On the same dusty Telluride, Colo., street where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank, Harvey Keitel is watching film clips of his own greatest outlaw performances. The clips are part of a Telluride Film Festival tribute to Keitel and a prelude to a screening of his nightmarish new crime movie Bad Lieutenant. His 6-year-old daughter, Stella, the only child from his marriage to Lorraine Bracco, is in the seat next to him, but whenever the action grows too violent, he reaches over and gently covers her eyes with his hand.
This is not the first time Keitel has had concerns about his daughter understanding what he does for a living. ”Stella was in the hotel where we shot Bad Lieutenant,” he says later. ”I told her, ‘Daddy’s going to be naked in the next room, there’s going to be some women,’ and that no actual sexual activity was going on, and that we were telling a story I thought was important about a man’s descent into hell.”
Keitel is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In life, he is a doting single father and a rambling moral philosopher; on screen, he’s often a maniac baring terrifying primal emotions, a hell-bound train crashing off its tracks into what he describes in a thick Brooklyn accent as ”da holy void, da abyss.” Blessed with a career upswing because of his roles in Thelma & Louise, Bugsy, and Sister Act after a long spell of failures, he has found a perversely original way of using his new clout: He took the temperature of the times — characterized by the moral backlash against Hollywood’s ”cultural elite,” the clarion call for ”family values” — and helped launch two low-budget vehicles about characters who kill cops and rape nuns. In the $1.5 million Reservoir Dogs, the current art-house thrill, he joins a gang of cop-mutilating thieves. In the under-$2 million Bad Lieutenant, soon to open nationwide, he may be the worst policeman ever: a heroin-injecting, teen-molesting scuzzball who turns out to be the good guy; director Abel Ferrara (King of New York) earns his NC-17 rating with scenes of full Keitel nudity and worse.
Both movies are adding fuel to the debate about just how much is too much in movie brutality. ”My mother would not like this movie,” says Dogs director Quentin Tarantino, with a certain satisfaction. ”But people who don’t like it can go see Sister Act (in which Keitel plays Whoopi Goldberg’s goofy gangster boyfriend).” At one industry screening, several women stomped out fuming during the cop torture scene.
”I understand that,” Keitel says, mildly. ”There have been many moments in my life where I’ve walked away from difficulty — sulked, looked for a rock to hide under.”
Keitel, however, sees the degradation in Reservoir Dogs and Bad Lieutenant as a kind of spiritual challenge, a way of testing and exploring the viewer’s own morality. He even hopes to show selected Lieutenant scenes to Stella one day. ”I explained to her that a man’s absence of God can lead somebody to abuse drugs, alcohol, sex,” he says. ”We can’t leave it to the government to educate our children. If I don’t confront my own fears, I’m just going to pass them on to my child.”