Lifeless and Ordinary

The question was supposed to be: “Ted Danson, a mediocre actor at best, rose to fame because of his great hair. Now that it’s gone, so is his career. You, on the other hand, a pretty good actor, seem to be sporting increasingly ridiculous coiffures. Is this a deliberate career move?” Ewan MacGregor even leads me into it. Asked which character he would have chosen to play if he had been in the original Star Wars trilogy, he volunteers Princess Leia. “Because of the nice buns”.

But my proposed question was, I suppose, a little ambitious. Intellectually superficial, sure, but overly ambitious in its length. Somewhat overwhelmed by MacGregor’s ebullience, I stammer out a shortened, scotched version. “Ewan, your haircuts are terrible. And yet your star seems to be going stratospheric precisely because of them.” Not despite, but because. No mention of his being a good actor then. Just the hair. MacGregor responds, mock-offended. “Charming. Fucking charming. Let’s go see the latest Ewan MacGregor film. He’s got fucking awful hair in it. Never mind his acting, his hair’s abysmal...”

I say “mock-offended.” But maybe it should just be offended. When, later in the press conference, someone asks Cameron Diaz about being voted sexiest woman in the world in Maxim’s recent readers’ poll, MacGregor leans over and reassures her, “At least it’s you and not your hair.” Diaz hides her annoyance less well. “That’s all very nice, but I don’t really care. It’s the acting that’s really important.” These are ACTORs, darling. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise...

These are undeniably superficial questions. But the trouble with press conferences is that they are inherently superficial occasions. Essentially exercises in marketing, they are set up to ensure that a product will receive more coverage than just a review, without its producers having to go through all the trauma of an interview. This press conference is typical. MacGregor and Diaz, stars of A Life Less Ordinary, sit shining behind a long desk. To the right of Diaz sits Andrew MacDonald, producer of the film. To the left of MacGregor sits Danny Boyle, director. To his left sits John Hodge, screenplay writer. All are clad in black. Each has a microphone. Each has power.

We, the press, thirty students plus regional reporters and assorted others, fight to shout out our questions. We have forty-five minutes. That’s roughly a minute’s question and answer each. All of the girls and some of the guys drool over MacGregor. All of the guys and some of the girls drool over Diaz. There’s no time to get into deep discussion of the film, and anyway, that would require admitting that it really isn’t very good. And most of us are a little too intimidated to suggest that.

I left the press screening of Hodge, Boyle and MacDonald’s follow-up to Trainspotting and Shallow Grave punch drunk. A Life Less Ordinary’s stated aim is to be a love story for the “gender-political minefield” that is the nineties. But at the same time, the filmmakers have admitted the influence of both Andrew MacDonald’s grandfather Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 collaboration with Michael Powell, A Matter of Life and Death; and Frank Capra’s 1934 romantic comedy, It Happened One Night.

It Happened One Night is most famous for its hitch-hiking scene, in which the ingenue Claudette Colbert shows the experienced traveller Clark Gable what a bit of leg can do. On a hot summer day on an empty dusty road Gable shows Colbert a range of thumb motions. Cars drive by. Colbert ignores all of Gable’s tips, hitches her skirt, and hails a ride in a matter of seconds. The scene is delightful because of its pace and balance, because of the way the protracted failure of the experienced Gable is followed so swiftly by the success of the innocent Colbert, because of its slow start and fast finish. The scene is echoed in A Life Less Ordinary, but here it is fast fast fast, ending with Diaz hijacking the car with a massive revolver. The events are given no space in which to breathe, and consequently all charm is lost.

And that is the trouble with A Life Less Ordinary. In their eagerness to tell a tale less ordinary, Hodge, Boyle and MacDonald have fashioned a film that is all plot but no story. The film features good angels and bad angels, three kidnappings, a baddie called Mr. DeVille, a goodie called God. Pounding techno tracks rub shoulders with British and American contemporary alternative rock and old Motown classics. The film rushes everywhere very fast and very furious but ultimately goes nowhere. It is a triumph of style over substance. It is ideally suited to the press conference.

