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Hardly the most minor of gifts

A combination of abandon and ability once dismissed by Katharine Hepburn, acting gets its due respect in HBO's soul-baring series 'Unscripted.'

January 09, 2005|Robert Lloyd

Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time....

-- "Hamlet," Act 2, Scene 2

Like Hamlet, I would like to say a good word for actors. This might seem needless, given the amount of ink and airtime and gurgling reflexive praise the profession generates -- or rather, the inordinate amount of ink and airtime and praise allotted to a relatively few of its practitioners -- and given an international obsession with celebrity, especially American movie stars, which makes them possibly the most elevated, privileged caste in the world. It takes something on the scale of a tidal wave to generate the worldwide interest of the Academy Awards, or even as patently phony a commotion as the Golden Globes, rolling down fast upon us.

Yet they get no respect. They take more flak more often than any professional group outside of taxi drivers or politicians. Truman Capote famously declared, "The better the actor, the more stupid he is," while Alfred Hitchcock denied his reported remark that "All actors are cattle" by saying, "I never said all actors are cattle -- what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle." Trey Parker and Matt Stone have claimed they made the film "Team America: World Police" with marionettes because they hate actors -- which the film, with its violently dispatched puppets of Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin and Tim Robbins, gleefully bears out.

An entire branch of quasi-journalism exists to exploit their misfortunes, weaknesses and mortality. These instruments of celebrity schadenfreude confirm us in the belief that stardom, which produces no tangible goods -- "it's a worthless, pointless job," Ricky Gervais, the creator and star of "The Office," has said -- is not actually deserved; the death-knell covers of the supermarket tabloids make for a sort of so-there-take-that memento mori: "I am going to die, but so are you, Elizabeth Taylor." We are suspicious as well of their capacity for rejection -- which we know, funnily enough, because they have reenacted it so regularly on stage and screen -- their submission to an audition process that can read as simple masochism to anyone not driven to act. (Forgetting, of course, that every other world of work also requires swallowed pride.) And there are the tales of the casting couch (founded, surely) that make every aspiring actress potentially a prostitute.

In films and on television, they are more often than not portrayed as vain, predatory, dimwitted, self-absorbed, shallow and/or crazy, like Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" or Bette Davis in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" Young actresses are vamps or tramps; actors are dumb and pretty, like Matt LeBlanc on "Joey," or puffed up like Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian. The biographical dramas and the dramatic biographies, meanwhile, which pretend to retell the lives of the successful, are mostly concerned with pop psychology and personal matters that would not much interest you at all in the life of, say, your plumber, but become incredibly fascinating when connected to Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland or James Dean. Early trauma will suffice to explain an entire career. (They never got enough love.) The common notion that actors often become actors because they are empty inside was made the central theme of HBO's recent splashy biopic "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," but the film did not tell you why he was good at the job.

A different case altogether is "Unscripted," a 10-part, true-to-life "fictional series" premiering tonight, also on HBO. It stars actors Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg and Jennifer Hall as actors named Krista Allen, Bryan Greenberg and Jennifer Hall, and Frank Langella as an acting teacher not named Frank Langella. Produced by George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Grant Heslov, and largely directed by Clooney, it looks at the local community of players primarily from the standpoint of training and work -- the struggle to develop an instrument and the struggle to find a place to use it -- and from the first scenes of Hall running lines for class while doing yoga in her apartment, it is marvelously convincing. All of the dialogue is improvised, without rehearsal or retakes -- which right away says something about Capote's inverse relation of acting ability and intelligence -- and much of what happens is based on the participants' experiences and filmographies. Allen, for instance, is in life and in character the former star of a series of soft-porn movies, a Maxim/Stuff/Esquire/Playboy pinup girl, an ex-"Baywatch: Hawaii" regular and (evidently, from watching her here) an actress of substantial gifts attempting to overcome her stunning good looks.

An homage to hard-won talent

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