Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Actors Talk, by Dennis Brown

Actors Talk: Profiles and Stories from the Acting Trade, by Dennis Brown. New York: Limelight Editions, 1999. 280 pages, $25.00, ISBN 0-87910-287-X.

I hate watching actors talk about acting. Humor, intelligence, and insight are often eclipsed by preening self-importance. Meryl Streep proves to be as mannered and solicitous playing herself as she is playing someone else. Faye Dunaway shows up on Inside the Actors’ Studio and blames Mommie Dearest on the director’s lack of “modulation.” Host James Lipton, head sycophant and bottlewasher, merely gazes adoringly, leaving the fetid statement to linger like a particularly bad fart. Can we find a venue for shop talk free of pretensions, ego, and disproportionate attention to self-preservation?

We can, in a nifty little book called Actors Talk: Profiles and Stories from the Acting Trade. It is a featherweight but rich collection of conversations, career recaps, and anecdotal gems compiled from interviews over the years by screenwriter, reviewer, and author Dennis Brown. Reduced to quotes on a page and denied a camera, these pros come off as savvy, accomplished, and occasionally even warm.

Brown’s cast is a hodgepodge of players, many now dead. He recorded the musings of no less than Lillian Gish, Jose Ferrer, Gregory Peck, and Jessica Tandy, but the lesser names (Barry Bostwick, Stacy Keach, George Rose) are the real stars here, as they finally get a voice of their own. Where else can you find seven pages lovingly devoted to Beulah Bondi, the versatile and venerable mother actress of them all? Interviewed in 1978 at 86 after Brown found her listed in the Los Angeles phone book, she proudly recalled her old-school approach. Each job brought a new character and new dialogue to memorize, which she incorporated into the person she created. “Acting is a profession, the same as medicine and law are professions, and these professions require training,” she maintains. Such unglamorous toiling was echoed by Tandy, who freely dishes the dirt on Marlon Brando in the original stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. “[He] didn’t sustain the long run,” she recalls. “He would be brilliant one night, and the next night, if he was tired or bored, he would play tired or bored. He didn’t have the discipline.”

If one theme is woven throughout the many reflections between these hard covers, it’s a no-nonsense, no-hissy-fit approach to the business. There is a gracious honesty to the underrated Paul Winfield (“I was skulking around, wanting to be noticed but not forcing it too much…”). He holds a reverence for Gregory Peck, who paid for a young Winfield’s whitening make-up so he could essay the role of the Gentleman Caller in a stage production of The Glass Menagerie. Winfield found Peck’s gesture to be “fantastic, it changed my life completely.”

Speaking of Peck, he comes off here as the greatest sage since Thespis. Sprinkled amidst the gushing fan memories of Atticus Finch is one rare bit of levity told to Brown by a longtime Peck admirer: “I grew up in a small backwater town in Michigan. I needed to begin my life, but I lacked the strength to break those family bonds and move on. Then one day — this was thirty-five years ago — I passed by our local movie theater, and the marquee read:

GREGORY PORK IN PECK CHOP HILL

and I knew it was time to get out of that town. So in an indirect way he could never imagine, Gregory Peck directly influenced my life.”

There are bracing reality checkpoints scattered throughout. Barry Bostwick notes that “when you go see Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, that’s not Fanny Brice up on that stage. You’re seeing a performer who is out there swimming in her ego.” When Sterling Hayden sounds off, his trademark irreverence and bombast jump right off the page. During his busy period in the early 1950s, he found most of his movies to be “conceived in contempt of life and spewn out into screens across the world with noxious ballyhoo; saying nothing, contemptuous of truth, sullen and lecherous.” On another occasion, he interrupts Brown to announce that “the part of Connecticut where my wife is living is not Connecticut anymore. It’s suburbia. Suburbia is national shit.”

There are surprises, too, as when stage star George Rose goes contrary. He registers appreciation for Elizabeth Taylor’s earthy turn in the widely reviled Reflections in a Golden Eye, then turns right around and trashes the widely adored Annie Hall. He found it to be “a disaster. I know everyone loved it, but for me all that improvising between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton was like watching two drunks at a party who didn’t know when to shut up.”

The alchemy of acting is pondered, but just as often Brown’s subjects prefer to talk in terms ribald, casual, and disarming. They come off as pleasant conversationalists, too, with all save Hayden sounding like fairly well behaved dinner guests. Brown likes actors, yet he stops short of idolatry. Actors Talk is a jaunty read, smoothly edited, crisply written, and filled with admiration for those who labor under the bright lights.