Sunday, June 29, 2008
This experience with film was the easiest I have ever encountered. At around 3 PM, I arrived in the dicey neighborhood of East Baltimore which had been taken over by the film crew. Massive trucks and trailers lined a full city block. Crew members meandered hither and yon (everybody was Union, so nobody rushed). Shooting had begun many hours earlier, inside an old Catholic school which had been commandeered for today's filming. (Several times I passed by a front office populated by some confused but fascinated nuns.)
As a "principal player," I naturally had my own trailer. Well, not all my own. I shared it with a young girl playing a student in my scene, and a woman playing "the old lady" in a scene to be shot later in the day, and Kevin Bacon.
That's right, I shared a trailer with Kevin Bacon.
Well, that sounds much more exciting than it was. These trailers are long monstrosities with individual cubicles into which can be stuffed as many as half a dozen actors, all with their own bathroom. I have a strong hunch Kevin's was much larger than mine, as I was in a cubbyhole about the size of a walk-in closet. But it had a place to sit, a place to pee, and a place to keep cool. The weather outside was a humid 90 degrees.
Soon my "wardrobe" arrived (the blazer, slacks, dress shirt, tie, shoes, and socks which had been chosen for me the day before). When I was at my fitting on Tuesday, my dresser mentioned that she could always tell when she was working with a stage actor: he always hung up his clothes after trying them on. I guess film actors just chuck them anywhere, knowing that some poor schnook will put them in their proper place. Here's another difference between stage and screen: onstage, actors wear costumes. On film, they are in "wardrobe."
Though I was disappointed that my trailer buddy Kevin Bacon had already wrapped for the day (more movie talk: It means he finished and went back to the hotel), I was still excited to be on what was clearly a big budget project. Soon, I was hustled to Hair and Make-up, which inhabited one of the long trailers, where the circles were removed from my eyes, and the grey was removed from my roots.
I had been on the clock only an hour when the dinner break was announced. I was warned that my scene would be shot directly after the meal, so I was not able to really enjoy the grilled chicken and fish which were being served (crews on location are treated to extravagant meals and snacks, as opposed to actors in live theatre, who are treated to a cup of coffee and a cookie if you are lucky).
True to their plan, I had only about 10 minutes back in my swanky trailer before I was called to the set. Of course, actors are not expected to get to the set on their own. It's at least 100 yards away. Each and every actor who has a speaking role must be escorted to and from the set by a production assistant. I have wondered about this practice in previous film endeavors; it has always seemed a waste of somebody's time to walk me to the set. I guess in Hollywood, actors tend to get lost along the way.
The scene was set in the afore-mentioned Catholic school. I was ushered into a fiendishly hot classroom full of lights, two cameras, dozens of crew members, 6 or 7 children already seated in their seats, and my stand-in. Yep, Radford Teacher #2 had his own stand-in, who had spent all afternoon standing motionless in this sweatbox, while I lounged comfortably in my trailer, thinking about my character.
My role, though large enough to warrant a stand-in (he actually looked like me!), was too small to have required a callback audition, so this was the first time I was introduced to my director, Richard Loncraine, the Brit who had cast me from the videotape of my audition in the casting director's office a month ago. He was a charming chap who paid almost no attention to me, as the focus of the scene was on one of his leading men, a boy of about 14. Logan Lerman, who has apparently been acting throughout his youth, was playing a young George Hamilton (yep, this movie is about a year in the life of George Hamilton). The scene was clearly about him, not his teacher.
In the scene, "young George" relates all the experiences he and his mother (Renee Zellweger) had had the past year, in a monologue which was alternately funny and poignant. The kid had no trouble with the speech the first few takes we filmed, but when the cameras were rearranged to point directly at him, to catch all the close-up nuances and such, he fell apart. The words stopped coming, and his youth and lack of focus began to show. I felt quite sorry for the kid, who was under a lot of pressure to perform.
As for me, I delivered my line perfectly. That is, after the first three or four takes. Inexplicably, my nerves took over, and the line came out of my mouth in different variations over and over. The director didn't even notice, and surely didn't care (the writing in films has a very low level of importance to moviemakers), but I certainly knew (and so did the script supervisor, who shot me many a wicked glance). I have a hunch the take they will finally use is one in which I did indeed say the words as written, but we'll have to wait and see.
