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.
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"After all, we're in an age when the studios are going for films that reach a big demographic, that are going to sell a lot of tickets. They make snack food. They are like McDonald's, and they make French fries," Baldwin says. "And that's OK…but I look into that world and I don't see a table reserved for me anymore. I'm going to come and go and come and go, but I won't be a permanent resident. I'm not going to get tenure in the movie industry anymore."
What he does hope is that his Oscar nomination opens doors for him; for movies, plays and other projects that he yearns to do. He recently finished shooting The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's upcoming biopic about Howard Hughes starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the legendary recluse and lothario. Baldwin portrays Pan Am Airlines founder Juan Trippe. It's a minor role that amounted to less than a week's worth of shooting, but Baldwin took it mostly to work with the legendary director. "It was a great honor to meet him [Scorsese] and to work with him," Baldwin says. "He's such a genius, and a gentleman at the same time."
But at the top of Baldwin's dream projects is Simply Halston. The pic, which is in development, is about the life of Halston, the fashion designer who died of AIDS in 1990 and who was most famous for designing costumes for Liza Minnelli. "I'm fascinated by this guy's life," Baldwin says. "It's so far away from me…but when you read the script, and it's a great script, I want to do it. His life straddles such a beautiful time in history. But I don't know if they are going to raise the money."
Or course, just when Baldwin is back on the radar screen of every movie mogul in Hollywood, where is he? On Broadway. "There's never a good time to do theater," Baldwin says. "It's like women who have a baby; they say there's never a good time, so just do it. For people who want to have a movie career and who want to be in theater, there's never a good time. Like now, after all the good fortune that has happened to me with the movie business, and I'm on Broadway." He laughs, but he explains that he was working last year on "pursuing some plays," including a revival of Equus, and he went to a reading for Twentieth Century, the Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play from the 1930s that was made into a movie with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, and then reprised on Broadway in 1950 with Jose Ferrer in the Jaffe role.
Baldwin went to a reading with Jane Krakowski, a well-known Broadway performer and former "Ally McBeal" costar, who played Garland and "everybody fell on the floor laughing." Baldwin adds, "So I jumped off the ledge and said, 'Let's do it.' I signed and committed and we agreed to do it." The play opened on March 28 at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway.
Baldwin likens the experience of being on stage to an endurance test, or any game of skill that requires precision, like billiards or slalom skiing. "It's hard work because it's so many things. When you do a movie, what's great about it is that you do it over and over and over again until you get it right, but that's what bad about it, too. With [theater], it's a different muscle. You have to remember a couple thousand things, like when you get up and slide the chair, you have to slide it to that exact spot because in the next scene it has to be there for Lily to trip over," Baldwin says. "But at the end of the night, you go to your dressing room and you say, 'I really did that tonight as good as it can be done.' I love that. It gives you a chance to polish one thing, and make this better, and get this timing better, make more true."
There are two other topics that get Baldwin going: his ex-wife and politics. The term "a man of politics" clearly describes Baldwin, and to get him talking about it is to dive into a world of policies and politicians, from the local level all the way up to the national arena. He has been a voodoo doll for conservative Republican pins, in their minds embodying everything that is wrong with liberalism and Hollywood. In the last week of February, Bill O'reilly of the Fox News Channel was taking potshots at him in advance of the Oscars as one of the likely "Bush bashers" at the ceremony. But O'reilly's barb at how people don't want to appear on his show to defend their positions would rankle the actor. "O'reilly has a producer that's been after me for months," Baldwin says, specifically to get him to respond to the allegations about comments that he was going to move to France if Bush won the election in 2000. "I told him I'd be glad to be on their program if he'd promise me one thing. Find the audio clip or the printed transcript, or use a Lexus-Nexus search and find the quote where I ever made that statement where I said I was leaving the country if Bush was elected. If you don't find it, I want you to announce that during the segment of the show. He said, 'I,ll call you back,' and he never called me back.
"In terms of politics, the way it gets muddied for me is that people think if you are a liberal Democrat, you don't love your country. I love my country," Baldwin says. He says if the government came to him to take part in a mission to bomb Osama bin Laden into oblivion, and he'd have only a 50-50 chance of coming out alive, Baldwin says, "I'd go." He says he truly wants the same things that conservatives in America want, "but they don't think you want what they want. I just think they're going about it the wrong way."
When it comes to his political ideology, he calls himself a "Clinton Democrat," a modifier that seems to include some more moderate Democratic positions. He clearly would like to modify the ultraliberal, even radical, labels that have been pinned on him by right-wing conservatives. For instance, he argues that if someone in his family got pregnant and wanted an abortion, he would counsel her to have the baby. "But I'm not going to impose my personal views on abortion on society," he says. And, he believes firmly in prayer. "If I were president of the United States, I would exercise my right to religious freedom and I would pray every day, with the people of my chosen faith. But I don't want prayer in schools. Do I want people to pray? You bet I do. But I don't think prayer in schools is a good idea. There's a part of me that wants to say, 'You're just lazy. Why don't you get your tired wheezing ass out of bed, and put your kid in a car and get them to church on Sundays. There's a place to pray,'" Baldwin says. "But people think if you're against prayer in schools, you're against prayer. That [if] you're against defense spending fraud and waste, that you're anti-defense."
