Franco Zeffirelli, the director of operas and films who has tended to Jesus Christ, Maria Callas and Romeo and Juliet, has now turned to the old King Vidor classic-or turkey-that launched Jackie Cooper back in the days before original sin.
"The Champ" is now thought a classic.
"A classic," said Zeffirelli, "is a work to which an audience all reacts the same, and at the same time."
When the little towheaded boy is returned to his father, for example, the handkerchiefs come out and the floods rage and "it doesn't make any difference if you're Brezhnev or the pope or Carter or my maid," Zeffirelli went on.
"Some people are going to cry at the first shot of the horse," I suggested. "You know, when they lead her in all wreathed with flowers, like a sacrifice."
"You liked the horse," the director said. Possibly he has learned never to discourage anybody from liking anything in his films, but he did say he is always astonished at the obscure things people admire in his work.
"Oh yes, I was very moved by those first frames of the horse. And what genius to tie the carnations to the base of the tail."
"They were festive, weren't they?" he said, as if dimly searching his memory before confessing that he left the decking of the horse to the ethnics on the set who said they knew just what to do with horses' tails.
Jon Voight, who plays the leading and almost totally dominant role of the broken-down boxer whose life is not helped much by addictions to gambling and booze, is a great favorite of Zeffirelli's-partly because Voight kept turning down fat movie roles to act on the stage.
Besides that, he liked Zeffirelli's work enormously.
"With a stage actor like him, you can say, 'Work in something of the madness of Mercutio' and he gets the point, knows what you mean."
Voight would have seen and admired Zeffirelli's elaborate development of Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet" (Voight has played Romeo on the stage, too) whereas some of you rdumber sort of actors think Mercutio is a compact Mercury-bigger than a Pinto and more like a Skylark.
"SO YOU DON'T DO ALL YOUR WORK ON THE SET ITSELF, BY INDIRECTION. YOU ACTUALLY SIT DOWN AND DISCUSS THE ROLE WITH THE ACTOR?" I ASKED.
"YES. SIT DOWN AND DISCUSS IT."
ZEFFIRELLI WAS FIDDING WITH THE WATERGATE HOEL WINDOWS, THE DAY BEING THE FIRST HOT ONE OF THE SPRING (ABOUT 80 DEGREES), AND HE WAS IN VERY GOOD SHAPE CONSIDERING HIS SNAFUED PLANS. HE HAD PLANNED TO BE IN MILAN FOR THE TV production of his opera, Puccini's "La Boheme."
He designed the Callas production of "Norma," among other operas, for her, and he first worked with her in 1953 in a slight Rossini work, "The Turk in Italy." Of course he has never got over her.
"And she was wonderful?" I ventured, "and you have lived to tell the tale?"
"She changed the world," he said. As a minor aspect of changing the world, he added, she made it clear that performers can have beautiful bodies.
"You don't think losing that 60 pounds damaged her voice?"
"She was never so glorious as the time just after she lost all that weight and began to dress beautifully," he said.
"Singers are babies, they are used to their mothers and sisters babying them, and then the world. They love to eat, eat, eat and pamper themselves. Then they rare back and pat their abdomen and say the weight helps them produce the tone.Bull-."
"What?" asked an efficient looking and handsome woman. Hse is one of the small entourage that invariably accompanies directors.
"I said 'Bull-,'" Zeffirelli said.
"So I thought," she said.
"And that's what it is. You've seen 60 pounds of fat on a table at the butcher's. Are you going to tell me that helps a singer?"
Zeffirelli had warmed up considerably, his blue eyes smoldering with contempt at some imaginary poor plump singer. One quite hesitated to eat the nuts that had been sent up, though Zeffirelli (who is trim) did so, and drank his scotch and fumed passionately with cigarettes.
It was his first visit to Washington, and he peered from his car window on the way from the airport to ask if that were the obelisk, ah. . .
"The Washington Monument," said an amateur guide.
He has a couple of pads in Italy (he is a Florentine and trails something of Lorenzo the Magnificent in his wake) but has worked on operas in South America and now this American movie with Voight, so he settles in easily wherever he finds himself.
He said "The Champ" walks on its own legs. That is, however old the story may be, it speaks afresh to any generation that hears it. He said some Shakespeare plays "gallop on their own legs," which seemed a nice deference to the gulf between Shakespeare and movie writers.
If you're a broken-down fighter years past the ring, surely it's not too much to ask of God (the fighter wears a large crucifix around his neck) to give you one two-bit victory in a notvery-important ring before you call it quits forever.
It's the story of Achilles, who knew the fight with Hector would be his last, but who cared more for honor than life in disgrace.
Wallace Beery (who played the part in the Vidor film) was not a very likely Achilles, but he made his generation weep copiously all the same, and Voight not only looks the part but is into it in a way few film actors get into things.
Zeffirelli spoke of the diffustion of art in the world now. Once there was just the book, maybe some small music, a few paintings.
But now the small opera stage is seen by 100 million via television and Zeffirelli was speaking of enormous increases in sophistication nowadays, and the gigantic expanded scale of art and the pressures and costs. . .
"Still, if we had a writer of supreme power, his medium would still be the book," I said, to see what he'd say.
"If we had such a writer, he'd probably he spoiled along the way. In the past-Tolstoy, Dostoevski-a writer suffered terribly at not being understood, not being appreciated.
"But now, if a writer-or a singer or anybody else-has even a glimmer of talent, the world comes racing up to him and he is easily spoiled."
It was clear we had now reached the downward-spiral portion of the interview, in which artists commonly reflect on the disintegration of a olden world, and I made a helpful comment to get us into that. But Zeffirelli sees life and art on an upward slope.
"I think it progresses. In cycles. The end of a cycle-but then the next cycle is at an even highter leval. Even under Hitler, to take an example of the low point, things were going on, fermenting, ready to grow again."
Those were not his exact words, by the way, but his meaning. And he is grateful to his own century for the lessons fo the Impressionists, breaking up light, and to Wagner, breaking up sound, with all the resultant modern possibilities of going off at tangents.
Hints and squawks are now in the tent of art, and people say, "Let's see what comes of it, let's see how it develops at the last" instead of stopping dead in their tracks and in their attention at the first seeming irrelevance or disharmony. So that audiences now are ready for somewhat different-and maybe more resonant-emotions in the theater and in print.
In "The Champ," which opens locally Wednesday, the hero makes a poor living by walking horses at the track. The opening scene shows him dancing about while walking the beast.
Now who knows exactly why?
In the background there are castanets and maybe Cuban music.
The dance with the horse suggests primitive enthusiasm, closeness to animals, a hint of voodoo or dark rites, or maybe a vestige of the years in the ring-the guy is still keeping in training? -or maybe he just feels good. He's the sort of animal who is likely to feel good.
As Zeffirelli was saying, the dance could be a lot of things. Who knows what it will develop into? The clue of the dance with the horse could lead in a lot of different directions. Sonner or later some must be chosen and others not. That's what directing is about.
But Zeffirelli points out that when you start-when you hit on the image of a dance with the horse-you don't know exactly where iths going. You just know it seems to work right in that scene, and maybe something will come of it.
The actor and the director, one may gather, must respect each other. Maybe the horse too. The rest is voodoo.
Or, if you prefer, magic.