Vanity Fair Director Mira Nair

Resplendent in a peacock-purple color right out of Vanity Fair, director Mira Nair visited Seattle recently to suggest why her movie is the ideal antidote to the post Olympic/Labor Day/GOP convention TV torpor, and how Reese Witherspoon's Becky Sharp is the plummiest role this side of Scarlett O'Hara. Becky's rise from bleak poverty to high-court circles makes one amused onlooker in the movie call her not just a social climber but a mountaineer. Her bare-knuckled moxie has made Becky irresistible to readers and actresses since the novel's 1847 publication. Exactly what quality of Witherspoon's made Nair believe she'd found her heroine? "The philosophy of her intelligence," Nair says. "We all know she has great comic timing, and the guile. But she called me a year before Vanity Fair happened, just to say she liked my work and could we meet? We did, and I was really impressed by her curiosity about the world-and her directness. Six months later, when I was offered the film, she was my first and only choice." Was Witherspoon's Southern background an advantage? "Because Scarlett and Becky are the same person?" Nair asks. "Yes. I think to be Southern and American was perfect, because the American energy she brings to it is the energy of Becky Sharp—the fire in the belly, the sass. That type of thing, which is not tolerated very well in England-even now-is an American energy." Nair was offered the project after her 2001 Monsoon Wedding, with its compound-complex look at the rigid codes of Indian society, took off at the box office. "If there's anybody who understands class better than the English," she chortles, "it's an Indian. We're steeped in so many nuances of hierarchy." Nair chose Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes to adapt Thackeray's strict social pecking order. The film's lavish look belies its reported $23 million budget, which initially denied Nair her crucial battle of Waterloo. "The studio wasn't paying for it, the fulcrum upon which the whole drama shifts. I kept telling them, this is Gone With the Wind, you can't have GWTW without Atlanta burning. After seeing two days of dailies, they gave me the one big shot you see." What about the film's ending, in an almost fairy-tale India? "I just wanted to suggest another chapter [for Becky]. India's such a major scheme, I'd hate to have such a delicious mango of a movie end in the green English countryside."

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