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Book Review: ‘Why Acting Matters’

The cover of David Thomson’s beguiling new book, Why Acting Matters, features Andy Serkis as Caesar, the rebel ape from Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), looking at us from some primitive threshold: preoccupied, questioning, stuck on some decision. Do we believe him to be Caesar? How else does his otherness reach us? How many want their lovers to look at them the way Naomi Watts looks up at Serkis as King Kong (2005), even though we all know she’s flirting with some scrawny British actor miming against a green screen (for CGI dubbing)? How did we arrive at such elaborate pretending?

Drunk on pretense, stabbing the vein of the craft’s wildest ambitions and anxieties, Thomson writes as the thespian’s greatest advocate, the critic as idea engine who launches a thousand arguments. In one of many subtexts, he hints at how much writing resembles acting: the assumption of a voice, the deliberate staging of a narrative, the occasional improvisational flights, the coy suggestiveness alive in his stylistic mask. Ideas become protagonists, heroes armed with possibility, poetic allusion, and history’s wisdom. He overplays, he underplays, he succumbs to celebrity wile, then punctures its pretense; he masters the large characters (John Barrymore, Meryl Streep and Vivien Leigh) without slighting the incidental players who provide definition, context, and reliability (Frederic March, Regis Toomey). And his prose prods themes forward with deft momentum, leaving us hanging, wanting more, holding back to preserve the finer mysteries, in prose sharp enough to jog memory and rich enough for private meanings. As author, Thomson plays Citizen Kane, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, even Hamlet, all commanding and indecisive, alone yet entreating an audience to understand with him, in ways only the most imaginative actors dare to inhabit the mind’s many stages.

At 73, Thomson speaks with authority’s ease. Perhaps you know his definitive Biographical Encyclopedia of Film, now in its sixth edition, a timeworn resource for viewers, actors, directors, producers, and casting agents. Or perhaps you’ve read one of his major biographies of key cinematic figures (Orson Welles, David Selznick, Warren Beatty, Nicole Kidman), scattered profiles, or numerous think pieces posing as movie reviews (up until recently, for the New Republic). Thomson’s prose dips and soars, as much in his beguiling rhetorical questions (“Are we in control of the life we are leading, or does it occasionally run away with us?”) as his fiendish asides: “…We still believe that actors are more interesting in interview than musicians. (I fear the opposite is true—many actors are dull without scripts, especially the devout improvisers.)” He pinpoints the allure of Julia Roberts (“gorgeous beyond belief, where ‘gorgeousness’ was like a mainline into one’s hopeless desires”), and rails against phony sincerity (“[Margaret] Thatcher was… acting her head off. Nobody talks like that”). Sometimes, alarming understatement stitches everything together: “Citizen Kane is more subversive than any American play of its era.” Just as Woody Guthrie trumped John Steinbeck.

The book bulges with stage and film lore by isolating the peculiar distinctions between the classic British approach to the craft (through Sir Laurence Olivier) and its American reaction (the Actor’s Studio Method, through Marlon Brando). Thomson came of age in London (and wrote a memoir of his 1940s-1950s London as an only child in Try to Tell The Story, 2009). But he’s taught, directed, and practiced criticism chiefly in America, and has called San Francisco home for decades. His immersion in Hollywood has led to two fine histories of the medium: The Whole Equation (2004), and last year’s The Big Screen (2014), a seductive meditation on how the art of dancing light has stretched our capacity for wonder.

Here as before, Thomson demurs from clichés about “inhabiting” character and “submerging” in roles to the more complicated tensions between seeming and being, acting for fun (which we all do), and acting for very high stakes (ditto, with our lovers). He’s fascinated by how actors struggle with roles, the distance between their conceptions and their characters, and how to express this creative tension in a meaningful way with their audience. Unlike most books on acting, it contains very little practical advice and a surfeit of poetic wisdom, how the ideas behind acting can illuminate how we perceive ourselves and others. As you read, you’ll second-guess your own treasured memories of performances, and re-screen classic films to grapple with his ideas.

