Monday, June 6, 2011

Last Tango in Los Angeles: The Dresser

Last Tango in Los Angeles: The Dresser: "Sir Donald Wolfit. The famed British actor/manager. Although better than I used to be I still have an uncanny ability to screw up all thi..."

The Dresser

Sir Donald Wolfit.  The famed British actor/manager.

Although better than I used to be I still have an uncanny ability to screw up all things technical. 

We have Direct TV here at the house.  And one of the things with that package is one can record certain programs on the DVR and watch them later.  I particularly like to record films on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) and watch them later, especially old classics I haven't seen for some time.  Last night I was searching for a film I'd recorded some time earlier and found I had a bunch of crap recorded as well, stuff I would never watch but seemed a good idea that the time, like the original Star Trek or a documentary on Amish midgets in WWI.  So I decided to delete a bunch of it.  In the process I accidentally deleted a whole gaggle of films I had recorded that I really wanted to see at some point or another.

One of the few left, however, after my brutal purging of the DVR, was 'The Dresser,' with Albert Finney and Tom Courtney.

I'd sort of forgotten just how very good both Finney and Courtney are in that 1983 film.  I found myself smiling throughout the movie, mostly at the wonderful depiction of British theatre in the 1940s.  Ah, what a wonderful and lost lifestyle of the itinerant actor.  It was a time and place we shall never see again.  A whole existence gone now.  Reams have been written on that time on the British boards.  The script for The Dresser is a little more lightweight than I remember it being, but still wonderfully satisfying, based on a play by Ronald Hargrove.  Peter Yates directed. 

The leading character of 'Sir' is allegedly based on the late character actor, Donald Wolfit, who can be seen in a few supporting film roles of the period.  In fact, I was thinking of adding the role 'Mr. Davenport-Scott' to my resume just for fun.  Casting directors would be clueless, of course.  Most of them here in Hollywood have never seen or read a play.  "I have been told stories, dark and mystical, about actors standing on a platform and acting out characters for a handful of people, no camera anywhere near."

One of the standard cliches about Los Angeles that has absolutely proven to be true is the bottomless ignorance of the film and TV people out here, the casting directors, studio executives, screen writers, etc.  "I see here you have Willy Loman on your resume.  Now, is that the Willy Loman in 'Saved by the Bell?  Screech's friend?"

I actually saw a while back in a trade paper out here of a project being mounted, this is true, of old episodes of 'Hill Street Blues' to be performed on stage.  No doubt the producers thought they were doing 'the classics.'  I can just hear them now.  "Well, the language then was so much different.  It's important for our actors to learn how to handle that kind of language.  Because, you know, if you can do the tricky dialogue from 'Hill Street Blues,' why, you can do anything.'

It's easy to get jaded out here. 

But back to 'The Dresser.'  I told Angie as we were watching, if there were any period I would like to have lived in, it would be that time depicted in the film, the traveling touring company, the working actor, decade after decade, assaying the roles of Shakespeare nightly on a host of small town stages throughout the British Isles.  The time of the young Olivier and Gielgud and Richardson.  When the corner butcher spoke knowledgeably about his favorite Hamlets, his fond recollections of the various Richards or Lears or Iagos he has seen over the years.  When people had passionate feelings about such things, much as today's public compares and contrasts different first basemen they have seen over the years.

There is a direct, unbroken line still today.  For example, I worked with Michael Moriarty who worked with Ian McKellan who worked with Olivier who worked with Terry who worked with Keats who worked with Garrick who worked with someone...all the way back to Richard Burbage, Shakespeare's original Hamlet and Shylock and Lear.  And the same can be said with film, actually.  I'm doing a new play at the moment, still in rehearsal.  In it is a wonderful character actor named RD Call.  RD has worked with Nicholson who worked with John Huston who worked with Bogart who worked with Barrymore who worked with Garbo who worked with...and it goes on and on.  I love that unbroken feeling of connection. 

In the midst of it all, so beautifully depicted in 'The Dresser,' is that near worshipful attitude toward Shakespeare himself.  Completely foreign to most actors and directors in Los Angeles, of course.  That unspoken acknowledgement among stage actors of his genius, no conversation brooked; that he was head and shoulders above any dramatists before or since. 

Years ago I was doing 'Julius Caeser' in New York.  A few of the old-timers in that production would speak lovingly of the dozens of parts played through the years, the great Shakespearean roles tackled, the great performances they have seen.  I remember one old actor telling me of his experiences with John Gielgud in a production of  'The Tempest' he had been a part of.  I chuckled at his imitation of Gielgud on the first day of rehearsal.  Gielgud was directing.  Speaking to the actors, "If I were you I wouldn't bother writing down any of the blocking I give you for a few weeks.  I'm quite certain I shan't be using any of it."

Another time I was doing a play, a new play, in a large regional theatre in upstate New York.  One of the actors had done Othello with Olivier at The National in the sixties.  He approached Olivier, who was playing the moor as well as directing, about a line he was having trouble saying believably.  Olivier said, "Dear chap, it really doesn't matter.  I can assure you no one will be watching you whilst I have the stage."

I remember Moriarty telling me about working with Katherine Hepburn in a TV production of 'Glass Menagerie' in the seventies.  Michael was play The Gentleman Caller (which he won an Emmy for) and the great Kate was playing Amanda.  Sitting around off-camera, waiting for various scenes to be lit, they would speak sonnets out loud to each other to see who had the best breath control.  Hepburn asserted the problem with actors today was they had no breath control.  One must be able to say an entire sonnet in one breath and still have plenty of air left at the end, she said.  Michael told me he was utterly astonished at her breath capacity, and she was well into her sixties by then.

I remember talking to the old character actor, Ron McLarty, years ago who had worked with Ralph Richardson in the mid-sixties in London.  He told me he noticed Richardson carrying around a tattered, clipped, piece-meal script.  Finally he asked if he could take a look at it.  Richardson showed him and Ron noticed all of Sir Ralph's lines had been cut out and the only thing left in the script were the lines from the other actors.  Richardson said, "Oh, I know my lines.  They're not important.  But I have to know the other lines equally well so I might listen better."

I recall seeing a documentary on Olivier on the BBC some years back.  Sir Larry was asked his opinion of 'Method Acting.'  He gazed disdainfully for a moment at the interviewer and finally said, "If the audience doesn't see it, it doesn't count."

Ah, well.  As I said, if I could live another life in another time, it would be as a supporting actor in Great Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.  I can't imagine how anything else could have been so very satisfying. 

See you tomorrow.