THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Women on the verge of someone else's nervous breakdown

The glamorous stars of 'Nine' on what it's like to play a wife, a muse, a mistress -- and a whore

By Janice Page
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

NEW YORK - Long before Tiger Woods set eyes on his first cocktail waitress, Federico Fellini famously said this about fidelity: “It’s easier to be faithful to a restaurant than it is to a woman.’’

Fast forward to Rob Marshall’s “Nine,’’ the latest big-screen tribute to Fellini, by way of Broadway. It’s an adaptation of the popular stage musical inspired by Fellini’s staggeringly artful 1963 film “8 1/2,’’ which told the revealing tale of a famous filmmaker plagued by creative paralysis and a cheating heart. “Nine’’ won multiple Tony Awards when it premiered in 1982 and again when it was revived as a more coolly stylish production in 2003. But it will undoubtedly be at its most exposed when it hits movie theaters across America on Christmas Day.

This time, seduction starts with Penelope Cruz in lingerie and ropes, doing Cirque du Soleil-style burlesque.

“It’s a lot for an actress to think about,’’ admits Cruz, whose limber rendition of the number known as “A Call From the Vatican’’ is already burning up the Internet. “With so many technical elements, I had to be totally in present time, because otherwise I could have gotten hurt. So I was not really thinking about the fact that I was sing ing and wearing a corset.’’

Cast and crew put their faith in Marshall, the theatrically trained director-choreographer who made expensive cinematic spectacles of “Chicago’’ and “Memoirs of a Geisha.’’ He enlisted the talents of Maury Yeston, the composer-lyricist of the original Tommy Tune-directed musical, and Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, seasoned screenwriters who retooled the stage dialogue penned by Arthur Kopit and Mario Fratti. Their camera-savvy adaptation, which includes several new songs and some controversial cuts (OMG they left out “Be On Your Own’’!), is performed by a collection of Hollywood heavyweights led by Daniel Day-Lewis as the filmmaker Guido Contini, with Cruz as his mistress, Marion Cotillard as his wife, and Nicole Kidman as his muse.

“It was a very different set than other movies I’ve done,’’ offers “Volver’’ star Cruz, who was interviewed recently along with several of her “Nine’’ costars at a posh Manhattan hotel. “We spent months together rehearsing with music around. That alone changes people’s tone.’’

Well, that and stepping out together for a Madonna concert, as several of the actresses did during filming in London. They also smile when they recall finding handwritten notes in their dressing rooms, signed “Love, Guido’’ by the always in-character Day-Lewis. The actor, who jumped into his leading-man role with only 10 days of preparation, delivers a performance that his costars describe as “charming,’’ “authentic,’’ and “sexy,’’ despite the fact that he’s playing a complete cad.

“Guido is a very charismatic figure. Even his mental chaos is very attractive,’’ Cruz contends, accenting her words with more sizzle than her petite frame should be able to manufacture legally.

Though everyone had a different acting process, cast members say there were no clashes of egos. When they meet up while doing interviews now, the actresses hug and giggle like sorority sisters at a homecoming dance.

All are quick to praise their director’s nurturing personality (“We were more like a theater troupe, a family,’’ says Cotillard) and deep understanding of movie musical magic. “He gets it the same way that Baz ([Luhrmann, director of “Moulin Rouge!’’] gets it,’’ says Kidman. “It’s in his blood.’’

Maybe that is why Marshall’s “Nine’’ had top actresses lining up to audition repeatedly, and its makers reportedly considered casting everyone from Catherine Zeta-Jones to Katie Holmes. The final lineup is as intriguing as it is surprising: Guido’s harem includes Sophia Loren as his mother, Judi Dench as his loyal costume designer, Kate Hudson as a predatory journalist, and Stacy Ferguson (a.k.a. Fergie, more often seen singing with Black Eyed Peas) as the prostitute who haunts his boyhood memories.

Dench and Hudson’s roles are inventions or reinventions of the new film. The rest could draw inspiration, and pressure, from the past.

“8 1/2’’ takes its title from Fellini’s clever tally of his filmography at the time: seven full features, plus three shorter projects he assessed at half a point each. His autobiographical masterpiece featured a memorable cast led by Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale.

The makers of “Nine’’ wryly added half a point for their musical rewrite, conveniently also freezing Guido’s emotional maturity at 9, and the resulting Broadway productions scored big by featuring such notable performers as Raul Julia, Antonio Banderas, Karen Akers, and Jane Krakowski.

OK, there have also been star turns by Bert Convy and John Stamos, but still. The point is that no shortage of formidable comparisons awaits this new film’s release.

Bob Fosse felt the same kind of heat when he sculpted a big-screen version of “Sweet Charity’’ in 1969 from a musical production he’d directed, inspired by Fellini’s 1957 film, “Le Notti di Cabiria.’’ (Fosse has also long been accused of ripping off “8 1/2’’ for his own autobiographical film, “All That Jazz,’’ but that’s another story.) Marshall’s critics will tell you that he’s no Bob Fosse. Just don’t tell that to the current crop of “Nine’’ divas.

Ferguson gained 17 pounds and chewed through a rare concert touring hiatus to go after the role of Saraghina, written as a curvaceous force of nature who can really belt out a show tune. The stylish pop star says that she went into her audition “trying to make my nose look bigger, my lips look bigger, my boobs - everything - look bigger.’’ She’s grateful and impressed that Marshall saw past the persona of Fergie, recognizing her inner Saraghina before she’d even had time to bulk up on French cheeses that later became a staple of her training. (“I ate them at bedtime, because I could,’’ she says with a wistful sigh, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her slender figure these days.)

Cotillard, who in person projects none of the torment she is known for onscreen, auditioned multiple times for a variety of roles before the director knew what he wanted to do with her. She says she’s glad he settled on the part of Guido’s long-suffering wife, whom she saw as part Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’’ part Eleanor Coppola in “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.’’ It was a voice she heard clearly from the beginning and never shrank from.

“I’ve always loved to sing,’’ says the actress who played Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.’’ “I know that even if I can’t sing the song because it’s too hard technically, at least I can interpret the song, because this is what I do.’’

The singing comes less easy to Kidman, who freely and somewhat icily admits her “limitations’’ in that department. She signed on primarily for the opportunity to work with Marshall, though she was also persuaded by her close friendship with screenwriter Minghella, who died before filming began. That’s how she finds herself tackling “Unusual Way,’’ a usually lush soprano ballad that’s been recorded by Barbra Streisand. The veteran actress, generally pretty hard to read behind her sharp-angled face, reveals that she might have been intimidated, if not for her director.

“Rob understands that actors need to be helped,’’ Kidman explains. “They need a space in which to work and to flourish. Create that place and you can probably get almost anything you want out of them.’’

Fellini, and his alter ego Guido, would have liked the sound of that.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

Movie listings search

Movie times  Globe review archive