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Period Movies Savor Romance and Morality To Audience Applause

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

By Clifford RothmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 1995


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."

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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.

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."