Considering that Morton’s work has mostly been a well-kept secret, it was startling to see a movie of Starting Out in the Evening in 2007. The director, Andrew Wagner, who co-wrote the script with Fred Parnes, was almost a novice; he’d made only one previous film, a documentary about traveling across the country with his parents. But though the movie doesn’t come equipped with bells and whistles – it’s modest, almost spare, and contains only one or two scenes with more than three people – it’s hard to envision a transcription of the novel that might be more intelligent or affecting, or a better cast. Frank Langella gives a magnificent performance as Leonard Schiller, an aging writer of the New York intellectual school working on what he knows will be his last novel. It’s a long, painstaking process; he’s never been prolific – he’s published only four books in a lifetime of dedication to his craft – and this particular volume has proven especially thorny and exasperating. Schiller enjoyed a little celebrity in his early days as a writer, but he’s long since been forgotten. A widower, he lives a solitary life except for visits from his daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor). (Morton gave Schiller a cohort, a lively, squabbling group of men who share a passion for politics and art, and it’s a shame Wagner and Parnes didn’t retain the single scene in the book that includes them; in the movie, you wonder why Schiller doesn’t have any friends.) So when Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), an English doctoral student in her twenties, approaches him about making him the subject of his dissertation, he’s caught off guard. She doesn’t just want to write about him; she wants to interview him. She’s determined that the dissertation will wind up as a book that will cast a long overdue light on his contribution to twentieth-century American literature. At first he turns her down, protesting politely that it would be too much of a distraction at a time when he needs to concentrate on completing his own work. But Schiller is only human. At a literary party an editor he’d hoped to interest in the book admits with some embarrassment that his press no longer goes in for projects without obvious commercial potential, and there’s Heather, eager to lead him out of obscurity.
|Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose|
The two women who orbit around Schiller in the picture are complicated. Ariel is a distinctly New York brand of free spirit who drifts from one plan of action to another (she’s currently working as a massage therapist) and now, approaching middle age, she’s unhappy because she can’t find a man who is willing to give her a child and whom she likes enough to want to have a child with. Five years ago she broke up with the only man she’s ever really been in love with, a left-wing political scientist named Casey (Adrian Lester), because he wasn’t interested in a second round of parenting. (He has a son from an early marriage.) Then she runs into him in the street and they start up again, and though Leonard doesn’t approve – he’s leery of Ariel’s getting involved again with a man who has refused to give her the thing she wants most – Casey’s reappearance in her life makes Ariel unreasonably happy. In the early chapters of the novel, Ariel’s restlessness and sourness of spirit make you think that Leonard’s assessment of her as a young woman who lights up a room is merely paternal fondness – that, understandably, he can’t see his own daughter as a loser. But the moment she starts seeing Casey again, you see that her spirit was wounded, not curdled, and that his presence heals it, whatever unresolvable problems there are between them, and that Schiller’s absolutely right about her. (Eventually he comes to the conclusion that she’s right to want Casey.) When you see Lili Taylor in this role, you can’t imagine anyone else who could locate both sides of Ariel – the tentative, edgy side and the glowing, contented one.
Ariel dislikes Heather pretty much at first sight, and Heather is offended by her assumption that she’s wheedled her way into Leonard’s life and doesn’t have his best interests at heart. But Ariel’s distrust of her is equal parts jealousy and instinct. Heather came to Schiller’s first two books by accident at a time when she felt trapped and unformed, and because of her own need for liberation she projected herself onto the strong, independent female characters in them. She was young, and adolescent identification with the characters in a book when you haven’t decided on your own path isn’t such a bad thing. But even though she’s absorbed considerable grad-school literary sophistication, her reading of his work hasn’t evolved past that phase. Heather is essentially a narcissist; Schiller’s third book, an exploration of the New York political culture, leaves her cold because she can’t see herself in it. (Of course, that’s the book Casey, who isn’t literary but who is political, is drawn to. And that’s fine for Casey – he responds to what he reads the way most people do, out of his own predilections. After all, he isn’t planning to write about Leonard Schiller.) Heather truly believes that she cares about Leonard, but that’s because she can’t separate out her own needs and ambitions from those of the people she involves in them. And though she has a velvet touch, she’s ruthless about getting what she wants – in this case, a relationship with Schiller that will, she’s certain, guarantee her an entrée into the lit-crit world as the woman who rediscovered a significant lost writer. Her approach to Leonard from the outset is seductive, and they do become, briefly and in a limited way, lovers.
|Frank Langella and Lili Taylor|
These scenes, which Wagner shoots with extraordinary delicacy, draw on Langella’s long established gift for conveying the sexuality of a character. As a young actor he could be devastatingly sexy, as anyone who saw him as Dracula on Broadway remembers. But it was more than that: in the PBS production of Tennessee Williams’s The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, he played a character whose sexual sureness was part of his southern gallantry, and his partnering of the incandescent Blythe Danner was sublime. Lauren Ambrose keeps her eyes bright but they lack real warmth, so when she moves her body around in subtle sensual ways as she first talks to Leonard, she unsettles you as much as she does him. And when she starts asking him personal questions, questions that he feels go over the line, the combination of her directness about getting at parts of him he keeps carefully concealed and the appearance of indirectness – obviously a tactic that has worked for her all her life – is alarming. She’s not easily put off; when he won’t give her the information she wants, she gets hurt, as if he’d reneged on a promise. Ambrose manages to give this woman a schoolgirl quality while keeping her probing and sharp-edged. It’s a brilliant performance.
Langella plays his early scenes with her with kindly remoteness and a sort of concentrated weariness. Leonard has a formality that seems almost old-world, and an absolute integrity about his work and about writing in general. That’s why his involvement with Heather, as far as it goes, pulls him up short; it makes him act in ways that aren’t like him, and he’s lived according to his own rules for so long that anything that seems like a compromise feels alien to him. But he’s a man of passions as well as pride, whereas Heather is dispassionate, in the way a narcissist is: she connects with other people only in order to fulfill some mission that’s important for her. In one scene she asks him why the strong woman type she adores in his first two books disappeared from his work, and then realizes from his silence that his wife inspired those characters, and they vanished after he lost her (in a car accident). Her obtuseness is telling, but what makes this scene so terrific is the quality of that silence and the way Langella brings to it both the depth of Schiller’s desire for her and his bone-deep reluctance to share a memory so intimate with a stranger. In the best scene between them, late in the film, when she comes to see him for the last time after he’s suffered a stroke, he responds to a promiscuous piece of flattery from her by reaching out and slapping her across the face. She’s taken aback and protests that he’s being unfair – and of course, that’s exactly what she would think.
Adrian Lester is excellent as Casey, and there are precisely calibrated small contributions from Jessica Hecht as Sandra Bennett, an arts journalist whose mentorship Heather courts and Michael Cumpsty as the boy friend Ariel dismisses when she realizes she doesn’t care enough about him. Hecht is particularly good – borderline frightening – as a culture vulture who’s aware of her power and has probably never had a doubt in her life about the rightness of her judgments; you can see exactly why Heather admires her and wants to be just like her. When Heather tells Sandra she’s writing about Leonard Schiller, there’s a slightly acrid sound in Hecht’s voice as Sandra places him as a member of the New York intellectual school. We don’t need to be told she wouldn’t waste her time reading anyone so passé. Wagner gets all the nuances right. Starting Out in the Evening is a superb little movie.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.