Friday, December 16, 2005

“It made me laugh,” explains director Stephen Frears, accounting promptly for his attraction to “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” his affectionate evocation of London’s vaudeville theater just before and during World War II that opens on Christmas Day.

Mr. Frears was calling from New York to help promote the national release, prior to the announcement that “Mrs. Henderson” had become a Golden Globes contender. Nominated as best comedy or musical, it also placed co-stars Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in the running as best actress and supporting actor. The pretext had been pitched to Mr. Hoskins before any other principal collaborator, and he persuaded the eventual producer, Norma Heyman, and director, Mr. Frears, to join the show.

It was always understood by screenwriter Martin Sherman, best known for the play “Bent,” that he was drafting a vehicle for Mr. Hoskins and Miss Dench. They portray fitfully antagonistic business partners, a London theater impresario called Vivian Van Damm and an amateur investor named Laura Henderson, a widow who decides that it might be fun to dabble in show business.

Based at a Soho theater called the Windmill, their collaboration prospers initially with a policy of continuous live shows (five a day) and then with a clever nude gambit, which contrives to pacify the London theater censor. The Windmill revues begin posing chorines in artfully suggestive tableaux that make it acceptable for them to be partially naked as long as they remain as motionless and statuesque as possible.

“England was so demure and respectable,” Mr. Frears, 64, reflects. “This movie deals with a very, very innocent time.” His most characteristic and successful movies have been quite the antithesis:”Prick Up Your Ears,” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Snapper,” “The Van,” “High Fidelity” and “Dirty Pretty Things.” Born in Leicester, he has a few childhood recollections of the war “air raid sirens, I think, and being carried and placed under a stairway during one of them.” He reached London much later, where he discovered the site of the old Windmill, which had closed four years after Vivian Van Damm’s death in 1964 (Mrs. Henderson had passed on 20 years earlier).He found “a rather seedy place.”

In the years after the war, the Windmill had become “a rather famous showcase for comedians,” Mr. Frears says. “Many of them had been in the service and came out eager to show their stuff. Peter Sellers was one of the people who got exposure there. Then it was a casino and nightclub. Now it offers lap dancing.I didn’t attend a show, but I was taken in for a tour of the interior, so I could get some idea of the architecture and dimensions. It was tiny, with the old stage located somewhat below ground level, which made it harder for bombs to get through. The management was proud of never closing during the war.Now the place overwhelms you with brass and mirrors.”

A Rita Hayworth musical of 60 years ago, “Tonight and Every Night,” directed in Hollywood by an Englishman, Victor Saville, evidently drew on some of the lore of the Windmill.Mr. Frears wasn’t aware of British counterparts, but they probably are tucked into various collections. Since he had never directed a musical, he was obliged to “go back to school,” initially with books recalling the heyday of musicals at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.”Mrs. Henderson” does not teem with numbers, but it has a handful of under-the-proscenium sequences that reproduce the Windmill’s blend of song, dance and idyllic nudity.

“The whole procedure of musicals is so different,” Mr. Frears remarks.”It’s not like making an ordinary film. … You can’t wing it, because it’s too thorough and requires so much preparation.The numbers have to be choreographed.The girls have to be rehearsed. The songs have to be pre-recorded.I wanted to be involved all along the way, but you have to rely on people with skills that are quite special and indispensable.It’s imperative to start early, because if the chorus isn’t ready by shooting day, it’s impossible to catch up.It was all new to me.”

Despite the remedial aspects, Mr. Frears also found the experience “a very, very invigorating way of working.” He had such a good time that it confirmed an anecdote he had once heard from Jean Simmons.”I remember her talking about making ‘Guys and Dolls,’ ” Mr. Frears says.”She recalled that each time the cast finished a musical number, they’d ask to do it all over again.It was that pleasurable. They just wanted to prolong the gratification. Now I really appreciate what she was talking about.”

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