- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

NEW YORK — When Michael Cunningham got a call from producer Scott Rudin about the possibility of turning his novel "The Hours" into a movie, he was incredulous.

He was convinced that his book a meditative personality study of three women, including the novelist Virginia Woolf, living in different generations was unadaptable.

"No ocean liners sink in this story; there are no car chases," says Mr. Cunningham, on hand at New York's Essex House to promote the movie version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, published in 1998.

"Are you sure you have the right number?" Mr. Cunningham remembers thinking.

Mr. Rudin indeed had the right number and, come March, probably will have the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's number, too. "The Hours," a Paramount-Miramax co-production that opens today in area theaters, is a virtual lock for major Oscar pickups.

"I read the book years ago and loved it and never imagined it would be a film," says Julianne Moore, whom Oscar handicappers believe may be nominated twice in the best-actress category, for "The Hours" and "Far From Heaven."

Starring an uncustomarily homely Nicole Kidman as the suicide-fated Woolf, Miss Moore as stereotypically miserable '50s housewife Laura Brown and Meryl Streep as modern-day book editor Clarissa Vaughan, "The Hours" has all the hallmarks of an Academy favorite.

(Possibly a harbinger of awards to come, it was selected best film of the year by the National Board of Review last month.)

It's a stately movie, written by British playwright David Hare with polished literary gravitas. Both the screenplay and Mr. Cunningham's novel are inspired directly by Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," which was in turn heavily influenced by James Joyce's "Ulysses."

"David Hare's adaptation I think that he did the impossible, which was adapt this very internal, very beautifully written book," Miss Moore says. "I didn't think it could be done. I was very, very worried about it."

What also may impress the PC-conscious Academy is the film's edgy but not overly provocative leftish flair: Ed Harris plays an AIDS-stricken homosexual named Richard, a poet-novelist and former lover of Clarissa's.

The star-crossed lovers eventually would settle into semicontented homosexuality. Miss Streep and Allison Janney of "The West Wing" play a wifely lesbian couple in "The Hours," and Jeff Daniels appears briefly as Richard's ex-boyfriend.

"One of the things I liked about the book is the idea that sexuality is a very fluid business," says Mr. Hare, who is heterosexual. "We tried to preserve that."

Virginia Woolf dealt with the theme of vacillating sexuality in several of her novels comically in 1928's "Orlando: A Biography" partly because it figured in her own life. Although she was married, Woolf is widely believed to have been sexually involved with women, including possibly the writer Vita Sackville-West.

The English novelist treated the subject through one of her most famous characters, Mrs. Dalloway, the animating spirit of "The Hours." Mr. Cunningham, who is a homosexual author, bestowed her first name, Clarissa, on Miss Streep's character, like Mrs. Dalloway a consummate social hostess.

The lonely housewife, Laura Brown, is transformed personally by the novel, relating to its depictions of a woman who is superficially happy and content but ready to fall apart inside.

In Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," the title character takes a springtime walk around London and reflects on, among other things, her conflicted sexual longings. Like "Ulysses," "Mrs. Dalloway" and, by extension, "The Hours" takes place in 24 hours.

In that day, each of the three women in "The Hours" experiences a vaguely romantic kiss that, momentarily at least, mystifies her sexual orientation.

It's a theme with which "Hours" director Stephen Daldry dealt gingerly in "Billy Elliott," the movie about a young male ballet dancer for which he received an Oscar nomination.

The director is himself a real-life study of wishy-washy sexuality. Openly homosexual for years, Mr. Daldry recently married Lucy Sexton, a New York-based dancer.

So: Mr. Cunningham homosexual. Mr. Hare straight. Mr. Daldry somewhere in between. Got that?

Mr. Cunningham is quite comfortable with the various perspectives brought to bear on "The Hours": a story about three women written by a homosexual man and adapted to the screen by a straight screenwriter and a bisexual director.

"I can't buy into the notion that there's a job for which a gay person or straight person is uniquely qualified," Mr. Cunningham says.

Proving that point, the stars of "The Hours," all straight, are all convincing in sexually ambiguous roles.

"I've only been involved with men, sexually," says Miss Moore, sternly but playfully responding to a nosy question about her romantic past.

"One of the great things about this particular story and these particular characters is that it's incredibly hard to determine if anyone really is gay," Mr. Daldry says, but he quickly downplays the centrality of sexuality in "The Hours."

"I don't think that sexuality is necessarily the issue in this film at all," he says. "It's much more about feelings of entrapment and feelings of loss and grief" themes that personally hit home for Miss Kidman.

It's no secret that while filming "The Hours" in June 2001, the actress was reeling from her divorce from Tom Cruise. The Australian-born Miss Kidman was consequently able to invest a very real personal anguish into her portrayal of Woolf, who lost a long battle with depression and madness, committing suicide in 1941.

To acquaint herself with Woolf's troubled mental life, Miss Kidman rented a cottage in the woods while filming "The Hours" in London, living in virtual solitude when her children weren't with her.

"It was just sort of being isolated, so that I could just be with my thoughts and basically do what Virginia did," she says. "It was very important for me to delve into her psychology. I was very drawn to her."

An important resource for Miss Kidman, as well as for Mr. Hare, was Hermione Lee's celebrated biography of Virginia Woolf, published in 1999. Miss Kidman also pored over the author's voluminous correspondences, all in an attempt to get a firm handle on a character she was initially intimidated about playing.

"I read the script and thought, 'They can't be wanting me for Virginia,'" Miss Kidman says. "I thought, 'There's no way I'm going to be able to pull this off. I don't think I'm right. It's going to be a disaster.'"

She was apprehensive about playing an older character, in particular someone as frumpy as Virginia Woolf. Eventually, though, with the encouragement of Mr. Daldry, she threw herself fully into the role, wearing an ungainly prosthetic nose, learning how to write with her right hand and to roll her own cigarettes, as Woolf did.

"You're given such a wonderful opportunity as an actor when you're given a role like this," Miss Kidman says, "and you have to be willing to go the distance."

Mr. Cunningham couldn't be more pleased with Miss Kidman's performance as well as that of the entire cast.

"I am, as far as I can tell, the only novelist who has been thoroughly happy with a film made about a book he wrote," he says.

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