“…We take pleasure in watching the role and the player wrestle together,” says Thomson. “Sometimes in movies it is as erotic as ‘lovemaking.'” Every actor depends on the good will of the audience to partake in their charade, and the process of pretending, both as actors and viewers, animates a deeply satisfying human need for storytelling. In short, if acting, as Shakespeare believed, reaches beyond its obvious metaphors for life, our engagement with acting expands “acting” into a philosophy of art, or how to explore one’s inner life with others. “Perhaps acting matters because of our dying attempt to believe that life is not simply a desperate terrifying process in which we are alone and insignificant,” he continues.

This leads Thomson to complicated notions, at one with both cynicism and romanticism about his subject. “Acting is so essential or inescapable that it easily absorbs and welcomes bad acting. So let us toss out that old chestnut that the play or the actor may help us ‘to live better.’ There is no help. The purpose of acting is to evade such considerations —a nd you can see how fruitful it has been.” In other words, we tolerate bad acting (just like we do bad criticism) while subscribing to its necessity — all day long on television, all night long on cable, across streaming mobile, and across vast iMaxes in 3D, we lurch from story to story, so many that even the profusion of today’s technology can scarcely accommodate it all. The more technology we throw at it, the further behind we fall. The Netflix firehose never quite quenches our outrageous demands on story.

In one well-known fable, Thomson describes how Olivier came to portray Archie Rice in The Entertainer. Olivier met the playwright, John Osborne, backstage in 1956 after Look Back in Anger, a trendy piece of working-class resentment then scandalizing establishment London. Bowled over by the sheer sensation of the piece, Olivier blurted out “Maybe you could write something for me…” Osborne then created Rice, a has-been music-hall clown indifferent to the Empire’s Suez crisis. As Thomson observes, “Osborne retaliated as if to say, ‘Well, see if you can play this.'”

As Rice, Olivier’s pique and radiant self-contempt made stick figures of Osborne’s stage “rebels.” If the generational voltage of Anger had stumped the wry, reflective, future Knight, Archie Rice was a “typical” character he knew too well. Thomson’s description of Olivier’s Rice swells with detail: he “wore a bowler hat, a loud check jacket, a bow tie like a dildo, a cane, and a rictus grin. He was odious, slimy, pathetic, and the lowest life Olivier had ever chosen to play. But he was an arresting, insolent scoundrel, dishonesty made supreme.” And half of Olivier’s zeal lay in his understanding that Rice stood for Britain itself, a hollow empire that persisted well past history’s reckonings. As Thomson puts it, “Archie speaks to a moment in British history when the imperial bedrock was cracking and a famous actor felt the appealing risk in discarding his own heroic aplomb…” Olivier and Rice converged person and symbol.

When we think of the “great” Olivier performances, the contemporary adjectives describing his mannerisms seem quaint. During the height of his 1964-65 Othello, “…it seemed then like an unprecedented portrayal of the blackness… Now it seems fussy and condescending.” So looking back always involves distortion, imposing our reality against previous realities, with all their assumptions, prejudices and self-satisfactions. We also tend to remember Olivier as an epitome of greatness, but the Gods hurled their own arrows upon him like any other player: “Years earlier, Garbo and the director Rouben Mammalian had decided that Olivier didn’t have enough excitement on screen to play with her in Queen Christina. He was callow next to her. Not sexy enough for Garbo — that’s a tombstone line, and a spine of insecurity.”

In leafing through layers of the historical idea of acting, Thomson reaches back to Edmund Kean (1787-1833), the first “Shakespearean” actor. But even Kean seems dreamt up by the playwright himself, or as Thomson put it, “…one dramatist introduced the prospect and potential of acting beyond any other playwright because the nature of being and acting was itself the Shakespearean subject.” Of Kean, Thomson writes “…in many of the pictures he looks like someone trying to assert the fact that he is an actor. You can tell from his expression that any actor fights a battle of belief—with the audience and with himself.”

