Chapter 5: The Roaring Nineties
Is it not monstrous that this player here,/ But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,/ Could force his soul so to his own conceit/ That from her working all his visage wanned,/ Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,/ A broken voice, and his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit? ---William Shakespeare, Hamlet
In the 1990 blockbuster The Hunt For Red October, a film based on Tom Clancy's novel dealing with a Soviet submarine captain attempting to defect to America, it was Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin who were touted as the big names in various reviews and critiques of the movie. In these same reviews, Sam was mentioned only in passing, but always with admiration. In an April 1990 US magazine review, a critic states that Sam was 'burdened with some of the movie's tritest lines' but was 'genuinely affecting as his sympathetic second in command'. Sam did not seem overly sympathetic when describing his work on the set, saying 'I spent the whole time in the submarine. Up periscope, up periscope, up periscope. There was one woman, but I never saw her. It's a real boy's picture'. Sam did enjoy working with Sean Connery, and remarks that 'Sean walked on to The Hunt for Red October set and it was like the grand old man had arrived. He commands respect, and it's well deserved.'
By commenting that it was 'up periscope, up periscope' constantly, Sam was not insinuating that he did not enjoy working on the picture, but rather he was simply expanding on the fact that it was a 'boy's adventure. Ripping yarn stuff'. Although it may have been an action adventure film, Sam's character developed sufficiently to be accepted with open arms. Producer Mace Newfield said that 'audiences would literally stand on their feet in horror when Neill's character was shot, they liked him so much.'
Sam began the nineties with a different twist, from the blockbuster The Hunt for Red October to a film that has been described as both a side-splitting comedy and as a psychosexual thriller. Actually, it is a dark comedy, but Sam put his wit to use when speaking about the film, Death In Brunswick, with a talk-show host in Australia:
People seem to think it's very funny. This is something we find difficult to understand, because we thought we were making a psychosexual thriller or something like that.
The host never seemed to notice that Sam was pulling his chain, leading him around and toying with him. In an overly cautious, serious tone, he asks Sam 'How could you not know it is funny. If indeed it is funny?' To which Sam grinningly replied, 'Well, we were very serious about it, you see.' The host, still tenaciously holding onto the bait that Sam had cast him, asks, 'Perhaps it was funny, and you didn't know. Is that possible?' It is obvious that Sam is enjoying every minute of this, and continues with the game:
Well, I thought it was funny when I read the script. But, then I thought "it's not going to be funny if we think it's going to be funny." So, from now on it's absolutely, deadly serious.
The cherry on top of the sundae came when the host asked Sam how the movie was going to be promoted, as 'a funny film, then?' Sam holds back his grin as he answers, as seriously as possible, 'As a psychosexual thriller, I hope.'
In all honesty, Death In Brunswick, based on the novel by Boyd Oxlade, is a hilarious comedy. It is named as the favourite of Sam's films by his fans, above and beyond all the others; Jurassic Park does not come even close. It is one of Sam's favourites, as well, for several reasons. He enjoyed working on a small-budget Australian film, he enjoyed the subject matter, and he enjoyed working with his old friend, John Clarke.
Sam continued with his cat-and-mouse game with the interviewer, by calling Clarke
a ratbag and a reprobate. We've had a common loathing for 20 years. We've never actually worked together before this. He's always been clever. Got a good brain. He's very quick. Not likeable, but quick.
The fact is, however, that Sam and John Clarke are obviously the best of friends. Sam also says of Clarke:
I enjoy his company more than anyone else I can think of. He's very good in the film, and that's no surprise, John's a very good actor, and he's a very funny performer. So, it's not surprising he's one of the best things in it. When we get together we never stop talking. John is one of the last great conversationalists, so when you are working with him you are often loath to go back on the set.
Clarke concurs, saying that he and Sam have 'helped each other out a lot over the years, but this is the first time we've done it sober.' He and Sam continue insisting that Death In Brunswick is not a comedy. Clarke explains that
It is a contemporary urban drama and if people find it funny it is no fault of ours and we hope appropriate medication is given as quickly as possible.
Sam agrees with his mate, saying that
to make a film funny you do everything but make a comedy. Nothing is guaranteed to kill a work more than if an audience goes in expecting all comedy. I would call this film odd on its own, peculiar, delicate. I'm a bit prejudiced against comedy; I can't bear comedic acting.
