Film Reviews

From Swan Lake to Swan Song

The topic of political asylum has generated much heated debate in recent weeks. When should you grant it? When should you say no? Politicians will ultimately decide the issue when, if you ask me, the job would be better left to experienced professionals. I'm thinking, of course, of those masters of the arcane science of whom to let in and whom to turn away A South Beach nightclub doormen. Let John Hood and Jimmy Franzo handle it.

But that's far too obvious and sensible a solution. Actually solving problems without first debating them to oblivion and allowing them to fester properly is un-American. So, as long as the whole country seems to be getting in on this discussion, I may as well chip in my two cents. From the perspective of a film reviewer, political asylum has been a disaster. As proof I offer the motion picture careers of three famous Russian ballet dancers who came to the U.S. in search of artistic freedom: Rudolf Nureyev (who died last year), Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Alexander Godunov (who passed away two weeks ago).

I am not qualified to discuss their contributions to the world of dance after they defected. (Doesn't that word have a quaint ring to it now -- defected. You never hear anyone calling balseros defectors.

The word seems to be reserved for high-ranking Cuban military officials who hijack MiGs and fly them to Key West.)

But all three men took stabs at acting. The results have been, to put it mildly, disappointing. In all three cases, the dancers-cum-thespians' first film roles turned out to be their best. Nureyev and Baryshnikov sort of eased into acting with movie debuts that called for them to do more dancing than emoting. (Nureyev choreographed and headlined a ballet version of Don Quixote, while Baryshnikov played a dancer in The Turning Point.) Only Godunov, who took on the role of an Amish farmer in Witness, really stretched.

Nureyev followed Don Quixote with the embarrassing Ken Russell biopic Valentino. Audiences found themselves wishing that Russell's film -- like those starring the legendary screen lover -- were silent. The erstwhile hoofer couldn't resist one more shot at movie stardom, but the only thing 1983's Exposed exposed was Nureyev's continued awkwardness and stiffness in front of the camera. He never made another film.

Rather than cashing in on his Hollywood cachet from The Turning Point, Baryshnikov concentrated on ballet and on romancing actresses. He was named artistic director of the American Ballet Theater in New York City and was spotted squiring the likes of Jessica Lange around town. He finally returned to the screen in 1985 after an eight-year absence with the contrived White Nights. The movie didn't convince casting directors to pencil in Baryshnikov's name above De Niro's on their wish lists, but at least the Russian fared better than costar Gregory Hines. Baryshnikov's acting career nosedived with 1987's Dancers, however. The film reunited Baryshnikov with Turning Point director Herbert Ross ten years after their first collaboration. It was a debacle. From there things really degenerated with two 1991 films: first something called The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, then the frighteningly bad Company Business, about a spy swap gone awry. Now that he's getting too old to dance and the market for Cold War curios has all but evaporated, maybe Misha will turn in his Screen Actors Guild card for good.

Godunov may not have had much better luck in Hollywood than his two compatriots, but at least he avoided playing a dancer in any of his films. I admired him for that. (Maybe he was bitter that his former Bolshoi Ballet stable mate Baryshnikov unceremoniously dumped him from ABT in 1982.) Godunov was good enough in Witness, and he made an appropriately two-dimensional crazed assassin in the first Die Hard. But his career peaked there. Recently he'd found work as a sort of poor man's Julian Sands in trash such as Runestone and Waxwork II. Godunov is better remembered as the onetime boyfriend of Jacqueline Bisset than for any of his cinematic achievements. When viewed in that light, death looks like a merciful career move.

So there you have it. Three men who left communist regimes to pursue freedom of expression in the U.S., three big letdowns. At least those rafters being held at Guantanamo still have their dignity. For their own good, send them home before they, too, lose themselves along Hollywood's boulevard of broken dreams.

You say you want to see brand-new, big-budget Hollywood movies at a real movie theater on South Beach, and you don't want to wait until one of those rumored multiplexes gets built? The Colony Theater on Lincoln Road has joined MTV Latino in presenting a series of advance showings of first-run flicks (My Family and Braveheart to name two recent examples). The screenings, usually held on Monday nights, cost five dollars and are open to the public. Next up: Congo on June 5. Call 535-8020 for more details.

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Todd Anthony
Contact: Todd Anthony