- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

All artists look to their colleagues, past and present, for inspiration. But few chase their muse to quite the lengths Ed Harris does.

In “Copying Beethoven,” opening today, the actor plays the German composer. Mr. Harris has portrayed other real-life figures: John Glenn (“The Right Stuff”) and E. Howard Hunt (“Nixon”), to name just two. He’s also played an iconic artist before: His performance as Jackson Pollock in his directorial debut, 2000’s “Pollock,” was Oscar-nominated.

Mr. Harris, speaking by phone from New York, says it’s “coincidental” that of the 40 roles he’s played, around one in five have been real people. He admits that “Pollock” was “more of a personal obsession.” But it’s hard to believe he isn’t drawn to playing artists. “It’s inspiring, it makes you consider your own creative life in a different way,” the four-time Oscar nominee says. “Hopefully, it makes you better at it.”

For “Copying Beethoven,” Mr. Harris immersed himself in the composer’s music, literature from the time by Goethe and Schiller, and conducting lessons. “The process of working on something like that is as exciting as filming it, really,” he says. “That’s where you’re doing all the work and filling yourself up with new thoughts and ideas.”

“Copying Beethoven,” directed by Agnieszka Holland, may feature a real-life figure. But the story is all fiction. Diane Kruger (“Troy’s” Helen) plays the fictional Anna Holtz, an aspiring composer who becomes the master’s copyist.

To judge from the film’s many anachronisms and unrestrained dramatic license, it seems Mr. Harris may have known more about the period than the writers did. “I asked the writers point blank why they were introducing this fictional character into the last couple years of his life, which were pretty interesting in their own right,” the actor admits.

He may have been satisfied with their reasons, but most viewers won’t be.

Getting better reviews is Mr. Harris’ work in Neil LaBute’s one-man-play “Wrecks,” which closes this weekend at New York’s Public Theater after a sold-out run. Previously staged in Cork, Ireland, it marked Mr. Harris’ return to the stage after an absence of about 10 years. “He’s very prolific, very intelligent,” Mr. Harris says of Mr. LaBute, who is also the director of films such as “In the Company of Men.” “I like the way his mind works. This play is a bit of departure for him, I think. There’s nothing mean about it.”

Mr. Harris may soon play another historical personage — he’s been discussing a movie about abolitionist John Brown with a screenwriter — but he’s most looking forward to returning to the director’s chair with “Appaloosa,” a Western based on a Robert Parker novel. Viggo Mortensen and Diane Lane will star alongside the director.

Doc director opens up

It’s easy to see how Barbara Kopple became one of America’s most acclaimed documentary filmmakers. Within minutes of our meeting, she had somehow wheedled a confidence out of this reporter.

“I’m the best secret-keeper in the world, by the way,” she assures me. It’s an odd thing to say for someone in her business. But the woman who managed to film a glimpse of Woody Allen’s private life (in 1997’s “Wild Man Blues”) clearly has a talent for capturing people in unguarded moments.

“Once you start feeling comfortable and once you start talking about stuff, it’s almost like the camera’s a sanity point,” she explains about her subjects’ willingness to reveal themselves.

Miss Kopple got her latest subjects, the Dixie Chicks, to open up more than usual — no easy feat, considering it was their outspokenness that landed them in trouble in the first place. “Shut Up and Sing,” co-directed with Cecilia Peck, opens in theaters today.

Shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Dixie Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience, “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”

Miss Kopple’s funny, touching film explores the fallout. Red-state country music fans turned on the threesome; Miss Maines even received a death threat before a Dallas show. “I could probably play Marilyn Manson and not get that kind of feedback, even though we’re a country station,” comments one radio program manager.

“Shut Up and Sing” is surprisingly visual for a film about political speech. Miss Kopple’s camera caught a tractor rolling over a trail of Dixie Chicks CDs. Legendary producer Rick Rubin sways as he listens to a new Dixie Chicks track; a dog grooves alongside him perfectly in sync. These hilarious images provide lighter moments in a film that aims to probe the limits of tolerance for unpopular opinions in a regionally polarized America.

The film is bookended by news reports of President Bush’s approval ratings — the Dixie Chicks, it seems, were ahead of their time. But Miss Kopple says she wasn’t trying to make a political point.

“When you do a film, you’re just doing it from your heart, and you’re just filming what you see,” she says. “I try not to be heavy-handed in anything because I really want people to make their own decisions and feel something for themselves.”

Miss Kopple, an Oscar-winner for two documentaries about strikes, 1976’s “Harlan County, U.S.A.” and 1991’s “American Dream,” is pleased that the form has become more popular in the last decade. Viewers these days have a thirst for knowledge that only nonfiction films can provide, she comments.

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