who first championed the films of enterprising genre directors like Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann, while also arguing for the personal artistry evident in the work of such popular Hollywood filmmakers as Howard Hawks, John Ford and Nicholas Ray. In the decades since, Clint Eastwood and Mickey Rourke have been among those venerated in France years before the hometown crowd got with the program. Indeed, as the critic Michel Ciment of the French film magazine Positif suggested to me, so rich is the history of Gallic support for overlooked American masters, how could they possibly be wrong about James Gray? Well, I replied, there’s a first time for everything.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Gray returned to Cannes in 2008 with a film, Two Lovers, that not only signaled a departure from the realm of cops and robbers but seemed to me the work of a mature, sensitive artist in total control of his craft. Loosely adapted from Dostoevsky’s short story “White Nights,” Two Lovers is an unexpectedly delicate romantic drama that charts the gradually deepening affection of two damaged people: Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix again), a depressive young man recovering from a suicide attempt, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the beautiful legal secretary who moves into Leonard’s Brighton Beach apartment building.
Leonard’s dry-cleaner parents have taken to pressing him into courtship with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the proverbial nice Jewish girl; Michelle, meanwhile, has put too much faith in the married lawyer (Elias Koteas) who claims he’s going to leave his family for her. Through a series of exquisitely tender, unhurried exchanges, these lonely strangers come to see in each other the chance for a new beginning. And while it would surely be expecting too much for Gray to make a movie in which everyone lives happily ever after, Two Lovers is the first of his films that allows sustained passages of pleasure and hope amid the gloom — a reminder that even the Bard managed to bestow upon his tragedy-prone characters moments of grace and comic relief.
“I had been very obsessed with making a picture that had no ’80s or ’90s in it, where there would be no irony, no pretense about experimenting formally, that in a way would have an almost intentionally banal surface,” Gray told me over a recent lunch at L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. “Underneath the surface, the ambition of it entirely — and I don’t know if it succeeds at this, but this was the intent — would be that everybody’s emotional life was completely valid.” At this, Gray has in fact succeeded, although the result is a movie that seems even further removed from the language of modern-day Hollywood romance than Gray’s crime films did from post-Tarantino snark. Nobody hooks up online or gets dumped by text message, and when the characters speak — face to face — they express their feelings simply and directly: “I love you so much” or “I can’t be with you anymore” instead of “He’s just not that into you.”
When he recently screened Two Lovers for students at USC, Gray was taken aback by the apathy the audience exhibited toward the characters’ emotional travails. “There’s this moment at the end of the film where Vinessa says to Joaquin, ‘You’re crying.’ I’ve seen that scene about a trillion times, because every time I do one of these screenings, I keep coming in around that point. But this was the first time that I’d seen the audience laugh at that moment. That’s cynicism. That’s postmodern irony. That’s them saying that any attempt at melancholy is ridiculous. I thought, ‘You know what? I think we need a draft and then all of a sudden that sense of melancholy would come back.’ I’m kidding, but I just felt very disconnected. I felt old. I’m 39 and I felt old.”
Such unironic sentiments are a hard sell at the movies these days, but Gray is helped immeasurably by a first-rate cast led by his longtime collaborator, who plays the shy, childlike Leonard with the same effortless conviction and vibrant physicality he brought to the charismatic hustlers of The Yards and We Own the Night. Of Phoenix, who has stated publicly that Two Lovers will be his last film performance before he segues into a music career, Gray says, “Joaquin has been a famous person for many years and has been acting since he was 5, and yet somehow he still understands how to be completely awkward and totally screwed up. I must say I think this is the best work he’s done for me — I hope I can get him to do it again.”
The film’s true revelation, however, is Paltrow, who reveals a plaintive vulnerability beneath her outgoing girl-next-door facade in a role that offers her a welcome reprieve from the life sentence of sprightly ingenues to which Shakespeare in Love seemed to condemn her. “Gwyneth and I definitely talked about showing a person whose surface would be as a winner — Gwyneth Paltrow shows up and you think, ‘winner,’” says Gray. “Then I wanted to reveal that she is as much a loser as anybody else, as all of us. Fragile and fucked up.”
