'Quills'

By Steve Wulf
Updated February 23, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

The real Marquis de Sade was wretched, and vile beyond words. But Quills, adapted by Doug Wright from his 1995 play, is less a history lesson than a morality tale, and it calls for an actor who can dance on the razor’s edge between charm and menace, genius and madness. Voila: Geoffrey Rush. ”He comes to us through historical sources as a demon,” Rush noted recently. ”Everyone associates his name with sadism. But that’s not the way you play a legend. You have to find out who the guy would be if he were your dinner-party guest. I imagine the Marquis would be a handful.”

The 49-year-old Australian already has a Best Actor Oscar (Shine) and a Best Supporting Actor nomination (Shakespeare in Love) — especially impressive considering that he came to films so late in his career. Rush brings not only 30 years of stage experience to the part but also his own reported ”down on all fours, barking mad” breakdown in the early ’90s.

In Quills — all of it shot in sequence, most of it inside the stone walls of an asylum — the Marquis is stripped bare mentally and physically. And Rush leaves nothing to spare in his performance, whether he’s being playful with Madeleine, the laundress (Kate Winslet), or cruel with his estranged wife (Rush’s own spouse, Jane Menelaus) or diabolical in his mocking of the asylum’s head doctor (Michael Caine). ”I’ve seen spectacular actors tackle this role,” Wright has said. ”But Geoffrey brought a depth of feeling to it that really levels me.” As so often happens when plays are filmed, the actor who played the lead role on stage lost out to a bigger name. Over dinner one night, Wright broke the bad news to Rocco Sisto, who had played the Marquis for two years in Seattle and New York. When Wright told him Geoffrey Rush would play de Sade, Sisto smiled and said, ”Thank God. An actor’s actor.”

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