I hope the scene remains in the film, if only so everyone can be impressed with the physical move I added to the piece: walking backwards. One doesn't often see people walking backwards in everyday life, but Radford Teacher #2 did it with panache.
As for poor young Logan, he was fussed over and cajoled, even as the clock was ticking on his work day (as a kid, child labor laws were in effect, and they had to get this shot, and another, before his time was up for the day. Talk about pressure!). The kid actually wasn't bad, and though he maintains that he doesn't even want to be an actor (he wants to be a lawyer), that'll surely change as Hollywood gets a load of his Jonas Brothers-type look.
I was released from the shoot at 8 PM, and made it home before nightfall.
I have a hunch now that my scene will remain in the movie, though I doubt anyone will pay any attention to me. It was fun to be in a film which will surely have a high-profile, whenever it's released.
And I'm happy. I'm now one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon.
Saturday, June 28, 2008
The hairstylist was actually quite good, and gave me a cut with which I can live, though she expressed consternation about my hair color. I had removed the gray from my hair for Shear Madness, and things were starting to grow back in. She got on the cellphone to the hair team "on set," to alert them that, when I showed up to shoot my scene the next day, they would be facing a "roots issue."
Friday, June 27, 2008
It was a common practice at that time to raid establishments where gays gathered, for no other reason than to arrest everyone in sight, forcing them to spend the night in the pokey, and to suffer the humiliation of having their names printed in the newspapers the next morning.
Perhaps due to the years of abuse and harassment at the hands of the police, or perhaps because gay icon Judy Garland had been laid to rest that very afternoon, the patrons at Stonewall, joined by a crowd which gathered outside, turned and fought back, breaking glass, hurling rocks (and a few epithets) and touching off five days of rioting in New York.
"Stonewall" is now regarded as the birth of modern gay activism.
And not a moment too soon. Even as activists were finding their voices and taking to the streets, the local press mocked the movement with sneering headlines such as this one from the New York Post, July 6, 1969:
I have not been particularly active, politically, but the above headline arouses in me the same feelings I wrote about last week.
Today, to celebrate the birth of what is now called Gay Pride, I invite you to raise a glass of whatever you have in the fridge, and toast those brave men in heels who wouldn't take it any more.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Back in ye olden days (pre-Beauty and the Beast, let's say), nobody gave a flip about who was voicing our animated characters. Yes, Mel Blanc became a celebrity based on his huge repertoire of voices, but it's doubtful that civilians could name even one other talent known primarily for their voice work. June Foray, who voiced Rocky the Squirrel as well as many many characters for the Hanna-Barbera studio, remained an unknown throughout her long and successful career. (More people know Marni Nixon than Foray; Nixon provided vocal work behind the scenes in a number of hugely successful movie musicals, including singing the leading lady's songs in The King and I, West Side Story and My Fair Lady.)
Of course, she was singing her own tunes in that one.
Some of these mid-level stars mentioned above were household names, but none were on the same level of celebrity as the current crop of A-listers who now frequent the animation recording studio.
Nowadays, the Post article points out, it is highly unlikely to find a major animated feature released without a plethora of box office names attached to it.
Animation studios deserve what they get, artistically speaking, and I hereby submit the following. If Tom Hanks or Jack Black wish to voice a character in a film, put them behind a screen and let them audition for the role, right next to other vocal talent like my friend Scott.
Monday, June 23, 2008
(The move, by the way, turned out to be all for the best for me, as I wrote a while back, but at the time, I was a misery.)
Sunday, June 22, 2008
I popped into Julius Caesar at the Shakespeare Theatre Company today, to see the first half of their current Roman Rep. (I saw Antony and Cleopatra on its opening night, about which I have already blogged.)
I am not at all surprised that my buddy Kurt Rhoads, who assumed the role of Marc Antony just last week, has slipped seamlessly into the part. (I don't know why, but my friends are always the best actors in their shows. It's a mystery...). Kurt had been greatly underused in his previous roles in the Rep, but he surely shines now, especially in the uber-famous funeral sequence, as Antony simultaneously eulogizes Caesar, and euthanizes the reputation of Brutus. This long speech must rank as the second most famous monologue in all of Shakespeare, right behind Hamlet's "To Be or Not To Be." NOBODY wants to be saddled with a speech so familiar that an audience can easily tune it out. But Kurt's performance was full of immediacy and realism, and we quickly forgot that we had heard the speech dozens of times before.