As he switches from Olivier to Brando (who had worked with Olivier’s wife Vivien Leigh onstage in A Streetcar Named Desire), Thomson exhumes more treasure. As a Brit ransomed by the American imagination, he remembers Brando’s stage presence as alarming, crucial to our understanding of his persona. But these impressions don’t carry forward: “For those there on the first night of Streetcar or during the first run, Brando was the center of attention,” Thomson writes. “But that was not fair to the play they were playing, and it is far from the historical record. A Streetcar Named Desire is established as one of our great plays and in the years since it premiered, our sexual nature has been treated with so much more candor that it’s possible to see both overt action and dream metaphor in the play.”

By the time Brando sealed his persona with “I coulda been a contendah…,” Thomson writes, “The standard for truth or realism in acting shifted…so that many people saw Brando as more modern than Olivier, more in tune with rough, unschooled emotional existence…” But Brando’s “Method” (and the Actor’s Studio) became more like a “church” than technique to many, Thomson argues, with varying results. The problems lay at least as much in the theory itself as in the many temperaments who undertook it as gospel: “…The notion that the actor had become the real thing might be sentimental and simpleminded,” he argues, “and an evasion of the more paradoxical principle: that you had to be real and fake, at the same time.” Recall Olivier’s famous comment about Dustin Hoffman “cogitative delays” on the set of Marathon Man: “Oh gracious, why doesn’t the dear boy just act?”

What for 1947 seemed a “vivid example of the contrast or conflict between American and English acting,” between Olivier’s thought and Brando’s physicality, has faded into the mist of conjecture. The pornography of everyday life now obscures what was once great about Brando, just as much as it does about Elvis, and Beatle haircuts. Except for this pearl: “[Brando] was a great actor more than he was a Method actor.”

Much of Thomson’s subject transcends acting to address history itself: “So it is a history of increasing lessens and it goes on and on,” Thomson writes, “yet somehow every master of underplaying looks like a ham thirty years later…” We always seem to live in an age of “greatness” in acting, yet each era eats its young. Would that we someday find ourselves as impressed with scripts as with the performances that too often prop them up.

If Brando’s eccentricity never quite satisfied Hollywood’s yawning infantilism, his long, insidious slump into flaky self-parody provides a useful contrast to Olivier’s work ethic. “If there is a vital difference between Brando and Olivier, it is in the fact that Olivier never yielded to that contempt, to its eventual self-loathing, or to a fatigue with pretending…” As different as these two figures remain in the theatrical imagination, “…they were very alike in that their own reality had succumbed in so many ways to the career of pretending…”

This sends another enticing question to ricochet off the rafters: “What would you have given to see them together as Vladimir and Estragon, the tramps in Waiting for Godot?” Well, the Gods had a confounding answer to that too: The dream pairing of Ian McKellan with Patrick Stewart in director Sean Mathias’ production felt like a Disney theme park of cheery existentialism. Here was Beckett’s comedy minus an essential thread of meaninglessness, and no cackling void.

Few critics adore actors the way Thomson does, and few chisel away at the contradictions alive in his adoration: “We believe that these people are gentle liars and addicted pretenders. And in making these assumptions, we infer that the ‘others,’ the audience, are sober, honest, down-to-earth citizens whose worst instincts for dishonesty are exercised and even exorcised by the actors. Actors are the spokesmen for fiction itself in a world where we cling to the myth of fact…”

So, why does acting matter? Thomson’s indefatigable questions chase things every which way: “Could it be that we fall apart without it?” Thomson asks. “But does that mean that all our experiences have become like scenes from the play of our lives? After all, soon we will be gone, and are we then a play that was never recorded?” Or does Andy Serkis, playing Kong too well, seize that ape’s inexorable gaze to chasten us, or mock?

NPR critic and Emerson College journalism professor Tim Riley has written five critically acclaimed books on rock history, including Lennon: The Man, the Myth, and the Music (Hyperion, 2011). His commentary appears in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Truthdig, and Radio Silence.

Book Review: ‘Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?’

