Period Movies Savor Romance and Morality To Audience Applause

On the screen, women in long skirts and men in jackets are here again

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THEY used to be called "costume pictures." They were everywhere on late-night television: from Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in "Wuthering Heights" to Bette Davis's frettin' and sashayin' as a Southern vixen in "Jezebel."

And now, period films have returned. Nineteen-ninety-five was a watershed year, when major stars were seen romping, pontificating, dueling, and minueting through history. It was a year that saw two Jane Austen adaptations ("Sense and Sensibility and "Persuasion"), two Scottish epics ("Braveheart" and "Rob Roy"), and "The Scarlet Letter."

And 1996 and '97 promise more set-pieces from around the globe, from the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s to the fog-shrouded London of Jack the Ripper.

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Hollywood studios, with vast back lots of period streets and armies of seamstresses, once churned out costume pictures as routinely as contemporary ones. You were as likely to see Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in powdered wigs and hoop skirts as 1940s pinstriped suits and seamed stockings.

But the erosion of the studio system, competition from TV, and the bloating of costume pictures into expensive epics relegated the genre to a musty relic. Even a decade ago, period films were anathema, "unspeakable," as "Forrest Gump" producer Wendy Finerman describes the genre when teen comedies, sci-fi, and action-adventure films dominated.

"They thought of period films as being stuffy, not very sexy, expensive, somehow removed from life," says "Little Women" screenwriter Robin Swicord, who first pitched her project in the early 1980s to the stony faces of studio executives. "In 1982, Warners wanted us to figure out a way to make it contemporary."

All that has changed. Audiences seem drawn to historic pictures. The reasons could be as complex as wanting an escape from the violence of contemporary life and art, seeking a return to earlier social values, and reexamining history. Or it could be due to nostalgia, escapism, and adventure-seeking, say major Hollywood directors, producers, and agents.

"I've been pondering that myself," said Mel Gibson, whose "Braveheart" played on 2,000 screens across America in the spring. "A collective unconscience," Mr. Gibson posited, then adds jokingly, "or maybe unwitting industrial espionage."

"You think you're the only one embarking in that arena, and as we wrapped 'Braveheart' after six weeks in Scotland, we looked over and saw 'Rob Roy' building their sets on the very next hill. Basically people are trying to tell epic tales of yesteryear."

"As we approach the millennium," says Thom Mount, producer of "Bull Durham," "I find from people in the general public and filmmakers an enormous hunger to examine the moral, spiritual, and psychological structure of our world today and our world in the future through the example of stories in the past, particularly morality plays." Mr. Mount is now working on an ambitious adaptation of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" to be directed by Roman Polanski and coproduced by Peter Guber.

The greater candor and enlightenment of our times is also inducing filmmakers to look back and reexamine unquestioned truisms, heroes, villains, and events. "There is a sense that all of our received knowledge is open to question, particularly in history," says Ms. Swicord, who spent 15 years getting "Little Women" to the screen. "We are going back with an eye to truth seeking, to find the real story, go back to history and tell it with more information and fill in the omissions."

The producer of "Forrest Gump" says that audiences love the look and feel of period films, when done right.

"Because we cannot look out the window and see the west in the 1880s, and we cannot look out the window and see the Vietnam War in 1968, for audiences period films are a very special experience," says Steve Tisch. "I really loved 'Legends of the Fall' and the look of that picture. I really took that movie as an opportunity to totally put myself in that period in the West." For his young daughter Hilary, it was "Little Women." "I have an 11-year-old who saw the movie four times, not because she's a history buff, but because she really identifies with those girls and just loved the feel and the look and sense and experience of watching that movie," says Mr. Tisch, who is currently developing a moody film set in London in the 1880s and based on an English book called "The Ripper Diaries."

But "Legends of the Fall," a 1994 western starring Brad Pitt, like most period films developed even a few years ago, was a tough sell, according to its director, Ed Zwick. "Three years ago, at the time we were imagining 'Legends of the Fall,' the fact that it was a period film was an inhibition, something that had to be overcome when the decision was made to actually make the film," says Mr. Zwick, who cites another reason for the rebirth of historical films. "There is a conspicuous absence of heroes in our contemporary life.... I think we have the opportunity for some more romanticized and mythologized storytelling."

It was the period segments of "The Joy Luck Club" that "sold the film," says its screenwriter Ron Bass of the film adaptation of Amy Tan's best-selling novel of Chinese mothers and their daughters. "That was the thing that everybody was fascinated about, the interest in the Chinese culture, and the visuals and experience of that very exotic time and place and culture, but also to see how alike we all are. How it was always thus. It also sort of showed how much richer the lives of the grandmothers had been in China."

Another period film, "A Room With a View," made in 1985, was rejected by every major studio, according to its director James Ivory. "We shopped it around. We sent all of our scripts out in those days to the studios, and there was no great interest in it," says Mr. Ivory, who subsequently directed "Howards End" and "Remains of the Day," as well as "Jefferson in Paris," which played early in 1995.

"The real world is so horrifying and violent and scary in every kind of way," says Ivory. "Maybe that when they go to the movies they want something that is going to lull them a bit." Concurs Vanessa Redgrave, whose "A Month by the Lake," set in England just before the outbreak of World War II, played last summer: "The entire world is fundamentally changing every week. You do get a certain turning to the past in which to make an evaluation of the present to see where we're going."

Adds Anthony Quinn, whose biggest hits, he says, have been in period films like "Lawrence of Arabia," "La Strada" and "Zorba the Greek": "Modern America is very confusing. The dollar is down. Unemployment is up. There is no foundation. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are at odd ends. People don't know where they fit anymore. They want to fit somewhere. They look back to history."

The dynamics of a period film, where society's rules are strict and transgressions punished, can work for stronger storytelling than a contemporary film, where mores are more blurred and ambiguous.

"When there was a very definitive pecking order in society, you had a structure that allowed drama and comedy," says James Woods, who plays H.R. Haldeman in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and a sleazy pimp in Martin Scorsese's "Casino," both 1970s setpieces playing to Thanksgiving and Christmas 1995 audiences.

"For example, in 'Jezebel,' the pivotal plot point is that Bette Davis wears the wrong color gown to the ball and is ostracized from society and becomes a "jezebel." In the old days of film noir, if a woman was kissing two guys at once and smoking a cigarette, she was the elemental bad girl. Nowadays how would you define that same character?"

Even animation, traditionally set in the never-neverland of the past, has seen its audiences explode to record proportions within the last few years, with Walt Disney Company releases of "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Little Mermaid."

Says Roy Disney, "There is a romantic yearning for the simpler days of the past. In animation, you're always trying to find that magical place. The notion of castles is very romantic. It conjures up a lot of things, a kind of world you can never live in yourself but you would love to imagine."

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