ivans xtc. (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
(Some movie sites list the date as 2002, since that is when the film finally received an unenthusiastic two screen trial.)
Super-agent Jay Moloney was a Hollywood legend who became a Hollywood mystery. Starting as a student intern and mail room clerk, he gradually rose at CAA until he represented the biggest of the big, and moved in the fastest lane Hollywood had to offer. At various times, his client list included Steven Spielberg, Sean Connery, Martin Scorsese, and Dustin Hoffman. His girlfriends included Sherilyn Fenn, Gina Gershon, and Jennifer Grey. His "conversions" (people he convinced to switch from other agencies to CAA) included Mike Nichols and Tim Burton. He was so powerful that in the Spring of 1995 he announced to a table full of celebrities that Mike Ovitz was about to leave CAA to take the presidency of Universal Studios, leaving Moloney to run CAA. Such was his reputation that nobody at the table doubted him for a moment.
One of the people at that table was the British director Bernard Rose, himself a Moloney client at one time, and the classic Hollywood outsider who always felt himself to be watching the proceedings with a slack jaw. Rose gave the matter no additional thought at the time, busied himself with a project in the next year and a half, and lost track of Moloney until December of 1996, when CAA suddenly announced that Moloney had been fired.
What the ...? He fell from the role of heir apparent to complete unemployment in less than two years? That's tragic hero country, right there. Rose started to think that Moloney's story might have great promise for a screenplay.
Another two years passed, and Rose started to wonder what had happened to Moloney since his fall from grace, so he called his own agent at CAA and asked the question directly. Nobody knew. Moloney had fallen completely off the earth, eventually resurfacing as a janitor at a Caribbean resort. If you or I had been making a million dollars per year while still in our late 20s, we could easily have survived being fired, and probably could have lived comfortably for the rest of our lives without ever working. Moloney was not you or I. He spent money as fast as he made it, perhaps faster, knowing that the money would keep rolling in indefinitely. He was in his twenties, and he intended to start saving at some time in the future. That future never arrived. He had a massive cocaine habit, and his possessions were mortgaged. He could not make the payments on anything, and lost it all.
When he heard of Moloney's complete disappearance from the industry, and even from basic respectability, Rose was completely convinced that the agent's fall would make a great story, and he resolved to write and direct it himself. He needed a basic structure for the film, and he felt he had already found the right one. In the interim between the Spring of 1995 and the period in 1998 when he started to construct his fictional version of Moloney's story, Bernard Rose had directed a film inspired by one Tolstoy story, Anna Karenina, and had become interested in another, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Rose saw a strong connection between Tolstoy's Ilyich story and Jay Moloney's life. The fictional Ivan Ilyich was an unrepentant social climber in the complex Russian civil service system, and he had cast aside any concepts of warmth, loyalty, and love in order to advance his career at all costs. When he found out he was dying, he realized that he had nothing to show for his life, no spiritual roots, and nothing to comfort him in his agony. Although he had fancied himself as an important man, neither the system nor any people would truly miss him. It was only on his deathbed that he felt "ecstasy" (xtc. - get it?), as a release from the burden of his cares and fears.
Updating the story of Ivan Ilyich, using Jay Moloney as a vehicle, became the focus of Rose's efforts. The two stories were blended together to form a single fictional life. Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich had been an abstemious, almost anhedonic man, but Jay Moloney had lived a wastrel's life, so in that case the film drew from Moloney's life. On the other hand, the film's central character was not merely fired, but found out that he was to die, so in that case, Rose's fictional agent suffered the fate of Ivan Ilyich, not the fate of Jay Moloney.
The film's Ivan, called Ivan Beckman, came to grips with death by dealing with it all alone. He could never bring himself to tell his artistic father and sister, who disapproved of his soul-destroying lifestyle. His relationship with his regular girlfriend was not a spiritual connection, and he chose not to involve her in his agony. When he was asked to bring a friend to a doctor's appointment, he realized that he had nobody he wanted to bring. Even his admiring secretary was too busy. So he struggled for ways to cope on his own. He read a bunch of humbug books about homeopathic medicine. He buried himself in a cloud of drugs. He told nobody he was dying, except a couple of anonymous coke whores. When his death was announced at a staff meeting, nobody really believed it. When they were told he died of cancer, they assumed it was a "cover story." When his cynical fellow agents finally became convinced of the harsh reality, they declared a few seconds of silence, then quickly started to scramble to take care of Ivan's clients. Reflection, after all, generates no profit and therefore has no place at a staff meeting.
