Sam Shepard in a British Translation

Carter (Jeff Bridges) raises thoroughbred racehorses in Kentucky. He wears expensive suits and alligator shoes, and he's never far from his cellular phone. He's summoned to the cruddy, low-rent bungalow in Cucamonga, California, of his former partner Vinnie (Nick Nolte), who's gotten into some kind of trouble pretending to be a detective. Fifteen years ago, the two of them pulled a scam involving switching lookalike horses in a race. When the local racing commissioner caught wind of it, they conspired to run him out of office by catching him with a floozy in a hotel room. Carter profited professionally from the scandal and then ran off with Vinnie's wife, Rosie (Sharon Stone). Although Carter has been paying him hush money all along, Vinnie now threatens to expose Carter's hand in these shenanigans unless he turns himself in.

Even in its barest outlines, the plot of “Simpatico” flashes a giant blinking neon sign that says “Sam Shepard.” Based on Shepard’s play, which premiered at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1994 and played London’s Royal Court Theater the following year, the script was adapted for the big screen by the British director Matthew Warchus, best-known for staging Yazmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “Art,” with the help of David Nicholls, a writer and script editor for BBC Radio. The film is scheduled to open in Los Angeles for Academy Award consideration in December and the rest of the country in January.

“When I started working on the treatment,” said Warchus, “it was strange to me how easily the play seemed to blossom into a film. It was as if the material wanted to be a film all along.”

Onstage, “Simpatico” was not received as one of Shepard’s highest achievements. New York critics judged it to be “rambling,” “lazy,” and “tired,” though it fared somewhat better in London. On film, intriguingly, “Simpatico” practically serves as a primer on the iconography, mythology, and geography that run through Shepard’s life and work.

Festering lies and hidden corruption leaking to the surface are major themes in Shepard’s best-known work, “Buried Child,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 and which received a major Broadway revival in 1996. (In that semi-autobiographical family play, the Shepard-like character is also named Vinnie.) And the Cain-and-Abel conflict between two men from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum is one that Shepard returns to again and again. The characters played by Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte in “Simpatico” echo the brothers played by Dean Stockwell and Harry Dean Stanton in “Paris, Texas,” and even more so the brothers in Shepard’s play “True West.”

Geographically, half of “Simpatico” takes place among the dry, white-trash towns along the foothills of the Sierra Madre east of Los Angeles. Cucamonga, San Dimas, Glendora, and Azusa -- the last of which figures in numerous Shepard works -- are neighboring towns to Duarte, where Shepard spent his adolescence on an avocado farm much like the one portrayed in “Curse of the Starving Class.” The other half of the story takes place in horse territory, which is basically anywhere Shepard hangs his hat. Since his first job as a teenager walking horses at the Santa Anita Race Track, Shepard has been consumed with horses -- raising and racing them, riding and writing about them.

Getting up to speed on horse lore was one of Warchus’s first tasks in making “Simpatico” into a film. “I’d never been to America until a few years ago,” he said. “I’d never been to a horse race, and I didn’t know anything about horses. In writing the screenplay, I was very conscious of areas where there needed to be new material, and I didn’t have the knowledge and vocabulary. Much of the research I did was to acquire that.”

His research included visiting a horse farm in Kentucky and attending (as Shepard’s guest) the Kentucky Derby, the legendary horse race that figures in the plot of “Simpatico.” In the early stages of planning the film, Shepard was going to play the role of Vinnie, and Jessica Lange, with whom he lives, was slated to play Rosie. Warchus was understandably excited at the prospect of having Shepard on the set throughout the shooting to fine-tune the dialogue and provide equestrian authenticity. When scheduling changes meant that Shepard and Lange had to drop out of the picture, Warchus was thrown back on his own resources in adapting the stage play to the screen.

“I spent a lot of time reading Shepard, to get his voice down,” the director said. “Then when I started working with David Nicholls, we would read new sections aloud and give them marks for how much they were like Shepard. It would have to score at least 9 on a scale of 10 to be included.”

One of their additions seems especially inspired. Whereas the title of the play ostensibly referred to the alter-ego relationship between Carter and Vinnie, in the film “Simpatico” is the perfectly plausible name of a prize-winning racehorse that Carter is in the midst of selling for $30 million. The horse not only becomes a character in the film, which obviously could never have happened onstage, but it is central to a subplot entirely invented by Warchus and Nicholls (with Shepard’s approval) which substantially enhances the storyline.