That's a fine actor.
Aubrey Deeker, whom I don't claim as a buddy but is an actor who always impresses me, is mostly unseen in this show, but his brief appearances as Octavius set up his much larger presence in Antony and Cleopatra.
Director David Muse has done his best to enlarge the influence of Caesar in the play, and Dan Kremer plays the title character with arrogance sufficient enough to turn his friends into his enemies. But structurally, Shakespeare never meant Julius Caesar to be about Julius Caesar, as he is dispatched in the middle of the play. The piece is meant to be dominated by Antony, Brutus, and Cassius, and this production fulfills that obligation.
Tom Hammond brought true heroism to the role of Brutus, and Scott Parkinson was a less sleazy Cassius than others I have seen. I enjoyed both their performances very much.
I can only find a few faults with this production. One is its length. Caesar can easily be abridged, but here, I found my mind wandering on occasion. The scenes with the conspirators seemed to brood an awful lot, rather than display the dynamic urgency with which they are usually played. I also had some trouble with the fight choreography, specifically the battle sequences in Act II. I have a personal dislike of stage fighting in slo-mo, and feel it really only works if the stage is full of actors participating. Here, a handful of soldiers crept on, in dim light, and displayed such stylized movements that I was completely removed from the reality of the moment.
I was quite taken with the final scene of Julius Caesar, which clearly set up the future importance of Antony and Octavius (who ultimately became the first Roman Emperor, Augustus) as the rulers they would become in the second part of the Roman Rep.
And of course, I'm thrilled that Kurt has this terrific opportunity to really show off his chops...
I stand behind that statement, though I have to confess, if I'm going to be honest, that this season was more difficult for me than last. There are several reasons. Last year, our cast remained in tact for the entire 18 week run. This season, we had a large overhaul around mid-way through, and replaced one actor only a month ago as well. This is not cause for great alarm for the Powers That Be: they consider the second company of Shear Madness to be a part-time job for actors, who occasionally leave the gig for a better-paying engagement. But it is cause for additional rehearsals and notes sessions for all the actors involved. We had very few weeks during the season which did not include a rehearsal or a notes session or both.
Well, certain disruptions are inevitable in that situation. By my count, over the 18 weeks of this season, I worked with two different "Barbara's", three different "Mrs. Shubert's", three different "Eddie's", and a whopping four different "Mikey's". That last number is always of concern to the actors playing Tony, as Mikey is the character who comes into the hair salon during the pre-show and gets his hair shampooed, rinsed, cream-rinsed, cut, moussed, and finally dried by Tony.
You have no idea the trouble a klutz like me has when, suddenly, I'm faced with a new head of hair to negotiate during the show.
Still, it's all part of the job.
A bigger problem we had this season was a result of the (seemingly) constant adjustments we were required to make to accommodate one or two audience members. I'll try to explain.
Shear Madness has never been an explicit show, but has always had its bawdy moments. These are completely harmless bits of fun, and always have the audience in stitches. A decade ago, when I first played in the show, the majority of audiences during the spring were high school groups who had traveled to DC for field trips and such. They adored the show, and the same schools have been sending their students to the Kennedy Center for 20 years. Shear Madness is doing something right.
These days, however, the majority of school groups attending the show are middle schools. Instead of our median audience being age 16, it's become closer to age 12. We have had more and more elementary schools showing up, too. As a result, during the spring, the show's bawdiness is toned down a bit.
This year, however, the evening cast experienced several instances where chaperons were so concerned about the show's content that they yanked their students out of the theatre in the middle of the show (this did not happen at anytime during my cast's performances, only during the night company's shows). One particular chaperon from Kentucky was so incensed that the show was portraying a gay character onstage (in 2008!!), that he complained to the Kennedy Center itself. ( I feel the need to reiterate that there is nothing in Shear Madness which can't be seen on any Will and Grace rerun at any time during the day, and there is no language in the show which can't be heard on network television nightly).
As I said, most of this controversy was happening to the evening cast. We had always been playing a slightly gentler show during the day, and to my knowledge, we received no complaints.
Still, the creative forces behind the show decided (under pressure from the Kennedy Center, I believe) that one or two mouthy right-wingers ought to have full script approval, so all of the hilarious, harmless innuendo was censured from the text. (The worst word in the script, apparently, was "bitch," uttered by my character in an explosion of pique, in one of the most hilarious moments in the show. One can hear the word "bitch" used every day on televised soap operas and sitcoms. It was replaced by "cow." As you can imagine, the life was sucked out of the sequence.)
