NEW YORK -- Perhaps it's time for Geoffrey Rush's second lightning strike.
The droll Australian actor, 47, labored on the stage in relative obscurity for more than 25 years, then became an "overnight sensation" with his Oscar-winning, tour de force portrayal of mad/brilliant pianist David Helfgott in 1996's "Shine."
"A film about a troubled pianist from Perth," Rush ruefully describes the movie that made him a hot property in international filmmaking circles. "I mean, you try to pitch that one."
It certainly wasn't the kind of premise that might have attracted Hollywood A-list talents (such as Rush's one-time college roommate Mel Gibson). Nor have Rush's post-"Shine" projects reeked of Tinseltown glamour, although his latest -- which might be described as a film about a troubled playwright from Stratford -- could vault through the art-house barrier as "Shine" did.
In the beguiling, rousingly witty and downright sexy "Shakespeare in Love," Rush -- no matinee idol to begin with -- sports a droopy mustache, rotting teeth and appalling fashion sense as Philip Henslowe, a hapless theatrical producer who commissions the young Bard to write a play with "comedy, love and a bit with a dog." While in New York recently, the actor ponders how winning an Academy Award has affected his singular film career.
"Maybe I've been over-cautious and haven't sold out enough," he says dryly. "Someone wrote in one of the papers here 'Oh, he's done it all wrong. He's chosen all the wrong projects for an Oscar winner.' Show me the book that tells you how to handle that one. I've had a wonderful time. Couldn't be better. It feels like an extension of the sort of stuff that I was doing in the theater. I've actually got to do two Elizabethan projects!"
Just a few weeks ago Rush virtually stole "Elizabeth," the biopic of England's legendary Virgin Queen, with his portrayal of shadowy, Machiavellian mastermind Sir Francis Walsingham. Earlier this year he played the obdurate Inspector Javert to Liam Neeson's Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables." In 1997 he narrated Gillian Armstrong's "Oscar and Lucinda," and in 1996 he co-starred with Judy Davis in the magnificent but little-seen political satire "Children of the Revolution." All were risky period pieces, all received critical acclaim, but none approached "Shine's" popularity.
Whether or not "Shakespeare in Love" puts him back in the Oscar stakes or the commercial mainstream, the actor holds the new film dear for its free-wheeling, even racy depiction of Shakespeare's early days and their connection with theater's occasionally disreputable origins.
"It's very 'warts-and-all,' " Rush says. "I think it's the scholars that have put Shakespeare on a pedestal. Even though we don't know a lot about Shakespeare from written legacy about his private life, the plays document the mind of the man pretty broadly. You get a sense from the plays of how things were run as an astute business. I think this film really captures that, whether or not you make contemporary Hollywood analogies."
The film slyly parallels the Elizabethan stage with today's motion-picture industry. Rush compares it to English football teams: "It's more about how you poach this player to make this ideal team, wheeling and dealing. I liked seeing that. Burbage and Shakespeare doing deals behind Henslowe's back."
Rush co-starred with relative newcomer Joseph Fiennes in both "Elizabeth" and "Shakespeare in Love." Fiennes' impressive theatrical training includes seasons with London's prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, but his soulful eyes and smoldering intensity mark him as the next thinking-woman's hunk. Rush is quick to heap praise upon his promising colleague, calling him "a great and very appealing dramatic actor" for his work in "Elizabeth" and "an almost classic light comedian, slightly daffy," who set the pitch for his fellow cast members in "Shakespeare in Love."
Pub Date: 1/02/99
DATELINE: NEW YORK