In contrast to the tit-for-tat insults between Sam and John Clarke, co-star Zoe Carides has only nice things to say about Sam:
Sam was wonderful. I was scared about meeting him at first, but he put me at ease by being a normal person. The sex scenes were very funny, which is probably a bit unusual for sex scenes, but I was quite scared about doing them. But again Sam made me feel very relaxed. He told me: "if you think you've got problems -- I once had to lie on top of Meryl Streep!" He is very attractive. It sounds great, but it was not making love to Sam Neill.
Everyone, except perhaps Sam himself, was surprised that he agreed to do this small, low-budget local drama. Scriptwriter/ director John Ruane said that 'after [being in a] big film like Evil Angels I thought he wouldn't do it. Sam is usually cast as the cold spy, the sleazy lover, or the evil devil.' Sam had a few questions about accepting the part himself, saying
I read the script, and I wanted to meet them to say "Why me?" I don't know exactly what my type is, but assuming they were casting against type, that they had the imagination to cast me, then I was interested.
Sam has evidently become intimately attached to his character in Death in Brunswick, Carl Fitzgerald:
He's an everyman. Most people I know are like Carl, they muddle along; they live in a state of horror. This bloke, he's hapless, but he's not a fool. He just hasn't managed his life particularly well nor has he particularly wanted to, but he's not harming anyone. Often I am cast as a person who is in charge of things. I am usually a bloke who gives commands and has absolute certainty about where he is going. But most of us are wildly out of control. It's sort of nice to see a person on the screen who is muddling along just like everyone else. All actors bring something of themselves to their roles -- I'm not different in that respect. Meryl Streep called me after seeing this film and she said, "it must be a relief to play someone who's very like you". I think I'll probably take this as a veiled insult and I'll never talk to her again. But I think the point she was making, apart from pulling my leg, was that Carl is more like most of us than the kind of people we're normally given on the screen. I loved playing Carl. I'm inordinately fond of him.
Sam not only loved his character, Fitzgerald, but the movie as a whole, even though it was not always comfortable physically:
It was cold, unpleasant, and creepy filming in a graveyard at night; I'm probably the most cowardly man on earth. I found the film to be one of the finest I've ever worked on. It has soul and integrity and it was made with a lot of heart and commitment. There's something fairly black and twisted about the film, and that's something that appealed to me a lot.
Sam left Melbourne after finishing Death in Brunswick to work on another big-budget film, Until the End of the World. This was 21 weeks of intense work, globetrotting through '10 or 11' different countries, including France, Portugal, Italy, Japan, America and Australia. Directed by Wim Wenders, the film also stars William Hurt, Max Von Sydow, and Ernie Dingo. Sam plays a writer who follows his lover around the world, while she chases after another fellow: William Hurt. He says that the movie is 'part science fiction set in the future, part road movie, and part apocalyptic vision.'
Following Until the End of the World, Sam returned to Hollywood to film John Carpenter's science-fiction film, Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Sam noted that the film has 'lots of special effects'. It is 'a thriller with a certain amount of comedy and a romance between Chevy and Daryl. I'm a spook, the worst you can imagine. I like playing bad guys--once in a while.'
Playing opposite comedian Chevy Chase and beauty Daryl Hannah, Sam is in his element as the all-around evil CIA agent, intent on capturing Chase in order to exploit his invisible powers for personal profit. In his 1992 review of the film for People magazine, Mark Goodman wrote that 'best performance goes to Neill, who has inherited the velvet mantle of the suave villain cut so elegantly many moon-dark nights ago by James Mason'.
Although it is obvious that Sam could have leaped on the bandwagon of popularity several times during his career, becoming a megastar in the same manner as fellow-Australian Mel Gibson, he has managed to never really fit in to the Hollywood mould of what is typically considered an 'actor'. It is not that he was not able to be a superstar success in America, because there is no doubt that he could, if he so desired. However, he does not desire to become a 'star.' His perspective on this issue coincides with his perspective of what it is to be a success:
Who needs winners? Winners are the worst. There's nothing romantic about winners. All these bloody Hollywood films are about winning now, about "making it." The worst thing is to be a loser [in their opinion.] It's about the worst thing you could say about someone, (Sam dons an American accent) "He's a loser", in Los Angeles, in America -- it's death.
Sam continues his explanation of why he considers the obsession, particularly the American obsession, with success to be exceptionally detrimental to the human psyche:
I saw a [documentary] on high-school children in America. There were a lot of alarming things about it and I'm sure these kids have a lot in common with kids in Australia. But all of them wanted to be a success. And that in itself struck me as being a bit sad because how many people can be a success? Half a per cent of us? What is a success anyway? Nobody said "I want to be happy". I would have thought that was a much more realistic and indeed much more worthwhile thing to want to be. They want to be a success and what they meant by being successful was making a lot of money. The phrase is "they wanted to make it". Make what?
Sam qualifies his statements to some degree by pointing out that while he 'loathes the idea of winners and losers' he also 'applauds excellence. This is different'. Sam's perception of this difference is observable when he notes that
I am probably a perfectionist, but I am not someone who is driven, and I don't have to be working constantly. The perfectionist bit is different. The elusive nature of acting, as such, is that it comes and goes and you can never be entirely sure whether you are inspired or whether your choices are correct, and once it is done it is out of your hands. It's not like being a painter or a writer, who can go back and change things; it's way too late for that. Therefore screen performances are inherently flawed. I know mine certainly are.
When asked about success in Hollywood, Sam seemed to find it extremely difficult to give an answer that he considered satisfactory. 'I prefer to not be noticed. I can still walk down the street in Amsterdam, even in Cannes, without getting a bad time. I'd like to keep it that way.' In the next breath, however, he laughingly admitted that he does like getting recognition for his work. That isn't ego showing through -- Sam is anything but an egotist -- it is the honest pleasure of accepting praise for a job well done. The lack of desire for fame is what has kept Sam from pursuing Hollywood. Yet Hollywood has continued to pursue Sam.
Sam has appeared in several big-budget, highly successful Hollywood films, such as The Hunt For Red October, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and Jurassic Park, yet has still been able to remain relatively unknown. It seems to be a continuing trend that Sam's co-stars garner all the fame and glory while he remains in the background. This fact is evidenced in that Chase and Hannah received the lion's share of the attention for Memoirs, a fact which did not miff Sam, who explains: 'While working in Hollywood with Chevy Chase, in Memoirs of An Invisible Man, Chevy was yelled at all the time. I would find that uncomfortable and boring; I don't envy it.'
The early nineties were also filled with made-for-TV movies such as Hostage and Fever, and an American mini-series, Family Pictures.
Fever allowed Sam to remain in close proximity to his wife, Noriko, during the last weeks before giving birth to Elena. Although he wasn't especially fond of making the movie, it did fit in well with his private life. His character in Fever is Elliott Mandell, a lawyer who Sam says 'is a nice guy -- he's so nice you wanna kick him.' Armand Assante co-stars as a paroled convict who also happens to be the ex-lover of Mandell's live-in girlfriend, Lacy, played by Marcia Gay Harden.
In Hostage, Sam again plays a British secret agent, one who goes against company policy one time too many. When asked to comment on this movie, Sam admitted that he had never seen it. 'I liked Buenos Aires,' he commented. He goes on to say that the filming of the movie may have actually been more exciting than the movie itself: 'We just missed a bomb by a few weeks that demolished the block we were living on.'
Sam then did an 180 degree turnabout to portray a quiet, unassuming psychiatrist in Family Pictures, a mini-series based on the novel by Sue Miller. Sam commented that 'we were actually an unusually close bunch on that film and I remember it as quite a good time. Angelica Huston is still a good pal of mine.'
In Family Pictures Sam starred opposite Anjelica Huston in a story about a family's trials and tribulations, the stress of which is initiated through the birth of their son, who is discovered to be autistic. The story traces the family's life from 1948 through 1983, thirty-five years which include the Vietnam war and obsession with Freudian psychology.
Sam was in the midst of filming Family Pictures when Steven Spielberg asked him to play the part of Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. At first it appeared that Sam may lose out on the opportunity, due to the two schedules overlapping, but in the end Spielberg decided that Sam was worth waiting for.
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