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Monday, 26 March, 2001, 05:43 GMT 06:43 UK
Traffic speeding ahead
Catherine Zeta Jones in Traffic
Catherine Zeta Jones attended the Oscars
By the BBC's Peter Bowes in Hollywood

Traffic may not have won the Oscar for best picture but four awards, including a prize for director Steven Soderbergh, reflects the critical acclaim heaped on the film.

Starring Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, the film focuses on North America's attempt to curb the international trade in drugs.

A powerful and gritty film, Benicio Del Toro's performance in it as a Mexican cop earned him the best supporting actor Oscar.

Michael Douglas plays a conservative Supreme Court judge from Ohio, Robert Wakefield, who becomes America's new "drug czar", only to discover his own daughter is a heroin addict.

The film is made up of intertwining stories reflecting the growing problem of drug trafficking into the United States.

The vignettes move between the US border with Mexico - the front line of the war - rich families in southern California and political circles in Washington DC.

Michael Douglas in Traffic
Michael Douglas: Turned role down initially
Soderbergh says Douglas was his first choice for the role of Wakefield, although he explained that he was, at the time, unaware of the actor's personal family experience with drugs.

Douglas's 22-year -old son, Cameron, faced cocaine possession charges last year.

While refusing to discuss the matter in detail, Douglas acknowledged to the BBC that it helped him focus on the part.

"What ever role you play you try to bring as much personal baggage as you can because that helps define a character," he said.

In the film, Judge Wakefield is appointed by the President as the new "drug czar". He finds himself drawn into the murky, dangerous world of cartels and corruption amongst Mexican officials.

Douglas has revealed that, in the first instance, he turned down the role. He was unimpressed by aspects of the script.

"The weakest part I thought was my character. It was just sort of two dimensional," he said.

Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh won best director Oscar for Traffic

"It was more reactive - the character was overwhelmed by the job and was helpless with his daughter's drug abuse."

According to Douglas, the script was reworked with Harrison Ford in mind for the role.

"When they came to Catherine, to offer her the role, I saw the script again. I went, 'this is really so much better.' And then Harrison decided not to do it and so I raised my hand."

Douglas and Zeta Jones never appear together in the film. Their roles are part of entirely separate story-lines.

The Welsh actress portrays the wife of a successful businessman - a quintessential southern California woman, Helena Ayala.

Unknown to Helena, her husband has made his fortune through drug trafficking. One day, out of the blue, their home is raided and he is taken to jail.

Helena, who is pregnant, then struggles to bring up a child while attempting to maintain the lavish lifestyle she has become accustomed to.

"It was the most serious role that I have done," explained Zeta Jones. "People have not seen me do this."


The crew spoiled me, offering chairs and food - being preggers on the movie set is not bad

Catherine Zeta Jones
The actress described the challenge of portraying a woman determined to protect her young son. She likened the role to that of her real-life experience as a new mother.

"I'm not saying that I am going to go and be as corrupt as a drug cartel but I know for sure that I would do anything I possibly can to preserve what I have and protect it," she said.

Zeta Jones was six months pregnant when the film was shot. She said the additional pampering she received from the crew was most welcome - even though she had a trouble-free pregnancy.

Mexico

"I was not running to the bathroom or anything, crying all the time and throwing things around and getting overly emotional," she said.

"The crew spoiled me - offering chairs and food. Being preggers on the movie set is not bad!"

Much of the film was shot on the US border with Mexico where the actors interacted with real-life customs agents and Mexican officials.

"The film has opened my mind to the war - this drugs war," said Zeta Jones. "It was brilliant to work with real people."

The actress noted that the movie highlights the global nature of the drug problem.

"This is not in some small badly lit area in downtown LA - this is not in the back streets, under a bridge where people are shooting up. These are prestigious families," she said.

Benicio Del Toro in Traffic
Benicio Del Toro has won praise for his role as a Mexican policeman
"Where I live in Wales, it's a very small area, it's picturesque to the outside - but I know that, like they say in our movie, it's easier to get drugs than it is to get a beer. I know that. It's true."

The film is shot in the style of a docu-drama. A hand-held camera is used and to add a sense of authenticity some of the dialogue is in Spanish.

Traffic also impressed the New York Film Critics Circle, which named the movie Best Film.

Steven Soderbergh won best director - with Benicio Del Toro, who plays a Mexican policeman, named best supporting actor.

Soderbergh said he was gratified by the positive feedback - especially since the film seemed to have struck a chord on opposing sides of the debate over drugs.

"Both sides think it's putting forward their point of view - which I didn't anticipate," he said.

"We showed it to customs (officials) and they really liked it, and then I showed it to a very left-leaning crowd the following night and they all said, 'Oh great, a pro-legalisation movie.'"



OSCARS FORUM

PANORAMIC

In the spotlight

The films

The stars
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10 Mar 01 | Entertainment
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