Well, as an actor, I'm only a hired gun, and have no say in the creative direction of a piece, so I feel it's my job to make the show work as best as possible. I hope I was able to wring a bit of fun out of the new, bovine twists in the text.
There is one more reason that last night's farewell performance was difficult. A year ago, when I left the Madness, I had three gigs lined up for the remainder of the year. This year, I don't. It's always a bit scary to be leaving a secure job when you don't have any idea when your next one might pop up.
It's quite a coincidence that I ran across this Youtube clip at this moment, as the DC Gay Pride Parade is currently underway (in the rain). The Pride celebration is actually about two weeks early, as the official Gay Pride Day remains June 27 (I'll blog about that later), but Pride Parades and Celebrations are now spread throughout June, and even May. Back in the early days of the Pride Movement, the celebrations were always held on the weekend preceding June 27, but organizers soon recognized the error in that scheduling. Why hold all the Pride Parades on one day, when, if they were spread out, then all those gays with expendable income could attend ALL the festivals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego? The routine is mirrored on the East Coast, where official Gay Pride celebrations in New York, Philly, DC, Boston, etc., are all held on different weekends, so everybody can attend them all.
I don't attend any of them these days, but sometimes, when I run into a particularly evocative image, like the video above, I pause. This video is clearly made by amateurs, filmed in a single shot in a raw, under-rehearsed fashion. Set to a rare solo hit recorded by Sonny Bono back in the '60s, I confess that, with all its shortcomings, the clip moves me.
I guess those of us who have been laughed at, never get over it...
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Friday, June 13, 2008
The Shakespeare Theatre Company has been scrambling a bit this week, as their star Andrew Long suffered an injury which has put him on the disabled list. Long has been very well-reviewed in the theatre's current "Roman Rep," playing Marc Antony in both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.
The terrific Kurt Rhoads, who had been playing Cinna the Conspirator and Ventidius in JC, and Ventidius again in A&C, has assumed the role of Antony in both productions.
Kurt is an actor based in New York, and has played several roles here in DC, including a riveting turn as the creepy Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive at Arena Stage. He played Antony in Antony and Cleopatra previously at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival:
James Denvil has assumed the roles vacated by Rhoads. James is a well-respected local actor with many high-profile credits, which most recently include a well-reviewed performance as Father Flynn in Doubt at Olney Theatre.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
The remake spent very little time revealing Sybil's affliction, a distinct difference with the original, in which the viewing audience learned gradually about the various personalities inhabiting her battered psyche.
The growing sense of concern which the viewer felt for Sybil as she struggled with a disease she did not know she had, is missing from Syb 2. Perhaps it's due to the absence of the most important scene in the entire four-hour original film, the moment in which Sybil learns about the multiple personalities which have been inhabiting her body. That scene was a showcase for Field, as she shifted from buoyant, musical Vanessa, to angry Peggy, to confused Sybil, to her own mother, to, finally, an infant. The scene was deemed so important by its creators that it was used in the audition process to cast the role. Here's a terrific story I love, related on the DVD release of Syb 1:
With Woodward already attached to the project, the writer and producer of the film had the luxury of finding the best actress for the role, rather than casting a star (this step was reached after Audrey Hepburn turned down the role, and Natalie Wood was turned away for the role). An intensive search was underway (which included Lily Tomlin!) when Sally Field's agents begged that she be given an audition.
After spending the 60s in three silly sitcoms, the most fanciful of which was The Flying Nun, Field had left the industry for several years to study her craft at The Actors Studio. When she returned to Hollywood, she was still pegged as a perky sitcom star. As the story goes, Field's agent secured an audition for her client, though the Powers That Be had no interest in seeing her. As a testament to the professional integrity of Joanne Woodward, the legendary star was in the casting office, actually reading opposite the women auditioning for Sybil. Everyone rolled their eyes as Field entered the chamber and began her audition, the aforementioned "revelation" scene. If you've ever seen the original Sybil, even only once, you will recall this chilling sequence in which Sybil's various personalities emerge and shift, causing the patient to climb over furniture, crawl across the floor, sing off-key, tap-dance, break a window, and end up under the piano, wildly sketching one of her horrific memories while muttering about "the people." The casters were caught completely off-guard by Field's in-depth audition (for which she was off-book and thoroughly prepared), and she played the scene with abandon, alternately sitting on Woodward's lap and crawling across the floor, with Woodward scurrying after her.
