BY GENE TRIPLETT
LOS ANGELES – At five feet five inches tall, the balding little guy in the round-lens glasses is walking proof that size doesn’t matter when it comes to colossal creativity.
Bob Balaban is an actor, director and producer of film and theater, and an author. At 68, he’s appeared in more than 50 films from “Midnight Cowboy” to “Moonrise Kingdom,” numerous plays including the original off-Broadway production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” (as Linus), and as a guest star on 11 TV series. He’s even written a series of children’s books about a bionic dog named McGrowl.
Perhaps that’s why this multi-talented artist could appreciate “The Monuments Men,” the true story of a group of art scholars, artists, curators and architects who donned battle gear and went behind enemy lines in World War II to rescue the masterpieces of Europe from Nazi thieves.
The film, co-written, directed by and starring George Clooney, is a fictionalization of the book by Robert M Edsel. It also stars Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardim, Cate Blancett and Balaban.
“I got involved because George and Grant (Heslov, co-producer and co-writer) and I were at a party together, and the next morning they called and said we’d love you to be in the movie,” Balaban said in an exclusive interview during a recent press junket here. “And I read it, I really loved it and I thought it was a really, really good story, good as a movie but an important story to tell. A new way into World War II and sort of the Holocaust, although it is not a Holocaust movie. It is a very important story that has not much been told.”
All of the characters in the film are based loosely on the real “Monuments Men,” including Balaban’s Preston Savitz, who is something of a dandy, patterned after Lincoln Kirstein, an impresario, art connoisseur, author, and a major cultural figure in New York who co-founded the New York City Ballet.
But Balaban admits he didn’t do extensive research on Kirstein when he accepted the role.
“I knew who my character was sort of based on,” he said. “But truthfully I think it was important, and I think wise, that we not literally be those characters, because then George couldn’t write anything for us because we have to do the things that our characters do. It’s much easier to give someone a characteristic or a funny little quirk or something if they’re not real. And they weren’t famous. I knew who my character was, but the world doesn’t really know who Lincoln Kirstein is.”
But Balaban did read a book of Kirstein’s poetry, written while he was on his art-rescue mission.
“I found that more revelatory than almost anything else,” Balaban said. “It was the way he felt about things and it’s very hard to get somebody biographically to tell you how somebody felt. You can learn what they did and where they went and who they knew, and even some things they said.
“And poetry is somewhat by nature autobiographical anyway, so to read his book, it was to learn a lot about his real life that I thought was very helpful.”
Balaban’s character is paired closely with Murray’s character, Richard Campbell, which is based loosely on architect Richard Posey, who discovered the salt mine at Altaussee, where the Nazis had stashed the Ghent Altarpiece, the Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s “The Astronomer” and thousand of other works of art.
In the film, their two characters have a contentious relationship, which is quite unlike Balaban and Murray’s real-life friendship.
“There’s not one Bill in the morning and another Bill on Saturday afternoon,” Balaban said. “It’s the same Bill. He’s uniformly expressive, considerate, tuned in unbelievably. He is never not there in any way. He’s like that as a father, he’s like that as a friend, as a person to work with. He’s just deeply good-natured, truthfully. And we were supposed to not get along in the movie. Well how are gonna not get along? I really like him, I don’t care what he’s doing. It would be very hard for him to make me mad.”
But beyond the characters, Balaban said the movie’s message was the most appealing attraction for him.
“I only knew the parameters of the stolen art stuff,” he said. “I knew the Jewish collectors, all their art had been taken away from them in one way or another. And I also knew that Picasso and other artists, not necessarily Jewish artists, although certainly Jewish contemporary artists, but most contemporary art was reviled by Hitler and put on his destroy list. And I knew vast amounts of modern contemporary art at the time was burned and torched and destroyed.
“But it wasn’t enough. The fact that he actually had to do away with the entire cultural history and sum of thousands of years of art in Europe, I think it’s important we know this story. I had no idea what a conscious effort it was, to gather all the art from all the countries that he conquered, all the great art everywhere for himself, for his museum. And then eventually, when he knew he might die or that Germany might lose the war, this idea that he had actually systematically planned for the destruction of everything that he had collected, because if he couldn’t have it, nobody could have it …
“It’s very interesting how the movie gives you a real window into the importance of the culture of a society. And without a memory of the culture, because it’s passed down for thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of years, really … We’re still looking at the cave things from 20,000 years or so. And that’s how we survive, basically. I mean that’s how we inform other generations about everything about us. It’s very important.
“And it really is very engaging to me as a subject and very important as a subject,” Balaban said.