Geena Davis insists 'Speechless' is not taken from election romance Campaigning for Laughs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

All right, Geena Davis, it's time to answer The Question. Have you now or have you ever heard of Mary Matalin and James Carville? No taking the Fifth, please, Ms. Davis.

Davis gives one of those liquidly gulping laughs of hers -- it sounds like someone swallowing rather than sipping an expensive wine, while simultaneously humming "Whistle a Happy Tune" -- and allows that yes, she's heard of the famous Republican-Democrat campaign pro love-match and best-seller tandem (they worked for opposing sides during the 1992 presidential campaign).

"But it was just an odd thing," she says over the phone. "I think they ripped us off."

In fact, Davis' new and much ballyhooed film "Speechless" does bear a startling resemblance to the Matalin-Carville thing. It's about political professionals who, in the heat of a campaign (New Mexico senate, not presidential), meet and fall in love. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl -- simultaneously to the rise and fall of each's candidates.

"It was just one of those things," insists Davis. "You know, the old life imitating art deal."

But surely Davis at least pored over the material, learning the ins and outs of the political process at the state level, talking to speechwriters, communicating with the pros in an attempt to give her part nuance and subtlety, no?

"Actually, I just winged the whole thing," Davis, 37, says with another of her patented laughs.

The problem, of course, wasn't laziness, but time.

"I was in pre-production for a film that my husband [director Renny Harlin of 'Die Hard 2'] was going to direct called 'Cutthroat Island' when we realized we couldn't start shooting until the fall. Then MGM came to us and said, 'Hey, we want a Christmas movie. You've got to start shooting right away. You'll produce it.' "

So she and Harlin "worked like gangbusters": "We were in charge of making the project happen. We hired everybody. We were in charge of the script work. It was really interesting and challenging."

For a while they entertained the idea that Harlin would direct the picture, but soon realized that such a possibility on such short notice wasn't really viable.

Instead, their first move was to hire director Ron Underwood, who'd shown a great comic touch in "City Slickers." Their second was to hire the ever-effervescent Michael Keaton to star opposite Davis.

The hope was that Keaton and Davis would hit it off and the camera would be there to capture the electricity. That hope is well realized.

"It's something you can't manufacture," says Davis. "If you could predict it, you'd always cast that way. I'm just grateful it did happen."

Keaton and Davis, after all, did do "Beetlejuice" together those many years ago, but they weren't matched in romantic pairing; she was linked to Alec Baldwin and he was the title character, a loony-tune who redefined the laws of reality for any and all.

One thing that helps "Speechless" is the sense of spontaneity between the two of them, particularly as the madcap Keaton seemed to be making up wisecracks as he went along. And Davis stays with him through the hairpin turns of his wit.

"I can take great credit for saying the actual lines as they were written," says Davis. "He improvises all the time. He's good at it. If I sounded at all spontaneous, then that's because I was acting."

Davis is aware the movie, given its political background, takes one very strong stance: Against taking strong stances.

"We made a calculated decision. We didn't have an ax to grind or a party to promote. It was always understood that we'd show both parties without taking a positive or negative position to either one. Our job was to make people laugh, not make them mad."

GEENA DAVIS

Age: 37

Born: Virginia Davis in Wareham, Mass., on Jan. 21 1957

Married to director Renny Harlin

Acting credits: "Tootsie" (1982), "Fletch" and "Transylvania 6-5000" (1985), "The Fly" (1986), "Beetlejuice" and "The Accidental Tourist" (1988), "Earth Girls Are Easy" (1989), "Quick Change" (1990), "Thelma and Louise (1991), " A League of Their Own" and "Hero" (1992), "Angie" (1994). She also co-starred in the 1983-'84 television series, "Buffalo Bill" and wrote one episode for it.

Awards: Won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Muriel, the dog trainer, in "The Accidental Tourist"

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