Finally, a bridesmaid gets her due

Anne Hathaway emerges as an early Oscar contender with ‘Rachel Getting Married’

A Hollywood discovery typically involves a filmmaker casting a raw talent and transforming an actor into a movie star. But with Rachel Getting Married, the opposite occurred: director Jonathan Demme took a movie star and discovered a raw talent.

Demme first noticed Anne Hathaway as a teen ingenue in The Princess Diaries, which he saw at a drive-in with his kids. The next year, he glimpsed her on the red carpet at the Golden Globes. “She looked really pretty and gorgeous,” he recalled in an interview at Toronto’s film festival earlier this month. “I had that moment—she’s got it! The director in me was like, ‘Make a note of that. Maybe one day I’ll have a script where she can do something completely different.’ ”

In Rachel Getting Married, Hathaway does just that, playing against type as a volatile woman who comes home from rehab and wreaks emotional havoc at her sister’s wedding. After being overshadowed by her co-stars in a succession of rather decorative roles—Brokeback Mountain, The Devil Wears Prada, Get Smart—she gives a shattering performance as a sister upstaging the bride. It seems guaranteed to secure an Oscar nomination. And the movie is one of the freshest, most original pictures to come out of Hollywood in a long time.

Which is bizarre, because there’s a lot about Rachel Getting Married that seems familiar. We saw the basic premise—of an outspoken sibling who brings unwanted baggage to her sister’s nuptials—just last year in Margot at the Wedding. Rachel is also reminiscent of Monsoon Wedding, another pageant brimming with joy and music, yet mined with an explosive family secret. And the spontaneous documentary style of Demme’s filmmaking has been borrowed from two memorable Danish movies about family meltdowns, The Celebration (1996) and After the Wedding (2006)—Demme, in fact, showed both of them to his crew in preparing his own shoot.

“Because we were making a movie in America,” he says, “I wanted to remind us what it’s like when fiction is done in an aggressively realistic way. I know dogme is dead, but the idea of dogme is the idea of any documentary—that you don’t manipulate reality. The camera in After the Wedding didn’t look like it had designed shots but was always lucky enough to be in the right place to capture what was going on.”

What’s fresh about Rachel is how it imports European nerve into a sizable American movie. The late Robert Altman did something similar with his own brand of sprawling narrative chaos. But, limited by 35-mm film, Altman still required precise camera choreography. Although Demme is known for dramas like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, his last four features have been documentaries. Cinematographer Declan Quinn (who shot Monsoon Wedding) worked on all of them, and Demme had him shoot Rachel’s scripted drama as digital vérité. “We never rehearsed anything,” says the director. “We didn’t design shots beforehand. There was no such thing as ‘Anne’s close-up.’ ”

That tended to level the playing field among the movie’s wildly eclectic cast, who range from veteran Debra Winger to newcomer Rosemarie DeWitt (TV’s Mad Men). Cast as Rachel, the distraught bride, DeWitt gives a performance that seems to come out of nowhere and is, in its own way, as astounding as Hathaway’s. Tunde Adebimbe, the African-American who plays her groom, is another wild card—the lead singer of a rock band called TV On The Radio. Demme had originally offered the role to filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (who said “you’ve got to be kidding”), then was intrigued by the notion of making Rachel’s marriage interracial.

The groom is a record producer, and the bride’s father a music executive, so Demme thought it was only natural to include a multicultural horde of talented musicians among the guests and have them play whenever they felt like it as the cameras rolled—creating an organic soundtrack. In one tense scene, they’re so distracting Hathaway’s character tells them to shut up.

Making a movie is not unlike planning a wedding. Both are nerve-racking productions that involve sets, costumes, music and casting. Both try to create magic from a precarious alchemy of the scripted and the spontaneous, bringing on tears of sadness and joy. Rachel Getting Married, which works as a wedding and a movie, does exactly that.