Piano, The: Another Facet of Harvey Keitel

Harvey Keitel shows a very different facet of his talent in The Piano, the much acclaimed feature by New Zealand director Jane Campion, which won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or and was later nominated for Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress.

Set in the nineteenth century, The Piano revolves around a love triangle between Ada (played by Holly Hunter), a mute woman who speaks through her piano; Stewart (Sam Neill), her shy husband; and a mysterious settler, played by Keitel. Hunter won an Oscar, but Keitel was the revelation as the passionate Baines, a lonely illiterate Scotsman turned native. In this role, he strikes an erotic bargain with Ada so that she may earn back her piano.

With his quiet eyes, tousled hair, Scottish accent and Maori facial tattoos, Keitel shows in this picture that he has come a long way from Scorsese’s world, New York’s mean streets. To be sure, Keitel still projects his trademark intensity, but in The Piano, it’s emotional rather than physical, and it becomes softened as his character falls in love with Ada.

Since it’s gangsters and tough guys that Keitel is best known for, audiences didn’t believe he had the complexity and sensitivity that were displayed in The Piano. Keitel’s turn as a romantic lead in a period piece was striking, all the more so because The Piano is a fable told from a woman’s point of view. Keitel’s masculine presence is crucial as a contrast to Holly Hunter’s strong-willed femininity.

“Harvey is quite vulnerable,” said co-star Holly Hunter in a recent interview, “I think he brings vulnerability to almost every character that he does.” Because there was little dialogue in the scenes between Ada and Baines, Hunter and Keitel stressed the unspoken mystery that enveloped each scene. “I don’t think Harvey has to work hard to have access to that,” Hunter added, “I think he’s just a really tender guy.”

Director Jane Campion concurs: “I don’t think of Harvey as macho at all, he’s much more complex than that. He’s very comfortable with women, and he’s very comfortable being directed by a woman.” Asked what is special about Keitel, Campion said without hesitation: “It’s some sort of a heart-soul thing that makes Harvey what he is. It’s the depth of his inquiry into life that makes him so interesting.”

Campion elaborates: “I had always admired Harvey, his curious work, curious choices, that interesting intensity. I wasn’t intimidated by the screen Keitel, his tough guys with crimson cocks, and I thought the strong physicality would be intriguing in The Piano as a girl’s movie. What I found was a very sharp mind and very sophisticated personality interested in the politics of relationships.”

When asked about The Piano and the reviews that described his role as a radical departure, Keitel pauses for a moment. “Allow me to make,” he says slowly, “what might be a true departure by what I am about to say. What is an interview about What is it that I have to offer in an interview I don’t think it is to explain the character. The film speaks for itself, Jane wrote the text. Jane directed it. I think what I have to offer about The Piano concerns Jane’s writing that story to begin with.

“The Piano exists on many levels,” Keitel elaborates, “It’s a complex text. One of the levels most apparent to me is that Jane has done what I have often seen men do–a woman gathering herself up, taking responsibility for herself, her sexual needs and her spiritual needs, and taking action to fulfill herself. That has usually been the domain of man. Jane has gained access to that domain. It’s a man’s world. And it’s to our detriment that it is so. Jane has struck out in a way that has helped me come closer to an understanding of myself and women.”

“I’m very interested in religious mythology,” Keitel told a New York Times reporter, “I’ll try not to be esoteric here–but perhaps I should be. The interpretation of Genesis, the interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth by man, not woman but man, has formed the thinking of mankind. The Christian and Judaic interpretation of those stories has dictated our morality, our social structure. Why is it a woman that’s the culprit What nonsense. What utter nonsense. It’s that myth that Jane Campion has pierced. I think there’s room for another interpretation, and we have to provide it. The Jane Campions are beginning to.”