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Stanley Tucci deciphers 'Joe Gould's Secret.'

By Ray Pride

APRIL 17, 2000:  Vanished voices speak in books, but Stanley Tucci's third feature continues his ardent pursuit of putting Manhattan's neglected past on screen.

Following soon after the New Yorker magazine's seventy-fifth anniversary, "Joe Gould's Secret" is a gentle fable, telling the story of two not-so-ordinary Joes. The North Carolina-born Joseph Mitchell was one of that journal's great writers, taking in the voices of the metropolis and preserving them in meticulous, mellifluous prose. He was at home among strangers. Joe Gould was a different kettle of fishiness, a Greenwich Village eccentric who claimed to be writing an "Oral History of Our Time" but spent most of his time cadging contributions to "The Joe Gould Fund" while drinking off his sorrows and performing translations of poetry into Seagull and doing impromptu Indian dances at bohemian parties. Ian Holm is mercurial and mad as Gould, yet he keeps the oddity lucid. There's misguided energy, but little sorrow until story's end.

This is a film about listening, and Mitchell's "There but for the grace of God go I" empathy permeates the tale. Tucci cites Woody Allen, Jean Renoir and Andrei Tarkovsky as key directorial influences, so you can figure that "Joe Gould's Secret" is no action epic. What makes "Joe Gould's Secret" (from a script by Howard Rodman) special to a writer -- but maybe slightly less so to other audience -- is how Tucci gets down the writer's work, what a writer actually does.

Most films that depict writing are too literal, showing angry middle-aged men bashing away at their typewriters or wives. Tucci's patient, letting Mitchell attend to Gould's gaudy patter, showing us the necessary cogitation and perambulation of Mitchell's process. "It has to be very carefully orchestrated," the 40-year-old writer-producer-director-actor says. "You have to keep the audience's interest in you, even though you are such a passive character. You have to have a lot going on inside and you have to just put a stopper on it. But we have to see you think. The key thing, really? Is to listen. If you really listen, the audience will really watch you listen. If I pretend to listen? You will lose interest in me" -- he snaps his fingers -- "Like that.

"That's how you do it," he says of Mitchell. "You can't have someone say, 'Y'know, Joe, you're one of the great writers' at the start of the film.' You have to see him as someone who takes his time. He's so neurotic about his pieces, that's how you see he cares."

And Tucci has a complicitous twinkle that says it all -- like Mitchell, he's happy to be alive, to be a witness to so many other lives. "That's good, it's very similar to what I do as an actor, as a filmmaker. You walk around, you talk to people, and you listen to people. You soak up what you can, to either become them, or recreate them as a writer or director. In that way, I think I felt I knew him, knew the process. And the thing about Mitchell that I had to get across, too, was that when you read his writing, he was never judgmental. One of the things that made him a great writer was that he never judged his subjects. Ever. He simply laid out the little pieces for you and you made the judgment. He removes himself until the last piece that he writes." That final piece was his second on the erratic raconteur, collected in the "Joe Gould's Secret" paperback (Vintage, $9.95). Afterwards, Mitchell didn't publish another word under his byline in the thirty-two years until his death.

"Mitchell's stories are so simply poignant and they're about everyday people," Tucci reflects. "Those are the kinds of movies that I'd like to make. When I read his stories, I thought, well if I could make movies like this guy writes profiles, that would be an achievement. That would be something. It's the kind of writing that I love. It's not about anything. But it's about everything, really."

"Joe Gould's Secret" is a valentine to a mostly-vanished Gotham, a 1940s New York City recreated with slender means. "It's about taking away, for the most part, as opposed to adding. It's about finding the right streets and then taking away the elements that are not period. It's really that simple. In building sets, I'm very controlling about the palette. So that nothing really stands out, that would get in your way visually, that would be a distraction. So in creating the interior spaces, the light is very naturalistic, there's no golden, nostalgic patina."

Tucci shrugs off concerns that Gould might be an unlikable sort to some audiences, the sort of troubled, unclean gentleman, as Tucci observes, who would not make it a day on the streets of Rudolph Giuliani's New York City. "Ian Holm's performance is beautiful -- he's very attractive, as repulsive as he is. He's fascinating. You never know what's going to happen next."

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