Last night the 92nd Street Y kicked off their annual “Reel Pieces” series here in New York City. Hosted by Dr. Annette Insdorf - Director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University, TV host of IFC’s annual Canne Film Festival coverage and author - the series is structured around a film screening followed by a post-screening interview with an actor or director of that film conducted in person by Dr. Insdorf. Past guests include Robert Redford, Ben Kinglsey, Al Pacino, Mia Farrow, Nick Cage, Ethan Hawke and Sean Penn. I have been attending this series for 10 years. Last night, after the disappointing news (well, to some) that Sharon Stone cancelled, we were all delighted with the alternate - a preview of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line followed by a Q&A with director James Mangold (Girl Interrupted, Cop Land, Heavy.)
Without giving too much away, the performances by the two lead actors (Joaquin Phoenix & Reese Witherspoon) are beyond astounding. Talk about Walk The Line? These two pass the line, dive into the line, draw the line – however you want to phrase, they simply become Johnny and June Carter Cash in every which way. According to the director, the actors seemed reluctant at first, but then worked their asses off (also credit T Bone Burnett) and learned to sing and play their instruments. Joaquin worked so hard as the shooting went on, he was able to bring his voice down to a low baritone sounding more and more like John. Mangold called it “a second puberty” but also pointed out that the band, due to this vocal adjustment, had to switch the key they were playing in when the shooting began. We also learned that John and June were very involved in the film, as this project is four years old. Mangold worked off the books they each wrote to frame his story but then needed to spend time talking countless hours with the two legends to fill in many missing items. See, if you’re doing a film there needs to be some chronology and other things that their weren't included in the books – maybe being too painful to talk about or didn’t seem important – yet to the director – they needed to be in the piece.
During the Q&A, someone asked Mangold to share a story John had told him that sort of summed up who John was. Mangold said that a few months before John passed, he was on the phone with him while John was in the dressing room awaiting his Larry King Live appearance. James asked him what his favorite film was. John said Frankenstein and that he has seen it as a kid in his town growing up. James asked him why. John said, "because it was about a man who was made up of so many bad parts, yet still tried to be so good." We all fucking gasped at that point. How true and how sad. You learn the origin of his pain as the story takes us from the beginning of his life as a child growing up on an Arkansas farm to his early days recording in Memphis. John hit rock bottom and came back. This is a story you might know. But what you might not know, is the incredible love story of John and June which is also beautifully told in this film.
I must mention again, both actors do all the singing. Mangold went on to explain how he gets the best performances out of his actors and indicated that he can tell when the iron is out and when to shoot a close up or a key part that an actor might not have in themselves two or three takes down the road. My question was not quite as moving but I had to clear up a rumour that John and June Cash had actually chosen Joaquin and Reese to play themselves. The answer is – false.
Don’t miss two of the best performances of the year. Film opens this Friday. Oh, and come March, remember these three names as well - Joaquin, Reese and James Mangold.
"Reel Pieces" continues at the 92nd St Y with four remaining sessions. The only other confirmations are Ralph Fiennes and Dennis Quaid. Damn, gotta brush up on my Breaking Away trivia.