For one of Two Lovers’ most talked-/blogged-about scenes, in which Paltrow bares her breast to Phoenix from her bedroom window, Gray says he gave the actress an unusual direction for the take that ultimately ended up in the movie: “I said, ‘You’re a call girl, and this guy hires you.’ She said, ‘Interesting.’ We did the scene again, she showed her breast, and then she went like this” — Gray makes a shamed face — “like she’d been raped or something.
“She’s a wonderful actor. She’s been underutilized. She knows it, by the way. The sad truth for American actors is that they really have no control whatsoever over the material that they get, or can do, particularly actresses. And if you’re over 40 and you’re an actress, forget it.”
Every bit as pleasantly surprising as Gray’s new film is Gray himself, a tall, terminally self-effacing figure in glasses, a scruffy beard and tufts of reddish-brown hair, who looks every inch the native New Yorker, even though he, his wife and two young children now live in a Laurel Canyon home that once belonged to Joni Mitchell. A gregarious conversationalist and an omnivorous cinephile, who often skipped class during high school to take in double features at Manhattan’s then-bustling revival movie houses, he spends as much of our nearly three-hour interview talking about the films of Ford, Fellini and Kubrick — many of which he classifies as “fucking amazing” — as he does his own, not to mention why he thinks Obama should appoint a national secretary of the arts, and why baseball is “the second greatest invention in the history of man” (the first being penicillin). Gray frequently pauses to ask if he’s boring me, which I assure him he’s not. When the subject does turn to his work, he tiptoes around any potentially self-aggrandizing statements, and later follows up by e-mail to make sure I understand that just because he happened to mention Akira Kurosawa, by no means was he comparing himself to the great Japanese master.
Although he claims not to read his reviews — merely summaries of them prepared by his publicist — Gray finds it amusing that the “Gallic fetish object” line was mine. “I swear to God I didn’t know that,” he says. “That is awesome. That’s funny to me.” He agrees, he says, that his films “have a certain unrelenting darkness, which I’ve tried to amend very seriously, because I think that’s not life, really. If I look at the films I really admire, they do have multiple textures in them, they tend not to be like bullets.”
That in turn gets Gray talking about another of his favorite filmmakers, the French director Robert Bresson, who himself adapted “White Nights” into the 1971 film Four Nights of a Dreamer. “Most of the time when I watch a film — I’m sure the same is true for you — even if you love the film, you can see the antecedents to it. Even with 2001, which I love, you watch it and you go, ‘OK, he clearly was trying to improve on a whole host of science-fiction movies that he had seen and [avant-garde filmmaker] Jordan Belson’s Allures.’ With Bresson, I literally watch that guy and I don’t understand how the movies operate, I don’t know where he got it from — to me it seems like from Mars. The guy is beyond sublime, and he’s pretty consistently great. It’s hard to say that any movie by Bresson is bad.”
When I finally manage to steer the discussion back to Two Lovers, Gray tells me that, in addition to being inspired by Dostoevsky, he borrowed a few pages from Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece of obsession, Vertigo, in which Jimmy Stewart’s acrophobic San Francisco detective falls deeply under the spell of a friend’s beautiful, doomed wife, and later, for another woman who appears to be the reincarnation of the first. While the story of Two Lovers hinges on no such sinister underpinnings, it does evince a similar interest in the strange, fetishistic chemistry of desire — what draws us, sexually, to one person and repels us from another.
“I was talking about the film on the radio the other day,” says Gray, “and I remembered this French poem by Louis Aragon, which loses something in the English: ‘In vain, your image comes to meet me/And I am the only one who finds it/On the wall of my own gaze you can find/Only your dreamed of shadow.’ Meaning, of course, that what I find in you is simply a projection, that I love in you what it is that I lack. As ugly an admission as this is, I met my wife at a party, and if I had been to the same party and she were dressed in different clothes, I might never have talked to her. She might have projected something that I found distasteful, even if she otherwise looked exactly the same — a beautiful woman to me.”
So it was important to Gray that in Two Lovers, the rival for Leonard’s affections should herself be an attractive, sympathetic woman and not a caricatured shrew. “I wanted Sandra to be appealing, because to me, it should be, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with him — he’s already got this girl who likes him.’ But she likes Leonard because she projects things like, ‘Oh, I want to save him’ and ‘You’re more interesting than the other guys who are after me.’ I’ve known women like that. Everybody is fucked because the entire idea of love in itself is so preposterous. Am I making a fucking bit of sense?”
