Bossa Nova

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By Todd R. Ramlow

Tailor-made suits are coming back into fashion

It is, of course, nothing new to remark on the distinctive age bias facing women in typical Hollywood films. As Amy Irving sums it up, “In the U.S., with very few exceptions, actresses older than 35 are simply discarded.” Things, however, might slowly be changing, as all the hubbub over Rene Russo’s performance in The Thomas Crowne Affair is one recent example, as Irving herself is intimately aware. “Three years ago, we [Irving and her husband, director Bruno Baretto and their two boys] moved from Los Angeles to New York, and I thought that my movie career was finished. I was quite happy to dedicate myself 100% to the theater. Surprisingly enough, I’ve never gotten so many work offers. It’s so exciting, this feeling of a new beginning’ after 40.”

Irving’s new film, Bossa Nova, directed by her husband, should do plenty to build on this “new beginning.” In the film, Irving plays Mary Ann, a 40-ish American widow who is the center of this delightful romantic comedy set against the lush beauty of Rio de Janeiro. The film is, throughout, seductive, charming and sexy, much like Irving herself, in the film and in person. Originally, I was to meet with both Irving and Baretto. But, coming to the end of a whirlwind press tour of the US, both found themselves a bit under the weather, and as Irving was the less sick of the pair, she sent Baretto home, and finished their press obligations alone. My initial disappointment at not being able to speak with Baretto was quickly forgotten as I met Irving, who, nursing a cold in sleek black leather pants and stack heel boots, held forth on love, marriage and raising two boys, and on the difficulties and pleasures of cross-cultural relationships personally, politically, and professionally.

Bossa Nova is dedicated to the Brazilian bossa nova artist Tom Jobim and Francois Truffaut, who, Irving says, “Bruno feels knew how to do romantic comedies better than anyone.” The visions of love and Rio offered by Bossa Nova and influenced by Jobim and Truffaut, are largely concerned with notions of style and elegance, topics that clearly are important in Irving and Baretto’s relationship. “Elegance is something that Bruno is obsessed with. I mean, he is outraged by the way that people go on airplanes. There was a time when people dressed to travel, and he has an elegance to him, he likes style. He wanted to make a film in which the love affairs had style, and glamour, and also to show that a couple over 40 could still have style and elegance and sexuality. For Bruno’s birthday this year, I had his first tailored suit made for him. I have never seen him so happy. He really wants to bring some elegance back. He loves the films of Howard Hawks, the timeless love stories.

“I used to travel in tennis shoes; I am just not allowed to anymore. I’m an old hippie from San Francisco, and for a while I went totally the direction he wanted me to go, but then I said, we have to find a compromise, because I just have to be who I am. But I think it’s great to bring some style back to life. And you know, the baby boomers are getting older, and those off the rack clothes are just not fitting right any longer, and so, tailor-made suits are coming back into fashion.”

These cultural differences in desire and expectation, or the differences that separate Brazilian director from San Francisco hippie, inform Irving and Baretto’s life together in other ways too. Indeed, these differences give them strength, perhaps nowhere more so than in language and linguistic protocols. Irving says, “Bruno speaks English fluently now, but at the beginning there were definitely moments where I would laugh at him. Now he laughs at me… At first I was kind of scared to talk, because I thought everyone was going to laugh. Now I don’t worry about it. I went on a talk show in Brazil and said “bitch of a son,” instead of “son of a bitch,” and the audience was all laughing. But I realized that it’s okay, it’s part of my charm now. For Bruno, what was most important for him in terms of the film is the word “love,” the use of the word love. Americans really do just throw it around. It took years for me to hear him say it, and I knew he loved me. He would say, “I really like you a lot,” or “I adore you,” but never “I love you.” I think it took about ten years for him to say it. For a Latin man, it comes from the very depth of your soul, and it is monumental. He’s become a bit more American now; he says it more often. It’s funny, when I am mad at him I will swear in Portuguese, and when we get into endearments we use Portuguese. I think it’s more beautiful.”

These questions come up as well in relation to Irving and Baretto’s sons Gabriel (10), and Max (15, from Irving’s previous marriage to Steven Spielberg). “At first Bruno didn’t speak Portuguese in front of the boys. We were living in America, and he didn’t want to feel alienated from them. At first Gabriel was uncomfortable having a Brazilian father, when all the other kids had American fathers. Then he started to spend more time in Brazil and he’s really embraced the culture, he loves Brazil.”

She goes on, “At home with Bruno, there is a lot of head banging. We’ve been together eleven years and I think we’re just now figuring out how to cohabitate. It has taken a long time, I mean it’s different cultures. His mother raised him one way, and my mother raised me one way, and we are both right. But there are certain things that I have made him adapt to, and certain things that I have taken from his culture that I like. Like the fact that the kids are being brought up more traditionally, you have a formal dinner, learn table manners, to appreciate good food. Dinner is a very important moment, never in our household will the tv be on during dinner… I resisted that at first, and would say, “Oh, come on, pick your battles.” But now that I see them so well brought up and so well mannered, I am glad, and I think the boys are proud of themselves. A lot of American kids are raised so wild; there’s no respect for adults. I don’t like that. These kids will come to dinner at our house, and they’ll eat with their mouths open, and I will give them three warnings. After the third warning I put a fork under their chin, so, as their mouths get too wide, they’re getting poked with the fork. Yes, I am abusing other people’s children.”

