Inside the Actors Studio


A thoroughly inside job, The Anniversary Party is a film about actors in Hollywood cowritten and codirected by two semi-stellar SAG members—Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming—who also assume the leading roles. The film is thus an exercise in what it critiques—the self-involvement and self-dramatization of performers. (If there are exceptions to the rule, you won’t find them in The Anniversary Party.)

Celebrating their reunion after a trial separation and the sixth anniversary of their rocky marriage, Sally (Leigh) and Joe (Cumming) have invited a dozen or so of their friends for a day-into-night gathering at their Richard Neutra glass house in the Hollywood Hills. The house is the unacknowledged star of the proceedings, although its elegant interior lines are all but obscured by the dozens of photos of Sally and Joe (together and separately) taken by Joe’s former girlfriend Gina (Jennifer Beals). Sally and Joe are both undergoing career crises. Joe, who doesn’t even know if he likes movies, has been tapped to direct his first film, based on his adaptation of his own novel and starring fast-rising newcomer Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a role that’s transparently based on Sally as she was when Joe first met her. “Skye fucking Davidson,” mutters Sally between clenched teeth. “How old is she? Twenty-fucking-two?” Parodying her own gushy persona and relying as usual on hyperventilation to suggest the excitement of youth, Paltrow delivers the film’s most irritating and false performance.

Insecure about her marriage and her encroaching middle age, Sally has taken to bursting into tears on the set of her new movie. Her Oscar-winning costar, Cal Gold (Kevin Kline), and her worried director, Mac (John C. Reilly), are also at the party. Mac and Cal have their respective wives, Clair (Jane Adams) and Sophie (played by Kline’s real-life spouse, Phoebe Cates) in tow.

As a new, highly ambivalent mother who’s flipped out on the amphetamines she’s taking to lose weight so she can resume her acting career, Adams is mesmerizing (and also disturbingly thin). She’s one of two actors (in a cast of 24 humans plus two dogs) who connects her external tics, flamboyant as they are, to some kind of inner emotional life. The film’s most memorable moment, however, belongs to Cates. Playing a former actress turned seemingly contented homemaker, she becomes totally unglued explaining that the greatest disadvantage of motherhood is that you can never again entertain the idea of suicide as a way out.

The Anniversary Party owes just enough to Cassavetes’s monumental Opening Night to force an invidious comparison. In particular, Sally’s crisis of confidence parallels that of Gena Rowlands’s character in the Cassavetes film. But Leigh and Cumming’s rickety script is limited to downtime. We never get to see anything of the creative work involved in acting or how Sally’s melodramatics and crazy behavior are part of what actors do in the process of bringing an alter ego to life. The film’s greatest failure, however, is the absence of any convincing emotional or sexual relationship between Sally and Joe, a confused queen who wears Boy London tank tops and comes on to half the women at the party to prove he’s a het stud. From their first make-out scene to their last battle royal, there’s nothing but empty theatrics on the screen. Shot in DV by the revered but quite conventional cinematographer John Bailey, The Anniversary Party has about as much visual presence and appeal as the average TV movie.

A more encompassing and unaware form of narcissism animates Let It Snow, an inert and inept romantic comedy. Directed by Adam Marcus and written and produced by his brother Kipp Marcus, who also plays the leading role, it concerns a young Jewish man and a young WASP woman who are made for each other but are relationship shy, thanks to the terrible marriages of their respective parents. “Stay away from love. The men leave, the women go crazy. Your parents are really fucked up. We’re all doomed,” croons Granny (Judith Malina) in our hero’s impressionable ear. In lieu of acting, the cast members do a great deal of smiling and head cocking. The final, inevitable clinch is preceded by the heroine’s mad dash across the Brooklyn Bridge in a wedding dress. Until that point, the film drags on for what seems like a lifetime, but is in fact 90 minutes.