Dir: Gus Van Sant; Writer: Dustin Lance Black; Producer: Harvey Weinstein; Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ben Kingsley, Christina Applegate
With most filmmakers these days referencing ’70s cinema—films like Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Deer Hunter—as the height of American filmmaking, a time when a director made a movie and not the studio, it comes as no surprise that a filmmaker the caliber of Gus Van Sant has remade Charly, the 1968 adaptation of the novel Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
“When the Weinsteins brought me the script, I’d just wrapped Milk and was exhausted,” said Van Sant. “I had no intention of taking on another project at the time even if Dustin [Lance Black] had written it. I had tears in my eyes by page three. Then Harvey [Weinstein] told me that Maggie and Jake [Gyllenhaal] were attached as the love interests… and… I wept again.”
In a role that won Cliff Robertson an Academy Award, Jake Gyllenhaal boldly portrays Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man who undergoes an experimental surgery designed to make him normal. After the procedure, Charlie awakens to the world around him, gaining an understanding he’d been unable to attain before, and at the same time grappling with more complex emotional equations.
“It was an incredible challenge to act retarded,” says Jake Gyllenhaal. “And then to switch and pretend to be really smart. There are so many levels to the mentally disabled and the super intelligent. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated… but I did a lot of research. I volunteered at a special needs camp and realized that they face complex life situations. It’s not all crayons and waffle cones like some people think.”
Charlie’s tutor, Alice Kinnian, played so gracefully by Maggie Gyllenhaal, realizes Charlie is surpassing the doctors’ wildest expectations and becoming a genius, and at the same time she tries to deny her blossoming feelings for an increasingly attentive Charlie. When she refuses his initial advances Charlie tours the country on a motorcycle. Here Van Sant captures the majestic American landscape beautifully and manages to layer the scenes with the political underpinnings of intolerance, all through Charlie’s eyes.
Charlie’s passion-filled return to Alice instantly puts this film into cinema history. The starkly lit, tear-stained love scenes are some of the most haunting visuals ever caught on celluloid and will surely catch the attention of the Academy.
At the press tour in New York, Maggie had this to say: “What we had to do was shed our brother/sister identities, our familial ties, rise above them so to speak. Gus was very patient with us [she laughs] in rehearsals and on set. He was very kind and let us explore the nature of these characters, the subtle intricacies of this relationship for however long we needed.”
Dr. Richard Nemur (Sir Ben Kingsley) and Dr. Anna Straus (Christina Applegate) track Charlie’s progress post-surgery and are exhilarated by the implications of the surgery’s success until it’s noticed that Algernon, the laboratory mouse and original recipient of the experimental procedure, is regressing, losing his ability to complete even simple mazes and slowly grows more retarded than he’d been before. Nemur and Straus are now left, along with the film’s viewers, to wonder what will become of Charlie Gordon and Alice Kinnian as their story continues to unfold.
Van Sant successfully kept this project from the public eye by shooting all the interiors at Leavesden Studios in London and using both Maggie and Jake on location only one time.
“We had to shoot for Central Park. So, we talked to the London Film Commission and were able to block off almost six acres in Thames Chase Park for the picnic scene. It was quite a feat… We just didn’t want people judging the film before we had the chance to present it in the proper context,” said Van Sant. In addition, only Sir Ben Kingsley was privy to the fact that the brother and sister duo were the leads as he had several scenes with the both of them.
“When I saw the film,” said Applegate, “I was floored. It’s truly beautiful. But they should’ve told me. I mean, I wouldn’t have said anything.”
Critics and moviegoers will be talking about this film for years to come. The Gyllenhaals’ transformation into these characters and their onscreen chemistry is so spellbinding that one’s initial fears and expectations are set aside once the film begins to roll. Charly is a triumph over taboos.
Josh DuBose is a writer/performer living in Los Angeles. A Kirkwood Prize for Fiction nominee and winner of the Peter K. Hixson Memorial Scholarship, Josh's work has appeared in Zyzzva, is forthcoming in the upcoming spring issue of Bull: Men's Fiction, and is being showcased in New Emerging Voices, Los Angeles's longest running spoken word show. You can catch Josh performing at IO West in Hollywood on Wednesday nights @10:30 with King Ten.