The Year of Living Dangerously
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There was a lot of heat on the set of Peter Weir's politically-charged romance, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), and it wasn't just the weather. The teaming of Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom appear at their sleekest and sexiest, was a positive form of friction. But there was also the unwanted attention of an angry group of Muslims who incorrectly assumed the movie's location shoot in Manila (standing in for Indonesia) was anti-Islamic. Weir had to finish the picture in Australia when his increasingly jumpy cast and crew began to feel they were living dangerously themselves.
Gibson stars as Guy Hamilton, an Australian journalist who's covering the 1965 coup against Indonesia's Sukarno government. Hamilton navigates crowded streets that bustle with marchers singing songs of protest, while white Westerners wrestle the hard truths of life in a fracturing political system. Also on hand are Jill Bryant (Weaver), a beautiful woman who works for the British embassy, and Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a street-smart photographer who initiates a romance between Hamilton and Bryant...both of whom may be the object of his affections. Kwan, who happens to be a dwarf, also serves as the film's occasional narrator.
Hunt, of course, was cast considerably against type when she won the role of the lovelorn Kwan. But her work was startling enough to merit an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Even she didn't know if she was ready for such a challenging role - at one point, she lobbied to have the character re-written as a woman. Weir had originally cast an Australian man as Kwan, but grew disenchanted with the actor in rehearsals. He was floored by Hunt's audition while searching for a replacement, and immediately hired her.
Though it would establish her ongoing career in motion pictures, Hunt, who was already an accomplished stage actress, suffered emotionally during the shoot. "I once ordered room service in the hotel," she later remembered, "and when the bellboy kept saying 'Yes sir, yes sir,' I dissolved into tears. That also happened once in a restaurant."
Even that was a minor problem, though, when stacked against the ominous letters and phone calls that the film company received from outraged fundamentalists. At one point, 10,000 Filipinos filled the Muslim quarter of Manila, muttering curses and shouting threats at the cast and crew. There was even a bomb threat. Gibson remembers receiving a particularly menacing phone call, during which the caller kept asking, "Are you a brave and courageous man, Mr. Gibson?" The actors soon began traveling with bodyguards in tow.
This unexpected real-life situation - which was the result of a complex misunderstanding about why the movie was shooting in Manila rather than Indonesia - was eerily like one of Weir's own films. As he said in a 1979 Washington Post interview: "Everything is built on the real and the ordinary, but there's chaos underneath. We try to protect ourselves from the mystery, but it's all around us, just waiting to reveal itself and terrorize us. The ironic thing about movies is that you can use this highly sophisticated technology to restore the sense of mystery that an industrialized urban society tends to obscure."
Weir ultimately had enough. "I think the threat was very real," he later said. "I received one of the phone calls and read one of the letters. Both combined religious fanaticism with the kind of unpredictability and conviction we saw (during the U.S. hostage crisis) in Iran. I was scared." The cast and crew's evacuation came swiftly, and, for most, not a moment too soon. "We were having lunch," Weaver said, "and a representative of the producer came over and said in a solemn voice, 'It's now 2 pm. By 2:20 we'll be having a meeting, and by 4 you'll be on a plane out of here.' I threw the important things in a suitcase and ran out the door."
Directed by: Peter Weir
Producer: James McElroy
Screenplay: C.J. Koch, Peter Weir, and David Williamson
Editing: William Anderson
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Art Direction: Herbert Pinter
Music: Maurice Jarre
Costume Design: Terry Ryan
Principal Cast: Mel Gibson (Guy Hamilton), Sigourney Weaver (Jill Bryant), Linda Hunt (Billy Kwan), Michael Murphy (Pete Curtis), Bembol Roco (Kumar), Domingo Landicho (Hortono), Hermino De Guzman (Immigration Officer), Noel Ferrier (Wally O'Sullivan), Paul Sonkkila (Kevin Condon), Ali Nur (Ali)
C-115m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara