Scarred Lives

Washington City Paper | November 4, 2005
The directorial debut of playwright and screenwriter Craig Lucas, The Dying Gaul is a slick, Hollywood-style vehicle powered by anti-establishment anger. The filmmaker’s rage at the cost of AIDS and at a U.S. government he has called “barbarian” slops onto his characters, scarring their lives like acid. All three of the principals do bad things, but the punishment Lucas metes out to them goes far beyond justice, all the way to melodrama.

It’s 1995 when abrupt, apparently superficial studio executive Jeffrey Tishop (Campbell Scott) reads a script he thinks could be the next Terms of Endearment. The proposed movie is titled The Dying Gaul, a reference to a classical sculpture of a mortally wounded warrior. Jeffrey offers writer Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard) $1 million for the screenplay, on one condition: The story, which was inspired by the AIDS death of Robert’s male lover, must be rewritten as a heterosexual romance. Jeffrey’s interest in the project is seconded by his empathetic wife, Elaine Tishop (Patricia Clarkson), a political activist and former screenwriter who finds Robert’s tale profoundly moving.

Elaine and Robert become friends, and the impoverished author, who initially rejects the $1 million, is tantalized by the Tishops’ upscale oceanfront lifestyle. He’s also seduced by Jeffrey, who is secretly bisexual. The studio boss is a walking metaphor for the hypocrisy of America and its movies; he insists that love between two men is unsalable even as he’s enticing Robert with such porn-flick lines as “I want you inside me.”

When Elaine learns that Robert slakes his despair and lust by trolling gay-sex chat rooms, she assumes a male identity and logs on. Soon she’s posing as Robert’s deceased lover, halfway convincing the bereft writer (who’s a Buddhist, for what that’s worth) that she really is the dead man. Over the course of their conversations—awkwardly recited by the actors in voice-over as they type—Elaine realizes that her husband and Robert are having an affair; the result is a very Victorian denouement. Innocents are destroyed by Jeffrey’s deceit—which must be another metaphor.

Ascending from writer to director—and transforming his original play into a film—Lucas works too hard to prove he knows how to make an image. The surfaces glisten, the camera is always moving, and oblique angles and flashy framing devices distract from the action. So does the score, which uses chunks of several Steve Reich compositions, most conspicuously Drumming and Proverb. The resulting movie is overly fussy, and all the cinematic ornamentation doesn’t prevent it from being stagey and didactic. The Dying Gaul treats the 1990s as an exotic period in American history, and even if some of the plot twists and characterizations suggest the 1890s instead, this is a parable from a place or time that’s strangely implausible.

The actors do their utmost to pretend otherwise. The star of a previous Lucas-scripted film, Alan Rudolph’s The Secret Lives of Dentists, Scott shows absolute commitment to the writer-director’s vision. Sarsgaard, who’s developed quite a portfolio of homoerotic supporting roles—just look at this week’s Jarhead—is equally fervent, and Clarkson does what she can with a character who, if not meant to be misogynistic, is certainly an outlandish example of the woman scorned. Even when taking her baroque revenge, however, Clarkson’s Elaine can’t be as hysterical as the film that contains her. CP

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100