Sunday, June 29, 2008

Radford Teacher #2

I've previously mentioned my experience working in film, which is fairly limited. A few day player parts, and more than a handful of "background" gigs, had prepped me for what was in store for me with My One and Only: a lot of Hurry Up And Wait. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised that I escaped this routine.

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

Washington Week in Review

It's been over a week since I completed my contract with the Madness of Shear. I had assumed life would now slow to a crawl, but this week, not so much. It's been an action-packed period, about which I suspect you are craving to know.

I have already mentioned seeing Julius Caesar at The Shakespeare Theatre Company on Saturday. The rest of the weekend, I was occupied with a staged reading for the Washington Stage Guild, who are launching a summer season of readings, similar to the spring season in which I participated. First up was a ghostly tale called Mary Rose, written by JM Barrie (of Peter Pan fame). I played Mary's father, who is spooked by Mary's habit of disappearing for days, or years, at a time, then reappearing as if nothing had happened. I always enjoy these readings for the Guild, which are low-keyed and fun. In fact, I'm scheduled to participate in another one this Sunday, but this one will have a twist. Due to scheduling problems, we will be reading the play absolutely cold, with no rehearsal. The pressure quotient just went up.

Monday was a quiet day, but Tuesday launched more activity. I had a costume fitting for my teeny tiny role in My One and Only, for which I was required to schlep to Baltimore. You can always tell when a role is really small: the screenwriter doesn't bother to name it. As a result, I was slated to play "Radford Teacher #2." At least it's a speaking role, which surprised the woman who greeted me at the production's offices on Tuesday. She mistook me for an extra. Ah, well. I was ultimately outfitted with a conservative brown blazer and slacks, and was directed downstairs to have my hair cut. The film takes place in the '50s, so all the men were being shorn and Brylcreemed. There was more confusion at this stage, as the hairstylist had been instructed to get specific direction from the costume designer before cutting the hair of any principal player. (I admit I rolled my eyes at that moniker; "Radford Teacher #2" has one lousy line, but because of it, I was being elevated above the level of the common actor, and being treated special.).

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."
I was glad to get back in the car and escape this Hollywood-like atmosphere, and enter a world in which I was much more comfortable: Live Theatre. I was driving out to rural Pennsylvania to catch a weekday matinee at the venerable Totem Pole Playhouse. Several friends were appearing in their current production of Lying in State. The show was a very light-weight piece of fluff, the kind of thing upon which summer stock theatres like this thrive. My buddies Barbara Pinolini, Helen Hedman, Dustin Loomis, and Ray Ficca helped tremendously in covering up the holes in the script (which were many). Ray, who has been a member of the acting company out there for several years, is assuming the artistic directorship of the theatre next season, and I couldn't be happier for him. (This is a pic of Ray-Dude and Barbara.)

After the show, four of us shared a cozy meal at a local bistro, dining and dishing. Actors who travel away from home, and spend time in regional spots such as this, become a close-knit group. It is one of the joys of the itinerant actor, a pleasure I have enjoyed many times.

After our meal, I drove back to DC (about a two hour drive) to hit the hay for more fun on Wednesday. I had received word that my call time to show up for the filming would be 3:30 PM, which was an absolute blessing. It is not unusual for a film's call time to be 6 AM. The late afternoon schedule allowed me to attend a general audition in the morning for a theatre located in North Carolina. For some reason, this theatre had come to DC to see actors, and I was glad to get the chance to audition for them. I'm sure the auditors are still talking about my monologue from Equus.

After the audition, I returned home, changed my clothes, and hit the road again: back to Baltimore for my Big Budget Movie Gig...

Friday, June 27, 2008

June 27, 1969

39 years ago today, New York police officers conducted a routine raid on the Stonewall Inn, a run-down dive catering to drag-queens, hustlers, and other undesirables in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan.

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.

This raid turned out to be anything but routine.

