The golden Hours

With Meryl Streep as a lesbian, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, and Julianne Moore kissing Toni Colette, The Hours would seem to be the gayest movie ever nominated for nine Oscars. But the actresses and filmmakers argue that transcending such labels is exactly what has made the film so successful

BY Michael Giltz

March 14 2003 12:00 AM ET

When asked about
his own sexuality, Daldry seems happy to clear the
air—perhaps because, now that he’s married,
mainstream journalists assume he has disavowed his gay
past. “What’s so funny is when people say,
‘Oh, does that mean you’re not gay
anymore?’ ” he says. “And you go,
‘Oh, give me a break. What do you mean?’
We wanted to have kids! We thought we’d get
married and have kids. We’re allowed to do anything.
I refuse to be boxed in to the idea that, Oh, no, I
can’t have kids ’cause I’m gay. I
can have kids if I’m gay. And I can also get married
and have a fantastic life.

“Yes,” he continues, speaking firmly.
“To all questions [having to do] with my
marriage, the answer to everything is yes. Do I have sex
with my wife? Yes. Is it a real marriage? Yes. Am I
gay? Yes.

“I think
about the notion of being gay and the notion of sexuality.
You know, you can look at a room with any group of
people, whatever the group of people is or however
they would define themselves, and it’s so hard to
box people in, I find these days. People’s sexuality
feels so diverse and so particular and so
extraordinary to me that the labels that we try to put
on people feel more and more redundant. But maybe
that’s just from my own subjective
personality.”

His frankness
served Daldry well in guiding three major performers to
some of their best work. Streep embraces one of her fullest
contemporary roles; Moore beautifully distinguishes
Laura from her other ’50s housewife this awards
season, her Oscar-nominated turn in Todd Haynes’s
Far From Heaven; and Kidman relishes the
chance to imbue herself with the spirit of one of the 20th
century’s greatest writers.

Losing herself in
the role was essential to Kidman, since she feels it
can be destructive for an actor to be too attached to his or
her real-life self, “to the way you are, who
you are, to your identity in the world. I mean,
that’s the reason I became an actor,” she
says, laughing, “to escape that. I definitely
don’t want to be myself.”

Cunningham, for
one, was thrilled to see Kidman’s absorption into the
part. “I was excited about all three of them,”
says Cunningham. “But I think I had the most
questions about Nicole. I love Nicole, but could she
play Virginia Woolf? Yeah, she was great in Moulin
Rouge
, but can she play a dazzling suicidal
genius?”

Kidman goes even
further: “A lot of times, when you get told,
‘Oh, this was a crazy woman, or she was mad, or
she was incredibly willful,’ it becomes very,
very black-and-white,” she says. “And I think
Virginia was gray. Everything is about her search and
her truth. And I love that she was so truthful about
her demons, about her desires, about the things that
terrified her, and I wanted to depict that and also her love
of life. And Michael [Cunningham] really has summed
this up well when he says, ‘This is a woman who
as much as she grappled with and thought about death,
she loved life.’ ”

Striking that
balance in her performance has made Kidman the Oscar
front-runner for Best Actress, which confirms the impression
of many viewers that the she has blossomed from a
movie star to an actor of great stature by capturing
Woolf’s essence. Describing Woolf as a woman of
“fragility mixed with strength,” Kidman
credits Daldry’s encouragement for her
breakthrough work in the role.

It’s a
role that could well have influenced the direction of her
life. “I’d love to write a
novel,” she says. “I don’t see myself
doing this for the rest of my life.” Perhaps
unconsciously echoing The Hours’ message about
the importance of life’s great choices, she
continues: “I think I’ll go and move to Europe
eventually. I’d love to get my degree in philosophy.
So many things I’d love to do: become a really
superb cook and have some sort of great bohemian
existence where I could live with 30 or 40 people coming and
going in a big estate in Tuscany or something.”

Like a commune?
“I know it sounds ridiculously hippie,” says
Kidman, “but I do kind of love that. I love
being around people and music and kids. I think
we’re too isolated. People go and live in their own
little place, and I think it’s sort of nice to
be around a lot of people.”

For the moment,
though, Kidman is still fielding acting offers,
reportedly including Rudin’s The Stepford
Wives
remake (with a script by Paul Rudnick), the
Bewitched movie, and a project with openly gay
French director François Ozon. And she’d
certainly take a call from Daldry. “I’m
dying to work with him again,” she says, not only
because he’s good with actors, but
“because he is also just kind.”

For Streep, much
of what Daldry did that made The Hours work
took place after the filming wrapped. “Part of the
mastery of this was done after the actors were all
gone,” she says. “We all did our best.
We worked our little heinies off. But I think the editing
was just magic. And [Daldry] had a great script.
Structurally, it didn’t change [from script to
screen]. But that process of how it will all fit
together was definitely more exclusive, more separated from
the actors.”

And the actors,
Streep reminds us, were largely separate from each other,
doing most of their work in separate cities at different
times. “It was a very weird experience to see
it eventually,” Streep notes. “It was much
less collaborative than other things I’ve done. And
that was a little frustrating. But it worked out
great.”