If Two Lovers feels like a particularly personal project for Gray, he’s quick to point out that, for all his earlier films’ genre attributes, they too were rooted in a strong sense of autobiography. Born in 1969, Gray grew up in one of New York’s outer boroughs (Flushing, Queens, to be precise) during what he describes as the city’s “darkest period, of the postwar years anyway.” His mother, a home-economics teacher who, like the matriarch in Little Odessa, suffered from brain cancer, died when he was 19. His father, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, worked for a company that manufactured subway parts and became mired in a bribery scandal upon which Gray based The Yards. Gray also chalks up the contentious fraternal bonds that course through his films to his own “textured” relationship with his older brother, with whom, he says, he’s now very close.
“I’ve tried to make them as close as I can to home movies,” says Gray, who borrowed furniture from his father’s apartment for the set of Two Lovers and drew strongly on his own memories of the class envy he felt as a boy, looking out his bedroom window at the glittering Manhattan skyscrapers just over the Queensborough Bridge. “You might as well have been 2,000 miles away,” he says. “I remember my mother was very class-conscious — not a social climber, because she couldn’t be. But “They have more money than God” was constantly part of the conversation. So I think all of these things have made it into the movies.”
By the same token, Gray acknowledges that the old screenwriter’s adage “Write what you know” has its limits. “The great pictures of the filmmakers we admire, from the studio system in particular, but even the European filmmakers of the ’50s and ’60s — they weren’t home movies,” he says. “They made films which were expressing their personal sentiments using other genres. And in a perverse way, I may be too close, have been too close, to my subjects.”
That’s one reason why Gray is looking forward to the challenge of his next movie, The Lost City of Z, a Conradian historical adventure based on the life of British archaeologist and surveyor Percy Harrison Fawcett, who in 1906 was dispatched by the Royal Geographic Society to map a hotly contested rubber-producing region on the border of Bolivia and Brazil. Over the course of subsequent expeditions, Fawcett became obsessed with proving that an entire highly advanced civilization had once existed deep in the jungles of Mato Grosso, until he disappeared in the midst of one such journey in 1925. Gray signed on to the project after Brad Pitt sent him an advance of New Yorker writer David Grann’s forthcoming Fawcett biography; Pitt will produce the film and is also expected to star.
When I ask Gray if he has any trepidation about tackling a big-budget major-studio production with one of the biggest movie stars in the world, he says, “I have huge apprehension, but you know what? If it’s something that Pitt ends up doing, that’s a huge weapon in your arsenal. And look, the key is not to make something the studios hate. The key is to do something which essentially squares the circle. Jean-Pierre Melville said, around 1970, ‘It takes more guts and more talent to make a classical film than a modern one,’ and he said it because [classical] films have to work on two different levels. You have the ‘A’ story and then what is beneath the surface of the film. If you’re making an art movie — which, by the way, is something obviously that I love — it’s OK to be very direct about your intellectual ambitions. With a studio film, you kind of can’t do that, but sometimes it turns out to be even more rewarding.”
And with that, Gray starts talking about other people’s movies again — specifically those of John Ford. Two Christmases ago, Gray’s wife gifted him with the 24-film Ford at Fox DVD collection, and the first one he put on was the 1946 classic My Darling Clementine. By the time he arrived at the famous scene in which Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp walks Doc Holiday’s titular erstwhile sweetheart to a dance at the construction site of Tombstone’s very first church, Gray was in tears. “They’re building the church — it’s like the most moving thing ever,” he says. “Why is that so moving?” One reason, he thinks, might be that Ford, like the historian and essayist Paul Fussell (of whom Gray is also a great admirer), was a World War II vet who witnessed things firsthand that most men hope never to see.
“I think Ford was maybe a little tougher than we are,” he says, “and that pathos, that melancholy, that sense of loss is so remarkable. If I ever make a movie that has one nine-hundredth the longing, the kind of profound emotional commitment that Henry Fonda walking to church has, I’ll be a happy guy.”