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:

Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad

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

I Hear Voices

Pretty much all acting includes at least some vocal work, unless you're Marcel Marceau. Even if you're playing Helen Keller, you're likely to grunt a bit. But today's topic concerns acting only with the voice. The Washington Post recently ran an article regarding the invasion of the animated world by stars.

This is not a new phenomenon, but is attracting some attention due to the universally panned vocal performances in the new animated hit, Kung Fu Panda. Back to that in a moment.

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.)

The instances of a star, already established in another medium, lending a voice to animation were pretty rare, until about 15 years ago. There were exceptions. Who can mistake the sultry tones of the great Peggy Lee as she warbled and vamped in Lady and the Tramp?

Of course, she was singing her own tunes in that one.

The Jungle Book included a few heavy-hitters too, including Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima, and Phil Harris.

The Little Mermaid's cast included several mid-level stars as well, including Buddy Hackett and Rene Auberjonois. And who can imagine the seawitch, Ursula, with any voice other than that of the spectacular Pat Carroll?

(Apparently, nobody, including the New York critics who blasted the current stage version of the show now on Broadway. The role is being played there by the supremely talented Sherie Rene Scott, who has nonetheless received lackluster reviews...)

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.

The phenomenon of movie stars lending their voices to animated features seems to trace back to Robin Williams's maniacally hilarious turn as the Genie in Disney's Aladdin. And really, no one can fault that performance, which swiped the film while overpowering the plot.

The Post makes an argument with which I am certain my buddy Scott would vehemently disagree. (Scott makes his living in the voice acting genre, and is one of the "go-to" talents in the industry.) The article claims that, in some instances, the vocal star power adds tremendously to the film in question, as exemplified by Aladdin, and by Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in the Toy Story franchise (another sequel is due out next year). My friend Scott has seen his opportunities in these large studio films diminish in direct proportion to the increased employment of "star voices."

Scott has said many times (many, MANY times) that if actors like Hanks want to take work away from voice actors, they are free to do so, but they should then relinquish their movie roles to the actors they are robbing.

I don't have a problem with Scott's viewpoint. I've never done voice-over work (another reason I'm so poor), so the controversy is interesting to me, but not life-altering. I can say something with which I think Scott and other voice talents might agree: the stars I mentioned above, in The Jungle Book and The Little Mermaid, were all well-cast in their respective cartoon roles. I would say the same about the voices in MY favorite animated film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Tom Hulce, Charles Kimbrough, Jason Alexander, and Kevin Kline are all memorable in their roles, though I have to say that the best vocal performances given in that film belong to less than well-known talents Tony Jay and Mary Wickes. The Hunchback proves one of the points being made in the Post article which started this discussion: the presence of an actual film star (in Hunchback's case, Demi Moore) gives the film additional promotional clout, but can actually diminish the quality of the work itself. Moore's singing was so deplorable that her songs were dubbed ("paging Marni Nixon..."), and it is certain that there were qualified voice actresses out there who could have voiced the role and sung the role just as well.

Which brings the topic back where it began. Kung Fu Panda was the number one film its opening weekend, and remains strong at the box office. Its cast includes Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogan, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu, and their work is receiving less than stellar reviews from the critics ("next to no personality," according to NPR). This will in no way restrict the use of stars in future animated flicks. The stats reflect that a large percentage of the audiences attending the film are age 17 or older, which apparently means that marquee names do attract an audience outside the children at which animated films are aimed. So producers will continue to cast recognizable names in their cartoons, regardless of their fitness for the job.

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.
Who do you think would get the part?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dody Goodman


"Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman":

"Grease," with Eve Arden:

singing "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady":

Smart women who play ditsy on talk shows, like Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and the late Shelley Winters, all owe a debt to this classic comedienne, who invented the type.

George Carlin


One of the preeminent stand-up comics of the 60s generation, Carlin was famous for his routine regarding the Seven Dirty Words which can't be broadcast on television. Originally a comic who stretched boundaries in the vein of Lenny Bruce, he aged into a philosophic hipster whose influence can be felt in all the comics of today who include social commentary in their routines.

