Razzle-dazzle beauties kick up their heels in Rob Marshall's 'Nine'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

NEW YORK -- She could have danced all year. That's how much Penélope Cruz seemed to adore rehearsing day after day for "A Call From the Vatican," the kittenish number she performs with the come-hither allure of a Brigitte Bardot in the new movie adaptation of the Broadway musical "Nine."

"I got there at the end of August, and I shot my number in November," Cruz recalls as she sits in the bedroom of a sumptuous suite at the Waldorf Astoria. "I did it practically every day, for many hours. And then also there were the singing lessons. It takes a lot of time to be able to do it, especially to sing it and to dance it at the same time."

For the remarkable international gallery of actresses who would adorn the film -- the tale of a blocked Italian film director (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the women who haunt, confound and worship him -- American stage-turned-movie director Rob Marshall set up a sort of musical-theater camp at London's Shepperton Studios, where much of the $80 million production was shot. There the actresses, five of whom, like Day-Lewis, own Oscars, sang together, ate together and egged one another on as they went before the cameras. To a degree that rarely happens in the frenetic film world of on-a-movie-set-today, on-a-Learjet-tomorrow, they were given time to form a bona fide acting ensemble.

"This was one of the best experiences that I've had since I started working when I was 16. One of the best, for sure," Cruz says, warming to the memories of just over a year ago, working with a cast that included Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson, Fergie and the empress of lusty screen sirens, Sophia Loren. "And then when it's done and I realized I don't get to do it anymore, I was sad. I had some routine to my life, you know?"

With the movie opening across the nation Christmas Day, the concern shifts from how much of a kick the actors got, to whether audiences will derive the same kind of thrills. Although it has already garnered a basket of Golden Globe nominations, the early mixed reviews suggest "Nine" may be a tougher sell than Marshall's well-received and lavishly rewarded freshman musical for the screen, "Chicago," which won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Like "Chicago," "Nine" is inspired by a Broadway hit, in this case, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's 1982 Tony-winning musical, itself based on Federico Fellini's 1963 autobiographical film, "8 1/2 ." As in "Chicago," Marshall has given music-video treatment to the musical numbers, dividing them into rapid-cross-cut mini-montages, set in the mind of its central character, Guido. But while "Chicago's" songs illuminated the gloss and irony in the show's satirical plot, "Nine's" musical interludes reflect the facets of a more introspective story -- the war raging in Guido's psyche over the consequences of his infidelities and his waning creative powers.

That debilitating internal conflict is stoked by his memories and fantasies of the women in his life -- among them, his mother (Loren); his wife (Cotillard); his mistress (Cruz); his muse (Kidman); his on-set confidante (Dench); his eager new dalliance (Hudson) and his childhood object of lust (Fergie). Each gets a song that defines to some degree her role in Guido's life. (The original Broadway version, starring Raul Julia, seated the women around Guido on the stage, indelible fixtures of his mind.) The question now is, will filmgoers find common coin with a musical that's short on narrative action and set in the Italy of 1965, that focuses on the obsessions of an insecure, serial cheater? Those who've lavished so much time and affection on the project have their fingers crossed.

"If 'Nine' does well," a swathed-in-black Kidman posits during a separate interview at the Waldorf, "it may open the doors for more difficult subject matter to be made as a musical, instead of always the razzle-dazzle, feel-good musical. There might be room for others, because this is a darker piece."

Even if the big-screen musical remains an exotic breed in Hollywood, a genre with a spotty record and a rather specialized niche in the market, Marshall's surprising success with "Chicago" gave him a reputation as a prodigy, a magician with a secret winning formula.

"I think he's the Vincente Minnelli of our age," Yeston declares, referring to the director of the '50s musicals "Gigi" and "An American in Paris." It's a clear indication of how motivated the composer was to see Marshall turn "Nine" into a movie that he gave the director carte blanche with the material. "When he said to me, 'Let me tell you how I see this,' " Yeston reports, "I said, 'The most useful thing for you to do is to make believe I'm dead.' " Marshall and screenwriter Michael Tolkin didn't go quite that far, though the director did excise quite a few numbers from the Broadway version and order up some new songs from Yeston, including one set around a violent strip-tease, called "Take It All." It is performed in the film by Cotillard, an Oscar winner for "La Vie en Rose." A number had to be substituted that suited Loren's voice and an entirely new song added for Hudson, playing a part that did not exist in the stage musical, that of an American reporter from Vogue.

The trust Yeston invested in Marshall appears to have enveloped the actors, too. Yeston says that in casting "Nine," the filmmakers were deluged with A-list names. Everyone, it seems, wanted to sing for Marshall. Cruz, for instance, says that she screamed after the director called to tell her she was being offered the part of the neurotic bombshell Carla, whom Guido keeps at an emotionally ambiguous arm's length.

Kidman, who earned her movie musical stripes in Baz Luhrmann's wild, melody-saturated "Moulin Rouge!," was gratified when Marshall called to offer her the role of Claudia, the star of Guido's movies. It was her idea to change the character's nationality from Italian to Swedish, to infuse her with an "international flavor."

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