Back when Rod Lurie was the meanest film critic in L.A., he used to gush about actress Joan Allen on his KABC radio show. The guy who once called Danny DeVito a "testicle with legs" lauded Allen as "the greatest working actor in the world." "I'd manage to slip that in every other week," admits the Israeli-born critic-turned-director, whose debut film, "Deterrence," revolved around a Jewish U.S. president in crisis. Allen had heard all about the fawning critic, so she was receptive when he offered to write a screenplay for her in 1998.
The former Los Angeles magazine reviewer immediately set out to pen a script Allen couldn't refuse; watching news of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair gave him a juicy idea. "I thought, 'We have such a double standard in this country," Lurie, the son of famed Israeli political cartoonist Ranan Lurie, told The Journal. "We can stomach sexuality in our men, but not in our women. And I wondered, 'How long would a female politician last if she were caught having sex with a male intern in the oval office?'"
The result was "The Contender," a political thriller about a female U.S. senator who is nominated for the vice presidency, only to encounter allegations of sexual scandal.
Allen loved the screenplay, but there was fallout from Lurie's old days as the most reviled critic in town. "Some actors I wanted for 'The Contender" wanted nothing to do with me," says the former reviewer, who once dubbed Whoopi Goldberg a race traitor for playing too many domestics. Fortunately, Gary Oldman and Jeff Bridges, both Allen fans, eagerly signed on to the film. When studios pressured Lurie to drop Allen for a bigger-name actress, he declined and made "The Contender" as a low-budget indie.
Lurie was shocked, after production wrapped, when Steven Spielberg telephoned: DreamWorks was interested in purchasing the movie as its very first acquisition. Spielberg requested a private screening at his house, along with Lurie's home telephone number. "I put 'Schindler's List' on the VCR, so when he called me, he'd hear it in the background," the director sheepishly admits.
By 8 a.m. the next morning, Lurie had a deal; now he's been signed to direct another DreamWorks film, a prison thriller, and to develop an FBI-related TV series. He's glad for the opportunity to work on something other than a political thriller, though he'll no doubt return to the genre. "Maybe I'm there because I'm a coward," he concedes, sounding a bit like Woody Allen. "Because not many other directors are working in the genre, there's no competition."
So can the tough ex-critic take what he used to dish out? "I'll try not to read 'The Contender's' reviews, because it will be too painful," he admits. "Every barb will sting."