It was announced just last week that The Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for Comedy would be awarded Carlin this year. It remains to be seen if that commendation will stand, as the award has never before been given posthumously. (It might make the final sequence of the event, in which the recipient takes the stage, a bit unusual. Maybe they could just replay the Seven Dirty Words routine! No, wait, it's the Kennedy Center, where naughty words are censured [see previous post]. Better to just send everybody here.)

I have a personal reminiscence of George Carlin which requires a little set-up. My family moved from my hometown of Atlanta to Los Angeles the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. It was a decision not made lightly by my parents, but the pater had received a giant promotion to make the move. Naturally, I was at the center of the concern; pretty crummy to be removed from the friends I had gone to school with since kindergarten, into a brand new high school across the country, in my senior year.

The actual physical move, by coincidence more than design, happened while I was out of the country. For about a year, my high school had planned a 3 week trip to Europe for their juniors and seniors, and about 30 students were going, including myself. (Though it's hard to tell, that's me on the steps of the Acropolis in Greece. Dig those groovy trousers!). So, I left my home in Atlanta with my friends in early June, and when I returned to the states, "home" had miraculously been moved into a new house in Los Angeles.

(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.)

It was a deeply depressing moment at the New York airport, when I had to say good-bye to my life-long friends as they boarded their connecting flight back to Atlanta, and I, completely alone and in despair, boarded my plane to LA. My plane was overbooked, and I was bumped up to first class to make room. It was my first time flying first class, and I was too young to enjoy the free booze, so who cares? The plane was one of those early 747s, with the first class lounge, and spiral staircase, and the works.

George Carlin was in the seat next to me. I was not his biggest fan, but of course I knew who he was.

Being the starstruck teenager that I tried to avoid being, I worked up the courage to ask for his autograph. Politely, he said he did not sign autographs but, perhaps because he knew he would be sitting next to me for 5 hours, he drew a happy face on a cocktail napkin and gave it to me.

George Carlin drawing a happy face? I bet that napkin would be worth something now...
In memory of those Seven Dirty Words, and that flight across the country...

Update, 6/24/08: The Kennedy Center announced yesterday that Carlin will in fact receive the Mark Twain Award posthumously (posthumorously?)...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"I come not to praise Caesar..."

...actually, I do.

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...

"Happy Trails"

It's the song sung backstage, usually off-key, at the Kennedy Center's Lab Theatre whenever an actor is leaving the long-running smash, Shear Madness. Last night's performance marked the departure of at least half a dozen actors, as the annual Spring Fling ended, and the summer season begins.

It was almost exactly one year ago that I last said good-bye to the Madness of Shear. Two springs in a row, I have played "Tony" in the second company of the show, performing Monday nights, and Tues-Wed afternoons at five. Last year, I maintained that the job is one of the hardest, but most satisfying, gigs in DC.

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.

But I'll reiterate what I said before. Though this last month it sometimes felt like we were playing A Shadow of Shear Madness, the show remains the most challenging, and rewarding, job in DC.

happy trails to you...until we meet again...

Laugh At Me

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

Cyd Charisse


Grand Hotel, The Bandwagon, Singin' in the Rain, Brigadoon, Silk Stockings

No more dancing in the dark.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Shake-up at The Shakes

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

Sybil, streamlined

The remake of the 1970s television film classic Sybil aired over the weekend, trying to tell the same story in half the time. Much of it worked, but I have to admit to being overly prejudiced toward the original, four hour heartwrencher, which told the story of a woman suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder due to a traumatically abusive childhood. In the slimlined version (Syb 2), Emmy-winner Tammy Blanchard and Oscar-winner Jessica Lange played the roles originated 30 years ago by Emmy-winner Sally Field and Oscar-winner Joanne Woodward.

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.
Blanchard's work was impressive, but Field's was heartbreaking.

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.

I guess it didn't have enough gross-out moments.