I suppose I enjoy that story because I love any instance when an actor confounds the expectations of casting folk, who are Quite Sure they know Everything There Is To Know about the abilities of specific actors, but don't.
I seem to have wandered off-point a bit. What are the odds of that? Anyway, another aspect of the Sybil story I missed in the remake was the character of Richard, so prominent in the original (though invented by the screenwriter; there was no such person in the real Sybil's life). Richard was created to represent the outside world's reaction to Sybil's eccentric behavior, and was an integral part of our understanding of the severe loneliness with which Sybil dealt. Well, Syb 2 had only two hours, so Richard became a one-scene presence, who escorted our heroine to a piano concert, only to have Sybil relive the horrific moments when her fiendish mother lashed her to the piano and insisted that she "hold it" (this after being given an ice-water enema. Aren't these fun movies?). In fact, Syb 2 included two scenes in which Sybil peed on the carpet, while Syb 1 avoided any mention of bodily functions. What a difference 30 years can make on television... (we did see the scene in which Sybil as a child released the enema on the piano leg, which sounds as horrifying as it must have been. Director Dan Petrie of Syb 1 handled that scene so subtly, I bet it slipped by the censors at the time.)
But Syb 2 was not void of romance. In the updated version, Sybil the art student is befriended (quite quickly, of course. We've only got two hours here) by an Argentinian hunk who takes her out on the town. Both Sybs contain instances when Sybil's alter, Vanessa, assumes control and allows her to socialize with the opposite sex.
While the romantic figures in Sybil's life were rearranged (and the role of her father was greatly diminished in Syb 2), there is one presence which haunted both films, that of a mother so abusive, she made Mommie Dearest look like Ma Kettle. The original's Martine Bartlett maintained later that her performance so spooked everybody that she never worked again. I can believe it, as her rendition of Hattie Dorset was truly frightening. In the remake, the role went to JoBeth Williams, totally unrecognizable in gingham and grey. Both actresses hit the mark.
As for the four leading ladies of the two films, nothing can be said against them. I preferred Woodward's Dr. Wilbur over Lange's, though I freely admit to being a long-time fan of the former, and an occasional doubter of the latter. Woodward's calming influence was a terrific counterweight to Field's flights, and the two had a remarkable chemistry which anchored the earlier film. But I liked Lange's harsher interpretation as well. Syb 2 was placed solidly in the 1950s, more historically accurate than the vaguely 70s feel of the original (check out Brad Davis's Godspellian suspenders in the picture above), and as such, Lange's Dr. Wilbur, a rare female analyst of the time, had more challenges to her credibility than the more modern doctor of Syb 1. This aspect of the remake felt right on the money to me. The coda to the film mentioned that it was many years before the psychiatric community agreed that Multiple Personality Disorder was in fact real; at the time of Sybil's diagnosis and treatment, many of Wilbur's colleagues believed the doctor actually invented the personalities herself.
As for the dueling Sybils, I greatly admired Tammy Blanchard's gutsy work in the remake. It's obvious she has stage experience (she played Gypsy opposite Bernadette Peters's Mama Rose on Broadway), as she employed a number of accents for her alters, including French for Vickie, and a vaguely New Yoiwk sound for suicidal Marsha.
Field's work was a bit more subtle, but no less specific in differentiating her roles, and she had double the amount of screen time in which to create her Emmy-winning performance.
These Sybil quibbles have reminded me of those 70s years. I was too young to know that I would become a professional actor, but even then, I was strongly attracted to pieces which showcased superior acting talent. I was much more likely to tune into a talky British miniseries than a sci-fi action flick. The original Sybil was an extremely well-regarded television event, one which remained in my memory for 30 years (when its DVD was finally released last year, I was not surprised that I recalled so many specific moments from the film).
In fact, I consider the remake of Sybil to be Important Television as well. It seems a good fit for the current atmosphere at CBS, where CSIs and other procedural ick-fests dominate the schedule; with its mayhem and rape, Sybil more than holds its own in that milieu. And with its two high-powered stars and a riveting story, I have no idea why CBS buried this prestige film on a Saturday night during the summer.