The Anniversary Party: Peter Sorel
June 25, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Actors call the shots in new digital movies

Alfred Hitchcock never really did say that ”actors are cattle.” In fact, when pressed once on the subject, he was drily careful to correct the misquote: ”What I meant to say was that actors should be TREATED like cattle.” Poor Hitch must be looking down from Auteur Heaven and shaking his jowls in dismay, then, because, on the strength of digital filmmaking and a new movie called ”The Anniversary Party,” the cows are starting to take over the cattleyard.

The film, which opened in limited release June 15 to generally strong reviews, was written and directed by its stars, actors Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. You probably know him as the fey bad guy in such lightweight multiplex fare as ”Spy Kids” and ”Josie and The Pussycats,” but he also prowls ambisexually around the edges of such arthouse films as ”Titus” and ”Eyes Wide Shut.” Her you know as the intense, implosive, sometimes annoyingly affected center of ”Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” ”Short Cuts,” ”The Hudsucker Proxy,” and so on. And God bless these two for taking their writing classes to heart, for they’ve written about what they know: ”The Anniversary Party” is set in the hills of Hollywood and follows a gaggle of self-absorbed film folk over the course of one very rocky evening.

Cumming and Leigh have called in a lot of favors from their actor friends, too: The cast includes Kevin Kline as a vain star, his wife Phoebe Cates as his wife, Paul Thomas Anderson regular John C. Reilly as a director, Jane Adams (”Happiness”) as his twitchy actress wife, former Flashdancer Jennifer Beals as Joe’s old chum, and It Girl Gwyneth Paltrow as Sky Davidson, the ingenue stealing Sally’s role, and possibly her husband, too.

If two hours in the company of these preening, shallow birds of paradise doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then by all means skip ”The Anniversary Party”: It’s a warts-and-all talkathon that nods to Robert Altman, ”The Big Chill,” and ”The Celebration” without ever going for the grand generational statement. If, on the other hand, you want to watch a group of very talented actors at play — filling in characters, dropping grace notes of behavior, sliding into a handful of beautifully played, emotionally rich monologues — then ”Party”’s worth your $8.50.

One other notable thing about ”The Anniversary Party” is that it was shot on digital video, for a fraction of the time and cost of the usual film production. Leigh and Cumming were smart to get an experienced cinematographer like John Bailey (who shot ”The Big Chill”) — and since the film is mostly close-ups and interiors, you really can’t tell you’re not watching celluloid — but, more to the point, it’s the ease of a digital shoot that lets actors take control of their destinies and play at being full-service auteurs.

Not surprisingly, a number of similar projects are in the pipeline: Griffin Dunne has shot a digital feature, and so has Ethan Hawke; the latter’s ”Chelsea Walls,” starring wife Uma Thurman and another conglomeration of famous names, just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Not all of these are going to be good (I’ve seen ”Chelsea Walls,” and unfortunately it falls headfirst into the inscrutable vanity production trap that ”Anniversary Party” neatly sidesteps). But even Hitchcock would have agreed that not all cattle are created equal.

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