By Christopher Wallenberg
“Brokeback Mountain,” the gay cowpoke flick that has the queer community’s knickers all in a twist, isn’t the only Hollywood film this season that thoughtfully and sensitively depicts characters who are forced to bury their true feelings for the ones they love.
The sweeping epic “Memoirs of a Geisha,” about a young servant girl who blossoms into the legendary geisha Sayuri, offers no gay storyline, zero gay characters, and little camp value. But Geisha’s out director Rob Marshall, who helmed the Oscar-winning 2002 film “Chicago,” maintains that gay audiences should identify deeply with the film’s central theme of forbidden, unrequited love. While Sayuri and her alluring geisha cohorts are able to captivate the hearts of the men around them with their mysterious artistry, they are pressured to quash their own hopes and desires.
“Being in a situation in your life where you are told you can’t love, I think any gay man can understand and relate to that,” says Marshall. “I can certainly relate to that. It’s probably the worst and hardest obstacle that any person should have to deal with in their life. And to be in that situation carries such pain. I honestly felt a deep connection to the material, and felt on a certain level that I understood [what a geisha had to go through]. And I think that theme will connect with the gay community.”
The universal themes of the story and the popularity of Arthur Golden’s best-selling 1997 novel make “Geisha” one of the biggest year-end releases and should generate a steady stream of Oscar buzz, despite the fact that it features an all-Asian cast with no bankable stars (although Ziyi Zhang, who plays Sayuri, and Michelle Yeoh, who plays her mentor Mameha, are quickly becoming recognizable names to U.S. movie-goers).
Set in the years from 1929 through World War II, near the end of the geisha’s golden era, the film unfolds like a fable, telling the story of a young girl from a poor family who is sent away to live as a servant in a geisha house. After she is wrenchingly separated from her sister, the girl has a memorable, life-changing encounter with a warmhearted man on a bridge that lifts her spirits. She tells herself: one day she will meet him again.
But not before she is plucked to become an apprentice and learn the ancient art of the geisha – from dancing and playing the shamisen, to the art of conversation. Along the way, she faces Hatsumomo, a diabolical rival who nearly destroys her will, and confronts the realization that, as a geisha, she is prevented from pursuing her own destiny. Yet Sayuri is propelled by the dream of one day professing her love for the man who offered her a ray of hope when none seemed to exist.
“It’s both a seductive tale and an emotional tale,” Marshall says. “Not only are we entering this world that few people know about – it really is mysterious and exotic. But inside that, we watch this incredible, emotional tale of this child who survives – even though she is placed within a very difficult situation where she surrenders herself to a profession in which there’s a great deal of suffering…It really is about the survival of the human spirit against all these odds.”
Despite the difficulty of a geisha’s life, Marshall and others compare their stature during the golden era to the supermodels and fashion icons of today – the Giselles, Naomis and Kate Mosses of the world. “I really wanted to show the glamour of this life, but also the cruelty. There’s an allure to it, but also a great deal of suffering.”
Before filming commenced, the director and producers held an intensive, six-week “geisha boot camp” that would make even the tyrannical Tyra Banks and her ego-crushing team from “America’s Next Top Model” blush. The actresses were taught movement and dance, the three-stringed shamisen, proper walking and bowing techniques, and the basics of their kimono dress and makeup applications.
Marshall, an acclaimed theater director and choreographer (“Cabaret” and “Little Me”) before landing the “Chicago” gig, used his experience staging musicals to inform his film work. “I think of all movies as musicals in a way because it’s all about rhythm. There’s the big number and then you move into the next sequence. You have to find the hills and the valleys, and you keep pushing forward into the next thing with transitions.”
He also insisted on a six-week rehearsal process – the norm in theater, but something unheard of in the world of film. “I like to create a company, where everybody is on the same page, making the same movie, with a sense of what they’re doing in the film, what their involvement is, and what their relationships are with each of the characters. I don’t think that happens by magic. I think many things happen by magic on the day of filming, but I think it all comes from a lot of hard work.”
In choosing Marshall to helm the project, producer Douglas Wick says that his team looked at a lot of different directors after Steven Spielberg chose to bow out (he stayed onboard as a producer). “Then we saw an early cut of ‘Chicago’ and we had a complete ‘Eureka!’ moment. We just felt that Rob – in terms of [eliciting] great performances from his actors, developing the rivalry between the women, and demonstrating the visual craft to create a lost world in ‘Chicago’ – was perfect for the job.”
Considering “Chicago” marked Marshall’s first time sitting in the director’s chair, Wick calls his feat of winning a Best Picture Oscar “astounding.” “It puts him on a short list of one-two punches in movie history,” says Wick, who lauds Marshall’s generosity on the set. “Rob has the strongest point of view in the world. But his style of getting what he needs for the film is much gentler than certain autocratic directors. And he has this tireless drive. He fought for every quarter inch of the movie, yet does it with such kindness.”
Marshall himself doesn’t know what to make of his remarkable accomplishments as a first-time filmmaker. “Coming out of the gate and winning Best Picture, that’s like something out of a fairy tale book,” he says with a laugh.
Yet for his next project, he sought to avoid being pigeonholed as a director of musicals. “One of the reasons I chose ‘Geisha’ after ‘Chicago’ was because I wanted to challenge myself and I wanted to try something that I would never have done before. It’s such a unique project.”
Although his experiences working in gay-friendly Hollywood have been “wonderful” so far, Marshall believes a celluloid closet does still exist in the industry, despite an avalanche of A-list actors going “gay” this season in Oscar-baiting films like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote” and “Breakfast on Pluto.”
“I do think it’s unfortunate for [closeted, gay] actors,” he said. “I’m so proud of those who are out. But it feels kind of archaic in a way that those who are [not publicly out] can’t be free of that [restraint]. Hopefully someday that will change.”
As a gay man, Marshall says that Geisha’s themes of forbidden love really hit home for him and weighed on his mind while he was overseeing the development of the script. “You want to make sure that those themes are clear…There’s that line that Mameha speaks toward the end of the movie, ‘We do not become geisha to pursue our own destiny. We become geisha because we have no choice.’ Mameha has accepted that and that’s how she has survived. But Sayuri doesn’t accept that. She says, ‘I want a life that is mine.’ And I love that about her.”