The Demon Seesaw Actors RideHis hands were trembling so much I thought he was going to break into a hundred pieces like a Tom and Jerry cartoon character. He had been sitting at a nearby table in an L.A. actors' hangout and as he got up to leave, he threw me a "We've never met, but I know you" wave. I waved back and asked him to join my table. He hesitated a beat, then came over.
I was having a late supper with an actress friend, keeping a date we'd made in New York earlier that week. We three exchanged perfunctory L.A. versus New York cliches: the requisite "Love your work" phrase and avoidance of the "What are you doing?" question. The trembling hands continued throughout our 10-minute conversation. I resisted the urge to ask him if he was all right because something inside me understood the tremble and knew the answer.
This man had once been at the top of our profession. A series of successful films and an Oscar nomination had capped a hot streak lasting some four or five years in the mid-70's. Things turned bad. He was now 50 and forgotten. Facing me was an actor climbing the ladder again. Lightly tanned, clean-shaven, eggshell thin, in a blazer and tie; the hands trembling to hold onto the bottom rungs once more. He excused himself and said he was off to see a midnight movie. "I want to get lost in the dark of the theater," he said.
My friend and I fell silent, wondered if we could have been more solicitous, and decided it was best not to invade a shell that seemed barely held together. But his tremble stayed with me through dinner and after I drove her home. It awoke a fear in me. It became a symbol of the questions I had been asking myself more persistently each year. Why do actors live the lives we do?
Some basic truths about us, some fundamentals: married, single, divorced, rich, broke, breaking in or holding on, the morning after Oscar, Tony or Emmy, or struggling along without recognition; whether we are newcomers, superstars, an enduring light, a flash in the pan, a has-been or a comeback king, from low self-esteem to insufferable arrogance - we are the seesaw kids. Kids who hold on tight and wait, wait for the call, the audition, the part, the review - and then we do it again. Those are the ground rules. You accept them if you are an actor. And you accept the demons.
One veteran character actor told me he is so excited when the job comes to a close. He takes himself and his wife to Martha's Vineyard and for four or five days he is in bliss. "And then," he said, "every time the phone rings, I am running up the dock like an old fool, thinking 'Oh, God, please don't hang up. I hope it is work.' "I've got money now," he said, "but that's no comfort." Another actor, 34 years old, told me when he's waiting he drives back and forth across the United States calling his agent every few days from phone booths. He has no money and no comfort. And another, convinced each time his illnesses are not hypochondriacal, drives himself to doctors' offices and waits for test results. One actress does health spas, another buys and sells houses, a third designs gardens. "Dangerous things, gardens," she said. "You never want to come out of them." A not unsuccessful man with an Oscar told me that when he is out of work an inertia so great overwhelms him that he is practically catatonic. He could not leave his home during one period for over three months. "Why?" I asked. "Fear," he said.
And fear encourages the demons insecurity and uncertainty. An elderly actress was over for dinner. When we sat down she threw back a straight Scotch and said, "You know what I did today? I did a general get-to-know-you, they call it, at a new agency I've just signed with. Look, I don't expect them to kiss my backside, but I have been at this for 38 years and I sat there as kids younger than my children said things like, 'She'd be great as so-and-so's wife in his new series' or 'How good are your contacts in town? Who do you know personally?' " She was torn between her insecurity and need to be accepted and her anger at expecting and not receiving the treatment she felt her lifetime of achievement had entitled her to.
An agent once said to me when I mentioned I was in my third month of unemployment, "How I envy you! You can sleep late; take the kids to the park; go on holiday." "Why don't I take the keys to your office," I said, "lock the doors, send home your staff and let you know when you can come back to work. Wait until I have something for you." He laughed, but didn't get it. How could he? How could anyone who has not experienced unemployment several times a year every year of his working life. No matter how often an actor may tell himself that a refusal is not necessarily a rejection, the word "No" only deepens his self-doubt.
