Love Is Strange fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Ira Sachs’ moving character piece opens this Friday in New York and L.A., and will expand to Long Island theaters on September 19. Sachs wrote the script with Mauricio Zacharias, his collaborator on his previous, semiautobiographical film, Keep the Lights On. That 2012 drama was about the (doomed) relationship of two young men; in this film, the gay couple, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) has been together almost forty years and when we meet them their life is blissful. The 48-year-old Sachs, who married painter Ben Torres in 2011, says, “I wanted to make a film about love from the very particular perspective of my own age and experience–as someone…who could for the first time imagine a long love that becomes more beautiful with time. I was interested in exploring the different perspective each of us has at different periods of our lives: as an adolescent, in middle age and in the later chapters. I wanted to imagine my own relationship, my young marriage, might look like in the years down the road.” Paraphrasing the Logline: “Ben and George take advantage of New York’s new marriage laws and tie the knot after being together for 39 years. Unfortunately, the Catholic school where George teaches does not approve and he is fired, forcing them to split up while they sell their apartment and look for cheaper housing. George crashes with gay police officers Ted and Roberto [Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez], while Ben, who’s a painter, moves in with his nephew Elliott [Darren Burrows, Sachs' Forty Shades of Blue], and his writer wife Kate [Marisa Tomei], and bunks with their teenage son Joey [Charlie Tahan]–a temporary situation that weighs heavily on all involved.” On Monday I did the following interview with John Lithgow, fresh from performing King Lear at the Public Theater, about his new movie and a character unlike any he has played in his long and prolific screen career. Our connection is that he had written a chapter about his childhood baseball hero, the tall and muscular Ted Kluszewski, for my 1990 anthology, Cult Baseball Players. (I had the misfortune of informing him that Big Klu had recently passed away!) We spoke on the phone back then, but I was very happy to finally meet him in person.
Danny Peary: How does the title Love Is Strange apply to this movie?
John Lithgow: I think that to Ira, the film says that love is strange in all sorts of ways, including miraculous ways. I’ll tell you a little bit about the title. When Fred and I sing together at the gathering early in the movie, originally we, as George and Ben, were supposed to sing, “Love is Strange.”
DP: The fifties hit by Mickey and Sylvia?
JL: Yep, yep. [Lithgow hums and then we both sing!] It’s a great song, it would have been terrific. But when they went to discuss the royalties, they were told they could either have the song or they could have the title. I don’t know why but they couldn’t have both. Ira had fallen in love with that title, so they chose to keep it and picked a different song for us, “You’ve Got What it Takes,” which is better for that scene anyway.
DP: Because marriage has been legalized in New York only recently, this film actually couldn’t have been made a few years ago.
JL: No, I think not. The ignition switch for the whole story is a gay marriage, and they didn’t exist five years ago.
DP: It’s a modern story, yet it’s kind of old-fashioned.
JL: That’s the lovely thing about the film. Same-sex marriage/marriage equality/gay marriage is a hot-button issue of our time and the legal questions have been on front pages of every newspaper, but this movie gives it a human face. It’s about two old gay men, who finally are allowed to get married. You don’t see those people very often. Now you have Ben and George and you see a wonderful and detailed portrait of a long, long relationship between two men.
DP: In the opening scene, we see they’ve settled into a sweet routine. We’re seeing them at their best, they’re almost the perfect couple at this point. Do you see them as having had rocky times in their forty years?
JL: I think you can’t have a forty-year relationship without going over a few speed bumps. And a lovely scene toward the end acknowledges that things have not always been easy for them. My parents were married 64 years when my dad died, and goodness knows they had some horrendous times. But they survived into their eighties together and had each other’s companionship at the end, and that’s an incredibly precious thing.
DP: Does getting married make a real difference to Ben and George, do you think? It could be that they’re thinking, “We’ve withstood forty years of up and downs, so this will be our present to ourselves for that.”