And so the superficial questions flow. Very thick. Very fast. And very flattering. “Great screenplay, John, how did it evolve?” (Slowly.) “Cameron, after My Best Friend’s Wedding, another great karaoke. Any plans for a third?” (“Three’s a charm, so yes...”) A woman I recognise from last year’s Jerry Maguire press conference asks MacGregor the same question she asked Cuba Gooding Jnr. then: “Do you want to take some more time off now to be with the family?” (“Yes I do. However I’m not about to. No I do need to eventually. But the work’s just too good to turn down. I’m working pretty solidly til next April. I’ll take some time off then.”) When Boyle explains that ‘the Trainspotting team’ turned down Alien Resurrection because they thought they’d make a terrible mess of it, everyone marvels at his modesty. When I leave the press conference, I overhear one male student reporter remarking to another: “I wanted to ask Cameron a question. But she’s just so beautiful and I was just too nervous.” I can imagine what the question was. The same question most of the guys wanted to ask. The same question most of the girls wanted to ask Ewan. The real question hiding behind Good Housekeeping woman’s ostensible question. Fancy forgetting your other half for the night and spending it with me?

The male student is right. Cameron Diaz is beautiful. Even more beautiful in the flesh than she is on film. She is tall and slim but shapely. She has large aquamarine eyes resting just within two chiselled cheekbones. And she is endearingly nervous. Fretting the cuffs of her long-sleeved dress. Making jokes that aren’t funny and then apologising for them when they fall flat.

MacGregor, on the other hand, is the consummate professional.. He is larger than I had expected, hardly the vulnerable type he plays so well in his so many of his films. And, until he sits down and introduces himself, I don’t recognise him. But once in the limelight, he shines. He flashes his trademark cheeky chappie grin. He makes joke after joke after joke. It is yet another performance. He plays himself as he would play himself in any one of his films. Just as his Scottish forebear Sean Connery does. Perhaps rather surprisingly, it is the Hollywood girl who comes across as the actor. The Scot is the star.

The questions continue. A better question. “Danny, have you made a Hollywood film?” (“We wanted to try and make a film that combined some of the best things of our separate cultures. We’re no enemies of popular cinema, and, in fact, I’m as addicted to it as the next person really, although a lot of people don’t own up to it. So we wanted to combine the two elements. We started by combining Ewan and Cameron. Then we tried to combine the music. And elements of the story of both. So, it was to try and do something that didn’t sink in the mid-Atlantic but actually was the best of both worlds. Andrew set up the deal, so it wasn’t a craven collapse to the American system. We retained control of the film and are answerable for everything in it really, nobody made any decisions for us. Although they tried to have them kissing more. Every ten minutes ideally. And they wanted a sex scene. But we wanted the karaoke scene instead.”)

Followed by a rather less good question. “Ewan, if you had no more film work, would you be prepared to do the six months community service work that the present government is starting to bring in for those on the dole?” (“I think I’ve got enough money at the moment to get me through.”)

Finally, a question tinged with negativity. Though phrased so badly that all menace quickly evaporates: “After such huge success so far, are you semi-prepared for the knockers to come out?” (Ewan: “The knockers coming out? Let’s hope so heh?... You can see it happening on this one a wee bit. There’s been pieces written, snidey wee things here and there. I think it’s something to do with the number three. It’s the same with Oasis and their third album which got hammered. It’s a great album. It’s the same with this.” MacDonald: “You could never follow Trainspotting. It became more than a film. This is just a film. No matter what we did, it was never going to follow Trainspotting.”) So, is Trainspotting going to become a stone around their necks? (“No. Not now.”)

He’s right, of course. Trainspotting is less a stone to weigh them down than a life jacket to keep them afloat. If it wasn’t for the snappiness of that film’s title and the eagerness with which it was snapped up, ‘the Trainspotting team’ could be working under a rather less attractive monicker. I suspect that ‘the Shallow team’ or ‘the Ordinary team’ wouldn’t be half as popular.

Clive Johnson


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