Thursday, December 18, 2008


I’m watching Actor’s Studio interviews with “bad boys” who are also extremely powerful and popular actors: Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Sean Penn and Russell Crowe -- all of them shy and modest. Even a sophisticated guy like de Niro, whose intelligence and poise is obvious, is not a boaster, a show off, or an intimidator. Crowe wouldn’t even look at the interviewer, though in the end he struck up a warm and chatty relationship with the students in the auditorium, like the easy-going stage musician he is at heart. He sincerely wanted them to KNOW, to help them. The others were a little more... well, American. That is, they kept their cards close.

The person who grabbed my interest was James Lipton, the interviewer. Here’s what Wikipedia, ever anxious to dig the dirt, reports: “While James was living in Paris during the post-WWII years, penniless and unable to acquire a work permit, he became a maquereau, an associate of female prostitutes who arranged their encounters and translated between the client and the prostitute. This is contrary to the misconception that Lipton became a pimp; a maquereau in fact is employed by the prostitute herself and must be licensed by the government. In his autobiography, Inside Inside, Lipton explained that he had a "thriving business" with tourists, taking nervous young middle-class American couples to see sex exhibitions staged by French prostitutes.” What he does on this program is somewhat similar.

Immaculately dressed, impeccably groomed, with maybe a bit of makeup but no toupee, he sits at a little pull-up desk with a stack of blue index cards and interviews these Marquee Names with dramatic overstatement and portentuous pauses. He is easy to satirize and I gather lots of folks have done it, though I haven’t seen any of them. Where he becomes interesting is that he is evidently quite self-aware, acting to some extent, mocking himself and his as well as everyone else’s besottedness with major actors, mostly movie stars.

An astute person remarked: “The democratic impulse by which Lipton claims he could work himself into being fascinated by anyone allows us to see the actors rise to meet his perpetually-fevered interest. Ron Howard may still work too hard to be loved, but the striking thing about Lipton's guests is how quickly they tend to dispense with the formalities of self-deprecation and present themselves to the public as they undoubtedly think of themselves in private — as figures of grandeur and solemnity. In playing off Lipton's belief in them, the stars exhibit those qualities of preposession through which they keep more people than we'd like to admit from stabbing their own eyes out at the horrors of the real world. Forget Lipton the interviewer — has any actor ever played a role more evocatively, more in the moment, and with a bigger spotlight to shine on his co-star than James Lipton, the Audience of One? We never should have hated James Lipton. We should have been taking notes.”

Costume tells a lot. De Niro wore chinos and mocs, as he would to run out to the store, and no wonder -- he grew up just a couple of blocks away. A truly sophisticated figure (slightly contemptuous), both his parents were famous abstract expressionist painters in the Village. Pacino, gorgeously tanned, wore a black, chalk-striped, three-piece suit over a black silk shirt, everything unbuttoned but shirt and pants -- no tie. His excellent haircut had a cowlick on the back as though he’d been sleeping on a airplane. Penn wore a black suit with a white shirt. Crowe wore a black suit with a blue shirt. Penn and Crowe smoked, which Lipton managed to signal was a defiant act of constitutional proportions.

On reflection what strikes me is that the first three -- DeNiro, Pacino, and Penn -- have made their reputations by playing totally bad guys: murderers, crazies, mafia. But in fact they’ve had rather nice lives. Penn’s father was blacklisted, which gave Penn a lasting social justice fixation, but DeNiro and Pacino had solid families on the liberal side of politics, or so it would seem. (One never REALLY knows about families.)

Then there’s Crowe: enough Maori to be enrolled but with a grandfather who won a major English medal which Crowe wore to the Oscars. Nevertheless, he appears to be truly working class by background and identification, and -- maybe because of that -- he has an even more intense case of the syndrome all these guys have: they believe that acting is a craft, just a job that a guy has been lucky enough to get. But also, they are deeply idealistic about it being an art. One gets the impression that they expect so much of themselves and others that they are obligated to say, “Well, it’s just a job, isn’t it?” as a way of surviving the high stakes.

It occurred to me that Crowe is the only one that has played true heroes instead of just bad guys who seemed to have nerves of steel simply because they were sociopaths. He’s also the only one who has not been formally trained as an actor, and yet he was the one who had the most grounded and realistic advice, sounding very much like the “master and commander” of the movie role.

The audience was fascinating. When I get so I’m a better writer, I’d love to try to capture these folks. I could have sat for an hour while the camera went from one face to another. Each was plainly “styled” in that they were highly conscious of what they looked like and how they spoke, gestured, and so on. There were more blacks than in my day, and a few fat people though they tended to be on the writing or directing track. Some of the women were incredibly beautiful while the men tended to look poetic, a little underfed, but passionately intense. I’m sure that if they were asked to respond to Lipton’s gimmick questionnaire, they would have their answers quite ready.

Acting, like dance and maybe even more, is an art form in which one’s self is one’s instrument and yet one is asked to fling oneself at roles that could plainly destroy the actor. No wonder that when NOT acting these men are so self-protective. Back to Crowe again, four paparazzi boxed-in his wife and crowded her to the point of triggering the too-early birth of his child. As he said, if he’d been there, the situation would have been very serious indeed -- possibly murderous.

Maybe you remember that incredibly moving scene in “Gladiator” when Maximus arrives home from war to find his wife and child crucified and burned. Overwhelmed with grief, self-blame, and helplessness, he goes to his wife’s dangling feet -- so tenderly, so despairingly. The most stunning factoid of Crowe’s interview was discovering that he was acting with feet ONLY. There was no body attached. Just feet that ended barely out of the frame. It is the contradiction between realistic but truncated feet and what seemed like the most deep human emotion that makes acting both so fascinating and so erosive to the actor. Crowe downplayed it by calling it a “snot moment,” one of those super-emotional moments when one’s face runs with tears and snot.

1 comment:

Layne said...

Russell Crowe's an incredibly grounded man, as well as being an extremely gifted and talented actor. And he takes a lot of pride in his family and his heritage.