Richard LaGravenese: The Ladies' Man

What do Meryl Streep, Judy Davis, Andie MacDowell and Mercedes Ruehl have in common? Each got one of the best roles of her career thanks to Richard LaGravenese. Here the screenwriter of The Fisher King, The Ref, The Bridges of Madison County, A Little Princess and Unstrung Heroes talks about why women are more interesting than men, and what it's like writing a film about beauty for Barbra Streisand.

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"What does a woman want?" Freud asked. And the cacophony of differing voices has been deafening ever since. But if the question had been asked, "What do actresses want?" there would be one clear, concise answer today: Richard LaGravenese.

Think of Mercedes Ruehl and Amanda Plummer rolling around in hysterics during the manicure scene in The Fisher King, Judy Davis's vitriol in The Ref, Meryl Streep's gentle repartee in The Bridges of Madison County, Andie MacDowell's tolerant, bemused mothering in Unstrung Heroes, Liesel Matthews's lonely generosity in A Little Princess. It's no wonder LaGravenese is the Mr. Right of screenwriting right now. Meryl Streep reportedly signed on for The Bridges of Madison County solely because of LaGravenese's script---she hated the book. Barbra Streisand hired him to write her current project, The Mirror Has Two Faces.

It's not clear to me whether this has anything to do with his magical ability to write meaty film roles for women, but LaGravenese lives in New York. When settled in his huge living room overlooking Central Park, I start by remarking, "Lots of people say it's hard to write parts for women. But you write roles that actresses are chomping at the bit to play."

"When I was young, I had two older sisters, and since I was the youngest in my family, my mom took me around with her all the time. I was forever with her when she was having coffee in the middle of the afternoon with her three sisters. And they would talk about men. I absorbed a lot of that. My dad was a presence, of course, but he worked nights a lot, and I would only see him one day a week. As a kid, I'd hear all the women talking about men, about what assholes men are. how men really don't know what's going on. and how women have to put up with them. They'd laugh and roll their eyes.And I thought, 'Women are the people who really know what's going on. I don't want to be one of the men.' It caused problems, believe me. There was an identity crisis there. But I absorbed and listened. I heard lots of things that came out later when I was writing. I'd remember little expressions or the way the women would talk to each other."

"What movies did you grow up on?"

"What was it, 50 years ago when there were all these amazing roles for women? Comedies and tragedies. Those were the movies that I grew up on, the movies my folks introduced me to. Even as a kid I was more enchanted watching Bette Davis than Errol Flynn. I mean, All About Eve or The Little Foxes or The Letter? There was just something about women that fascinated me. Those Irene Dunne movies like The Awful Truth, or Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier. Barbara Stanwyck movies drove me nuts, like Ball of Fire and Double Indemnity. I used to go cuckoo when I would see those films."

"Whoa, big fella," I say, because the 6'2" LaGravenese is practically frothing at the mouth.

"I know, I know," he says. "I just really have an affinity for women. Watching them go through journeys is more interesting to me than watching men."

"So what journey do you send Barbra Streisand on in The Mirror Has Two Faces?"

LaGravenese is the screenwriter of this project--a remake of the French film, Le Miroir a Deux Faces-- which is in production as we speak and due to hit screens in late '96.

"Lately it seems people are more interested in attitude than feelings. I am so bored with that. This film asks, 'What is real beauty? What is real love?"'

Not everyone would have the nerve to take on those touchy subjects in a movie starring Barbra Streisand. "What's the story?" I ask.

"It's about this handsome, intellectual math professor (Jeff Bridges) whose Achilles' heel is that when he's in love with a beautiful woman he loses his mind. He wants to find another way of feeling love, and he meets Barbra Streisand, who's a bit homely... "

"Wait," I say, "Barbra Streisand's going to play homely?'" I'm remembering that she played the shrink in The Prince of Tides in a skirt slit up to her pupik and nails longer than her nose.

"Well, I don't know how ugly. But that's not really the issue. It's about her coming to a point of self-love, so that it isn't any physical transformation she goes through, like plastic surgery. It's just a different attitude." If this attitude stuff worked, Vogue, Allure and the rest would be out of business, I'm thinking, but I keep this to myself, and LaGravenese continues. "Did you ever have a relationship with somebody and it just didn't work out, you just weren't attracted to them, you break up with them, you see them a year later, and they're feeling really good about themselves, and they look fabulous? And you go, 'Wow...why didn't they look like that when we were together?' And, obviously they're the same people?"

Obviously, they've had cosmetic surgery, if you ask me. "So, any horror stories about working with Barbra?" I ask, just for fun.

"Not a one," declares LaGravenese. "I love her. She's a really great collaborator. I went out to California and we spent a week together, 10-hour days through lunch and dinner, just working on the script. And it was great. She's really smart, she's really funny and..."

He stops mid-sentence.

"What?" I plead.

LaGravenese throws his arms in the air and shouts, "And she's Barbra Streisand! C'mon. I got to watch My Name Is Barbra with her in the room, while she was redoing the tapes. I was dying."

I'm laughing, because I think he might be about to break into a chorus of ''People."

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