For David Hare,
the fragmentation of Cunningham’s book was a welcome
challenge. “I was a little bit spooked by the fact
that everybody else seemed to regard this book as
incredibly difficult to adapt,” he says,
“and I began to think, What’s wrong with me
that I can’t see what the problem is? And I
think that it’s true that I’m very blithe
about subject matter. I’ve written plays about
the Chinese Revolution and aid to the Third World. So
literary suicide doesn’t seem to me an especially
difficult project. But I can see, now that the film is made,
that it’s absolutely incredible that a film on
such a serious subject is in fact in hundreds of
cinemas in America, and that’s basically a tribute to
Scott and to Stephen.”

Unusually for a
screenwriter, Hare stayed with the film throughout the
production, often being on set to trim or tweak or add new
scenes. He can’t imagine doing it any other way
again. “For me, The Hours was the best working
experience I’ve had as a screenwriter,”
says Hare. “Stephen has an incredible gift for
going to the emotional heart of material in a way that makes
ostensibly difficult subjects completely
accessible.”

That emotional
accessibility is perhaps the most crucial achievement in
lifting The Hours out of the realm of “gay
film” and into the company of more universal literary
adaptations. Maybe it’s the film’s
seriousness that causes producer Rudin to insist that
many of his own lighter, more comic works have a more
tangible gay sensibility.

“Movies
like Sister Act and Clueless and First
Wives Club
, to me, are much more ‘gay
movies’ than The Hours,” he says.
Nevertheless, Rudin was savvy enough regarding The
Hours
’ complicated sexual and emotional
themes to hire the one director he thought could make
the movie resonate with all kinds of viewers. When he
offered Daldry the job, Rudin recalls, “Billy
Elliot hadn’t been released. He was still
working on it. But I felt the subject [of The
Hours
] would be personal to him and he would be able to
make it smart and political and emotional.”

If any aspect of
The Hours can be said to best embody that
emotional intelligence and richness, it is the echoing
woman-to-woman kisses that punctuate the film:
Woolf’s hungry, unexpected kiss of her sister;
Laura’s thoughtful, caring kiss of her stunning
neighbor; and Clarissa’s kiss of her lover, Sally.

As Hare says
after dismissing “gay” and
“straight” as “fantastically
old-fashioned” categorizations, “The three
kisses in the film—obviously they’re all
ambiguous. They’re not sexual kisses; they’re
not unsexual kisses. But [Cunningham] was trying, like
Virginia Woolf, to show the way in which sexuality is
woven into people’s lives at some quite profound
level.”

Listen closely
when Kidman’s Woolf is about to kiss her sister,
Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), and you can hear her
gasping for air as if trying to claim Vanessa’s
vitality for her own. “It’s this strange act
of cannibalism,” Daldry says. “There is
almost this need for Virginia to suck the life out of
her, to suck the life that she wants—the life in all
its varied comforts and confidence—out of her sister.
And the idea that that aggression, or that extreme act
of need, should be expressed through a kiss just seems
perfect to me.”

Kidman speaks
passionately about that moment: “She needs her, needs
her so desperately.” Kidman confesses that she
decided for herself what she thought Woolf’s
sexuality was—but prefers not to state the conclusion
she reached. “However you want to describe the
love, the desire for her sister is mixed in with the
jealousy [of her sister’s stable family
life].”

Moore’s
Laura also initiates a kiss in part out of envy when she
realizes the one thing her neighbor most wants and
can’t have—a child—is the one
thing she herself wishes to be free from.
“It’s also about love, and it’s
also sexual,” says Moore. “I mean, the kisses
are emblematic in a sense: emblematic of contact, of
real, true intimacy—a moment of connection
that’s pretty intense. That’s the way we all
feel. We don’t take kisses lightly. No one
does, really. They’re not casual—to kind of
touch somebody that way is a truly intimate, very
personal thing to do, so they’re incredibly
meaningful, all the kisses.”

Hare agrees.
“The film, like the book in a way, is organized
around those three kisses,” he says.
“That gave a wonderful structure to me as a
writer. There were three women getting up, three unexpected
visits; there were three crises, three kisses, and
then three women going to bed—and the three
kisses. When I’ve discussed [the kisses] with people,
I think they understand that they’re not one
particular thing. Each of those three kisses comes out
of profound need.”

But it’s
no accident that the final kiss—the first one that is
truly reciprocated—is between two women in a
long-term relationship.

Streep says that
she loved working with Janney, who created a full
character just by walking into a room. “I
don’t know how she does it,” says
Streep, who lamented the fact that their complex
relationship wasn’t presented as fully in the
movie as it was in the book. Still, what better proof
could there be of the movie’s ability to transcend
labels and embrace the emotional vibrance of
nontraditional sexuality? Of making choices and
connections that fulfill the truths we feel about ourselves?
Our reward for diving into the turmoil of Woolf’s
mental anguish, Laura’s harrowing decision, and
Richard’s brave goodbye to Clarissa is that one
passionate connection between two women.

“Part of
the journey of Meryl Streep’s character,” says
Daldry, “is to find and to celebrate once again
that the positive things in her life are in fact
staring her in the face and so she should look at
them.”

Hare explains it
even more succinctly. “Well, I wanted the third kiss
to be a kiss of love,” he says simply,
“and, as it were, to conclude the
picture.”

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