Tuesday, November 13, 2007



An essay by Thelma Adams,

Us Weekly film critic and New York Film Critics Circle member

When my six-year-old displayed dramatic tendencies, the actress Melissa Leo invited us to visit her on the set of Racing Daylight, The movie's title came to reflect my feelings on mothering: my daughter glows; I chase. And on that rare July afternoon, on a Catskills film set, I realized the limits of our time together. Elizabeth won't be this golden-haired girl riding shotgun in my life for long; this child will break out into the world and burn, baby, burn. And so I race.

At lunchtime, we approached the Big Blue Barn in Accord, our mom-mobile joining the aging sedans and trucks that packed the steep gravel drive. On the lawn, a folksy four-man band with an antebellum repertoire practiced amid black snaky cables On the patio, actors in period dress ate pasta salads, their laughter loud and thespian, unequal to their mild jokes and idle gossip.

Melissa emerged from a sliding glass door. The slender redhead best-knownas Benicio Del Toro's blowsy wife in 21 Grams skipped out to greet us in earth shoes and a cotton print skirt, welcoming Elizabeth like a VIP. When she introduced her to the producer, Elizabeth asked, with great seriousness: "Who's the second producer?" She's in the know.

"And who's the star?" Elizabeth asked. Melissa laughed and said slyly, "Me!" as if it was a joke she and Elizabeth sprung on the adults.

Melissa led us to Director Nicole Quinn, who shared a step with her husband. Nico, a fifty-plus African American, welcomed us on the set, eyes tired but happy, elbows on knees. She began apologizing for not vacuuming (it's actually her converted barn-home we're in), when a gangly assistant editor climbed past her on the stairs. She asked him if he ate, with a mother's concern, then dispatched him back downstairs for food.

With a rapt audience, Lizzy plunged in to pitching her movie. She will direct, she told Nicole, also produce and star. I, apparently, will write the screenplay. Then Elizabeth threaded her way down the hall, stopping to ask the production designer, the hair lady (who's stopped to ooh and aah over Elizabeth's Goldilocks ringlets), and Melissa, if they will work on her movie.

Having cast Melissa as her supporting actress, Elizabeth, who will also star, settled on the living room couch amid the wigs and the straw hats and a misplaced hammer and Giancarlo Esposito, whose scenes had wrapped for the day. Having never seen Esposito on Disney or Nick, Elizabeth ignored him; earnestly discussing with the producer whether her production should use real cats, which are hard to wrangle, or stuffed cats, or children dressed as cats. Apparently cats figure large in the movie.

After lunch, we went outside in the sticky heat. Elizabeth sat on a stump near the action, rapt, heavily doused with bug spray, and watched as, time after time, handsome Jason Downs solemnly approached a slightly flirtatious Sabrina Lloyd with her hair pulled back in a snood. They repeated the scene five, six times, Nicole pleasant and patient and encouraging; the snippy young sound man with shaved head and tats dissatisfied with the sound quality. He was the only drama queen on the set, except for a bee buzzing in the brush.

Next set-up, The Camptown Shakers played for the Victorian garden party scene. Despite the oppressive heat, banjo music and magic filled in the air. Nicole set the mood; she had the mellow attentiveness to detail of someone who's wrangled two children through infancy, childhood, adolescence, to successful high school careers and a bit beyond. She's a heaven-sent role model, no devil boss in Prada!

"Coffee, any one?" Melissa asked between takes, channeling her inner production assistant. She had a belly ring, and little five-pointed stars tattooed at various points on her body her ankle, hip, shoulder a constellation, she said. Then she laughed embarrassedly: she didn't want to be a bad influence on Elizabeth, who yearned to be Melissa right then.

As the heat rose, along with the mosquitoes, Elizabeth started to sag. We began to say our goodbyes then, as we crossed the lawn to our car, Nicole dispatched the Assistant Director. The stocky twentysomething with a Home Depot solidity asked Elizabeth if she wanted to be an extra. Suddenly, she had energy to burn!

The wardrobe lady whisked my daughter to the spare bedroom. She returned transformed to 19th century girliness in a calico pinafore and straw boater. Wild ringlets tumbled across the shoulders of her long-sleeved blouse. She was barefoot her feet too small for any stock shoes but it went with the summery feel of the lemonade day. She was ecstatic in that great game of dress-up: acting.

Elizabeth went to the front lawn. Nicole and her cameraman were setting the shot for a card game beneath a shady oak, where character actress Le Clanche Du Rand gossiped with the preacher and two others while playing bridge The sound man grumbled: the trees whispered.

After the extras and crew kvelled, and the actors ignored her, the assistant director led Elizabeth to her mark beyond the action. It was a lonely spot in the high grass where she waited until he lowered his hand. The plan was that after the actors began their dialog, she would run behind them, up the hill out of the frame, then circle around to the steps leading down to the camera placement. She would wait there silently for the A.D.'s signal to return to her mark.

Melissa and I positioned ourselves on a stone bench where we couldn¹t see the card players but had a perfect view of our star. Elizabeth, focused, paying strict attention to the A.D., ignored us. On her first try, her straw boater flew from her head, and she stumbled over the long skirt's ruffle. But she didn¹t stop or fuss, just gathered the skirt with one hand, picked up the hat with the other, placed it on her head where she held it securely and continued her uphill frolic.

Having gasped together when the hat flew, Melissa and I laughed to see how Elizabeth completely recovered, without a murmured darn, or a wasted motion. We covered our mouths to keep silent, wiped away tears, in awe of our girl and the day's assymetrical, unexpected enchantment. When Elizabeth came around to the stone steps, Melissa and I give her the thumbs-up. She smiled proudly, but swiftly, looking toward her A.D. to escort her back to her mark for the next take.

Elizabeth was an instant pro and Melissa couldn't help seeing herself in my daughter: the glow, the total concentration, the giddy feeling that when she was acting for a camera at the center of all that activity she was truly alive. And when Melissa returned at day¹s end to her quiet house, and the bills, and the what-next of it all, the magic evaporated. Maybe that was
why she lingered, dispensing coffee and joy, twirling in her cotton skirt, with her tattoo constellation.

We watched as Elizabeth prepared for each shot: grabbing her skirt; anchoring her hat. She stared at the stocky young man with unflagging concentration, ignoring Melissa and me. And then, the A.D. lowered his hand again, six more times. Each time, Elizabeth ran, all golden ringlets like summer sun, pinafore and pink legs and bare feet beneath the indigo ruffle, her straw hat a kite caught in a sapling.

Maybe, for Elizabeth, this was the beginning of a glorious career. Or maybe it was just the July day Mom made the magic happen. It doesn't matter what she wants to be when she grows up: vet, teacher, film critic, superstar. It's important to just be in the moment. She is the diva; I am her entourage. Let her lick the insides out of life's Oreo for the moment; it¹s one gift I can give her while I'm still picking up the check.

Thelma Adams is the Us Weekly film critic and a New York Film Critics Circle

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