The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Sunday, February 18, 1996              TAG: 9602160050
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  131 lines


IF YOU CAN'T fight city hall, at least make a movie about it!

Al Pacino and John Cusack - a film legend and one of today's most promising young actors - join forces in ``City Hall,'' a rare attempt by Hollywood to dramatize the conflict between personal conscience and being effective in public office.

``I'm a guy from the Bronx, but, at last, I've finally made it to City Hall,'' Pacino said as he and his co-stars gathered at the Essex House in New York.

He plays John Pappas, the charismatic and popular mayor of New York, a man who must compromise every day to get anything accomplished. Cusack is his deputy mayor, Kevin Calhoun, an idealistic young man from Louisiana who idolizes Pappas. To the mayor, the game is played in shades of gray. His young aide sees things in black or white.

The story, which has taken five writers almost 10 years to develop, comes to a head when a stray bullet kills a 6-year-old African-American child on a street corner in New York. The trail leads all the way back to incidental ``favors'' politicians seem to take for granted.

For the first time, the city allowed a movie company to film extensively inside City Hall. (The movie company paid $500,000 for the privilege.) Pacino, who made the rounds with Mayor Rudy Giuliani for three days, said his portrayal is not of any one mayor, ``but a depiction of a populist mayor in general, a man whom his people love.

``I also talked with former Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins,'' Pacino said. ``They were very helpful, especially in interpreting someone who is in the public eye. As an actor, I'm used to being watched by people, but I think the life of a politician is different.

``But I don't think I understand politics at all, even after the film. The more I know about it, the more ambiguous it gets. It's tough to be honest and diplomatic at the same time.''

Which is precisely the point, said director Howard Bender, who also directed Pacino's 1989 hit, ``Sea of Love.''

``The movie is a political thriller with an interesting story about a young man and his mentor, about an idealist learning the realities of politics. The film is also about the price of power and how the trade-offs exact a price.''

The young idealist is played by Cusack, whose career has been characterized by the same kind of commitment as that of Kevin Calhoun, whom he plays in ``City Hall.''

Cusack, 29, started out as a teen star but avoided the Rat Pack trap by being selective in his projects. He could have been a bigger star today if he hadn't turned down ``Apollo 13,'' ``Sleeping With the Enemy'' or ``Indecent Proposal.''

``Those scripts didn't interest me,'' he said simply.

More recently, he appeared in near-great films in which everyone else but him seemed to get Oscar nominations - the noir classic ``The Grifters'' and Woody Allen's ``Bullets Over Broadway.''

``I was glad for them,'' Cusack said, cupping a cigarette in his hand while he looked, almost guiltily, for an ashtray. ``Awards mean something within the industry, but I don't know any serious actors who have to have them for primary motivation.

``I've avoided the celebrity thing, and there is a real parallel to that in the character I play in this film. The celebrity thing is a monster. It can make you a star, but it won't give you a career. I worked in theater in Chicago since I was 14. I learned that if you do the celebrity thing, people are not going to take you seriously.''

He made his film debut in the 1983 coming-of-age drama ``Class.'' He then co-starred with Molly Ringwald in ``Sixteen Candles'' before turning to more important directors such as Rob Reiner, Roland Joffe, Stephen Frears and Allen. The brother of Oscar nominee Joan Cusack (``Working Girl''), he will make his directorial debut in ``Grosse Pointe Blank,'' a comedy in which he also stars as an assassin who returns to attend his high school reunion.

``Working with Woody is fantastic,'' Cusack said. ``He shoots a scene all the way through, over and over again. Later, he'll glue together a movie from that. You have to have total trust in him.''

That kind of trust was also necessary in ``City Hall.''

``I wanted to be in the film in order to work with Al Pacino,'' Cusack said. ``His movies have changed all our movie lives, one after another - `The Godfather,' `Dog Day Afternoon,' `Serpico' - all of them. I watched him every moment, and I learned.

``He and I both knew how much the film depended on our friendship. You develop a relationship. I play poker at his place. But I wasn't intimidated by working with him. We had a rehearsal period and we got at the characters eventually - just like peeling an onion, layer by layer.''

City Hall'' is the second film in which Pacino plays a father figure and mentor. He won an Oscar for ``Scent of a Woman,'' in which he played a flamboyant blind man who guided stuffy Chris O'Donnell through a liberating weekend.

``I don't feel the younger actors are my students,'' he said. ``To me, they're just guys who can throw a football and run faster than I can. I play touch football with them occasionally. Chris didn't call me and ask if he should do `Batman Forever.' John has called, but he calls a lot of people.''

Both actors said they drew much from ``City Hall's'' primary source, writer-producer Ken Lipper, who was deputy mayor to Ed Koch.

Lipper, a ruddy-faced man who looks younger than any billionaire should - he runs a $3.5 billion investment firm - isn't worried about naming names he shouldn't have named.

``It's a fictitious movie,'' he said. ``The character played by John is not me, although he is similar to what I was like in the early days of my political life. The point of view is that of an outsider looking in on politics.

``I think that's something people are interested in seeing nowadays. Four other writers worked on it since I did the original draft. It's been changed.''

Lipper described the movie as a tragedy. ``It's a tragic drama in which the mayor does everything he thinks he has to do, yet he doesn't notice the judicial side of things.

``The mayor means well but he's been running through yellow lights all his career. He doesn't see that the judicial is the red light. You can make deals, but you don't tamper with the judicial system. That is the very basics of our Democratic system.''

A Bronx native, Lipper was a childhood friend of Pacino's. As teen-agers, they went in separate directions and saw very little of each other for 40 years, until Pacino was approached to star in ``City Hall.''

``He was Sonny Pacino and was well-liked in the neighborhood when I first knew him,'' Lipper said. ``He was a terrific third baseman in the Police Athletic League.

``Looking back, we should have known he'd become an actor. He was always clowning around and pretending to be other characters. He used to pretend to be blind, and let people help him across the street.''

Lipper said he knew Pacino would take the part of John Pappas.

``He's always been attracted to power roles. He played the head of the Corleone family. He played a king in the plays `Salome' and `Richard III.' He was going to play (Manuel) Noriega for Oliver Stone until that movie fell through.

``For him to play the mayor of New York must have been irresistible for a boy from the Bronx.'' ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

by CNB