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‘Mistress’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 28, 1992

There are no "players" in the "Mistress," nobody does lunch at Spago, nobody clinches a deal by car phone. No, the latest Hollywood confidential is about the low rollers, the has-beens and not-quites who nourish their grand delusions at Denny's. Full of unfounded faith in their talents, they're poorer, pithier relations of the hacks in both "Barton Fink" and "The Player," who'd sell their souls to the Devil too, only the Devil isn't buying. He knows a bad script when he sees one.

Robert Wuhl is the self-absorbed focus of this wry tragicomedy, as a filmmaker who hasn't lived up to his early promise and is about to take a teaching job back East when a broken-down producer (Martin Landau) takes a sudden interest in a languishing script. Called "The Darkness and the Light," it tells the story of an artist who kills himself when asked to compromise his art. Wuhl, promised that he can direct, meets Landau at a coffee shop, but the older man is not alone. He's brought along an ambitious young screenwriter (Jace Alexander) who studied under Steven Spielberg's teacher.

The kid has a gift for blarney that the overly sincere and mostly tongue-tied Wuhl lacks, so when the three get together with potential investors, Alexander's the one who assures them that yes indeed it is a comedy just like "Terms of Endearment." Pretty soon Wuhl's telling the money men that Alexander studied with Spielberg's teacher.

If this were "The Player," Spielberg would probably show up in a cameo sooner or later, but this is a more modestly budgeted, lower-profile affair. "Mistress" makes do with a celebrity guest appearance from Ernest Borgnine, who speeds away with his car windows rolled tight when Landau tries to give him a copy of "The Darkness and the Light," which has become the story of a sexually obsessed photographer at the insistence of a backer played by "Mistress's" own producer, Robert De Niro.

A former tennis pro turned entrepreneur, De Niro is easily the savviest character in the film, but he can be manipulated by his mistress (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who demands the leading role in Wuhl's movie. The part has already been promised to the girlfriend of the other backers, Eli Wallach and Danny Aiello. Now to save the movie, Alexander wants to turn the hero into a gigolo. Jean Smart and Tuesday Knight play the other mistresses and Laurie Metcalf portrays Wuhl's wife -- the only one in the bunch with the sense to call Hollywood quits.

The screenwriter is still young enough to make it, but the producer and the director don't know when to let go of a losing proposition. They're the Willy Lomans of tinsel territory, for whom life has become one increasingly absurd pitch. Landau and Wuhl give especially heartfelt performances under the obviously sympathetic direction of Barry Primus, who based the story on his own attempts to finance a project.

A member of the New York-based Actors Studio and an off-Broadway director, Primus brings a scruffy intimacy to "Mistress," which distinguishes it still further from "The Player" with its palmy California setting. Primus's movie is artier and more profoundly tragic, though nobody murders anybody to get ahead. Nobody gets ahead period. Dreams die, but hopes don't fade. That's something even those of us without fax machines in our Range Rovers can understand.

"Mistress" is rated R for profanity.

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