And, even when employed, the actor is still stalked by uncertainty. A great Broadway star once told me that during the entire rehearsal period of one of her many triumphs, she got out of her taxi 20 blocks before the rehearsal studio and walked the entire way in order to stop shaking. "I was certain I was going to be fired," she said. I recalled that when I was a young actor my famous leading lady asked if I would drive her to the first day of rehearsals out of town. "Sure," I said, too cocky to be nervous myself. She got into my car; we drove three blocks and she promptly vomited. "Wait until there is more at stake," she said. "You'll know what it's like." And, as the seesaw rocked back and forth for me, I remembered her words.
I remembered again when years later a close friend of mine called and said, "You're back in town. Let's have dinner." It had been close to 10 months since we had seen each other. We met at a local restaurant. When last I'd seen him, he and his wife had bought a beautiful Bel Air house, one Mercedes and one Jaguar and put their children in private schools. During our dinner he freely admitted that it had all gone bad for them. As we waited in the garage, he told me the house was sold, so, too, the cars, and they were now living in a two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood. A wreck of a car was brought up by the attendant. "Ah, well," he said, "back to coach. Keeps you humble." He drove away smiling, with a wave.
In between actors' waves to each other there are months and even years of travel to foreign countries, divorces, awards, clinics, love affairs, feuds, and yet whenever we meet we pick up the thread again.
Though sometimes it's more the needle than the thread. Actors can be immensely cruel to one another. There are times when you meet an actor you don't know and he greets you with hostility or condescension or even dismissal. It can be blown away sometimes - and sometimes it develops into downright hatred. A difference in acting styles, position on a set, or being surrounded by too many assistants, can cause actors to polarize. If your career moves ahead or drops behind a friend, the friendship is jeopardized. Your demons against his.
And those demons themselves are competing with an irrevocable one: aging. One strong, up-from-the-floor fighter of an actress said to me, "I won't be seeing you for a while, darling. I'm off to play the mother in a TV pilot. Can you imagine? The mother!" she said again. And then totally without rancor, she said, "You know, I never dreamed it would turn out like this. I thought it would always be Phaedra or Shaw or working with the great directors. I never dreamed."
One lunch by a pool a young friend of mine said of a 50-ish actor walking by our table, "Look at him. A fine figure of a has-been." I laughed, but it stung. A sag in your career or a sag in your chin, and you're a party joke. And, if someone else isn't noticing your graying hair or expanding waistline, you are. The actors' anxiety over aging is more acute than most. Part of the product starts to wear out and the consumer wants a new one.
Several years ago, on the set of a film, eight of us between the ages of 35 and 50 sat around the table. I studied my face-lifted, hair-dyed, overtanned, lipo-bellied, toupeed, capped-teeth and skin-peeled colleagues. One friend said, "I'm making it at last - at 48 - I'm making it. I'm going to dye my hair, pump my muscles and smile my way to stardom."
That smile can be difficult to maintain. In Paris one early morning, waiting to be fitted for a beard, I noticed in the booth next to me one of the world's great beauties. As she was being fitted for a wig, the man attending her said, when an old film of hers was mentioned, meaning no harm, "God, you were beautiful then." She smiled, looked him in the eye, and said, without a trace of bitterness, "Ah, well, we all have our moment, don't we." When the moment passes, it requires of the older actor a profound dignity. Those who age gracefully before the public do so while struggling privately to let go of that for which they were initially loved.
And deeper inside us, past vanity, past fear, past the waiting, past uncertainty and insecurity, there is a demon I can find no name for.
One early morning I looked out the window of the rented house in the country where I was working. Sitting poolside, wrapped in a fur coat, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by empty champagne bottles, was my leading lady. It was 6 A.M. I went down and sat next to her. A long silence and then she said, "I can't. I can't any more. I can't go where I have to go inside to be really good and survive. I hate revealing myself and I despise myself for wanting to be liked."
I fear the demons like every other actor. But more than their existence, I fear their departure from me. I need them. They keep away the nameless one. Actors have a legitimate claim on the word "survivor." But just surviving is a victory with no spoils. I want the spoils, and I'll take the pain that goes with getting them.
With each new role comes a test of heart, mind and spirit. Through the work an actor find his place in society. Up against a task larger than himself, he can transform and overcome. More than suffering, more than success, more than defeat, the work strengthens and illuminates. It calms the tremble. It steadies the seesaw.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Why Do You Want to Act?
I am indebted to "Ace Your Audition" website for this piece by Frank Langella