Sunday, September 19, 2010

Actors and Drinking.

Angie and I watched one of my favorite movies last night, Sideways.  Paul Giamatti is really quite wonderful in that film.  Actually, everyone is, and Sandra Oh is especially compelling in the smallest of the four leads.  I have always thought the film was one of the best of that year.  Beautifully written.

In any event, it got me thinking about some of the great 'drunk' performances in film.  Playing drunk is harder than one might expect.  Personally, I don't like to do it over a long period of time.  Stage time, that is.  It's tough to keep up that believable illusion for a couple of hours on stage.  Easier if it's just a scene or two, but an entire night of playing drunk is exhausting.  In Praying Small, my friend and wonderful actor, Rob Arbogast played drunk exquisitely.  Really subtle and precise work.  I, too, had a couple of drunk scenes in that play, but I think Rob really nailed it more than I did.  There was a sort of weariness underneath his drunk stuff.  It contained more pathos than my drunk stuff did.  Really great work and I hope he gets an Ovation nomination from it this winter.

I remember my first acting teacher in college, the ever irrascible Howard Orms, telling me, "The trick to playing drunk is trying not to play drunk."  Good advice from old Howard.  It doesn't always work that way but as a rule of thumb it's a good place to start.

There are a number that come to mind.  Dudley Moore's drunken Arthur in the movie of the same name is right up there as the funniest drunk on film.  Hollywood was still using alcoholism as a punch line back in those days and Moore really nailed it.  Plus it didn't hurt that the screenplay was so well written.  Angie and I still quote, to this day, lines from that film.  Just yesterday, in fact, something broke around here and I looked at her and said, "It's a goner."

Jack Lemmon, who publicly announced his own alcholism and his involvement with AA on television in the early eighties, took a mighty swing at playing a drunk in the landmark film Days of Wine and Roses.  He especially excelled at the wanton behavior of the relapsed drunk in the scene where he and Lee Remick are jumping on the bed.  It always makes me a little nervous watching that scene. 

Having had a few drinks here and there over my own life, I feel comfortable commenting on drunk acting. 

Peter O'Toole really nailed some of the characteristics of a lifelong drunk in My Favorite Year.  I particularly like the line he delivers after he has passed out on the conference table early in the movie and later repeats exactly what was said around his prone body.  "How can you remember that?  You were drunk." he is asked.  O'Toole replies, "My dear boy, there is drunk and then there is DRUNK."   Yep.

It's easy to write drunk.  That's why so many young playwrights set their plays in bars.  It allows them the freedom to have their characters say things without editing themselves.  Of course, as one matures as a writer, one realizes it's an easy and overused solution.  Young playwrights (myself included) always think earth-shattering dialogue is delivered in bars.  It's an easy trap to fall into but usually one gets past it with age and experience.  One of my early produced plays was called Closin' Time and it was set in a bar and the characters are always uttering the most profound, liquor-fueled truisms.  The truth is, of course, people get drunk in bars and say stupid things and act stupidly.  In Vino Veritas is highly overrated.

The best on-screen drunk performance I've ever seen, however, is Nick Cage's work in Leaving Las Vegas.  It was, for me anyway, so spot-on it was hard to even watch.  In fact, I couldn't sit though the film the first time I tried to watch it.  I left the theater half-way through.  I turned to my friend sitting next to me and said, "I just can't watch this yet."  A year or so later, I rented the film and got through it.  Cage is absolutely perfect in that film.  He doesn't take a false step.  Since then I've spoken to hundreds of ex-drinkers about it and the consensus is usually unanimous.  In the film Cage drinks like most alcoholics WANT to drink but often times don't have the cojones for it.  Of course, my play Praying Small is all about this but suffice to say real alcoholics don't drink, get funny, slur their words and then peacefully pass out.  That's a myth.  Real alcoholics get up the next day and do it all over again.  And the day after that.  And the day after that.  And pretty soon it ceases to be in the least amusing.  Real alcoholics, like Nick Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas, want to drink until they die.  Just lay in a dirty bed in a dirty hotel room surrounded by endless bottles of vodka and simply drink until they die.  For the non-alcoholic this is absolute madness.  Inconceivable.  And it is.  It is sheer insanity.  And it's a true and perfect depiction of the disease.

The thing that bothers me about film, television, stage and novel accounts of the life of the alcoholic is the conspicous absence of 'the day after.'  The scene is always a cut-away following the inebriated hi-jinx of the heavy drinker.  They forget to write the pain of the next morning.  The fear, rage, humiliation and shame of the following day.  The impetus to do it all again.  The actual horror of the disease.  Leaving Las Vegas does do that, however, and it's debilitating in its honesty. 

There are others that completely miss the boat.  Michael Keaton in Clean and Sober is not for a second believable.  The writing in that film is not bad but Keaton doesn't nail it.  One gets the idea he knows everything is going to be okay right from the start.  Recovering alcoholics, some after thirty years without a drink, never think everthing's eventually gonna be okay.  It takes work and the desire to drink never leaves.  Keaton plays it as a cure.  He's cured.  A littel rehab, some rock-solid common sense, why, that's all one needs.  Bullshit.  The desire for a drink is there forever.  Keaton plays it like a life without alcohol condemns a man to a life of being in a bad mood.  And Sandra Bullock misses it entirely in 28 Days.  Albert Finney nails the depression part of the disease in Under the Volcano, but misses the reason why drinkers take the first's fun.  At least at first.  That specificness is one of the reasons why I liked Giamatti's performance in Sideways.  He's not a disfunctional drunk.  He can still hold things together.  But he gives the clear impression that he's living not for the next life experience but for the next drink of wine.  His semi-sober moments between drinks are anticipatory moments.  One can see him conciously struggling to 'get through' a non-drinking moment so as to more fully enjoy the drinking moment ahead.  It's a tremendously subtle piece of acting and not lost on me.  Really nice work.  I'm glad we picked up that film yesterday.  Every now and then I like to be reminded of how a hangover feels.

Another beautiful pleasant valley Sunday in Burbank.  A walk, some breakfast, some writing, helping a student out with an upcoming audition, some online research, all in all a day of absolute perfection.  Lately I've had a lot of these days.

See you tomorrow.