"Eternity for me began one fall day in Paris…"
So speaks Peter Coyote’s latest character, Oscar, in Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon. His distinctive voice slides into a crooning,
rolling narrative designed to unlock his tale of lust and cruelty,
folly and passion; emotional greediness. Coyote’s Oscar is a wheelchaired
expatriate, failed novelist and dedicated storyteller on a Mediterranean
cruise with his voluptuous wife, Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner). He entraps
the very proper Nigel (Hugh Grant) with nightly tales of his and
Mimi’s sex life, while Mimi herself is unleashed at both Nigel and
his wife Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas). The tale transcends any acceptable
comfort zone as Oscar’s story of sexual greed crashes all barriers
and rolls into a quest for redemption from human greed.
"I want to remind people it’s very, very funny,"
cautions Coyote at the start of this interview. "In every theater
that I’ve opened it in, I’ve reminded people that they are in the
hands of a master and whatever they feel they are supposed to feel;
there is so much wicked black humor in this film. Once you realize
that Oscar is a bad writer and when he talks that talk – it’s terrible!
But you’ve got permission to laugh. I don’t think the film is as
sexually graphic as it is cruelly graphic. What’s shocking about
the film is its cruelty, not its sexuality."
Coyote’s Oscar is incredible, his debasement of Mimi
so complete – "don’t we love Oscar" growls Coyote wryly
over the phone —at times it’s a struggle to see the redemption.
"What the story is, from my point of view,"
continues Coyote, "is the story of two people without limits.
And it’s a cautionary tale. Because if you think about the trouble
we’re in during the end of the twentieth century, we’re in trouble
because we don’t have limits. We don’t set limits for ourselves;
we don’t set limits about how much of the natural world we’re going
to use; we don’t set limits about how much we’ll promote ourselves
or what we’ll do to win. So it’s (Bitter Moon) kind of operatic,
and it’s kind of exaggerated, and yet it touches everybody. Every
love affair goes through these kinds of phases. There’s a lack of
pity about Oscar, a kind of ruthlessness in that he’s made up his
mind he’s going to die and that gives him a fearlessness that I
Released in Europe last year, Bitter Moon has
already garnered some success for Coyote. Known for his independent
films which fall into cult status (A Man In Love, Heartbreakers),
Coyote may find Bitter Moon added to the list.
"It could achieve a kind of cult status. That
would be great for me; but I no longer have any expectations to
do anything," muses Coyote. "People tell me all the time
they love my work, or I’m their favorite actor. But you’re talking
to a guy who hasn’t done a feature film in the United States in
seven years. Who just left his agent because I’ve only had four
meetings in four years. And yet I’m a guy who the best directors
in the world – I mean I think it’s fair to call Polanski and Almadovar
the best – call up and ask to do the lead in their movies. When
I’m paranoid .1 think `well, I must be blacklisted for some political
thing I did’, who knows. Because I couldn’t get meetings for third
roles. I’m so used to the cold bath. I’m not vain about it at all.
I don’t expect to be up for Harrison Ford’s parts, I don’t expect
to be in competition with those guys. I’ve given that up. What shocks
me is that I can’t get meetings on the small, high I.Q., quirky
Hollywood movies that are getting made. I can’t get meetings for
the second role."
So why can’t—this guy get a job in America?
Why does this "viable movie star in Europe," cross the
Atlantic and become one of the career homeless?
"A funny thing happened to me once in Seattle.
I was in this movie called Heartbreakers, and the producer, who
shall remain nameless, just sort of dumped it. It made fourteen
critics’ top ten lists in the year it came out, but it wasn’t playing
at any theaters. So we took it to Seattle and we opened it at the
Egyptian. We did our own publicity, and it ran for 14 weeks, tied
with Back To The Future week for week. So on the basis of this,
we were going to engineer a sale to another distributor. When the
first distributor heard about it, they dumped it to television for
twenty thousand dollars. It was a total insult; they didn’t want
someone to run off and make something of their film.
"So I got drunk, and I went to lunch with some
interviewer in Seattle and gave a long spiel about larval scum bags
in gold chains. A guy who owned a competitive theater (to the Egyptian)
Xeroxed it and sent copies to everybody in L.A.. What amazed me
was I got about fifteen calls—everybody thought I was talking
about them. People were falling all over themselves to be the larval
scum bag in gold chains. So that might have something to do with
"why can’t this man be hired?"’
His remarkable voice is heard in voice overs and narrations
for documentaries in an effort, Coyote remarks, to pay the bills
and avoid doing bad movies. It’s the same voice that lulls the audience
and shocks Hugh Grant so effectively in Bitter Moon."
"Roman and I watched Laura over and over again
trying to get this fabulous ironic tone that Clifton Webb had in
it," Coyote confides. "Ah Laura," he slips into his
Webb voice, ‘I’ll never forget the first time I saw Laura…’, it’s
just dripping with irony and subtitles. We worked very hard on that."
"Roman was a ceaseless inspiration," Coyote
reveals as we continue to talk about the directing styles he enjoys
working with. "I was frightened all the time I was with him,
that I was not going to be up to his level of acuteness and excellence.
And of course he doesn’t help. We were watching the
Tour de France at his house, and he said, ‘Peter, look at the winners
here. It is five men separated by one, two-one hundredths of a second.
And the winner is one-one hundredth second faster than all the others.
What is this quality of dedication, of perseverance, of training
that allows this man to be one-one hundredth of a second better
than everyone else? This is what I want from you.’ That’s where
"And he is so funny. The toaster scene was my
idea. I just threw it out as a gag during filming, and we stopped,
took the morning, re-wired the toaster and made it happen. He’s
like that, he’s like a big kid."
A writer before he was an actor, Coyote continues
to pursue his literary projects. But don’t expect him to speak kindly
about anyone who is in a position to alter his artistic vision.
"When the Oscars happened last year, all these
little companies got started and said ‘we want to do new things.
We want to do impeccably crafted, character driven scripts.’ So
I wrote a script last year that’s impeccably crafted and character-driven.
I could have done it at ICM with a big star, but I didn’t want to
do my directorial debut where a big star brought the money in, because
it wouldn’t be my film. And I already have two really good actors
for it—Michael Madsen and Elizabeth McGovern.
So I went around the theater circuit meeting all these
young kids, twenty-eight year olds, running the production companies.
It’s not an expensive film. And they were all exactly the same.
They wanted Kathleen Turner, or they wanted Jessica Lange, or they
wanted this one or that one. Finally I blew up at one of these kids
and I said ‘If I had Jessica Lange why would I be talking to you
for four million dollars? Get fucking real, are you that scintillating?"’
"So, basically, the problem with Hollywood is
that people want to be hot, and they’ve forgotten about making something
excellent. I’ve got no problem with pe ople who want to be rich
and famous. The difference is that in Europe, people want to be
rich and famous by doing something well.
In America they want to cut to the chase and just
get rich and famous, and anything which will produce that is okay.
You don’t get people over here anymore wanting to make a four million
dollar film to get five million. You only get people wanting to
make fifty million." MM