But he's also unequivocal in his handicapping of the 2004 presidential race. "I really think Bush can be beaten," Baldwin says. "I think Bush's policies are going to bring him down. He's going to lose on the playing fields, not in the alleyways." Part of his analysis is based on what he calls the most interesting thing in American political life today—the talk about how much trouble the Democratic Party is in. "And, they are in trouble. The Democratic Party has pneumonia, it's very immediate and dangerous and life-threatening," he says. "But the Republican Party has cancer. It's a long-term thing…. I just think that the fundamentalist Christian tail wagging the dog is a shame, and I think the Republicans are in real trouble with that."
Baldwin's other hot button and maybe the most paramount issue in his life, was the final battle in his divorce from Basinger: the custody arrangements for his daughter, eight-year-old Ireland Eliesse. The couple went to trial the last week in February to hammer out the details, and in early March they settled the case in court, allowing Baldwin more time with his daughter. "I can't really talk about the details," Baldwin says. "But the bottom line is the ruling is pretty comprehensive. It was not really a settlement; it was litigation, and the judge ruled. And I'm very happy with the results. I can't speak for the other party. And I'm just looking forward to never having to deal with this ever again.
"I found myself out [in Hollywood] for the Oscars, and I was very grateful to be nominated," Baldwin says. "But the day after the Oscars was going to be my trial. My whole feeling was that I couldn't wait to get it over with and get back to New York and get back to rehearsals [for Twentieth Century]. The play has been a wonderful departure. The company likes each other. We're all having a good time. I was just racing to get back here and get back to my own life, and leave all that behind. I mean, I really feel like I'm rowing away from the island of Doctor Moreau, in my little boat and the island is burning back in the distance."
Even by Hollywood standards, the Basinger-Baldwin divorce has been described as one of the most contentious in recent memory. As an unavoidable sign of how angry he's become, before the final settlement, in an entire four-hour interview, some off-the-record, some on, Baldwin only refers to Basinger as "my ex-wife," never using her name.
When his use of the impersonal description of Basinger is pointed out, Baldwin pauses, at first maybe a little annoyed. "Well, in some people's cases, it's hard to talk about the specifics. I've been instructed by the judge not to talk about my case in the press," Baldwin says. "So I've got to be careful."
There's no avoiding the pain and suffering he's been through. "It's been a humbling experience," Baldwin says. He recalls a female friend in Hollywood saying the hardest thing to learn is that even the deepest feelings don't always last forever, "and when you face that in your own life, not just in other people's lives, that's a very, very, very, very sad time…. I consider myself a very energetic, a very fortitudinous person, but this has bent me over. It's worn me out. And it didn't have to be this way."
Lawyers get a specifically harsh indictment. "A lot of this was the lawyers. They got in there and said to my ex-wife, 'You are going into the adversarial thing with him and you better start treating him like your enemy. He is your enemy.' One day I woke up, and I was the enemy; it hurt," Baldwin says. But he acknowledges that the way the system is set up, you almost have to be confrontational. He says that he had hundreds of conversations with men who've been through divorce, and he realized that he couldn't be accommodating.
"You have to fight. If you don't fight to maintain your role, the long-term consequences will be disastrous," Baldwin says, recounting the story of one man who did "everything his wife asked and lost his children in the process." He is convinced that the lawyers in his and Basinger's case "looked at two people and said, 'She's worth this much and he's worth that much, and we're not done until we get this amount of money.' They want a million of your money and a million of her money, and if you have to sell the house, they don't care," Baldwin says. "Some of them don't feel they've achieved their goal until you've had to sell your house."
In the end, Baldwin says the divorce has turned him into a crusader on several issues. One, he argues, is that society should encourage prenuptial agreements. Although he doesn't believe they should be mandatory, couples about to be married should be educated about the advantages of working out the details beforehand should their union fail. "It's not so much about the obvious purpose of segregating your assets," Baldwin says, "but as one of my friends says, 'it's about pre-negotiating an agreement while you still have a shred of respect for each other.' And it's really about keeping the lawyers out of it."
He's also become evangelical about his friends, marriages. "It makes you a missionary," he says, reciting an admonishment he'd given a friend over some rhetorical slight he had given his wife. "That's the kind of thing that adds up to where I am right now."
In truth, where Baldwin is currently isn't a bad place. He's survived a nasty divorce and has worked out the details on maintaining contact with his only child. He's been critically praised for a performance in The Cooler and can be seen strutting his talents under the big lights of Broadway.
While he refers specifically to his role in Twentieth Century, Baldwin unconsciously describes the arc of his life in the last six years: "This is more of a physical endurance test. It's very challenging mentally as well, to really drive it. You have to infuse it with an enormous amount of energy. You have to blow so much wind into the sails, and at the same time, seem gracious and relaxed and poised throughout. It's hard."
But Baldwin knows it's worth it.