Sunday, January 23, 2000

Showtime's Barrie film promotes free speech


But personal details added to 'true story'

BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PASADENA, Calif. — Before showing a preview of Dirty Pictures, the movie about Cincinnati's Mapplethorpe photo exhibit controversy, Showtime President Jerry Offsay warned TV critics:

        “This clip includes the seven disputed images,” he says, referring to the photos named in Cincinnati obscenity indictments in 1990. “But of course, that's what this movie is all about.”

        From the very inception, Showtime executives agreed to show the homoerotic photos that resulted in Cincinnati criminal indictments a decade ago. The Contemporary Arts Center and director Dennis Barrie were acquitted on all charges 6 months later.

        “It's not our job to make people feel comfortable. It's our job to do what we think is right, and to protect freedom of expression,” Mr. Offsay said at the Television Critics Association meetings here.

        “The First Amendment is our lifeblood. It's our business,” said the Showtime president who has aired such compelling adult dramas as Lolita, Tales From the City and Bastard Out of Carolina.

Locals portrayed
        Veteran Actor James Woods stars as Mr. Barrie (minus a beard) in a film about the nation's first criminal trial involving a museum and its director. Diana Scarwid (Pretty Baby, Silkwood) plays Diane, his wife at the time.

        Craig T. Nelson (Coach) portrays Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis, an outspoken critic of the exhibit who declared some of the pictures “criminally obscene.”

        Also depicted in the film are Cincinnati attorneys Marc Mesibov and F. Louis Sirkin; Hamilton County assistant prosecutors Frank H. Prouty Jr. and Melanie Reising; Judge David Albanese; Citizens for Community Values President Monty Lobb; and the Barries' sons, Kevin and Ian.

        Mr. Offsay calls the film “the true story of Dennis Barrie,” though the former CAC director admits that screenwriter Ilene Chaiken fictionalized some scenes, such as an argument between Mr. Barrie and his wife at home over the graphic pictures. More personal elements were requested by Mr. Woods, as a condition for taking the part.

        “The human element was missing in the original screenplay,” Mr. Woods said. “I said: "It's a little bit politically correct, kind of one-sided, because this is really a two-sided issue.'

        “So they focused on the pressure-cooker that Dennis Barrie and his family and relations were in, going through this trial,” said Mr. Woods, who supported Mr. Barrie's free speech stance.

        “We might have said and done things that specifically did not happen per se, but we hopefully got more to the truth ... of what that situation is, not a person's real life,” Mr. Woods said.

        Mr. Barrie, now president of a Cleveland company that produces events for museums, says Dirty Pictures “has a sense of reality for me that's both wonderful and frightening.”

Leis finds a fan
        In Mr. Nelson, producer Michael Manheim found an actor who sided philosophically with his character, Mr. Leis, on the debate.

        “These are images I find offensive,” Mr. Nelson said bluntly. But he praises Showtime for having “courage enough to go ahead and do this.”

        Also adding balance to the film, Mr. Woods said, are comments about freedom of expression from artists and writers, such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Susan Sarandon, in the style of Reds.

        Since the verdict was rendered 10 years ago, Mr. Manheim (Roe vs. Wade) has been trying to produce this film, first at HBO and for the last six years at Showtime.

        What fascinates him about the case is the role of the four-man, four-woman jury. “Regular folks, just ordinary people, were put in a position of having to decide: Is it art? Or is it obscene?” Mr. Manheim said.

        Although the Mapplethorpe photos beat an obscenity rap in Cincinnati, producers took no chances filming in Toronto last November with all 175 photos that were displayed in Cincinnati.

        “We called it The Museum Project because we didn't want to attract attention to ourselves,” Mr. Offsay said. “We had grave concerns about whether the art would be seized in Canada.”

        Mr. Offsay admitted that some viewers will be disgusted by his Dirty Pictures, as some Cincinnati area residents were a decade ago.

        “People who don't want to watch Dirty Pictures, or don't like the art, don't have to look at it,” Mr. Offsay said.

        “We don't want to impose our point of view on them, and we don't want them to impose their standards on us,” he said. “And ultimately they may disconnect their Showtime subscription. That's their vote.”

        TV Critic John Kiesewetter is reporting for Television Critics Association press tour.

Film exposes Mapplethorpe secrets