A rare view of Alzheimer’s

Shaped by per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, S.f.­raised di­rec­tor’s film puts spot­light on care­giver

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - By Jes­sica Zack

An Alzheimer’s di­ag­no­sis is dev­as­tat­ing news for a pa­tient’s spouse to digest, even if it’s likely to con­firm their dark­est hunches about what’s been caus­ing a part­ner’s trou­bling be­hav­ior.

In film­maker Tom Dolby’s new film, “The Artist’s Wife,” open­ing at sev­eral Bay Area vir­tual cin­e­mas and avail­able on de­mand Fri­day, Sept. 25, 60­some­thing Claire (played by a lu­mi­nous Lena Olin) has been ob­serv­ing er­ratic, un­set­tling changes in her hus­band, the fa­mous ab­stract pain­ter Richard Smyth­son (played by Bruce Dern). He has fits of un­pro­voked anger, makes out­landish im­pulse buys (like a gaudy $94,000 alarm clock), snarls at his stu­dents and drinks too much.

And yet writer­di­rec­tor Dolby, who grew up in San Fran­cisco and now lives in Los Angeles, knows from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence that it’s hu­man na­ture for fam­ily

mem­bers to want to at­tribute per­son­al­ity swings to some­thing — any­thing — other than de­men­tia.

A nov­el­ist­turned­film­maker and pro­ducer (he was the first out­side in­vestor to back Os­car win­ner “Call Me by Your Name”), Dolby started writ­ing a draft of “The Artist’s Wife” a decade ago, dur­ing a bleak win­ter he spent in the Hamp­tons, where the movie is set. Dolby’s fa­ther, San Fran­cisco au­dio tech pi­o­neer and Dolby Lab­o­ra­to­ries founder Ray Dolby, had just been di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s. Over the next two years, Dolby saw his mother, phi­lan­thropist Dag­mar Dolby, wres­tle with the con­found­ing changes in her beloved hus­band of 47 years. He died in Septem­ber 2013. (Dag­mar has since be­come a prom­i­nent backer of Alz

heimer’s re­search and in 2018 gifted $20 mil­lion to es­tab­lish the UCSF Dolby Fam­ily Cen­ter for Mood Dis­or­ders.)

“The Artist’s Wife,” which Dolby calls “emo­tion­ally au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal,” is re­plete with small de­tails he no­ticed as his mother coped with his fa­ther’s de­cline.

He knew, for in­stance, that in the film’s cru­cial di­ag­no­sis scene, Claire’s first re­ac­tion upon hear­ing the dreaded news from Richard’s physi­cian would be a de­gree of de­nial.

“In that mo­ment in the doc­tor’s of­fice, Lena chose to look away when she’s asked, ‘Did it ever oc­cur to you?’ ” Dolby told The Chron­i­cle by phone. “It was one of those beau­ti­ful ac­ci­dents be­cause when I read an ac­count my mom had writ­ten of her ex­pe­ri­ences go­ing through this with my dad, she wrote that she had done ex­actly the same thing. She looked away. Maybe it’s be­cause there’s so much you don’t want to look at head­on. It’s a great metaphor.”

Nu­mer­ous films have tack­led the sub­ject of Alzheimer’s (in­clud­ing stel­lar per­for­mances like Ju­lianne Moore’s Os­car­win­ning turn in “Still Al­ice”), yet Dolby wanted “The Artist’s Wife” to take an un­con­ven­tional ap­proach by fo­cus­ing, as its ti­tle sug­gests, on Olin’s char­ac­ter rather than on her ail­ing hus­band.

“I was drawn to this idea of the un­sung hero­ine in a re­la­tion­ship,” he said. “The care­giver in these sit­u­a­tions where some­body has a very se­ri­ous ail­ment isn’t of­ten rec­og­nized or por­trayed on film.”

Claire, a pain­ter who gave up her ca­reer decades ear­lier to be her hus­band’s full­time help­mate, ac­tu­ally be­comes more an­i­mated and con­fi­dent, even more youth­ful, as the film pro­gresses. She secretly rents a barn to start paint­ing again, and “it gives her the con­fi­dence to know that she is go­ing to have a vi­tal third act, even though Richard is com­ing to the end of his,” Dolby said.

The Hamp­tons set­ting, with its rich his­tory of work­ing artists, brought to mind fe­male painters like Lee Kras­ner ( Jack­son Pol­lock’s wife) and Elaine de Koon­ing, Dolby said. His film “is a trib­ute to these women, and to so many cre­ative part­ner­ships where there is this sec­ond per­son who is so piv­otal in the suc­cess of work, to the point where the work lit­er­ally would not ex­ist with­out them.”

“I was very drawn to Claire as soon as I read the script and re­al­ized here’s a char­ac­ter who’s my age, who has will­ingly played the part (of the ded­i­cated wife) with­out re­al­iz­ing how much has changed deep in­side her, how much she’s left be­hind,” Olin, 65, said by phone from her home in New York. “It rang so true, and I think it will for a lot of women.”

A star at a young age in her na­tive Swe­den, and a pro­tege of Ing­mar Bergman, Olin found fame in the U.S. when she co­starred with Daniel Day­lewis in “The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing” in 1988. She was nom­i­nated for an Os­car the fol­low­ing year for “En­e­mies: A Love Story,” and she’s cur­rently work­ing on de­vel­op­ing a biopic of artist Hilma af Klint with her hus­band, film­maker Lasse Hall­ström.

“Tom en­cour­aged me to call Dag­mar, and I was hes­i­tant for a long time be­cause you can feel like such an im­pos­tor por­tray­ing some­body else’s pain,” Olin said. “But when I fi­nally did call her, she was so gen­er­ous and open about shar­ing her jour­ney. She talked about the em­bar­rass­ment you feel see­ing your spouse, a bril­liant man re­spected by so many, act­ing dif­fer­ently in pub­lic.”

In a wrench­ing scene in “The Artist’s Wife,” Olin looks on from the au­di­ence as Dern bab­bles at the podium while ac­cept­ing a ma­jor arts award.

Dolby said it was a thrill watch­ing the nat­u­ral rap­port de­velop on set be­tween his two pow­er­house leads. De­spite the heavy sub­ject mat­ter, Richard and Claire’s re­la­tion­ship still has shared hu­mor and ro­man­tic heat.

“I started to re­fer to them as ‘The Euro­pean’ and ‘The Cow­boy,’ ” Dolby said. “Lena and Bruce had this sort of crack­ling en­ergy, a nat­u­ral op­po­sites­at­tract thing go­ing on.”

Dolby’s first movie, “Last Week­end” (2014), filmed at his fam­ily’s his­toric Lake Ta­hoe house, starred Pa­tri­cia Clark­son as the clan’s ma­tri­arch. His next project is an adap­ta­tion of Frances Mayes’ novel “Women in Sun­light.”

“It’s about three women in their 60s who, in­stead of join­ing a re­tire­ment com­mu­nity, de­cide to rent a villa in Tus­cany and then all dis­cover new pas­sions,” Dolby said.

“At this mo­ment in his­tory, I think it’s im­por­tant to tell sto­ries about how we can still break out of our shells or the co­coons we’re in.”

Strand Re­leas­ing

Michael Lavine

Top: Alzheimer’s pa­tient Richard (Bruce Dern) and wife Claire (Lena Olin) in “The Artist’s Wife.” Above: Olin and writer­di­rec­tor Tom Dolby on set.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.