The story of how this script was created has one last chapter. On the very morning in 1999 when Bernard Rose prepared to screen a first cut of ivans xtc., he received a startling message from his agent: "Jay Moloney hanged himself today."
Rose later contended that the death of Moloney killed his film, because it caused the people at CAA to close ranks. Rose told an interviewer about the situation:
I liked ivans xtc, and was fascinated by it in many ways. Yet, despite a great lead performance, the film is not entirely successful.
The cinematography is inconsistent. The movie was shot entirely in digital video. I have seen other digital video movies that look every bit as good as film (Species III is not a good movie, but the digital video looks spectacular), but parts of ivans xtc. look more like a home movie, poorly lit and even blurry. I can't tell you whether this can be attributed to a poor DVD transfer or Rose's failure to master digital video. I'm pretty sure that it must be the latter because some scenes look quite good, a fact which tends to exonerate the guys who mastered the DVD. To tell you the truth, I think it looks like a home movie because it pretty much is a home movie. Rose's live-in love, Lisa Enos, also acted as producer, star, and co-author. Rose himself played the Chopin works on the musical score. Many of the performers (or non-performers, in some cases) came from the ranks of Rose's circle of friends and relatives of friends. Even the one truly brilliant performer in the film, Danny Huston, is Rose's friend, having met Rose when Danny's wife (Virginia Madsen at the time) was working on Rose's Candyman.
The music is very heavy-handed. I suppose Rose felt that the Aristotelian fall of his tragic hero and the story's provenance from Tolstoy required him to slather on the somber classical music. Chopin and Wagner, especially Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, dominate the score. A certain very wise man once wrote, "Most of the worst music ever composed was written in the 1970s. It was the worst single period in the history of music, with the possible exception of Wagner's lifetime." Given a contemporary Hollywood setting, and no horned helmets, even a little bit of Wagner is probably too much to avoid pretentiousness.
The acting is equally inconsistent. Because I expect professional actors to do their jobs, and they usually do, I don't comment on the acting unless it is either very poor or very good. Ivans xtc. has a bit of both. There are some performers in the film who are obviously not actors at all, so there is not much sense in noting who they are, or repeating that they delivered amateurish performances. They know who they are, and what they've done, and they will probably never get a chance to repeat their mistakes.
On the other hand, Danny Huston is absolutely tremendous in the lead role. The trick in playing this role is that the film is not a satire of the film industry. It is the film industry, at least as Bernard Rose sees it, portrayed without irony. Ivan the agent, therefore, must be a real person. He cannot seem to be like Basil Fawlty, the kind of transparently sycophantic scumbag normally pictured in satirical films, because men like Sean Connery and Steven Spielberg do not get fooled by people like that. The Ivan of this film had to be a man with so many inherently pleasant qualities that he could convince Hollywood's biggest players, who represent a wide range of different personality types, that they should spend time with him. Yet he also had to be a man ruthless and conniving and connected enough that the big Hollywood names could look at him and say, "I have to have this guy working for me, not for my competitors." Ivan treats everyone with respect, not just the big players. He is gentle and considerate with his secretary, with his dog, and with hookers. He is unfailingly polite to garage mechanics, waiters, and store clerks. His weakness is not that he is a bad person, but that he is a person untrue to himself. He is always acting and he knows it. As a result, he has told his inner self to disappear, and has turned his life over to his work personality. In essence, Ivan has no opinions nor personality of his own. He becomes whatever his clients want and need, whether they are coke-addicted homophobes or teetotaling orthodox Jews, whether they are insecure NYU intellectuals or old-time Hollywood party boys. He admits to his artistic father that he lives a silly, meaningless life, but it is his life, and he is committed to it. And how do you walk away from a million dollars a year?
Danny Huston brought that guy to life. According to Bernard Rose, Danny is a reluctant actor. I'm not sure why, but damned if he isn't quite brilliant at it. He is capable of throwing something totally unique up on the screen. He has a lightweight charm which seems to conceal a gravitas which, if unleashed, might equal that of his famous father, the legendary John Huston. It's a shame that Danny waited until he was 40 before deciding he was really meant to be an actor.
Made for a paltry $500,000, this film has a lot of rough edges, and yet it has a very substantial elemental power which springs from its irony-free vision of modern Hollywood, and the complexity of the Ivan character, as acted by Danny Huston, and as written by Bernard Rose (and, I suppose, Leo Tolstoy).
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