Street scenes

Harvey Keitel talks about being discovered after 20 years of acting

Unfortunately, the movie and all the glowing notices it generated did relatively little for Keitel. Buoyed by rave reviews, Keitel went to Hollywood, did some TV guest spots, and waited for the next big movie offer. Nothing happened.

Through Herculean efforts in a series of good, bad, and indifferent movies, Keitel earned the reputation of being an actor's actor. Trouble is, he did a lot of his acting in minor movies by major directors--Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch, Brian De Palma's Wise Guys, Tony Richardson's The Border, and, most humiliatingly, Stanley Donen's Saturn 3. (Donen hated Keitel's Method-style line readings so much, the director hired another actor to dub the actor's dialogue.)

Between 1976, when he made a chilling impact as Jodie Foster's surly pimp in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and 1991, when he scored the hat-trick of triple triumphs in Mortal Thoughts, Thelma and Louise, and Bugsy, Keitel made nearly 30 movies. Maybe six or seven of them are worth a trip to your neighborhood video store.

But to hear Keitel talk, he regrets none of them. He's not bitter about having to wait more than 20 years before being "discovered" by mainstream moviegoers.

"Look," he says with a wide grin, "America was quite old when it got discovered.

"Really," Keitel continues, "I just look at it like I've been in the process of being. And now, it's right. I don't think there's any one time for one to be--quote, unquote--discovered. It's up to us to discover ourselves.

"Right now, I feel blessed. And I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth. When I look back at my 20s...those were great times, those were miserable times. But either way, they were right times. And now--this is the right time, too."

The good times began in earnest in 1991, when Keitel, long a favorite of critics and cultists, broke out into the mainstream. He earned his first Oscar nomination (as Best Supporting Actor for Bugsy), and endeared himself to audiences by almost managing to talk Thelma and Louise out of their Grand Canyon free fall.

By the following year, his critical and financial success began snowballing. He was considered "bankable" enough to get Quentin Tarantino's debut film, the low-budget heist picture Reservoir Dogs, financed almost entirely on the strength of his name above the title.

Keitel is enormously proud of his no-holds-barred work in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, which came out that same year--a garishly symbolic drama in which he plays a burned-out New York cop who uses too much cocaine, bets too much with loan sharks, and imagines he sees Jesus Christ in a church where a young nun has been raped by two crackhead kids. (Keep this one away from Bob Dole.) Many critics--including some who should have known better--shared his enthusiasm for the film.

But ticket buyers and Academy Award voters vastly preferred the following year's The Piano, Jane Campion's extraordinary tale of eroticism and transcendence in 19th-century New Zealand. Holly Hunter earned an Oscar for her mesmerizing portrayal of a mute mail-order bride from Scotland whose straitlaced husband (Sam Neill), a New Zealand colonist, can neither control nor understand her. As her frankly worshipful lover, an illiterate settler who recognizes (and is turned on by) her enigmatic magic, Keitel offered a brilliant performance of uncommon sensitivity and slow-burning sensuality. For this, and for the uninhibited lovemaking scenes he shared with Hunter, Keitel was dubbed "the thinking woman's sex symbol" by more than one appreciative viewer. Asked about this dubious compliment, Keitel looks slightly uneasy. "I have nothing to say about that," he says. "All I will say is, The Piano was written and directed by a woman I consider to be a goddess."

Keitel will say even less about his private life, especially when the questions stray too near the still-sensitive subject of his divorce from actress Lorraine Bracco, with whom he broke up nearly five years ago. On the other hand, Keitel is willing--even eager--to talk about his nine-year-old daughter, Stella.

"I'm concerned about what she thinks of me," he admits. "I'm concerned about what she thinks about my principles, of my ethos. Those things concern me greatly. They are a joy to teach her: what her father thinks, what her father believes in. That's such a delight."

From such simple things, Harvey Keitel insists, one gains the kind of knowledge that Wayne Wang and Paul Auster impart in Smoke.

"I feel that Paul wrote this story asking us to look at what's right in front of us," Keitel muses. "Because right in front of us is everything that one needs to know. Now, whether that's true or not doesn't really matter. What matters is that there is a lot for us to know right in front of us. But only if we avail ourselves of the opportunities."

Joe Leydon, former movie critic for the Houston Post and Dallas Observer, is a free-lance writer based in Houston.

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