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The fine aging of ''The Age of Innocence''

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Maybe it’s unavoidable karma that a movie exploring the power of vicious gossip should inspire some. But nobody at Columbia Pictures expected the rumor mill to churn quite so furiously when the studio decided late last summer to put off the scheduled Christmas 1992 release of Martin Scorsese’s $30 million The Age of Innocence, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about repressed passions and the tyranny of convention among upper-class New Yorkers in the 1870s.

”The minute you postpone a picture, it’s Hudson Hawk,” says Mark Gill, Columbia’s senior VP of publicity and promotion. ”People assume you’ve got something to hide.” Indeed, newspaper items about the delay painted a dire picture: that even with the star power of Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Winona Ryder, the movie was a misfire; that former Twentieth Century Fox chairman Joe Roth was smart to pass on financing it; and that Scorsese was out of his element with a Victorian period piece and needed all the time he could get to patch it up. So what if the film of E.M. Forster’s Howards End was proving an art-house hit: That Merchant Ivory Oscar winner cost only $8 million to make, and its theatrical gross, now $25 million, is barely half the amount that Innocence must gross before Columbia recoups its production and marketing costs.

”There was a great deal of rumormongering based on no facts,” says Gill. ”So we announced a firm decision to open the movie in September of ’93 as a vote of confidence. It’s the optimum position for a picture you expect to win Academy Award nominations.”

In fact, the picture now looks a lot rosier than the speculation suggested, and if early test screenings are any indication, the Oscar talk isn’t hype. The plight of Countess Ellen Olenska (Pfeiffer), a woman estranged from her brutish husband and coveted by Newland Archer (Day-Lewis), the fiance of her cousin (Ryder), has viewers squirming in their seats with tension and empathy. One industry insider says he’d ”be surprised if Pfeiffer didn’t win Best Actress,” and predicts a host of other nominations — although he also feels that some of Joanne Woodward’s expository voice — over narration, drawn closely from the novel, could be trimmed.

Both Scorsese’s camp and the studio now maintain that meeting the original schedule would have required a Christmas miracle. Only five months were allotted for all postproduction, although Scorsese usually takes a year just to edit. So why did both parties press for the improbable? ”We were so happy when Columbia gave us the money for the movie, we wanted to do everything we could to hit the date,” says Scorsese’s producer (and amicably parted fourth ex-wife) Barbara DeFina.

Immediately after the three-month shoot wrapped last June, Scorsese plunged into editing, which, unlike most directors, he never lets an assistant begin. ”He has to be there,” says DeFina. ”He really examines each cut.” But in early August, the best-case scenario Scorsese needed to finish on time hit the worst crisis imaginable: His father, Charles, fell seriously ill, and his & convalescence has kept the director and his family in and out of the hospital ever since. According to a studio source, ”Marty basically said, ‘I’m not going into the cutting room; I’m dealing with my real life.”’

By late August, Columbia agreed that the holiday opening should be postponed and consented to hold the release until the following fall — an expensive decision. The costs of extending Scorsese’s cutting-room time are negligible, but a year’s worth of added interest on the entire production budget will amount to roughly $2 million.

Yet as the expenses have risen, the cast’s marquee power has grown — and Columbia is betting the balance sheet will end up on the plus side. ”Winona and Michelle have only helped themselves in the last year with Dracula and Batman Returns,” says Columbia’s Gill. ”But the thing that was totally unexpected is that Daniel became, you’ll pardon the expression, a big movie star, thanks to Last of the Mohicans.”

For producer DeFina, the artistic cost of not delaying the film would have been incalculable. ”All the fine cutting and shaping would have suffered, the down-to-the-frame timing that makes it a Scorsese movie,” she says. ”Marty also likes to cut his scenes to the music, not lay in the score afterward.” That approach would have been impossible without the deadline reprieve. With it, composer Elmer Bernstein was able to lay in a rough ”temp track” to cue the movie’s visual rhythms, then rerecord with full orchestration once the scenes were finished. It’s that kind of note-by-note care — not some frenzied program of drastic rewrites, reshoots, and reedits — that’s making Scorsese’s Age take an age to reach the screen.

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