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Settling the score 

by Ed Symkus


There are moments of movie history that belong to character actors. A couple of brief ones belong to Frank Oz. He was the nasty cop in Trading Places who lectured Dan Aykroyd on PCP. Coincidentally, he was the disinterested corrections officer in The Blues Brothers who returned John Belushi's possessions after his release from prison. Younger audiences, as well as science fiction aficionados, know him in different roles. Why, Frank Oz must be in on the secrets of the universe -- he's Yoda in all of those Star Wars films. But there's Yoda fame and then there's something bigger. No kid will let you forget, Frank Oz is Miss Piggy!


But Oz, a bald, bearded, lanky, garrulous fellow who was born in England but moved to California with his parents when he wasn't yet a teen, would rather be known as a director than an actor. And though his directing resume so far is all about comedies -- Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, In & amp; Out and Bowfinger, among others -- he doesn't feel that The Score, his new dramatic heist film, is much of a departure for him.


"I don't even see this as a heist film," he says. "To me, when you have a genre, somebody else has started that already. Therefore you have no choice but to be derivative. For other people, it seems like kind of a radical change. As people say, with Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Angela Bassett and Edward Norton in the cast, 'Come on, Frank, you're not the first director they look to.' "


Oz has made a good find here. The story of a veteran thief who wants to retire (De Niro) and a kid with criminal aspirations (Norton) who are thrown together for a problematic big job is taut and nerve-wracking. Bassett is on hand as De Niro's love interest and voice of conscience. Brando, bigger than life, is the guy who sets up the jobs.


Interestingly, although the story line allows plenty of room for it, the film is practically devoid of any sex or violence. The reason it has an R rating is because of the salty language.


"It's not that I wanted that rating," explains Oz. "But we had about 20 f--s in the script, and you're only allowed one. I couldn't say to Marlon and Bob: 'I'm sorry, you have to say golly and gosh.' Crooks don't talk that way. I don't talk that way. This is a reality-based film. The fact it has no violence or sex is not because that's my choice. I would have preferred sex and violence, but there's no reason for a sex scene."


Oz claims that he feels good about the fact that early previews of the film have sustained audience attention spans, keeping them absorbed without resorting to violence.


"I'm not Mr. Goody Two Shoes because of taking the violence out," he says. "I did it because it's totally character based. Mick Gould was our technical advisor, and he knew of the safecracking world. He essentially said to us, 'You know, if you're going to be a professional thief for 25 years, your intent is to be invisible. Your intent is to avoid violence, to avoid anything that would point the finger at you, to avoid taking a gun for any reason.' "


Oz is happy being questioned about a story that had been running through the rumor mills during filming. Brando supposedly refused to wear pants or underwear on the set, thereby forcing Oz to come in for tight close-ups of his face.


"Hmmm, I'm so glad you asked me about this, because I want to clarify it," he says, obviously familiar with the rumor. "This was a sweet, gracious, complex man, and we had our difficulties and it didn't go easy. But no wonder Marlon Brando won't talk to the press. It was very hot. It was very humid. We were shooting in the jazz club, no air conditioning. Marlon was about to do a scene, and we were setting up the lighting. And anybody who knows theater or movies knows that showgirls dress and undress in front of men; men dress and undress in front of women. Because it's just theater, movies. It's just a matter of getting the job done. So Marlon -- especially since he's lived in Tahiti, for God's sake -- Marlon was just sitting there and waiting and playing the piano. He was hot. He had his underpants on. He had his shirt on. The costume lady there was waiting for the take to start. We said, 'Marlon, we're ready to shoot the take.' And he put his pants on and we shot the scene. That's all there was to it. I swear it's the truth. I swear."

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