George Clinton, funk’s profane God-uncle, bandleader of both Parliament and Funkadelic, producer of legions more, was born in a lavatory in Kannapolis, North Carolina, so he “came by the funk honestly.” His career festoons a half-century of black pop culture. A Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer since 1997, with three number-one singles and as many platinum albums, he’s too lowbrow for the Grammys and less a legend than either of his heroes, Sly Stone or James Brown. But his broad, visionary catalog (over 45 albums) surveys a middle ground of both popularity and greatness that makes his work both easy to underestimate and tempting to over-praise. The many fitful pranks and drug capers in his new memoir (Brothas Be, Yo Like George…) cast him as black rock’s Jerry Garcia: the headdressed ringmaster who oversaw an expansive tribe of loosely affiliated acts (Parliament and Funkadelic) that laced hardcore funk with crude sci-fi myth. He tosses off enough decent recordings to become one of rap’s go-to sources for primo samples (and the book contains a detailed “sampleography”). By 1981, Clinton combined both acts into the P-Funk All-Stars before going solo the next year, but only after launching solo careers for bassist Bootsy Collins and keyboardist Bernie Worrell.

Co-author Ben Greenman has judiciously threaded Clinton’s jive to stress three key relationships: his clan, the music industry, and his beloved crack pipe. He was born in 1941, and his mother played B.B. King and Muddy Waters in the house, but he came of age after the family relocated to Newark, New Jersey, in 1950. His parents separated early, but Newark itself imbued the boy with a sense of specialness: there was Clinton Avenue and the Clinton Hills suburbs, named for George Clinton, a former governor of New York, and vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. A new junior high school rose up to be called Clinton Place. Such were the grace notes of fate. His first big influence took the form of Frankie Lymon with Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1956), whom he calls “Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson rolled into one.” Suddenly a whole world opened up; Clinton pretty much ate, slept, snorted, and faked pop music thereafter. His pop insights flutter, buzz, and sting and give the book its singular voice. “People don’t have a clear idea of what they can and can’t do as artists,” Clinton writes. “I knew my limits. I knew what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t play an instrument. I couldn’t sing as well as some and I couldn’t arrange as well as some others. But I could see the whole picture from altitude, and that let me land the planes.”

He married, fathered a son, dropped out of high school, and started hustling. He frequented the Brill Building in Manhattan, where he scored a job writing for Colpix, the old Columbia Pictures label, and adopted Richard Barrett as a mentor. This showed extremely good taste: Barrett had co-written Some Other Guy with Leiber and Stoller, and produced Lyman, Little Anthony, the Valentines, and the Chantels. Clinton remembers hanging out one day when Elvis Presley arrived shopping for material. Otis Blackwell  (author of Fever, Don’t be Cruel, and All Shook Up) sang a verse of  Return to Sender to the King and Colonel Parker. Once they heard Blackwell’s number, “all the other songwriting teams just closed up their folders and went home” Clinton remembers. “I liked that idea, making songs that would make everyone else put their folders away…”

By 1960, he had sired four children and settled in Plainsfield, a half hour southwest of Newark, where he helped run George White’s barbershop, the “Silk Palace.” The joint served as a hub for local characters and lore, including a wayward stash of counterfeit money (that gets soaked in coffee, dried out, and deployed gingerly until a friendly tipoff), and the heroin scourge, which inspires movie script ideas like My Favorite Nod. “Heroin had a way of making people depressed and pitiful,” Clinton observes, “and making the idea of giving up romantic, somehow.”

Pretty soon, all the cool black records came from Detroit, and Motown fixtures like Smokey Robinson caught his ear (“to call him a triple threat undersold him by half”). He drove his group out to Michigan for an audition. Martha Reeves told the group the label liked them fine, but they already had the Contours and the Temps, so Clinton took a writing job and then signed with another Detroit bizzer, Ed Wingate at Golden World Records.

