Sunday, February 12, 2012

Time the Avenger

Once again, like my book, I'm feeling a bit overshadowed and sidetracked. Celebrity deaths continue at a strangely hastened pace, and I focus on one while others focus on the more famous and inevitable.

Ben Gazzara, one of America's most understated yet accomplished actors, died last week. As Playbill's obituary writes, he was a "Darkly handsome, with a brooding, manly persona, the New York-born, Italian-American actor." That, and his talent, made him one of my favorites.

As a teenage theatre major at Kent State University, I had the daunting task of playing Brick in a student production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Having seen the Paul Newman film version, I thought the role a sexy, and sexually ambivalent, character. Lacking DVDs and such in those days, I found the Theatre World annual photos books of each year's shows, and found a page of photos of Ben Gazzara in the role he originated.

I'd since become fascinated by the annuals, edited for decades by John Willis, who seemed to have made sure any production still featuring male shirtless actors was included.

Although mine was an unstaged class scene between Brick and Maggie, and the probability of a nineteen-year-old portraying a manic-depressive alcoholic was slightly improbable, I took the assignment seriously.

I foraged at a vintage clothing store to find a pair of silk pajamas for the role (I still have them!). I forget who found the crutch for me. But I'll never forget the embarrassing moment when, in a fit of characteristic rage where Brick flings his crutch at Maggie, instead, in front of the entire faculty and graduate students, my crutch went sliding offstage and into the orchestra pit.

Some odd ad-libbing took place. I hobbled around with the character's limp, glass in hand, while someone retrieved the crutch and snuck it onstage.

The blog Sheila Variations has an extended excerpt of a scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Here's an interesting quote Maggie has about Brick:
Of course, you always had that detached quality as if you were playing a game without much concern over whether you won or lost, and now that you’ve lost the game, not lost but just quit playing, you have that rare sort of charm that usually only happens in very old or hopelessly sick people, the charm of the defeated. — You look so cool, so cool, so enviably cool.

Gazzara may have never had to deal with such a forced gaffe-induced improv in his career, but he was also known for the loose, semi-improvisational films he later made with John Cassavetes.

While my career path thankfully merged toward other more sensible aspects of the arts, when a smartly-written blog post started making the rounds, it struck a chord for me and other colleagues.

Tom Vanderwell's Wayfarer blog features an excellent essay on how his theatre training led to his successes in life, even though he did not become a theatre professional. Vanderwell's points are great and full of truth.

I feel a closer connection to creativity skills, not just social and business situations he cites. For my fiction work, a sense of drama, character development, and especially dialogue, are probably the best skills handed over from performing. Being trained to learn a sense of pacing in great dialogue like Williams' and that of other playwrights, hopefully had an influence.

But closer to Vanderwell's points; like he did, I learned all aspects of getting a project done. And if it doesn't work out as I'd hoped, I learn from it and move on to the next project.

Did I convincingly portray Brick, a young man caught in denial, an alcohol-induced injury (also a metaphor for his psychological damage) and a repressed love for his male friend? In all probability, I was adequate, despite the crutch gaffe. But I moved on.

Ben Gazzara, who created the role, moved from theatre to film, had a period of terrible depression and mental strife, but had a fascinating resurgence in popularity with choice cameos later in his life.

Because for ten years after my theatre training and work, I switched to dance, and then wrestled as an adult for 14 years, I do have a personal understanding of bodily injury. While it's nothing in comparison to the fictional sports accidents in PINS and Every Time I Think of You, hopefully, my own smaller experience led to a sympathetic depiction in my books.

It's difficult, however, to be sympathetic about the deaths of artists like Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, who had everything and wasted it with drug and alcohol addiction. Their handlers, friends and family seem more like enabling sycophants, more concerned with money and associative fame. That's the tragedy.

I'm more touched to see a person who defied obstacles and lived a full life, like skier Jill Kinmont Boothe, who also died just recently.

Paralyzed in a skiing accident only days before she was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Boothe's biography The Other Side of the Mountain became a pair of films in the 1970s. New Mobility reposted a recent interview/feature about Boothe.

Boothe died at 75 after a lifetime of providing inspiration for disabled people around the world. Gazzara died at 81, after a lifetime of accomplishments, which included overcoming his problems, not succumbing to them.

Is it insensitive to compare? Is it considered more proper to shed a tear tonight while watching the Grammy Awards, whose scripts have no doubt been frantically changed to accommodate the morbidly well-timed demise of one of its biggest winners? Will celebrities grow tired of Tweeting their vapid sympathies, perhaps after several drinks at the lavish party to be thrown by Whitney Houston's former producer, Clive Davis, at the very same hotel where she died?

Like a ticking Big Ben clock, Time the Avenger moves on, whether we success or not, whether we die tragically or quietly, too soon or late in life. Will we be an inspiration, or a cautionary tale?

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