Cover Story

Fall Movie Preview 1994

December's releases include 'Nell' and 'Richie Rich'

Nell

Starring Jodie Foster, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson. Directed by Michael Apted.

It's all very well for Dustin Hoffman to study autism, but for Jodie it was a unique set of circumstances,'' says director Apted of the task before his leading lady-playing a backwoods wild woman who speaks her own strange language. ''She did whatever research she could, but in the end it was her own instincts.'' Foster's instincts led her to produce Nell, too. She says Mark Handley's play Idioglossia ''fascinated'' her, and so she hired William Nicholson (Shadowlands) to adapt it as the first project of her production company, Egg Pictures. ''We greenlighted the first draft,'' Foster reports. On screen, she portrays a 29-year-old recluse who has lived her entire life in a remote Tennessee cabin with only her mother for company. When her mother dies, Nell is born to the outside world.

''The movie is about how we deal with that,'' says Apted (Coal Miner's Daughter), ''and how she deals with us. It's about paradise lost, and whether paradise was ever indeed paradise.'' Neeson plays the rural doctor who idealizes Nell's natural nobility and wants to let her live in peace, while Richardson is a psychologist intent on bringing her back to society. ''They see her as a tabula rasa,'' says Foster. ''Thereis a Zenlike, happy-in-the-moment side of her, but she is a lot more complicated than they think.''

Apted, Nicholson, and the actors rehearsed for three weeks, then shot for 10 more in the Smoky Mountains bordering North Carolina and Tennessee, 19 miles from a store and 65 miles from a movie theater. While Neeson and Richardson (who married in July) imported yummy food, Foster opted for the simple life: ''I kinda went, 'I'll do the can-of-beans thing. Okay, so I don't have air-conditioning.' It was really pure.''

Foster admits that the unfettered role terrified her at first. ''I tend to play very controlled, emotionally complicated, layered, socialized people,'' she notes. ''I'm not good at operatic theater. I know how to do real.''

She sought Nell's reality by doing something wild-not quite learning her lines. ''I knew what I was trying to communicate, but I wasn't going to learn the lines. I'd feel them as they came out,'' she explains. ''For other actors this may not be such a revelation, but (for me) this was totally different.''

And exhilarating. ''I don't think I've ever been as happy on a movie before,'' but, continues the star and boss, ''I'm not going to go live in a bear cave.'' *What's At Stake: Besides its subtle-as-neon Oscar bid, a commercial hit would help solidify Foster's status as mini-mogul.

Pret-A-Porter

Starring Kim Basinger, Lauren Bacall, Julia Roberts, Danny Aiello, Tracey Ullman, Rupert Everett, Sophia Loren, Stephen Rea, Sally Kellerman, Tim Robbins, Lyle Lovett. Directed by Robert Altman.

So far, Pret-a-Porter-French for ''ready-to-wear''-has been described in the press as everything from a ''pseudo-documentary'' about the fashion industry to a ''murder-mystery-comedy.'' Well, though one fashion guru does choke on a ham sandwich while driving and some characters' tongues go wagging, it's probably more accurate to regard Altman's new opus as its Fashville nickname suggests: a sprawling canvas reminiscent of Nashville, the 1975 portrait of American dreamers that earned the director his third and fourth Oscar nominations.

By Altman's estimate, about 20 characters pursue their own story lines, and as is usual from Altman, there are some devilish conjunctions: Roberts and Robbins play reporters working in Paris; Lovett, as a Texas boot mogul, shows up with Bacall as his glamorous girl Friday; Kellerman is the editor of Harper's Bazaar; Basinger is a TV commentator; Rea is a photographer. And Altman has included enough cameos to make The Player, his 1992 takedown of Hollywood, look like My Dinner With Andre.

But whatever happens on screen will have to compete with what reportedly went on last spring when the director and his disparate, half-of-Hollywood cast invaded Paris for more than two months of filming. Although several designers play themselves in the film-and folks like Sonia Rykiel and Thierry Mugler even let Altman's cameras into their shows-others weren't so welcoming. Valentino, for one, issued a statement whining that ''there is no need for a satirical movie on fashion at this difficult moment.'' Back home, New York Newsday reported that Everett, who appears as designer Anouk Aimee's business manager son, and Aiello, who plays an obnoxious American buyer, got into a tiff-and that harsh words and shoves were exchanged. Poor Sophia Loren, appearing as a Dior-clad widow, was reportedly knocked over in the melee. ''That was kind of apocryphal,'' Altman says of the event.

The director says he has been wanting to take on the fashion industry since attending his first Paris fashion show in 1984. ''My wife dragged me along and I said, 'I don't want to see this thing,''' says Altman. ''But those were the days when they had them in tents and it was just like the circus. I just said, 'God, there is a great movie in here somewhere.''' (Dec. 21) *What's At Stake: For a director who has often been short on financing, a hit with this commercial subject would be sweet.

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