Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Hey, Diddle-Dee-Dee..."

Marvin Goldhar, whom I knew in Toronto, became an actor at the age of thirty-six. Having arrived at acting at a relatively advanced age, Goldhar retained an outsider’s perspective on the absurdities of the profession.

One night, I went backstage to wish Goldhar luck before he was to go onstage in some local production. I found him alone in his dressing room, peering into a mirror, as he carefully applied his makeup.

“Look at me,” lamented the neophyte actor. “I’m a thirty-six year-old man. And I’m putting brown stuff on my face.”

Acting is a lot of things. Acting is dangerous, it’s exhilarating, it’s liberating, it’s fun. Acting allows you to shed to your persona and escape into the personas of your characters. Acting can make an audience laugh, move them to tears, it can teach, it can inspire. Acting can unlock the audience’s imaginations, lift them up and carry them soaringly away. It can entrance them with its magic, leave them gasping in wonder and delight.

Acting can make you rich and famous, it can take you to exotic locales, it can allow you to work at the top of your profession with the finest practitioners in the field, it can provide you with access to a world of accomplished and fascinating people you would, otherwise, never get to meet. Acting is a lot of other wonderful things as well, that I can’t think of right now. But acting is also, arguably,

A ridiculous job for an adult person to perform.

The result of this final observation – I’m speaking specifically about men here; I’ll leave the other gender to somebody more qualified – is that actors feel embarrassed to be actors. More than embarrassed, they’re ashamed. And success makes things worse. The more successful the actor becomes, the more embarrassed and ashamed they appear to feel.

Why? Because to these people, acting does not feel like a manly profession. Acting is “dress-up” and pretending. That type of work seems a long way from unloading cargo ships and chopping down trees.

I’m not talking about myself here. I’m not an actor. Though there were times I wanted to be. (I attended the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA, and spent a year at The Actors’ Workshop in London.) I did not, however, abandon the field because I thought it unmanly. When you grow up wearing thick bifocals, have no muscles and you can’t ride a bike, the traditional “Manly’ Evaluational System” is pretty much out the window. You pee standing up, you’re a man. Moving on.

But there are clearly men in the acting profession – and there always have been – who, because they see themselves as participating in a unmanly profession, feel like they have to demonstrate how manly they actually are. They become hard drinkers (or drug takers), they’re belligerent in public, they throw temper tantrums, they get in fistfights, they knock around women, often women they happen to be married to, and, by the way, they get married a lot.

“I’m too manly for one wife. I’ve had seven.”

Somewhere, someone who mattered told them that acting was a frivolous undertaking. Maybe it was their Dad:

“When are you going to give up this foolishness and try a man’s job, like smelting iron?”

Maybe it was a longtime chum:

“Stop all this girly-work. Come into the mines.”

Maybe it wasn’t somebody else. Maybe these whispers of shame crept up from their unconscious minds. Can you imagine how someone like John Wayne must have felt during World War II? People are dying on the battlefields, and he’s making war movies in Hollywood?

I mean, think about it. Real fighter pilots are dropping out of the skies, and John Wayne’s sitting in half a plane on a studio soundstage, shooting down Japanese “Zeroes.” So what happens? He goes out for a drink after work, and one of his buddies says,

“How many’d you get today, Duke?”

“Lea’ me alone, will ya?”

“How many altogether? In all your movies?”

“Can’t a fellah drink in peace around here?”

“Is it sixteen, Duke? If it’s sixteen, that makes you a fake “Ace.”

Bam! Right in the kisser!

Hey, the guy deserved it. So you pretend you’re in combat for a living. That doesn’t mean you’re not a man, does it?


Hey! I’m on your side!

You know, somebody once gave me a different explanation for why actors misbehave. The man was gay, and an aspiring actor himself, so it’s possible – make that likely – I had offended him with my observation. I didn’t mean to, but I rarely mean to offend people, and it’s alarming how often I do.

Anyway, this fellow’s explanation for why actors feel uncomfortable in their chosen line of work is that for many of them – especially the pretty ones – acting involves simply showing up and being themselves. It feels like they’re stealing money. Since, in their view, they’re not actually doing anything, they don’t understand what all the fuss is about, “fuss” meaning huge money, unlimited power and worldwide fame. The situation is disorienting and disturbing. Their life doesn’t make any sense. Ergo, the Bam!

That’s tangible. Their fist on somebody’s jaw. There’s a logic to it. They can feel the connection.

Maybe that explanation is more accurate. Though, bottom line, I don’t see much of a difference. Both explanations involve a sense of worthless activity. Maybe he just objected to my labeling it “unmanly.”

Sorry, Joe.

The thing is, actors feeling ashamed of what they do is, to me, a horrible misreading of how they’re actually perceived.

I once stood in front of a group of minor league baseball players who were dying to go to Hollywood, and I said to them:

“Don’t you know everybody wants to be you?”

I’d say the same thing to an unhappy movie star.

And then run away before he hit me.


growingupartists said...

True dat! Just wanted to borrow that one from you before it got away. Loving your new dialect, Earl...very manly.

A. Buck Short said...

Nuance aside, whenever anybody like the Duke broke a chair over some poor slob's head, you could see the look in my father’s eye, “Now that’s entertainment. And as far as Stanislavski and acting being truth, I would respectfully have to disagree and say the whole point of going through that actors studio megilla, is essentially so you can lie really, really well.

Personally I’ve been ashamed of whatever profession I happen to have been in at any given time, which is why I compensate by doing all my own stunts. To figure that out, I had to adopt a third world child – from Vienna.

This is off topic, but speaking of acting at an advanced age, do you have any idea if your compatriot Lorne Michaels is following this internet groundswell to have Betty White host an SNL ?

I wouldn’t care if it’s an orchestrated promotion. I’d love it, but hope they don’t kill her - for God sakes the woman is 88! But now that you are officially an old timer yourself, how difficult do you think it would be to create a “Saturday Early Bird Special Live?”

Now I know some might resent Sue Ann Nivens cutting in line for the gig ahead of more prettyboys and ingĂ©nues. But it’s like the illegal alien thing. She takes acting jobs the 85 year-olds just won’t do.

Queen Kellee said...

I agree with both theories. I've also have a theory that because actors are essentially paid to tap into their emotions and to juice that as part of their job, that it becomes a defacto behavioural thing and causes them to react (and over react) emotionally. Or at least, it would seem that it would be really hard to turn it on and off at will all the time.