JL: I don’t know. I’m sure it varies case by case. I always saw Ben and George as having lived together through forty years of gay history. They’ve seen the scourge of AIDS, and probably lost a hundred friends to that, they have seen the gradual three-steps-forward, two-steps-back process of achieving some sort of equality and emerging from second-class citizen status. The thing is, in all these years they’ve accepted the trade-off. They have somehow survived. And to them, the right and opportunity to get married is kind of a happy surprise. We can do it now, let’s do it! To me, that’s very touching. They don’t really need to, but they want to now. It has an importance, just because it’s been denied to them for so long.
DP: George says he feels guilty about getting them into a bad living situation because he got fired for having married. Does Ben secretly blame him, too?
JL: No, I don’t think so. I think they’re quite honest with each other and Ben says, No, we did this together. Why feel guilty about it? One of the things that really resonated with me when I first read the script was that their relationship seemed so real and so honest. It was so full of little ticks and quirks and irritants and discord along with the devotion and a really seasoned love. It just seemed very rich and true to a long-term relationship. You know, it’s not a highly dramatic movie. It’s a really simple story.
DP: I read in the press notes that Ira Sachs and his co-screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias were influenced by the Japanese postwar films–I’m sure Ozu’s movies–and French neorealism. Small films about family relationships. I hadn’t thought of foreign films as inspiration; the movie I thought of right off was Leo McCarey’s great 1937 film Make Way for Tomorrow, in which an elderly, destitute married couple is separated and shuttled off to various family members.
JL: People have brought up that movie. I want to see it, I have to see it.
DP: The couple was played by Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore, two character actors who got rare leads in that movie. You and Alfred Molina have played leads in the theater but this was a rare chance to play movie leads. Was that exciting for you?
JL: Oh, it’s been very exciting. Fred and I are both excited. I read the script and I thought, this is going to work perfectly. The two of us are perfect to cast together, and it was just heaven working with him.
DP: You’ve known him for years, so was working with him what you expected?
JL: Pretty much what I expected. He seemed so completely unselfconscious, free, and available emotionally. Fred loves work and he’s got both a wonderful sense of the seriousness of the work and also the playfulness of it. He’s just a wonderful man.
DP: While George stays with two gay cops who throw parties every night, Ben moves in with his adult nephew Elliott, his writer wife Kate, and their teenage son, Joey. And things get tense in the apartment. Do you think their issues are already there and percolating or does Ben’s presence cause issues?
JL: Oh I think they’re already there. A family unit has its own curious rules. Sometimes they’re dysfunctional rules, and sometimes they’re good healthy rules, but whichever they are, if you add another element, everything is thrown into disarray. Uncle Ben is an imposition. It’s the classic case of a guest hanging around too long.
DP: Talk about that terrific scene with you and Marisa Tomei, in which Kate is trying to write and Ben continues to talk to her, assuming she’s stimulated by the conversation rather than being annoyed by him.
JL: That a great scene. Perfect, perfectly written, with the structure of a wonderful comedy scene. I couldn’t wait to act it with Marisa, who is very crafty with great, smart-actress instincts. I love that Ben as a character is very appealing and unwittingly annoying at the same time. He has a fascinating duality, and he’s quite unconscious of the fact that he’s imposing on people. Don’t we all know those people? Who knows, maybe I’m that person myself.
DP: What’s also interesting about their conversation is the staging of it. You’re not looking over her shoulder or even standing close to her–you’re at the other side of the frame.
JL: It was initially staged with both of us sitting on the couch. But we were restless about it and it evolved in several ways until we had that set up. Ira is very open to just loosely let things settle into their proper places.
DP: Kate becomes more and more hostile, to Ben and also to Elliott and to Joey. Maybe she doesn’t like Ben being able to see that life is imperfect in her home. She come across negatively, but from your point of view, is her reaction reasonable?
