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‘Guarding Tess’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 11, 1994


Hugh Wilson
Shirley MacLaine;
Nicolas Cage;
Austin Pendleton;
Edward Albert;
James Rebhorn;
Richard Griffiths;
Harry J. Lennix
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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There's something overly familiar about "Guarding Tess." Shirley MacLaine's an obnoxious former First Lady unwillingly saddled with Secret Service protection. Agent Nicolas Cage is the poor chump stuck with watching her. She makes his life hell. He does his tight-lipped best not to wrestle her to the ground.

Let's see, that would be "Driving Miss Daisy," "The Bodyguard" and "In the Line of Fire," just for starters. But let's not lament lack of originality from the West Coast -- mud baths are murder on the muse. Let's also discount the melodramatic turnaround that sabotages the last section of the movie; Hollywood hyperbole is a tax everyone has to pay. What counts is the comic tension between MacLaine and Cage. It's so well done, it doesn't matter how dumb things get.

MacLaine, who has retired to her Ohio hometown after her husband's death in office, is revered as a public figure. But she's a private harpie to Cage and his six underlings. She demands the agents unstrap their guns before entering her bedroom. She refuses to sit in the proper, secure position in the car. She plays constant mind games with Cage -- always looking for a chance to embarrass him by giving him the slip.

Any time an exasperated Cage stands up to her, MacLaine just picks up the phone and calls the president, an old pal who owes her a favor or two. Cage is immediately forced back into submission.

As the movie begins, MacLaine asks the new president to extend Cage's three-year tour (which has just come to a close) by another three years. Unable to refuse the Chief Executive, Cage returns to MacLaine's sleepy Midwestern town with vengeance in mind. This time, he's going to kill her with protocol. No more fetching golf balls or running shopping errands.

The war begins. When MacLaine and her entourage get into two cars for an outing, Cage orders her driver to cut off the engine. The party will not proceed, he says, until MacLaine shifts away from behind the driver and fastens her seat belt. MacLaine refuses to budge. Defiant behind the sunglasses, Cage doesn't move a muscle either. The two opponents sit in mute stalemate, as agents in the accompanying car watch dumbfounded.

Most of the time, this battle of wills is what the movie's all about -- and it's pleasurable stuff. MacLaine has never had problems playing a battle-ax with a warm handle, and Cage's strangeness -- used in the right role -- is always amusing.

There is comedy around them too. Most amusing of all is the harassed president (the voice of "Tess" writer/director Hugh Wilson), who's constantly having to get on the horn with Cage -- interrupting matters of state -- to straighten out the latest MacLaine bugaboo.

MacLaine's penchant for giving Cage the slip is well-known to the bemused sheriff (an uncredited Noble Willingham), since Cage is obligated to report her absences. "Pretty slippery, isn't she?" says the sheriff on one such occasion. "I mean, for a senior citizen."

MacLaine's quirks are equally well-known to the locals. When she shows up for a little shopping in "disguise," the store manager asks the agents, "Did she want to be known today?" When one agent answers in the negative, the manager hisses frantic commands to the gawking shoppers: "Don't know her, don't know her, don't know her."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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