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Director Simon Curtis strikes ‘Gold’ with Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds

Director Simon Curtis has only helmed two feature films — 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn” and now “Woman in Gold” (opening Wednesday),  but thanks to his extensive theater work, the English director quipped, “I have worked with all the dames.”

That reference is to his experience of directing actresses like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith who have been named dames, by Queen Elizabeth II, the female equivalent of British knighthood. In real life, Curtis doesn’t live with a real titled Englishwoman, but his wife, actress Elizabeth McGovern, a native of Evanston, has developed a huge following portraying a fictional British countess: Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham on “Downton Abbey.”


Curtis’ most recent dame is Helen Mirren, who stars in “Woman in Gold.” Curtis was in Chicago recently to chat about the movie, and the story behind it — something he noted he became “besotted” with, after first discovering the true tale while watching a documentary about the subject.

“Frankly, everyone involved in the film — certainly Helen and [her co-star] Ryan [Reynolds] also became besotted with it. But that was true about everybody, on both sides of the camera. We all went through the same thing — especially the three weeks we filmed in Vienna.”

The story eliciting that obsession?

In the film, Mirren plays Maria Altmann, a woman from an aristocratic Jewish family in Vienna — forced to flee Austria after the country was taken over by the Nazis in 1938. Her family owned an incredible collection of artwork, notably an iconic painting known as “The Woman in Gold” — actually a portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by famed artist Gustav Klimt. That painting, along with all of the Altmann’s other works of art were confiscated by the Nazis. The film relates Altmann’s long and often frustrating journey to reclaim the paintings — especially the portrait of her aunt — in recent years.

Altmann and her husband had immigrated to the U.S. during World War II and eventually settled in Los Angeles. Reynolds plays Randol Schoenberg, the young lawyer who helped her in the long legal struggle to regain the artwork — who himself was the grandson of famed Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.

As for the time Curtis was filming in Vienna, the director said: “That was a real amazing experience, partly because it is such an incredibly cinematic city.” Curtis stressed how emotional it was to shoot in Vienna, especially considering they were focusing on the darkest era in the city’s history: the Nazi takeover, followed by the oppression and ultimate destruction of the city’s Jewish community.

“Yet, though we were recreating all of that, the people of Vienna really welcomed us, which was something of a surprise. You know, we had swastikas all around and actors and extras in Nazi uniforms. We created everything from the past. There were photographs that you can easily find — of the Jews being made to paint ‘Jud’ [Jew] on their businesses. We recreated those actual shots.

“So, despite bringing back those ugly memories, the local people were fantastic, and many seem genuinely delighted we were telling this story.”

Curtis chuckled and asked, “Did you catch our homage to ‘The Third Man’? [the 1949 classic film-noir thriller, set in Vienna, starring Orson Welles] — the Ferris wheel in the background for that scene we did in the Prater [Viennese park]?'”

One of the things Curtis discovered while researching his film was the fact, “I read somewhere that Maria Altmann’s wedding was the last Jewish social event before the Anschluss [Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938]. So in the film, I wanted that whole thing — that scene with the joy and dancing and all that — to be emblematic of an end of an era. That Jewish community, which was the very heart of the cultural life of the city was so important.”

Curtis noted that Vienna, at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, “was the greatest city in the world. It was where art and science and music was happening.

“The young Billy Wilder [who later became a famous Hollywood director] was a journalist in Vienna between the World Wars and in one single morning he interviewed Richard Strauss the composer, Arthur Schnitzler the playwright and Sigmund Freud. That is symptomatic of all this talent mixing with each other. The Jewish community were at the heart of that.

“Yet the twisted aspect of the Nazi destruction of the Jews, was that the Jews in Vienna — before Hitler — felt they were more Austrian than they were Jewish. Of course, then their countrymen and women largely betrayed them, often turning neighbors and longtime friends into the Nazis, sending them off to the death camps.”

Turning to the casting of Reynolds, Curtis hopes audiences will now see the actor in a new light. The choice of Reynolds was the idea of Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul and head of “The Woman in Gold” film’s production and distribution company.

The director also liked the idea, and explained that with Reynolds — as with all the actors he casts in films — “I watch their performances in the films they’ve done. But I also watch them in TV interviews, because I then can get a sense of what they are like as people. With Ryan it was abundantly clear to me that he was, A) very smart, like the character he would play, and B) very sweet and self-deprecating, also like the character of the real Randol Schoenberg.

“Equally important, when we started working, he and Helen totally bonded. … Despite all the drama here, we also wanted to find the comedy that did come out of the real relationship between Maria and Randy. We would find these sort of ‘odd couple’ comedy moments, whittle some of them out, but then keep a lot of them in the film. The amount of laughter I hear from audiences at screenings of “Woman in Gold” really makes me happy. I really love that. But of course, there are a lot of tears as well. It’s a story that does truly make you laugh and cry — sometimes at the same time!”