July 14, 1996
NEW YORK – On Mulberry Street in Little Italy, romance was in the air. Or something like it. As the cameras prepared to roll. Bette Midler stood at attention in front of Angelo’s restaurant, closed her eyes and struggled to attain deep concentration.
A split second before an assistant called out “action,” Dennis Farina, her co-star, reached over and pinched the Divine One’s rear end, eliciting a startled laugh. As the couple walked on, he kept- at it. causing Ms. Midler to hop her way down the sidewalk, slapping at the offending hand.
“There are a lot of ways to grab somebody’s derriere.” said Farina during a break in shooting. “We’re experimenting and trying to find the most cinematic variation.”
His unstinting efforts, in take after take, provided capital entertainment for the tourists and other passersby who drifted into the set of “That Old Feeling.” The romantic comedy, directed by Carl Reiner and due out next year from Universal Pictures swooped into New York for a few quick days of location shooting last week after two months in Toronto.
Farina seemed to be enjoying himself hugely, cast for the first time as a leading man after a succession of tough-guy roles. When last seen, as the gangster Ray “Bones” Barboni in “Get Shorty,” he was on the losing end of a fearsome sucker punch thrown by John Travolta. This time, things are different.
In “That Old Feeling,” he and Ms. Midler play a couple who have been divorced for 14 years, but who discover, at their daughter’s wedding, that the old flame still burns, and so do the old arguments. In a mad moment, they flee the wedding and take off for a passionate escapade in New York.
The premise came to Leslie Dixon, the screenwriter, when she saw her long-divorced parents having a little too much fun talking to each other at a family function.
Dixon also wrote “Outrageous Fortune,” in which Ms. Midler starred, and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
“They’ve never settled anything,” Farina said of the two characters. “They never knew who hurt who first.”
Ms. Midler, too, has reason to be hankful for her part. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a role with decent clothes,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be back in high heels.”
Heels are the least of it. Ms. Midler’s character, Lilly Leonard, is a flamboyant actress who started her career by taking her clothes off and in middle age is putting them back on, expensive ones this time.
Although small, Ms. Midler was easy to spot on Mulberry Street, wearing an eyeball-searing chartreuse swing jacket with matching cigarette pants.
The neon outfit was accessorized with a large silk bow on the chest, an orange brooch and cornflower-blue gloves. The silk ribbon looked as if it had come straight off a wrapped package, because it did.
Lilly, Ms. Midler said, is an “actress’s actress,” meaning self-absorbed, shallow and out of touch with everything but her own publicity. In a line that Ms. Midler added during filming, she spots a despised paparazzo and says: “He’s the one who took that fat picture of me. He’s the reason I didn’t get that part in ‘Little Women.'”
“She’s utterly selfish,” said Ms. Midler.
“There’s a tiny transformation when she becomes minimally less selfish, but that’s it.”
The term “romantic comedy” sounds enticing but should set off alarm bells, because the mixture is hard to pull off.
“Each scene has to have a little of each,” said Reiner. “Even in the serious scenes there has to be a little vein of comic gold
that you can mine.”
With a few apologies for the plug, he pointed to “When Harry Met Sally” as a fine example of the genre. The film was directed by his son Rob. “That had a serious undercurrent, the problem of maintaining a relationship when sexual attraction enters the picture,” he said.
“When you want to hug the people in the comedy, you know you’ve got something special.”
Ms. Midler insists that her character is huggable, claws and all. “She’s what’s known colloquially as a ‘doll,'” she said.
“She’s got her airs, but she’s salt of the earth underneath it all. In her own harebrained little way, she’s full of mischief and fun.”
The big surprise may turn out to be Farina, a natural as a tough gangster or a tough cop, but a bit of a rogue and a roue in “That Old Feeling.”