For all his onstage charisma and bathroom profanity, the stronger pieces of Clinton’s narrative drop sharp insights on how Jersey culture contrasted with Michigan: the Buick Electra 225, a hot car in the Midwest, “would have been laughable in New York, where the minimum requirement would have been a Cadillac Eldorado,” Clinton notes. He takes the early civil rights world in through the bizarre racial filters that would lead to crossover hits while bypassing white radio. When Sam Cooke was murdered in 1964, Clinton, like many black bizzers at the time, flashed on the JFK assassination the previous year. In the early Beatles, he sensed “great respect for R&B music.” And as hip as he was, it took an early Eric Clapton interview to turn him on to Robert Johnson: “I didn’t know Johnson’s name or anything about his life,” Clinton says. “How’s that going to happen to a black man in America, to learn about blues music from a white man thousands of miles away? But that’s the way it was.” Another early songwriting partner, Brooklyn’s Jimmy Miller, recoils from a nasty label deal by heading off to London to record Spencer Davis, then Stevie Winwood, and ultimately, the Rolling Stones.

Once the Parliaments’ fourth single scores with the gospel-tinged Testify in 1967, the funk starts to sink in. Clinton brought an intuitive understanding of where his ideal sound might fit with the late-60s rock’n’roll, and he idealized guitar rock and psychedelia when cultural forces sidelined black acts into soul, pop crossovers, or novelties. At the time, he had plenty of evidence he might be ahead of the curve: Both Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix released debuts that year, and the old categories seemed to be melting.

Clinton’s iconoclastic taste tilted more toward metal showmanship and prog pretense. Vanilla Fudge, the Long Island metal sludge act, proved an early influence, even though not many agree that they excelled at their tedious tempos. Playing fast and loud can be easy, Clinton argues, “but when you brought the pace way down, that required more discipline. If you could hold a song at that slower tempo without getting monotonous, the result was amazing.” He coins the single best line on Led Zeppelin, dubbing the act “a sledgehammer with a filigreed handle.”

As an ambitious black player in a white man’s industry, Clinton learned from the giants who came before: “Even when John Lennon got into trouble for saying that the band was bigger than Jesus, he was doing it sarcastically and snottily, to make a point. He wriggled so you couldn’t catch him.” And then he cuts loose: “It got into his art, too, and you can see it clearly in a song like I Am The Walrus. Was it deep because it showed how shallow everyone else was? Was it making fun of the idea of being deep? Was it just a matter of opening people’s heads up a little wider than they had been before?”

Once Parliament dropped the defining old-school article (“the”) for Osmium in 1970, Clinton’s funk vision became flesh: Compared to some of the paltry long-form stuff white acts trucked in (Iron Butterfly’s Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida or the Moody Blues), Clinton turned song segues into ideas, and his guitarist Eddie Hazel, a barbershop regular, played with a daring wah-wah flair. The live act became a circus with flashy costumes, props, and nonstop funk jargon. And Clinton had the good fortune to hook up with Neil Bogart at Casablanca records, one of the few label execs with a genuine set of ears.

Parliament pulled off one of the few radical costume changes in that era: when the Temptations put out Ball of Confusion, the psychedelic move sounded like a gesture, not a mission. Clinton felt his ambition outgrowing even this early success, so he launched a second group aimed at the crossover promise of James Brown: funk, not as genre, but all-consuming existential pursuit. The Funkadelic debut sprang a rival party with Parliament for a rotisserie of albums throughout the 1970s: two unlikely success stories on two different labels, both under Clinton’s sway. The sheer volume of Clinton’s output can be intimidating, especially when you count all his production credits and co-authorships. Luckily, both Parliament and Funkadelic have notable Best-ofs, which make solid primers. He thought of each release in pairs: every Parliament album had a Funkadelic twin: Chocolate City followed by Let’s Take It to the Stage in 1975. And the avalanche of material can be traced through many standout performances: Hazel plays a winding, mournful guitar solo on 1971’s Maggot Brain, in which Clinton hears that era’s “sense of loss and powerlessness, that spirituality of despair, the slight surge of hope when your feet touch the bottom of the ocean…”

As he peaks in the mid-Seventies with albums like Cosmic Slop and Chocolate City, he concocts his greatest prop, the “mothership,” inspired by Twilight of the Gods with the archaeologist hero Bernice Summerfield, by Mark Clapham and Jon de Burgh Miller, about how aliens built the pyramids, and how the funk can melt your mind into pure nirvana during the end times. Clinton envisioned an arena-sized spacecraft that was “bigger than the Beatles at Shea, bigger than Tommy… years before bands like Boston came along with comparable arena-rock props.” He hired Broadway’s Jules Fisher (from Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar), who built something that “looked like some unholy cross between an American car from the late Fifties and early Sixties, and piece of equipment from a children’s playground, and a giant insect. It was awesome.” Clinton rode the ship above crowds before descending to the stage from an elevator. With Clinton’s flair, the Funk had more ritual splendor than Catholic mass.