Regardless of the “head banging” at home, for Irving and Baretto working on a movie together is where they come together most intimately. Filmmaking for the couple is itself an act of love. She says, “Living the film Bossa Nova was really romantic. It was like a honeymoon for Bruno and I. We always get closer when we work together; we fall deeper in love. For us, that’s just the place where romance really happens. It’s the one time when he’s the boss. It’s the one time when I have to do everything he tells me, and we get along really, really well at that time.”

This act of love — where the couple’s roles are so defined — translates in the film as nostalgia for a past way of life. An easy criticism of this nostalgia is that it forgets the real social, political, and economic woes that have characterized Rio in recent years; a criticism Irving tries to address and dismiss, although not so convincingly: “Usually the films that come out of Brazil are about the poor and the tragedies of Rio. Bruno had been away for eleven years, and he became more nostalgic for the city. So in Bossa Nova, it’s the Rio he has in his imagination, but it is also all there. I call it the Rio when you’re in love. You walk off the plane in Rio, and your blood temperature goes up. The feel of the wind on your face, the water on your skin, the taste of the food, the music, the sexuality; Brazilians are very comfortable in their sexuality. When I first went to Rio eleven years ago, the film that Bruno showed me, besides his Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, was Pixote, about street kids, and I was terrified. The thing is, like any major city — I live in New York — you have to know where not to go, you have to know where not to wear jewelry, you have to be smart.”

When asked about the ways that the movie invokes national pride, Irving’s remarks in this regard are direct, thoughtful, and assertive. “Brazilians need to work on their own national pride,” she asserts. “I always think that they suffer from national low-self esteem. It’s a lesser-developed country, and they have struggled so much. Sometimes they have an attitude that, if it’s Brazilian, it can’t be good. Right now Bossa Nova is the number one film in Brazil, and the people are so proud that a Brazilian film 1) shows a positive side of Brazil and the people there, and 2) does it in a way that demonstrates the excellence of a larger budget American film. So in that way, it is helping to rejuvenate a national pride. People are proud of Rio, they know it’s a very beautiful city, they know it’s a fantasy city.”

Irving is also outspoken about the different role politics plays in her professional and personal lives in Brazil versus in the United States. She observes, “I know more about Brazilian politics than I know about American politics, because it’s so immediate, it affects your every day life in Brazil. When I first got to Brazil, you couldn’t use a credit card because the inflation rate was so high that by the end of the month, it was an entirely different price that you had to pay. And you didn’t want to exchange too much money, because it devalued so quickly. Here, and especially in Hollywood, people don’t talk about politics all the time, it’s not everyday conversation. You don’t talk about the literature of the moment. The world I know in Brazil is much more intellectual. It’s such a wonderful world to be a part of.”

This assertion of the anti-intellectualism of Hollywood and U.S. culture in general raises our final topic of consideration, in which Irving comments on the her public reception and the differences between working in American and Brazilian film. “I went down to Rio and promoted the film in Portuguese,” she says. “I did the biggest Brazilian talk show in Portuguese, and the people are so appreciative when you communicate in their own language. I got more attention for that than I’ve gotten for anything I’ve ever done in my life. Now Bruno, who has always been the famous one down there, people come up to him and say, “Aren’t you Amy Irving’s husband?” Which he loves, he’s very proud of being able to introduce me to his culture, and to have his culture embrace me.”

No stranger to big-budget Hollywood films (lamentably, her most recent foray into this venue was the abysmal sequel Carrie 2: The Rage), Irving is known more for her involvement in smaller, independent films, and makes the following distinction between the two: “I have to say that because I am so director-oriented, to have their work compromised is very hard… I really loved working on this particular film, although I have worked on independent films that I hated working on. There is a sort of creative purity in an independent film, in the passion of the director, the passion of the crew. They’re not getting a whole lot of money, so you know they are not there because they want to get rich. Instead, they are there because they want to make a movie. In the bigger films, I remember when I used to do those, it’s just a job for a lot of people, so there is less of an intense energy devoted to the whole project.”

This was precisely the environment Irving found during the filming of Bossa Nova. “I woke up every morning at the Copacabana Palace, every day working with the creme de la creme of Brazil. I mean those actors I think were all perfect. Antonio Fagundes is a huge star there. I never heard of him, but he’s HUGE. There would be crowds of women screaming. I thought I was working with Tom Cruise or something. Never a minute of ego, however. They are all theater trained actors. They were so generous to me, they knew I was the stranger in a strange land. There was a lot of give and take, and because of that, the film was a lot of fun to make. I have had good times working with American actors as well. But I’ve worked with American actors who’ve had their hissy fits. It’s almost like American films nurture that in people, they allow it and it really comes from insecurity.”

At the end of our interview, Irving adds, “Actors are not a great breed of people, I don’t think. I count myself as something of an exception. I grew up in the theater, and my values were about the work, and not being a star or anything like that. I’m not spoiled in that way, and if I fight for something, it’s about the work, not about how big my trailer is.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/irving-amy/