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The Cooler - Shelly is the edgy, dangerous Alec Baldwin



Feature by: Jack Foley

LAS Vegas may be considered ‘America’s 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 don’t 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 table’s 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 hasn’t counted on the impact a similarly down-at-heel cocktail waitress (Maria Bello’s 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 Kramer’s 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 year’s Oscars.

"Shelly wants to hold on to what’s his," explains the actor. "He wants the Shangri-La to go on until he’s done with it, just as he wants to hold on to Bernie until he’s done with him. He’s the worst kind of control freak."

The Shangri-La in question is fictional, but it is modelled after places like Binion’s 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 food."
It was this aspect of the changing face of Vegas which helped lure Baldwin to the project, according to Kramer.

"Baldwin’s 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, he’s playing the classic tough guy from the 50s and 60s, like Robert Mitchum or Lee Marvin."

In contrast to the film’s 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 Bernie’s fortunes are transformed through love, and I will always be drawn to, and am a sucker for, love stories," he explains.

But that didn’t 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 don’t 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 Bernie’s 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."

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