A key challenge in reconceiving Shepard’s stage play for the cinema was that, typically, the play loads all its dramatic exposition -- all the information from the past that sets the plot in motion -- into the first scene. “The play is hypnotic and very emotional,” said Warchus, “but it doesn’t have the same suspense that a film requires. Our challenge was to complicate the structure of the play and organize how to parcel out the information to keep the audience in suspense.” One solution that he and Nicholls came up with was to give Carter a real life back in Kentucky beyond anything shown onstage in the play, centering on the impending horse sale. “Vinnie’s at a crisis point when he calls Carter from California. I wanted there to be a turning point in Carter’s life, too, to show the high stakes that he’s involved with.”

Warchus first visited Shepard territory when he directed a well-received London production of “True West.” In that play, a successful screenwriter named Austin is polishing a script before a pitch meeting with a Hollywood producer when his brother Lee, a petty burglar and social misfit, drops by and offers to “help.” (It was John Malkovich’s hilarious and menacing performance as Lee in Steppenwolf Theater Company’s 1982 revival of “True West” that catapulted the actor to national acclaim.) When the producer rejects Austin’s script and green-lights a half-baked story idea of Lee’s, suddenly it’s Lee sitting at the typewriter frustrated while Austin gets drunk and steals all the toasters in the neighborhood. In “Simpatico,” Carter and Vinnie undergo an identity exchange that is strikingly similar. Once he gets to California, Carter devolves into a bourbon-swilling couch potato and (horrors!) stops answering his cel phone. Vinnie shaves, puts on a suit, and flies to Kentucky attempting to impersonate Carter. The play almost seems like a rewrite of “True West.”

“Obviously, I was very aware of the echoes between the two plays,” said Warchus. “In both cases, there’s an underlying bond of love between two male characters who are inarticulate when it comes to expressing those feelings, and their inarticulateness leads to aggression.” Clearly, this is a theme for which Warchus has a special affinity: the passionate if unexpressed feelings that underlie friendships between heterosexual men was treated with unusual depth and poignancy in his production of “Art.”

To my mind, the alter-ego pairs in “True West” and “Simpatico” are central figures in Shepard’s masculine mythology. These characters stem from the writer’s deeply personal sense of his own double nature. He is, on one hand, Sam Shepard, world-famous author and celebrity film actor. On the other hand, he is also the son of an alcoholic hermit who died in near-poverty in New Mexico. Shepard’s born name was Samuel Shepard Rogers III; to distinguish him from his father, he was called Steve. When he moved to New York in 1963, he changed his name from (Steve Rogers to Sam Shepard) and consequently his identity. A similar identity shift happened when Shepard left his wife and the funky bohemian lifestyle they’d shared for almost 20 years and moved in with Jessica Lange, already an established movie star. Plays such as “True West” and “Simpatico” are Shepard’s way of creating a dialogue between who-I-am-now and who-I-was or who-I-might-have-been, all of which have a perplexing way of coexisting in the human psyche like distant relatives who come to visit and stay for years. Anyone who’s ever lost an important job or ended a marriage can relate to the existential free-fall these plays depict.

When I saw “Simpatico” onstage, I thought the play was a pale imitation of “True West.” After seeing Warchus’s movie version, I’ve come to appreciate something “Simpatico” has that “True West” doesn’t: the character of Simms, the disgraced racing commissioner magnificently played by Albert Finney. After the scandal, Simms moved to Kentucky, changes his name to Ryan Ames, and set himself up in the humble business of researching the pedigrees of horses. Vinnie wants to sell Simms the evidence with which he and Carter framed him, partly to redeem himself and partly to avenge himself on Carter for stealing Rosie. He’s shocked to discover that Simms could care less. Vinnie has built his identity around something that happened long ago; Carter has been equally consumed with denying the past. Simms has simply moved on with his life. When he tells Vinnie that because of the scandal he lost everything that mattered to him, Vinnie says. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Simms replies with the mysterious wisdom of experience. “Why should you be sorry?” he says. “Loss can be a powerful elixir.”

Matthew Warchus has his own perspective on the difference between “True West” and “Simpatico.” The former, he said, is a case study about internal and external conflict. “ ‘True West’ is very fraught and edgy, very explosive. With its vim and vigor, it’s a younger play,” he pointed out. “Whereas ‘Simpatico’ is clearly more existentialist. A parable about regret and loss, it’s a mature piece of writing. I don’t think it’s trite to say the basic idea of ‘Simpatico” is Know Thyself.”

New York Times, September 12, 1999

See also: "Sam Shepard's Identity Dance"

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