Catherine Keener and Matthew Modine are the young New York couple who find themselves split between principles and pragmatism, commitment and the glittering mirage of fresh flirtations. For Modine, the object of his desire is a bleach-blonde Madonna double, for Keener, a smooth-talking martial arts teacher (Denis Leary). Meanwhile, Modine's soap-opera friend Bob picks up and discards a series of bottle-blondes in his search for that embodiment of modern integrity: the Real Blonde.
"There's always a strong autobiographical point of departure for my films," admits De Cillo. "Living in Oblivion was about my experiences as a director, Box of Moonlight drew on elements of my childhood." With The Real Blonde, De Cillo is not reliving any former obsession with fair hair, however, but a time of uncomfortable compromise. "I had just finished studying and I was working as a waiter, trying to make it as a serious actor but getting work as a stand-in and extra." For De Cillo, Matthew Modine was the ideal figure to play his alter-ego, Joe, the committed young actor struggling to hold onto his ideals in the face of poverty, unemployment and doubt. "Although Matthew's a great actor, he seems to be one of those people who are always on the cusp of stardom. Who's never quite made it. When we were making The Real Blonde, I caught him at that period in his career where he felt very much like Joe - as if his best efforts were regarded as mediocre."
Not only did De Cillo secure "the modern Jimmy Stewart" for his male lead, but he also gathered around him a stellar comic cast, including Graduate screenwriter Buck Henry, Christopher "Back to the Future" Lloyd, Daryl Hannah, and Elizabeth Berkley, whose previous comic outing had been the risible T and A fest, Showgirls. "One of the reasons I cast Elizabeth is because even though she had been viciously battered over that, she was trying really hard to keep her head above water," says De Cillo. "And that's what the film's about, selling out to survive, and pursuing your dreams, although those dreams may prove to be equally shallow and false - like Bob's pursuit of the ultimate natural blonde. Bob represents a certain aspect of the male psyche, where you feel like `I'll only be happy if I have that particular type of beauty as my accessory'.
In the States, the film has been criticised for taking cheap shots at the fashion industry, but that is not the point, argues De Cillo. "I didn't want to lampoon fashion, that's too easy. All I was doing was showing another industry that produces duplicitous images. It's the same in the music business, in videos, in all sorts of professions." True, in one particularly vicious scene, a battered woman's bruises are photographed as grunge chic. Another, however, shows Joe forced to abandon his Arthur Miller audition piece to jig about in his boxer-shorts for a Madonna video. Objectification, reckons De Cillo, is no simple, sexist issue. "You know that scene where Joe is looking at the magazine adverts of women's underwear?" De Cillo asks. "Who is making these women crawl on the floor with their boobs out? Women are in some way complicit. I'm not taking any moral stance, I'm just saying women are involved in selling themselves as much as men are!"
Finally, the director says, The Real Blonde is about the glorification of the image over reality. "You know that speech from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman that Joe takes to his audition?" De Cillo asks. "I used to carry that speech around myself to auditions. To me, it encapsulates the whole film. How do you function in a world that places no value on integrity?"
`The Real Blonde' is released on Friday (22 May)