Ready to scorn

Kansas City is Robert Altman's best movie in years--but does anyone care anymore?

True, you have to actively think about Kansas City while you're watching it, and maybe even catch it a second time to fully appreciate the nuances. Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt have stitched a crazy quilt of race and class conflict in which the same patterns of hypocrisy and class-consciousness pop up in very surprising places. Carolyn moves easily among black working-class people and even scolds Blondie for using the word "nigger," sniffing that "We say 'colored' in my household." Yet in an opium haze she will confuse every black woman she sees with her maid, Rose. Seldom Seen despises white people, who "rape your mothers, burn your babies, and piss in the soup," yet has earned a small, blood-stained fortune on the backs of other blacks. "It's hard to separate the heroes and villains in my movies," Altman says. "And that seems to make people angry. But I like almost everyone I decide to tell a story about. There's got to be something wrong with them, though. Why else would anybody want to watch them?"

Unlike most commercial filmmakers, Robert Altman doesn't offer moviegoers the technical cues they expect as part of the moviegoing experience. He rarely uses close-ups; he mixes dialogue and ambient noise like gumbo; and he doesn't raise or lower a musical score to heighten or prolong tension--in other words, he doesn't tell an audience when, or even how, to feel. Kansas City continues that tradition, and tangos to a conclusion that is shocking, logical, and multilayered. It's the director's leanest, most focused work in a while--and another likely victim of the sour Altman buzz.

So you think Altman is a filmmaker with a mob of angry, torchbearing critics and studio executives at his castle doorstep? Then christen Jennifer Jason Leigh, star of Kansas City, as the Bride of Altman--a petite, dynamic Elsa Lanchester to the director's shambling-monster reputation.

The 34-year-old Leigh has polarized ticket buyers, driven starry-eyed critics to fits of ecstasy and disgust, and been the source of snowballing debate in the entertainment press--but not for who she's dated, or how much money she earns per picture, or how long she'll be A-list. Having rejected the role of Hollywood player years ago to work only with directors she admires, Leigh demands that you judge her on the quality of her work.

Fans and detractors stand in line for the opportunity to do just that. Her angelic mug graced a rackful of magazine covers late last year after Georgia, the film she co-wrote and co-produced, was released. It was, everyone agreed, the kind of passionately executed showcase role that wins an Oscar nomination. (The Village Voice reported a widespread rumor that the movie, which received a standing ovation at 1995's Cannes Film Festival, was barred from official competition at that festival because the anti-Leigh faction was so vocal.)

The Academy delivered a verdict on Leigh's much-hyped performance, all right:They snubbed her in favor of co-star Mare Winningham, a worthy Best Supporting Actress nominee. Naysayers cheered. In an unrelated incident, even media mogul Ted Turner weighed in with his own thumbs-down on a film starring Leigh:He refused to broadcast the Anjelica Huston-directed adaptation of Dorothy Alison's Bastard Out of Carolina that Turner Network Television had financed. He said the film was too brutal.

Review the 1995 list of Oscar winners and nominees, however, and you can't help but notice a double standard. You say Leigh talks in funny voices? Don't tell Mira Sorvino, whose Mickey Mouse-inspired squeak won her an Academy Award for Mighty Aphrodite. You say Leigh's performances sometimes rely on a tangle of mannerisms? Brad Pitt flinched, gesticulated, and leered his way to an Oscar nomination for Twelve Monkeys.

In Kansas City, Leigh takes a backseat to Miranda Richardson's dope-addled comedy and Harry Belafonte's masterful villainy. Still, for those who were frustrated by the avalanche of attitude in Georgia, this is a cleaner, more consistent performance.

Her hair in henna-red Medusa tangles, wearing high-heels and a leopard-print blouse, Leigh recently held court in a New York City hotel suite to which a dozen print journalists from throughout the country had come to pick her apart. The casual conversation among writers before the interview had already determined who among us admired Leigh and who dismissed her talents.

But by the end of the session, she had beguiled friends and enemies alike. Sipping a Diet Coke, laughing often and staring right into your eyes, she was a queer mix of shy and blunt. On her accent in Kansas City, she said, "It just came out. The first scene we shot, I was holding a gun to Miranda's head, trying to talk like a tough guy. The dialect coach said it had enough Midwest to work. I thought about Jimmy Cagney pushing people around, and Harlow in Red-headed Woman."

On working with Robert Altman: "Usually when you make a movie, there are all these rules you never think about. They're just the conventions of filmmaking: You don't step on somebody else's line, you stick to the choreography, etc. But on an Altman production, all those are lifted. He lets you try anything, and if it works, he'll keep it."

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