Throughout the narrative, Clinton trades barbs constantly with Sly Stone, revealing Stone as a key part of the P-Funk entourage, a much bigger inside player all these years than previously imagined. Clinton reprints a Sly dope note here he deems worthy of a song lyrics (“knock knock… Put a rock in a sock and send it over to me, doc. Signed, a co-junkie for the funk”) and details how a new generation elaborates on the P-Funk brew, signing with Prince’s Paisley Park label for two solo albums and eventually serving as a heathen éminence grise on albums like Snoop Dawg’s Tha Blue Carpet Treatment (2007).

Clinton’s unraveling comes in two stripes: label shenanigans and heavy-duty chemicals. When Bogart sold much of Casablanca to Warner Brothers in the late 1970s, a thousand legal suits plundered his copyright royalties, and crack cocaine stole his attention from people he had long trusted. Documents were mishandled, monies went unpaid. “Deciding who to trust was complicated by the fact that I was high nearly all the time,” Clinton admits. Inexplicably, given all his nasty habits, he survived long enough to play for Bill Clinton’s Youth Inaugural Ball, enter Quentin Tarantino’s crew, and record Aqua Boogie at Jamie Foxx’s home studio.

Self-awareness gave him caution but not nearly enough restraint. “To settle myself down, I vowed that I was going to go everywhere on tour [in 1982] with that crack rock, but that I wasn’t going to smoke it. I wasn’t going to kick drugs, but I pledged not to break that specific rock for the duration of the tour…” When he finally lit up in his Los Angeles hotel room, naked and in the lotus position for his prize rock, he accidentally set fire to the tissue in his nose, which flew across the room, set the drapes on fire, and exposed him to the next-door office building. Instead of a signpost, it took him another two decades to quit, which further mangled his career choices if not his productivity. (“Can you be left off your own solo album?” he asks himself at one point. “That’s crack for you.”) Now he runs a website, flashlight2013.com, and talks at high schools and wherever people will listen, on a mission to chase stolen royalties for all of P-Funk’s acts.

A lot of this colorful yet unsettling memoir devotes itself to spinning out album concepts and deploying lyrical examples to illustrate Clinton’s ideas. About Atomic Dog, the defining solo hit from Computer Games (1982), he says: “I was thinking about how those combined comedy and soul, but also how they connected to other common phrases. Treat him like a dog. Dog day afternoon. It’s a dog’s life. What did those sayings mean, exactly? … I settled on Atomic Dog because it was a Reagan-era idea, something for the Cold War.” A little of this goes a long way. It would have made more substantial reading if Clinton had told more stories about his interactions with Prince, and how acolytes like Erik B. and Rakim and Kendrick Lamar adapted his rhythmic schemes into freer verse.

Clinton and Sly Stone’s crack pipe frenzy came down with a blazing thud and sent Clinton to the hospital in 2010. As if we needed more reason to grieve the loss of Sly Stone to gawd-knows-what, Clinton reports many scattered tracks: “When he let you hear what he was doing it would knock you out. But he was just as liable to get worried that it wasn’t good enough and erase it. I explained to him that someone needed to preserve the work. If it didn’t turn into a song that year, it would the year after that or maybe a decade later. Slowly, he started to trust me with the files.” Even as his published catalog yields worlds within worlds, the Clinton archives promise to unleash even more Funk everlasting.

NPR critic and Emerson College journalism professor Tim Riley has written five critically acclaimed books on rock history, including Lennon: the Man, the Myth, and the Music (Hyperion, 2011). His commentary appears in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Truthdig, and Radio Silence.