- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001

NEW YORK — "The Score" isn't the sort of crime melodrama that's likely to antagonize the press. Morecerebral than visceral, it cleverly differentiates itself from the summer Hollywood pack by emphasizing a cat-and-mouse personal rivalry and de-emphasizing violent sensation and spectacle.
Nevertheless, it seemed to present a problem to Paramount when the studio tried to organize interviews in New York for the press. The most conspicuous draws in the cast, Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, rarely lend themselves to such exposure. The youngest attraction, Edward Norton, had agreed to just a handful of select interviews.
That left Angela Bassett to represent most of the cast, while director Frank Oz represented the crew and/or management. Miss Bassett, of course, is no slouch, but she has the smallest principal role in the film, which opens today. She plays Mr. De Niro's girlfriend, who has nothing to do with the central crime plot.
The story revolves around the theft of a precious object from the Montreal Customs House. This caper depends on the expertise of Mr. De Niro's character, safecracker Nick Wells. Mr. Norton's character, a sneaky accomplice and inside man named Jackie Teller, always jeopardizes it with his devious tendencies.
Mr. De Niro was the magnet that drew Miss Bassett to the project. "It was a bird-in-the-hand kind of thing," she says. "I couldn't imagine another opportunity to work with him. Not that it couldn't happen, but some of the projects he does would be unlikely to call for someone like me: a Scorcese or an 'Analyze This' or a 'Bullwinkle and Rocky.' I don't really see myself in those. It was no big deal being a black woman in the world of this film. It was Canada. It was Montreal. My agent and manager suggested it to the producers after reading the script. The character had no fixed racial identity. Presumably, she was Caucasian in the writer's mind. The chance to work with Bob and be in the company of those other guys was enough reason to do it."
Miss Bassett did not encounter Mr. Brando. His three weeks of work did not coincide with her handful of scattered shooting days. "The association with Bob was very satisfying," she says. "He's warm and shy and very professional. I'm shy myself. The word 'shy' stuck as a nickname when I was a girl. I think some of us are attracted to acting as a way of overcoming the shyness."
Scarcely an overnight discovery, the Yale graduate acquired a great deal of theatrical training and experience, not to mention numerous television and film credits, before being catapulted to prominence in 1993 as Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do With It." Miss Bassett was a seasoned 34-year-old when the movie was released.
She acknowledges that the fame and the Academy Award nomination generated by "What's Love Got To Do With It" proved to be mixed blessings. "I didn't work for a year and a half after 'What's Love' because what starring roles are available? Comparable to Tina Turner? There's nothing of that magnitude, but you can't go right back and resume doing the sort of little parts you used to do," she says. "Some things are possible when you're anonymous and people can't put a face with the name. You're able to get roles here, there, everywhere. Before Tina, I did all kinds of stuff. At most, I'd be out of work for a week or two."
To guard against poor choices or slack seasons, actors "diversify." For Miss Bassett, that means returning to the theater with some frequency. Also, self-preservation can be served by "producing and maybe even directing your own little things. Someone is always watching, even if you doubt it," the actress says
Mr. De Niro also was a magnet for Mr. Oz, who was directing his first suspense melodrama. The director is convinced that Mr. Brando joined the cast in order to play opposite Mr. De Niro. Mr. Brando plays a character named Max, a trusted criminal mentor and fence to the hero. "It was Kario Salem's idea to cast Marlon," Mr. Oz says, alluding to the author of the original screenplay, which subsequently was rewritten by Lem Dobbs, Scott Marshall Smith and Mr. Salem himself.
"I thought it was a great idea. Not because it was Marlon Brando, although that was a plus. It was a great idea for realizing Max as a character," he says. "I was a relative latecomer. Bob had been cast, and the producers had worked with Kario and the others through many drafts. I think it's fair to say I was instrumental in guiding it when I did sign on. All the writers earned their credits, but the actors contributed, and I contributed. We were in a workshop situation. I warned everyone it might be a little crazy, but it was the best way to go with this material. We had a script, but every day it changed. We kept on writing it."
Mr. Oz first encountered Mr. Brando at get-acquainted sessions at the actor's home in Los Angeles. "Marlon was extraordinarily entertaining. And warm and smart and observant. Really, really observant," he says. "Marlon is an expert at testing directors, but most experienced actors are."
Born in Hereford, England in 1944, Mr. Oz first became prominent as a collaborator with Jim Henson on the Muppet menagerie. Miss Piggy is, of course, his most famous alter ego. His biographical credits in press material for "The Score" have been reduced to a bare minimum, the features he has directed: "Little Shop of Horrors," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "What About Bob?" "In & Out," "The Indian in the Cupboard" and "Bowfinger."
In discussing "The Score," he says: "It's not a question of avoiding such features as big car chases and gunfights and explosions. There was much more violence — and sex — in Kario Salem's original script. But once you've got Bob De Niro, you've gotta be reality-based. He's an extraordinarily honest actor. I was looking for gravity, some of that gravitas you've heard so much about. Bob is the touchstone for the whole movie. Once he's there, everything has to be more real."
Mr. Oz relied on a technical consultant "to help keep Bob's character very much in touch with the authentic world of a professional safecracker."
"Whathe stressed," Mr. Oz says, "is that if you're a professional thief for 25 years, you don't kill people, set off explosions, carry a gun or bring a lot of attention to yourself. If anything, you're tryingtobe invisible."
The original screenplay was set in San Francisco. Mr. Oz resides in Connecticut with his wife and four children and prefers to work on the East Coast. "The producers graciously understood that," he says. "New York came up and then the idea of shooting New York interiors in Montreal, which isn't uncommon. Then someone suggested, why not Montreal for the whole thing? It's a beautiful city, and I think it's been a long time since a major film has really shown it off. I worked hard to make sure it wasn't tourist Montreal."
Mr. Oz also is proud of taking considerable pains with the pictorial design of the movie, which he intended as an homage to Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," albeit a color and wide-screen homage.

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