The Dying Gaul
Director: Craig Lucas
Writer: Craig Lucas, based upon the play The Dying Gaul.
Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Campbell Scott, Peter Sarsgaard
Craig Lucas's directorial debut, The Dying Gaul is a powerful film about the age old conflict artists have faced regarding artistic integrity and the personal compromises that come from selling out. Lucas directs with a sure hand, but unfortunately a weak and abrupt ending nearly undoes everything good that came before.
Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard) is a screenwriter who after enduring rejection after rejection, is offered a million dollars by producer Jeffrey Tishop (Campbell Scott) for a screenplay Robert wrote called The Dying Gaul. The catch however, is that he must change the gay protagonists into a heterosexual couple. While obviously reluctant, Robert eventually gives in, despite the protests of Tishop's wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson). While Robert works on the new screenplay, he starts having an affair with Jeffery. Elaine, however soon discovers the affair while chatting online with Robert under the pretense of being another gay man. Once this discovery is made, Elaine starts a complex Machiavellian scheme in order to attain both revenge and closure.
The most interesting element of The Dying Gaul for me was the brief but potent struggle Robert undergoes when he is forced to revise his script or give up the million dollars offered to him by Jeffrey. I am sure that this sort of thing happens all the time in Hollywood during the scriptwriting process. I spoke before of Hollywood's tendency to straighten out queer material from previously established works. In The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo, Lewis John Carlino talked about being forced to eliminate the gay relationship between the two male leads in order to get The Mechanic made. I would bet that Robert Sandrich would sympathize a great deal with Carlino's real life struggle.
Early on in the movie, Jeffery Tishop gives a cynical, yet entirely accurate speech early on about how no one will go to a film that will teach them anything or make them feel "bad". I presume that screenwriter/director Craig Lucas either did not really believe that or did not have high hopes for his own films success. While not strictly a tearjerker, The Dying Gaul ends in tragedy whose emotional impact is greatly blunted by how it is presented. One of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is show, don't tell. The ending of The Dying Gaul while following what I assume happened in the original play, fails to show the audience a critical event, specifically a car crash that kills one of the main players. Not only does this blunt the emotional impact of the event itself, it causes The Dying Gaul to end on completely the wrong note.
This is a shame recently, as up until that point I would have described The Dying Gaul as a nearly perfect motion picture. Had we been shown the final moments of a key character, I would have considered awarding The Dying Gaul 3.5 triangles. As it were, the only good thing about the ending made the decision regarding the rating a bit easier.
The ending aside, I must point out the fantastic acting jobs done by the three leads. Patricia Clarkson makes for a fine femme fatale. Her role is the most difficult as her character starts out as a typical housewife who frets over the amount of violence in her son's video game, before she morphs into something much more dangerous once she realizes her husband's affair. Her unorthodox scheme to find out every detail of her husband's infidelity makes for compulsive viewing. Not quite as good, but still suitably compelling are the performances of Campbell Scott and Peter Sarsgaard as the male lovers. Sarsgaard's Robert is the character who faces the most confict, even though he is the least interesting character of the trio. Scott's smarmy movie producer is a whole lot more fascinating, not just for being bisexual but because of the obvious compromises his character has made in order to achieve success. Jeffrey's speech at the end about the double edged prejudices faced by bisexual individuals both from the straight and gay communities is highly provocative and unfortunately, way too true.
On the technical side of things, there is some gorgeous cinematography on display here and future filmmakers should pay attention to the way Clarkson's Elaine is photographed while swimming through a itty bitty pool, while the angles make it look like she's in the middle of a dizzying ocean. Needless to say some truly remarkable work was achieved here.
Strongly recommended. The Dying Gaul may be a "weepy" (as Jeffery Tishop would put it) with a bad ending but it has enough emotional, thematic, and aesthetic heft going for it to warrant a recommendation.
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