Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Venice Film Festival Diaries
Day 9

by Howard Feinstein

Friday, September 6

My close confidante Helen von Layers is so excited. She saw Tom Cruise when he did a limited photo call at the Hotel Excelsior. Okay, so he doesn't have a film in the festival, but he has a wife here, and she's the star of "The Portrait of a Lady", and if that justifies a photo call, well then, it's okay with me. And tonight Helen and I are going to a party at the Palazzo Pisani Moretta, on Venice's Grand Canal, to help Nicole and Tom celebrate the movie. I'm so glad it's starting at 11:00 p.m.: If I have to watch Helen slobber at the windows in the Prada boutique one more time, I'm going to slap her. I mean, it's one thing if Nicole wears Prada, but Helen has been putting on weight lately, and a caftan is probably more flattering in her case than a halter top.

I don't know who designed Nicole's outfit when I spoke to her, but it was beautiful. She was wearing black satin pants, and a very tight black sleeveless knit top. She is so thin, and has the most beautiful complexion and blue eyes I've ever seen. And she's smart.

She enjoys talking about her role as Isabel Archer, Henry James's heroine as re-created by "Portrait of a Lady" director Jane Campion. Poor Isabel is a young American woman who goes to England in the 1870s, inherits money from her uncle, enters the British class system, and, on the mean-spirited advice of bitchy Madame Serena Merle (a startling Barbara Hershey), turns down marriage proposals from good men (Richard E. Grant, Martin Donovan in an Academy Award-worthy performance as a consumptive) for an opportunistic American dilettante in Italy named Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich, playing John Malkovich).

"Henry James taught me to throw myself into life and to stay emotionally present, and not to be frightened of suffering and pain," Nicole says. "It was the first time I went to a 'place' where I couldn't go back to my hotel room and say, 'Let's go out to dinner.' Jane didn't want me to do that. She's very demanding, but in a good way.

"I certainly had relations in my past where I was attracted to persons for strange reasons, relationships you just can't get out of.

"When Gilbert Osmond kisses Isabel, it's the first time in her life she's been kissed. Her whole body lights up. It sends electricity through her body. Two people have a sexual attraction, and it just can't be explained. It never is."

When I told Helen what Nicole said, she just looked at me with her beady little eyes. "I'm glad Nicole at least knows enough to describe what sexual attraction is!" Helen shouted. "I've been here looking for an actor or a marketing exec or a gondolier this whole festival, and I haven't had the opportunity to feel one volt of current surge through my body."

I told Helen that we must remain optimistic, like Henry James. Everybody finds someone sometime, whether it's Nicole or Helen von Layers. And since the festival is over tomorrow, and Helen and I have an early morning flight back to the States, we'll just have to wait until the next Venice for a true Italian jolt. Daverro. Really.

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