JL: Yeah, I think so. There is a key, lovely, revealing little sequence when George comes into the apartment soaked with rain and he and Ben embrace. They’ve been away from each other for so long, and it’s been torture. Ira cuts to Marisa and Darren leaning against the kitchen sink. Their married couple, Kate and Elliott, see this extraordinary emotion between the two men and walk away to give them that moment. They see the kindness of these two people, and their history. But things for them are tense and there comes a time when they can’t tolerate Ben’s presence any more. There’s a big disagreement, things are exploding with them and with Joey–and what’s Ben doing here? So you can understand Kate losing her patience. I’ve just finished King Lear and in that King Lear arrives with his hundred knights and his oldest daughter Goneril goes fucking crazy. It’s all so damn domestic!
DP: Joey’s slightly older friend Vlad isn’t even mentioned in the short synopses I’ve read about the film, but I think he’s important. He connects with Ben before Joey does and let’s Ben do a painting of him, and like Ben feels hostility when he’s in the apartment. I don’t know if there’s meant to be a parallel thing going on with Ben and George and Joey and Vlad.
JL: I’ve heard people speculate on whether there’s a gay thing going on between Joey and Eric. But I don’t think so. I think the interesting that here I’m talking about something I really don’t know about. I certainly wasn’t a party to Ira’s conversations with Eric, the young actor who played the part. I think the unease that Joey’s dad feels is an interesting element. What is going on with those two? What Elliott feels is sort of a very deeply buried homophobia.
DP: Which is interesting, obviously, because Elliott seems to be so welcoming of Ben and George.
JL: He adores his uncle and thinks that the consummation of his uncle’s relationship is to be devoutly wished for. And yet he’s not at ease with his own son maybe having a relationship with this other boy.
DP: There’s a lot of family turmoil over the French books in Joey’s room. I think Vlad may have stolen the French books, alone or with Joey, to give to Joey because Joey wants to go to France. Does that make sense?
JL: That does make sense. That actually would answer one big dangling question–what is it with these French books? Joey does want badly to go to France.
DP: Do you think the girl with whom Joey skateboards at the end is the same girl Ben urged Joey to try to talk to? Joey cries thinking about Ben, before he rides off with the girl So that shows Ben made a connection with him, and I think Joey being with the girl Ben encouraged him to approach could be a reason for the crying.
JL: Maybe it is. It’s very, very touching when he cries. It’s like Joey finally realizes what Ben meant to him. He thinks Ben is this imposition sharing his room, but then there is that beautiful scene when they’re both on a bunk bed late at night. They don’t even look at each other, but they talk about the girl and other things.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: Joey finally puts his guard down and tells Ben intimate things he couldn’t tell his parents.
JL: And he probably wouldn’t tell Ben except they are sharing a bunk bed. Ben is an imposition yet he brings things out of people. Ira has no problem revealing these things so I can tell you there were a couple of major scenes cut. One of them was a long scene I had with Marisa. Ben and Kate shop for groceries and a lot of information is exchanged, including Kate confessing she’s afraid her husband is having an affair. In that scene, Ben is being kind of her counselor, offering up big opinions on life. It was the talkiest scene in the film, which is probably why it was pretty convenient to cut, but I think a great storyline was excised.
DP: Have you ever played as mild-mannered a character as Ben is at this time in his life?
JL: In Terms of Endearment, and there was a lovely little thing on television that I actually won an Emmy award for, an amazing story. But there have been very few others. It comes from being 6’4″!
DP: Yes, you’ve played bigger-than-life, not meek or timid. Finally, talk about the theme of aging in this movie.
JL: This movie is not so much about Ben and George aging, but the relationship aging. They’re growing old together. Ben is frail–there are a couple of indications that his heart is not good. It’s such an interesting revelation in the end, to hear that Ben was the sexually reckless one early in the relationship, because he’s now old and frail. He’s a tired old lion. Ben’s such a great character to play because when you get to be my age, most of the really great, meaty roles are in the theater. Witness King Lear. That’s why I love theater and I won’t stop. In movies I don’t get such lead roles at my age. It’s a curse–a very benign curse, because I work all the time–but in the many films leading up to Love is Strange, a long list of major movie stars have played my children!