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Back On Track

Alec Baldwin has emerged from every actor's nightmare—a career downturn and a nasty, public divorce—with the ultimate accolade, an Oscar nomination.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

Alec Baldwin is excited. The handsome 46-year-old actor can't wait to deliver a line from Twentieth Century, the Broadway revival he's starring in with Anne Heche. In the play, the actors are riding on a train returning to New York from Los Angeles, and Baldwin's character, Oscar Jaffe, is trying to woo ex-lover Lily Garland, played by Heche, back into his life. Baldwin says Garland asks if he has seen her most recent movie. He replies, "It made me want to vomit. All your talent wasted, Lily." She pulls an Oscar statuette out of a bag and says, "Well, did you see they gave me the gold statue?" Jaffe picks it up and says, "Good God, Lily, it's pathetic. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You're not going to fall for that sort of thing?"

Baldwin, dressed casually in a black turtleneck, black jeans and a black leather jacket, sits comfortably in an oversized red velvet chair at New York's Grand Havana Room. He looks out over the glittering lights of the Manhattan skyline and guffaws with delight after repeating that last line. "I would love to give that line as a newly minted Oscar winner," he says.

That Baldwin can even use the word Oscar in a sentence about himself is a simple testament to a career that has been unexpectedly resurrected. He felt revived in mid-February as he readied himself for a trip to Hollywood to await the verdict of the academy for Best Supporting Actor. Although he didn't get an Oscar statuette for his work in The Cooler, a small-budget but critically acclaimed independent film co-starring William H. Macy and Maria Bello, the recognition of his acting performance is more than enough to help restore Baldwin's reputation, and maybe his movie career.

The heady recognition is a far cry from the territory Baldwin has occupied for the past six or seven years, a professional landscape of cable TV miniseries (Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, Path to War), obscure independent films (State and Main, Outside Providence) and stage plays. In the midst of his languishing career, he also endured the dissolution of his nine-year marriage to actress Kim Basinger, a painful and often public spectacle that fueled a tabloid frenzy about him and his life. The experience apparently has left him a quieter man, less prone to outbursts that tarnished his reputation earlier in his career. Although Baldwin projects the aura of a man who has been battered and slowed and, in his words, humbled, he is definitely not beaten.

"You can go for a whole year and then one day you wake up and go, 'I'm dead', It's like The Sixth Sense. I see dead people. I'm dead and I don't even know it. You go back to try to figure out, 'What date did I die?' You realize you're just not there anymore. You don't have it anymore. You don't even have the opportunities anymore," Baldwin says, puffing on a Punch Double Corona. "The really painful thing was what my agent said to me: 'You think that people don't like you and they don't want to work with you, or that they don't appreciate you. It's not that they don't like you or appreciate you—they don't think of you at all.' All you can do is say, oh God, and go off and do TV, independent films, Broadway.

"But you know, I don't have any fear about it anymore," Baldwin says, comparing his dark period to the days when the spotlight shone brightly on him in the early 1990s. "I was riding the wave, and people were talking about a movie career for me," he says. The decline, in his mind, is easily explainable. He traces its origins to the decision in 1992 not to reprise his role as CIA analyst Jack Ryan from The Hunt for Red October, the hit 1990 film based on the popular Tom Clancy novel. Rumor has it that he had a dispute with Paramount Pictures over money and script changes. The studio recast the role with Harrison Ford as Ryan in the film's two hit sequels, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.

"A lot of people treated me like I had a weird disease after that…the "He Doesn't Get It" disease. They wanted me to come and be a part of that experience and do what they told me to do. There's a big part of me that wishes I had done that, that I had done it their way. I didn't know better…. Then in the mid-1990s, I wasn't asked to do those films anymore. It takes a while to get used to that," he says. "But you learn that you only have so many coupons, and if you don't sell tickets, you're out." That epiphany has led him to a carefully protective rationalization, which he describes as "whatever happens for me in movies, happens."

Redemption arrived in an unlikely package in 2003. With a $3.2 million budget, The Cooler, written and directed by Hollywood newcomer Wayne Kramer, presented itself mostly as another opportunity for Baldwin to work with one of his favorite actors, William H. Macy. The duo previously teamed up in 1996's Ghosts of Mississippi and 2000's State and Main. "I read Wayne's script, and I liked it a lot," Baldwin says. "I met him [Kramer] and…he obviously had the writing talent. So I took the chance. And it paid off." His character, old-guard casino executive Shelly Kaplow, projects a suave nastiness, with a constant undertone of potential violence wrapped in sharkskin glitter and a pinkie ring. It was a difficult role partly because the character lacks sympathy, and it required a tough guy persona at a time when Baldwin's personal life was in shambles.

But the modest scale of the movie didn't matter to Baldwin. "I look at all movies, and I've borrowed this line from David Mamet: 'They are all orphan children when I write them.' As an actor I'm in the same boat. They are all orphaned children. There's a movie when it's done, and I say to the director, I wish you well. I hope it goes the way you want it to. I shoot [The Cooler] and I never, never—it's my nature, kind of pathetic maybe—but I never had an inkling of it doing it for me, or me gaining anything from it," Baldwin says.

In contrast, and as an example of how he has matured as a Hollywood actor, Baldwin recalls Prelude to a Kiss, the 1992 romantic fable with Meg Ryan. He had first played the film's protagonist, Peter Hoskins, at New York's Circle Repertory and then on Broadway in 1990, and watched a feeding frenzy of potential movie producers, including Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones, flock to New York to see the play and start a bidding war for the rights. ("Someone joked that the MGM Grand flight from Los Angeles to New York would fly and half the people on board were coming to see the play.") He describes the film as "one of the best experiences I ever had creatively in my life."

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