‘Human Stain’ set for October release

Robert Benton’s newest movie has been kept on the shelf for so long that at one time it seemed “The Human Stain” was never going to come out. Much has happened in the year and a half since parts of it were filmed on Williams College campus in the spring of 2002: At least half of the Ephs hired as extras have since graduated, Nicole Kidman has won an Oscar for Best Actress and Sir Anthony Hopkins has married a woman 19 years his junior.

The plot follows the fall from grace of Coleman Silk, a professional boxer turned classics professor at sleepy Athena College, nestled in the Berkshires. An affair with an attractive but troubled janitor (Kidman) is uncovered by a close colleague (Gary Sinise), which, coupled with an allegation of racism lodged by two of his students, leads to an intense scrutiny of Silk’s ethics and the discovery of a secret he has kept his entire life.

Sinise’s character, Nathan Zuckerman, serves as the narrator of the novel and probably the movie as well. Armed with an arsenal of apposite observations, he compassionately names his friend the victim of the “Devil of the Little Place – the gossip, the jealousy, the acrimony, the boredom, the lies.” Philip Roth clearly knew what he was talking about when he decided to write a book set at Williams.

And yet enthusiasm among Williams students to see this melodrama about the secret life of a disgraced professor has diminished. Movies filmed long after “Stain” wrapped up shooting hit theaters during the interim, distracting curiosity-seekers. Still, those who worked that 15-hour day in May of 2002 felt a tremor of excitement when a Sept. 26 release date was finally announced. However, the producers later moved the American premiere back to Oct. 31, in limited release no less: an effort to make this obvious Oscar bid more likely to succeed.

The producers are, well, only human. The buzz surrounding “Stain” has generally ranged from neutral to unfavorable. A dissatisfied Hopkins told journalists in August that his work on the film was not among his most challenging to date. Hopkins had earlier told Howard Stern that his sex scene with Kidman left him “cold.” While I have not had the privilege of screening the film myself, such comments are nearly unheard of in a culture where good publicity – without saying, particularly for a movie in which you are the star – is everything. Furthermore, it speaks downright poorly of a film with four Oscar-winning, or at least routinely nominated, lead actors (Ed Harris, “Apollo 13” and “The Truman Show,” and Sinise, “Lieutenant Dan” and “Harry S. Truman,” co-star with Hopkins and Kidman).

All this points to one of several possible points of failure. Yet it can’t be that the film is asthetically displeasing, since “Stain” was filmed on location in Stetson, Thompson Memorial Chapel, Griffin and Spring St. The script was adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, which Christian Science Monitor called “one of the most provocative explorations of race and rage in American literature.” Benton, the director, has won three Oscars and been nominated for screenwriting and directing accomplishments in five films over the course of his 35-year career. Harvey Weinstein is one of the phalanxes of producers behind the celluloid, and thus it’s hard to blame incompetence on the production side.

These forces have come together to form what should be a juggernaut of a movie. So what could possibly be the holdup? Why does no one have faith in this film?

It’s impossible to tell without seeing it. It has been said that Roth’s tale is a thinly-disguised allegory for the Monica Lewinsky scandal that brought so much attention to former President Bill Clinton’s personal life. The similarities seem too striking to be coincidental, and perhaps it is a fatigue left over from those days in 1998 that brings the movie down. The Lewinsky scandal is too recent to be reexamined already, especially in metaphor, and too old-news to be a particularly strong audience draw. Audiences are not begging for more films about the corruption that lies within the souls of those among us brought to the surface by sexual indiscretion.

All the same, when you personally recognize faces in the trailer (which opens with a sweeping view of Stetson in all its current, pre-renovation beehive glory), it’s stupid not to go catch a screening at the Berkshire Mall. Not all of us are as jaded as Sir Hopkins, and if I happen to glimpse myself in a chocolate-colored pea coat sitting behind Sinise in the concert scene set in Thompson, I will proudly acknowledge that this is indeed my most challenging role in a major motion picture to date and be entirely satisfied.

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