Feature by: Jack Foley
LAS Vegas may be considered Americas playground
to many, but for writer-director, Wayne Kramer, the city has lost
much of its elegance and some of its mystique.
"It used to be an adult getaway, where people would dress
up in suits and evening wear to go to the casino; it was part
of the fun, the glamour," he explains. "I dont
think that exists anymore."
Hence, his new film, The Cooler, seeks to return to the old-time
elegance of the city that never sleeps, as well as
the seedy downtown look that sometimes comes with it.
The film tells the story of Bernie Lootz (played by William H
Macy), dubbed the unluckiest guy in Vegas, as he attempts
to get his life back on track.
Bernie works as a cooler for the Shangri-La casino
owned by Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), because of his ability
to change a tables fortune with his mere presence. As a
result, the hottest of winning streaks can be cooled in an instant.
Kaplow views Bernie as walking kryptonite and will
stop at nothing to retain his services, once the debt he owes
has been repaid, but he hasnt counted on the impact a similarly
down-at-heel cocktail waitress (Maria Bellos Natalie) will
have on his fortunes.
When Bernie falls in love, the chips in his life begin to fall
into place, just as cards begin to get stacked against Shelly
and his old-school values.
And it is the numerous levels upon which Kramers film works
that helped to attract the heavyweight talents of Macy, Baldwin
and Bello to the independent project in the first place.
Baldwin, in particular, identified with many of the themes which
Kramer held dear, and his performance is such that it helped to
earn him a nomination for best supporting actor at this years
"Shelly wants to hold on to whats his," explains
the actor. "He wants the Shangri-La to go on until hes
done with it, just as he wants to hold on to Bernie until hes
done with him. Hes the worst kind of control freak."
The Shangri-La in question is fictional, but it is modelled after
places like Binions Horseshoe and The Golden Nugget, which,
in the words of Kramer, represent old strip casinos that
are not about the amusement park mentality.
Adds Baldwin: "The old Vegas put all its chips on gambling.
The new Vegas is spreading it around a bit. Now, they just appeal
to peoples addictions to shopping, or entertainment, or
It was this aspect of the changing face of Vegas which helped
lure Baldwin to the project, according to Kramer.
"Baldwins character hates the idea that they want
to take away his smallish casino and turn it into a big MGM Grand
kind of thing," he explains. "To Shelly, the Shangri-La
is, literally, a shangri-la, like the paradise depicted in the
Frank Capra movie, Lost Horizon, where nothing changes - ever.
"And Alec had an understanding of Shelly immediately. His
take on the character was startling. He knew complicated things,
like what kind of regrets Shelly would have, to simpler things,
like what kind of clothes he would wear.
"Shelly is the edgy, dangerous Alec Baldwin, like the character
in Glengarry Glen Ross, only this is a bigger part. Here, hes
playing the classic tough guy from the 50s and 60s, like Robert
Mitchum or Lee Marvin."
In contrast to the films take on Vegas, however, William
H Macy felt drawn to the project as much because of the way it
functioned as a sort of love story.
While we have seen the star of films such as Fargo and Magnolia
play the loser before, audiences might not be quite so accustomed
to seeing him get the girl - especially as the film involves several
candid sex scenes between himself and co-star, Maria Bello.
"I liked the idea that Bernies fortunes are transformed
through love, and I will always be drawn to, and am a sucker for,
love stories," he explains.
But that didnt mean to say the actor found the love scenes
between them any less intimidating.
"Before I went off to Reno to start shooting, I was stressing
about the love scenes with Maria," he recalls, with a smile.
"I find that I dont even like to watch love scenes,
let alone do them.
"Luckily, Maria was plucky as hell and up for anything,
and we first dry-teched the scenes with our clothes
on, which made me feel a lot better.
"But for the first love scene, Maria and I started with
a rather large shot of scotch in the dressing room. Those scenes
were hot and funny and touching and emotional, so much so that
later on in the shooting, any time we had trouble with a scene,
we suggested that perhaps we should try it without our clothes."
And their intimate moments even allowed for some improvisation,
particularly from Bello, whose memorable line at the end of the
first love scene, in which she pays Bernies anatomy a compliment,
was, according to Kramer, pure improvisation and perfect.
Having summoned up the courage to appear fully naked on camera,
however, the feisty Bello was furious when she discovered that
a two-second shot of one particular part of her anatomy had been
cut by US censors.
In a recent interview with Hotdog magazine, she fumed: "It
drives most artists that I know in America mad, that these 12
people decide how to rate a movie.
"Violence is okay - shoot people, cut off heads... but when
it comes to sexuality and the adult depiction of sexuality onscreen,
America is still incredibly puritanical."