The wife of a philandering pizza-parlor owner in Tacoma, Wash. finally gets so upset by her husband’s indiscreet infidelities that she and her mother try to kill him — five times. She hires a thug to beat him to death with a baseball bat. The car is wired to blow him up. She puts two bottles of sleeping pills in his pasta. She has a friend shoot him. Then she hires two other guys to shoot him. Finally, he figures out that she really loves him.
That’s the premise of a new black comedy called I Love You to Death, featuring comic chameleon Tracey Ullman in her first American film, along with Kevin Kline, William Hurt, River Phoenix, Joan Plowright, and Keanu Reeves. Most of those actors usually work the dramatic side of the street, but here they maintain a balance between lunacy and believability; they play for laughs. Ullman doesn’t. She’s the comedian in the bunch but she’s the only one who plays straight throughout the entire wacky movie.
As Rosalie, the put-upon wife who beams adoringly at her husband (Kline) even as he takes down phone orders for a pie with extra cheese and a side order of home-delivery sex, the unorthodox, uninhibited Ullman would seem like an inspired casting choice by director Lawrence Kasdan. But not playing for laughs can be dangerous for a TV comedian making the move to the big screen. Sometimes it works — Robin Williams gets Academy Award nominations. And sometimes it doesn’t — Roseanne Barr caught hell with She-Devil.
What was it that prompted Kasdan to consider having the star of The Tracey Ullman Show play against type in the first place? He watched her on TV, on the Fox show that won four Emmys last year. ”I thought that although she had done these outlandish characters, she also did sketches where the tiniest . little thing was happening,” says Kasdan, whose credits include The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist. ”There was such a vulnerability to her that I thought her character needed to hold all these other characters together.”
”In rehearsal we tried different ways of how big, or powerful, or mannered, or funny, or weird Rosalie was,” Ullman says. ”It seemed to work the best just to be simple and honest with her, to resist the temptation to push any comedy .When we did that, it seemed like we were trying to make it into a strange farce.” But for a performer who is used to the security of hiding behind huge wigs, elaborate makeup, braces, and falsies, playing a straight role was both scary and frustrating. ”Rosalie is deranged enough to kill him, instead of confronting him with it, which is what I would have done,” Ullman says. ”That’s the leap I had to make.”
The fact that the film is based on the real story of Tony and Frances Toto could have been, but wasn’t, perfect fodder for the sponge-like social satirist to employ the absorb-and-then-squeeze-out-the-character technique that gives her TV characters an uncanny compassion. ”I saw a video of the real people, but Lawrence didn’t want us to directly impersonate them, because there are differences in his script from real life,” says Ullman.
Instead, she kept Rosalie credible by making her as typical as possible. She set out to a Tacoma mall to soak up the local color. By watching and talking to shoppers, Ullman found the crack to slip into Rosalie. ”It had to be played documentary-style, just a regular American housewife, that simple someone in a nylon car coat and a fuzzy perm and holding her mum’s arm, without speech mannerisms, just an American accent,” she says.
Learning to actually run a pizza parlor took a little more effort. Kasdan had Ullman, Kline, and Phoenix — as a New Age busboy who dispenses Eastern philosophy along with pies — work an entire weekend preparing meals and serving the crew. ”We all had to talk to each other as our characters, and we had the most dreadful meal we’ve ever had in our lives,” recalls Joan Plowright, who plays Rosalie’s tabloid-addicted Yugoslavian mother.
Although the exercise didn’t do much for Ullman’s cooking abilities, it helped her get a feel for Rosalie’s character. ”We had to spin pizzas professionally, and it’s typical that the boys would always get to do it, and when I wanted to try they were like, ‘No, you cut up peppers in the back,”’ she recalls. ”I’d get coffee for Kevin and massage his shoulders, and think, ‘God, I’ve never done this for a man!”’
This summer she’ll try something else she has never done, starring in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of The Taming of the Shrew. After that it’s more films and back to TV if Fox renews her show for next season. But right now she’s nervously awaiting reaction to I Love You to Death, knowing that audiences are sometimes reluctant to accept the transition from TV silly to movie serious. ”It’s tricky,” Ullman says. ”It’s not exactly like Lena Olin’s performance in Enemies, but if people believe me, I’ll be very pleased.”