"He raped me and he murdered me, the bastard!" says she, referring to acts committed in The Juror, the film they did eight years ago. "It started then. We knew we clicked, so we started talking about other projects to do. When I did Proof on Broadway, he came backstage, and it started up again. Then, when this came up, I jumped at it."
"This" is Twentieth Century: the train on which a creditor-chased theatre impresario (Oscar Jaffe) plots to get back on top by setting a trap for the bird-in-the-gilded-cage that got away - a waitress he molded into a Broadway diva (Lily Garland, née Mildred Plotka). "Tell her I'm dying," he orders an underling, "and don't overact." It makes for a merry, manic ride. Think Kiss Me, Kate on railroad wheels.
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's classic battle-of-the-sexes was first waged in 1932 by Moffat Johnston and Eugenie Leontovich, revived in 1950 by José Ferrer and Gloria Swanson and musicalized in 1978 by John Cullum and Madeline Kahn — but the definitive Oscar and Lily were captured on film by Howard Hawks in 1934 with John Barrymore (in the last of his great performances) and Carole Lombard (in the first great one of hers). Being a formidable theatrical presence, Barrymore was the ideal Oscar, playing him in such a grand and over-the-top manner that you may remember the character as an actor. "When you read it, he's so theatrical you want to believe he's an actor," admits Baldwin, who has had some success before spoofing that line of work (the roué in David Mamet's film State and Main and the Pacino facsimile in Ira Lewis's play Gross Points). "It's fun for the audience to see someone who is so transparent that way, when you see he's a bully and a coward, when you see he's vain and self-loathing at the same time. All those contradictions exist in that character, and it's great to play them."
Heche is not the first person one thinks of to play the volatile Lily of the volley. The closest she has come to light comedy is a little Harrison Ford romance called Six Days/Seven Nights. Lily Garland is a different kettle of fish, which she says is "unlike anything that I've ever done."
Heche started on the stage, at age 12, as Amaryllis in a Trenton, New Jersey, dinner-theatre production of The Music Man. Her next stage role was on Broadway in 2002: Catherine in Proof, replacing Mary-Louise Parker and Jennifer Jason Leigh with a performance that blew away plenty of people (including critics who thought they were seeing a whole new play).
"I was very lucky to get such a great part my first time on Broadway," she confesses with convincing modesty. "That whole Proof experience felt like a master's degree in acting."
Heche and Baldwin have both been voted Best Supporting players by The National Board of Review; Baldwin's award came in January for his ruthless Vegas kingpin in The Cooler, Heche's in 1997 for performances in Donnie Brasco and Wag the Dog. The latter role, a presidential advisor, was written for a man, and she played it without one word changed.
"That was Barry Levinson's idea," she says, passing full credit along to her director. "I walked into this room, and Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman are sitting there waiting to read with me. I said, 'I think there's been a mistake.' And Barry said, 'No, no, no. I want to see how this plays with a woman doing it.'" Apparently, it played pretty darn well.
Baldwin has crossed a boundary himself recently—from leading man to character actor—and his superb, Oscar-nominated stint in "The Cooler" signals big the change of direction. "People who play roles in movies where they never back down, where they're protecting some territory of theirs, some idea, some system they operate — whether it's Lee J. Cobb in On the Waterfront or Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York or Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia — all of them have this kind of Machiavellian fervor. They really don't care what you think of their program. They gotta do what they gotta do, and I had to keep that in mind when I did The Cooler."
A similar tough-mindedness has led him as an actor. Here, he is fearlessly following Barrymore; before that, it was Brando. He got a Tony nomination for that effort (in A Streetcar Named Desire); when he did it again on TV, he got an Emmy nomination. "I remember our director, Greg Mosher, said, 'Those people who are invested in the memory of Brando in this role should know he is 75 years old, lives in a house on top of Mulholland Drive and is not about to come down here and do the show. But you're here, and if people want to see Streetcar live on Broadway tonight, you're it.'"