After the premiere screening of UNBROKEN, the new film from Universal Pictures directed by actress- turned-director Angelina Jolie, I had a chance for a brief talk with her at the Wallis Theatre in Beverly Hills. We discussed Louis Zamperini, the indomitable man whose life provided the basis for the book and film. I mentioned that I had dinner with Louis at his favorite restaurant two years ago, before he died. She laughed and said, "The Louis Zamperini Room at EL CHOLO, he loved that place. " I then astonished her with the news that Louis had been the babysitter for Ron Salisbury, the owner of El Cholo, in the '30s when both were kids. I told her that Ron had given me a copy of Laura Hillenbrand's book, Unbroken, and when I read it I told him that I thought it was almost impossible to film...the scope was too great, from an unruly childhood in Torrance, California to blinding speed in winning a 5,000 meter race at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, from being a U.S. Army Air Force bombardier in World War II to crashlanding, spending 47 days floating 2,000 miles on a raft in the Pacific (think leaping sharks). Then the startling story goes into the brutal saga of the two and a half years he spent in Japanese prison camps. I shook my head at Jolie in admiration and told her that, as a long-time film producer, I must give producer Matt Baer and her a huge 'bravo' for licking the story in such an admirable way.
It was filmed mainly in Australia on a very tight budget and schedule. I have known Matt for a long time and knew that for 17 years he has been striving to make this film, even before there was the book. I was officed at Universal doing my W.C. Fields & Me movie and remembered hearing that Tony Curtis was going to do it. She said that she had shown the 97-year old Louis scenes from the unfinished film on her iPad in his hospital room in several 20-minute segments before he died. I kind of startled the 39-year old woman by saying I had written what may have been one of her first interviews as an actress when she did HBO's "Gia" and I saw it and her at the DGA in 1998. A critic wrote of her performance in that film as the addicted supermodel Gia Carangi, "It was the most beautiful train wreck ever filmed." A lot of water has gone under the bridge for both of us since then.
I told Angelina that she had achieved a miraculous feat of casting by finding the now-23 year old Jack O'Connell and taking a chance on him. It worked brilliantly. (He was standing beside her as I said this. He looked buff and fit, unlike the wan, beat-up guy in much of the film.) Neglected to ask her why they had omitted the scene at the Berlin Olympics when Hitler had to shake Louis' hand. Perhaps it was better to omit that. She did say that she and Brad (Pitt) had lived just across the canyon in sight of Louis' house for several years without knowing each other. Louis' daughter said in an interview that her father, whose wife of 55 years, Cynthia, died in 2001, fell instantly for Angie. "He got to fall in love again at the end of his life." Jolie said that it was reciprocated; he became like a father to her, and I remembered that her father - from whom she was estranged for years but is now reconciled - is Jon Voight, who once was set to play Ernest Hemingway in my long-gestating film, Ernest & Mary, about the author's life.
I must say that I was deeply impressed by the stunning woman, not just her exquisite looks but her calm, casual, easy-going manner..,,yet I sensed her wary, guarded demeanor behind the wide smile as we talked. After our initial conversation I introduced her to my two female friends and she asked them where they were from: they replied Lithuania and Russia....and she then zeroed in and asked them some pertinent questions about their life and how long they have been here. She mentioned that she had directed her first film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, in the Balkans. She told a reporter for The New York Times this week that in that film about two lovers caught in the Bosnian war, she had explored the vicious personal fallout for the two lovers. "It's definitely something I'm questioning in life. Man's inhumanity to man, and the human condition, and what the effects are of war." Certainly, this is something which is explored in all its horrific nature in UNBROKEN. I must admit that I had qualms about some of the brutal scenes in the Japanese internment camp, where the cruel young commander of the camp, knicknamed The Bird, takes a personal interest in beating and humiliating Louis. Jolie told us that she had walked a fine line in the beating sequences....."Too soft and it would have been unbelievable, yet too brutal and it would have been unwatchable." Interestingly, I watched the famous young Japanese musical star, Miyavi, who in his first acting role played The Bird, the vicious camp commander, as he strode about the after-party, and sensed that it was not all play with him. He was a commanding, imperious presence....probably due to his fame as an international rock star. (I saw more than my share of prisoner camps in Korea during that war, when we had thousands of angry Chinese and North Korean soldiers under guard, and can testify that no Americans approached that level of brutality....but no prinsoner-of-war camp is a picnic.) The picture ends with a sort of postscript showing Louis after the war, where he went back to Japan and forgave his captors, even showing a clip of the real Louis running a lap of the 1998 Olympic torch relay in the streets of Tokyo. All of his captors were touched by his gesture but The Bird, who refused to meet with him. The Billy Graham people have posted a website about how Louis joined their campaign and church in later life. I have no comment on that.
My Huffington readers may recall that last week I favorably reviewed the movie, Selma, and suggested that the woman director, Ava DuVernay, would be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Now, wouldn't it be nice if we saw two women get nominated. That would be something unprecidentingly great. Incidentally, I attended a small media lunch on Sunday hosted by Universal's Donna Langley, Jeff Shell and Ron Meyer, the latter a very old friend and 20-year subscriber to my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter, where we could talk further to Angelina 'bout the film. But she could not attend....because the mother of six (three natural and three adopted) had contracted chickenpox! Guess wonder woman is human after all!
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