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Berlin Film Festival: Billy Bob Thornton unveils 'Jayne Mansfield's Car'

February 13, 2012 | 11:43 am


20124833_4Berlin's sole U.S. competition entry, Billy Bob Thornton's "Jayne Mansfield's Car," premiered Monday. Thornton, who also stars, co-wrote the script with Tom Epperson. Set in 1969, the film portrays a family of different generations of military veterans headed by Robert Duvall's stern Jim Caldwell, who seems to delight in accidents and crime scenes, dragging his teenage grandsons along to the gruesome sites.

Jim lords over his three sons but denies them the attention and approval they crave. Skip (Thornton) is a damaged yet childlike oddball, Carroll (Kevin Bacon) has become a drug-loving antiwar protester, and Jimbo (Robert Patrick), who never saw combat during his military service, is an insecure blowhard.  Sister Donna is a manipulative former beauty queen married to a bloated former football player.  This dysfunctional Alabama family has to deal with an unwelcome overseas invasion that follows an intimate betrayal.

Twenty years earlier, wife and mother Naomi left them to move to England and remarry. After her death, this second husband, proper Brit Kingsley Bedford (John Hurt) and his two grown children bring her body back for a tearful funeral and a series of alternately humorous and poignant encounters with their Southern not-quite-kin.  Underlying the bawdy jokes and front porch feuds is a sense of how war affects families.

Thornton, who has been a bit off the Hollywood radar screen, told the press in Berlin: "I was complaining a lot about the state of movies in America, that most of the movies that are easy to get financed are about models in gladiator uniforms and wacky comedies about kids who get caught with sheep in hotel rooms, and things like that. So instead of complaining, I decided to just write one and direct it."

Funding came from a novel source -- a $120-million union between Alexander Rodnyansky's AR Films in Russia and Geyer Kosinski's U.S.-based Media Talent Group, which will fund six films over two years; "Jayne Mansfield's Car" is the first of these.  Quipped Thornton: "Here's an American story and a British story that no one would finance in America.  And a Russian financed it, which was pretty great."

For his part, Rodnyansky said he found something in Thornton's work that he sees missing from Russian films: personal stories that aim to connect emotionally with an audience. "John Hurt explained to me when I came to the set -- he came to me and said he knows why I like the script.  And I said 'Why?' and he said, 'Because it's a Chekhov play!"

Thornton said he based some elements of the film on his own father, a violent, distant Korean War veteran who never had conversations with his kids but regularly took 4-year-old Billy Bob and his brother with him to car crash scenes, where they would spend hours staring at the mortal and metal wreckage and smoking.

"That was how he connected with us," remembered Thornton.

The Berlinale is the only festival to which Thornton and his team submitted "Jayne Mansfield's Car."   "This is known as a very serious festival, where the quality of the movies is paramount."

"Not the studio!" he quickly explained, to laughs.

Thornton also cheerfully fielded the inevitable question about Angelina Jolie, who is also presenting her film "In the Land of Blood and Honey" at the festival, by describing the current closeness between the respective families of the former spouses.  He also good-naturedly stopped reporters from leaving the press room at the conference's end, asking them to wait while he presented John Hurt, who received a BAFTA for lifetime achievement Sunday night,  with what Thornton called "another award from us" -- the silver-topped cane that Hurt's war-wounded character is never without in "Jayne Mansfield's Car."


-- Susan Stone in Berlin

Photo: John Hurt and Robert Duvall in "Jayne Mansfield's Car." Credit: From Berlin International Film Festival

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