(4 of 4)
Indeed, the whole movie is a lesson in acting chemistry. Ohgo brings an elfin gravity to the first 40 minutes of the film. Momoi is a cunning, cynical presence as the okiya's boss. Yeoh gets a chance to display her grace and wisdom as well as her womanly strength. Zhang blossoms persuasively from a girl of 15 to a woman in her early 30s, and Watanabe lends his warmth and aristocratic machismo to the Chairman. But it's Gong Li who strides away with the picture. Her stiletto stare can burn in passion or turn on a rival with Freon fury. Facing that implacable gaze on the set, one child extra started sobbing and had to be replaced.
Tears were plentiful during the shoot. For Hatsumomo's final, incendiary face-off with Sayuri, Gong Li stayed on the set for a whole day, crying, never getting out of character. "I worked my heart out for it," she says. "I really worked my heart out." Marshall recalls that "Hour after hour, as people worked around her, lighting and moving cable, she stood there weeping, because she couldn't leave that feeling. I've never seen anything like that in my life."
That was the actress' last scene, but she couldn't let go. "When Rob Marshall announced that I had wrapped my role and was leaving, all of a sudden I didn't know where to go, I felt like it wasn't enough, like I hadn't finished." After the wrap she asked Marshall to go to the okiya set with her. They held hands, walking from room to room, never speaking. Marshall says she wanted to say goodbye to the character, with him.
Zhang says she too cried every day: "Playing her was my most emotional role." And Yeoh, in mock exasperation, says, "Everyone else got to cry. But Mameha couldn't. She was always in control. The mask was maintained the whole time. All my crying was off-camera. After Rob would cut the scene, I'd have to go to the side to let it out." She credits Marshall with guiding the actors into a true ensemble. "He is very much like Mameha," she says. "He is playing a chess game. He knows all the moves and the countermoves. I used to say to him, 'You're like silk and steel.' He has a very tough interior. But a director has to be that way."
Spielberg has a pretty good idea of how directors have to be, and he has high praise for Marshall. "When I saw Rob's version of Geisha," he says, "I realized that he was a much better choice than me. The pauses, the looks of the characters, were all little moments of directorial authorship. The close-ups of the hands in pouring the tea. The shots of the geishas' kimono trains wriggling like the tail of a fish through a stream. Rob took the liquid metaphor of the water in Sayuri's eyes and created a river of images. It seemed to be planned by the heart. But it was planned. He had a picture in his mind, and he fought until the picture was on film."
The director of a film like this needs to fight like Hatsumomo, have the teaching skills of Mameha and the generosity of the Chairman. He must possess the grace and showmanship of a great geisha. And Marshall has it all. "The very word geisha means artist," Mameha tells her star pupil. "And to be a geisha is to be judged as a living work of art." That definition suits the film as well. Geisha is a geisha: a living work of art that elegantly entertains us for a few hours, then vanishes into the night, taking our beguiled hearts with it.