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    Regular Guy in Alice's Wonderland

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Vigorous Chicago Cubs fan, award-winning actor and long-time Criminal Minds star Joe Mantegna reaches his 70-year mark today, and the down-to-earth everyman – with a penchant for unmistakable menace when the occasional role calls for it – long associated with David Mamet stage and screen ventures comes into the Twilight Time fold next month, believe it or not, in the stellar ensemble of a whimsical Woody Allen comedy with themes of magic and religion thrown into the mix. What’s more, he’s the romantic interest of well-to-do but mixed-up Manhattan housewife Alice (1990), after she’s come under the influence of the transformative herbs and potions of a phenomenally versatile healer who diagnoses her ailments quite differently than just requiring a touch of acupuncture. For a bruiser like Mantegna, it was a refreshing and fun gig. Los Angeles Times interviewer Hilary De Vries wrote in December 1990: “The regular guy whom Mantegna plays in Alice is a musician and divorced father who woos and wins his ex-wife (Judy Davis) as well as the honeyed, moneyed, repressed wife (portrayed by Mia Farrow) of a domineering Wall Street banker (William Hurt). It is a performance that Mantegna describes as ‘playing me more than a character. I'm playing Joe Mantegna more than at any other time.’ ‘Joe's a totally natural talent,’ Allen says. ‘He makes any line of written dialogue sound like a real person talking.’ Adds Juliet Taylor, Allen's longtime casting director: ‘We were looking for an actor to carry the film's emotional weight, and there are only so many people who are that compelling. Joe is an actor that a lot of us have admired, but to know him is to know that Joe exudes a warm, appealing reality.’” 

    That touch of reality proved a marvelous anchor to the magical machinations that would bewitch Alice on her journey to self-actualization. As Woody: Movies from Manhattan author Julian Fox recounts: “Alice is also prey to what Woody seems to see as the non-working woman’s favorite pastime – hypochondria – and, seeking relief for a bad back, she visits the establishment of a mysterious acupuncturist and herbal doctor called Yang (the veteran Keye Luke in his final role). The captivating strains of Limehouse Blues cue in Chinatown where Dr. Yang advises Alice that it is not her back, but her head and heart, which are troubling her. Through drugs, Himalayan herbs and even hypnotism, Yang grants Alice the gift of invisibility and magical access to the experiences of her past. She is propelled into a dream world where she observes without being observed. Other herbs precipitate Alice into fantasy encounters with the ghost of her long-lost love (Alec Baldwin), killed in a car crash after she rejected his proposal of marriage. She also glimpses her younger self and her parents – naval officer father (Patrick O’Neal) and her mother (Gwen Verdon), a third-rate movie actress.” Other prominent players she meets throughout what Allen would call “the comedy version of Another Woman” (another TT title) include Bob Balaban, Blythe Danner, Julie Kavner, Bernadette Peters, Cybill Shepherd, June Squibb and Holland Taylor. Just as this gentle fable threw confounding and sometimes disheartening curveballs at its central character, Mantegna had some juggling of his own to do. As De Vries observed: “Alice, which was slated to finish shooting in November 1989, didn't finish until this April (1990), nearly six months beyond its original wrap date, creating a scheduling conflict for Mantegna, who was needed in Italy for The Godfather: Part III in December of last year. He had to fly to Rome, film his scenes, then fly back to New York for Alice. ‘Woody didn't want me to blow the Godfather, and he could have wrecked it,’ says Mantegna. ‘I remember I finished in Rome on Monday, flew out on Tuesday and was back in New York shooting with Woody on Thursday.’” As a result, the newly 70-year-old Mantegna was a key ingredient in two 1990 Christmas Day gifts for moviegoers to unwrap, one from Allen and the other from Francis Ford Coppola. Alice was also gifted with a Best Actress Award for Farrow from the National Board of Review and a Best Screenplay Oscar® nomination for Allen (his ninth of an eventual record-setting 16 to date in that category). Unwrap Alice’s wonderland on TT hi-def Blu-ray December 19. Preorders open December 6.