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A Happy Ending Even for an Indie

by Naomi Pfefferman

November 13, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Isabel Rose as Billie Golden in "Anything But Love."

Isabel Rose as Billie Golden in "Anything But Love."

One week after her 1998 wedding, New York actress Isabel Rose packed up her belongings and moved with her husband to London.

Although the Yale graduate had achieved some success in the theater, she said her parents had different expectations.

"I was raised to be a nice Jewish wife and hostess," Rose, 35, said.

So she scrapped performing to follow her banker hubby, figuring she'd write novels while he was at work.

"But I was wretchedly lonely and traumatized," she said. "I cried every day.... Finally I found a way to write myself out of that dilemma by writing a movie."

Her charming debut film, "Anything But Love," tells of Billie Golden (Rose), a Jewish aspiring singer facing a similar dilemma. She's a Judy Garland wannabe addicted to Technicolor movie musicals, but her attorney fiancé wants her to give up performing to become a socialite-hausfrau.

"The story reflected the emotional truth of my life," said the now-divorced Rose, who is also addicted to 1950s musicals. "I felt I was being forced to give up my voice as an artist to have the stability of this great guy who just wasn't my soulmate. And the movie is about a woman who stays true to her dreams while being urged to be practical and realistic."

Just as Billie persists at her sleazy lounge gig, Rose persevered as her movie was rejected from 17 festivals and deemed too upbeat for an independent film. Then came the success of other cheerful indies such as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and the multitalented Rose was suddenly hot. Samuel Goldwyn Films agreed to distribute "Love"; Rose appeared in a Vogue profile titled, "A Star Is Born," and signed a Doubleday deal for two Jewish-themed books, "The J.A.P. Chronicles" and "Member of the Tribe."

"It's been like a fairy tale," the spirited actress said during an interview at her publicist's Los Angeles office. "My life has paralleled my art in this crazy kind of way."

Like her silver screen alter ego, Rose, the daughter of a military history professor, has been infatuated with movie musicals since growing up Reform in New York. Every Friday in her Upper East Side apartment, there was a lavish, formal Shabbat dinner followed by retro entertainment: "We were like the von Trapp-steins," she said, punning on the family in "The Sound of Music." "I had a guitar and we would sing, and after we were exhausted with our singing we would retreat into the living room and my father would pull out the movie projector, and we'd see 'An American in Paris' or 'Singin' in the Rain.' Always, attached to this religious meal, were these MGM movie musicals. And always, during the reel changes, I was the one imitating 'Gigi' or Ann Miller in 'Kiss Me Kate.'"

Although Rose starred in all the plays at school and Jewish sleep-away camp, she said her parents hoped she would make acting a hobby, not a career. Her struggle continued as she portrayed musical theater leads at Yale.

"Isabel was always accused of being old-fashioned and mainstream while everyone else was doing experimental work," said Robert Cary, 35, her classmate and "Love" director/co-writer. "Like Billie, she marched to her own drummer, despite people saying critical things."

After graduation, Rose starred in productions such as the national tour of "Six Degrees of Separation," but life on the road eventually wore her down. She reinvented herself by earning a master's degree in fiction from Bennington College.

"I imagined I'd write this starring role for myself and announce myself to the world," she recalled. Instead, she said, she bought into the "30 and no ring on the finger, oy vey," stigma and got engaged.

It was just before moving to London that Rose envisioned "Love" en route to meet Cary at an Eartha Kitt cabaret show at the Carlyle Hotel.

"Isabel ran out of the taxi and said she'd had this flash of inspiration," Cary said. "She was anxious to tell a story about a woman who wants to sing but has a problem with her [fiancé]."

The two friends worked on the screenplay whenever they were in the same city and pressed on when observers dismissed their project as an "anti-indie indie."

"The movie ran counter to what was perceived as the norm for independent film, which had to do with edginess, sex, language and violence," Cary said.

Even so, the filmmakers stuck to their happy ending, cobbling together the $1 million budget, in part from family and friends, and casting actors such as Kitt and Andrew McCarthy. They did make one concession to mainstream audiences, however: "I was supposed to be Billy Ryan, an Irish Catholic girl, but we did a screen test and Robert said, 'You read ethnic,'" Rose recalled.

Her character became Billie Golden, a Jew from Queens, but don't expect the heroine to get married in shul. "Love" pays homage to 1950s musicals (there's even a "Singin' in the Rain"-style dance sequence) and "can you see a chuppah in a Vincent Minnelli movie?" Rose said.

The actress, however, feels like a character in one of those blithe old films.

"The great thing about this kind of work is that you have an opportunity to rewrite your own story and change the ending," she said.

"Anything But Love" opens today in Los Angeles.

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