- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

“It’s the culminating version of a role she spent a long time exploring in the theater,” remarks John Madden, who directed Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie version of “Proof,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of 2001, after directing her in the first London production three years ago.

Actress and director had been famously associated in 1998 on “Shakespeare in Love,” which brought Miss Paltrow an Academy Award as best actress. It also placed Mr. Madden in the finals as best director (won by Steven Spielberg for “Saving Private Ryan”) while collecting seven Oscars, including best picture.

“Shakespeare in Love” began what Mr. Madden, born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949, describes as “a very, very close and trusting relationship.” During a recent promotional visit to Washington, he confirms: “It was a given that we’d work together again.”

Miss Paltrow began endearing herself to the English with “Emma” in 1996. She pretty much closed the deal while collaborating with Mr. Madden, who had emerged as a prestige film director a year later with “Mrs. Brown.”He had trained as a theater director in the late 1970s and early 1980s before directing several productions in the United States and was comfortable enough stateside to be tolerant of recurring jokes about sharing the name of professional football’s John Madden.

However, he had largely neglected the stage in order to engineer a more flexible and versatile career in filmmaking. The director and his wife relocated to London in 1987 with their young children. He was responsible for episodes of “The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes,” “Inspector Morse” and “Prime Suspect,” among other TV projects, before theatrical films started to monopolize his time in the middle 1990s.

Staging “Proof” at the Donmar Warehouse in London marked Mr. Madden’s return to live theater. It came at the urging of a colleague, Sam Mendes, who had made an Oscar-winning transition to movies with “American Beauty.”In turn, Mr. Madden recruited Miss Paltrow, who at the time might have been looking for a professional haven from incessant media gossip.

“I discovered that Gwyneth had not relished the celebrity that came her way as a budding star and then Oscar winner,” Mr. Madden recalls.”Her talent was beyond issue or question at the time we made ‘Shakespeare in Love.’What she did lack was the kind of confidence that systematic theater work can foster.”

Mr. Madden explains that the actress always felt a bit sheepish about never having performed Shakespeare before being asked to play the fanciful love of his life in the movie.”I adjusted certain things for her,” he recalls, “but what she gave me in return was incredibly close to what I wanted.Lines, emotions, scenes.She has extraordinary access to her emotional life.Still, she was very young [25] and felt out of her depth occasionally. She believed that people like Judi Dench and Joseph Fiennes were more secure in their technique and experience.That was a basic misunderstanding of all actors, since their insecurities never vanish.”

Mr. Madden believed Miss Paltrow’s uncertainties would diminish as soon as she devoted herself full time to a theater project.”It’s just a matter of familiarizing yourself with a process,” he says.”She needed to discern that her choices were intelligent rather than blind or accidental.When you do a play, that becomes easier to comprehend, since you explore all kinds of performing options.Some you discard, some you retain, and ultimately, you discover how they affect a live audience.”

Mr. Madden says Miss Paltrow “seized the opportunity forcefully” during the run of “Proof.” He adds that the role, the devoted but secluded daughter of a mathematical genius, was an intensified challenge because it “shadowed certain things in her life.” Bruce Paltrow, the actress’s father, a prominent television director during the 1970s and 1980s, became seriously ill from cancer and died between the theatrical engagement of “Proof” and the start of the movie version.In remission when the play opened, he was able to attend a performance.

“That was a very poignant occasion,” Mr. Madden reflects. “Gwyneth had been through a lot.Her work now draws on more raw and painful experience than it could have when we first met, but it’s finally impossible to speculate about how work is directly influenced by real-life losses and struggles. She is a consummate actress and doesn’t need a specific body of experience for inspiration.”

• • •

With the concentration of official Washington focused on the dilemma of major cities in the path of natural disasters, it may prove inspired timing for the Goethe Institut to sponsor a retrospective series called “Metropolis,” consisting of movie portraits of famous cities, from Berlin in 1927 to Havana in 2003.

The Monday night series begins the day after tomorrow with a 6:30 p.m. program of Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Great City,” an enduring classic of lyrical documentary, and Joris Ivens’ short “Rain,” recalling a rainy Amsterdam in 1929.

Later selections include Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome: Open City” on Oct. 24, Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” on Nov. 7 and Martin Scorsese’s movie version of “The Age of Innocence,” which evokes the New York City of the late 19th century, on Nov. 14.The retrospective concludes a week later with Fernando Perez’s “Suite Cubana,” influenced in part by Ruttmann’s vintage homage to Berlin.

Admission for all showings is $6.The Goethe Insititut Washington is located at 812 Seventh St. NW. The Web site is goethe.de/washington.

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