Wednesday, June 09, 2004

TV: Dinner For Five

Charles Nelson Reilly made an interesting point the other day. (There’s a sentence I haven’t written before.) He noted that impersonators used to be staples of any nightclub bill. At some point, a guy would come out and do the voices of Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Bette Davis or other luminaries. But why aren’t comics today imitating Keanu Reeves and Leonardo DiCaprio, or Sharon Stone and Nicole Kidman? Because it would be a short set, Reilly said, and you wouldn’t be able to tell anyone apart. He posed the question to the other guests at the table: why is it impossible to mimic contemporary actors?

Reilly’s answer was that most of them have little or no stage training. When you act solely for the camera, as he put it, you don’t have the chance to figure out which of your own characteristics you can use to build a performance. It seems like as good an explanation as any. Most of the actors I like not only come out of the theater but return to it on a regular basis. Kevin Spacey, for instance, before he moved away from the dark side. (It’s worth pointing out that Spacey himself is an accomplished mimic.) Or Laura Linney. Only someone with classical training could carry off the startling shift demanded of her character in MYSTIC RIVER. And just look at what happened when these two combined their chops in THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE.

That’s a joke.

Most comics who do impressions still trot out old reliables like Jimmy Stewart and stick to the big three of recognizable contemporary actors: Nicholson, Shatner and Walken. Ben Stiller used to do an uncanny Tom Cruise on his old TV show. But the bit wouldn’t work on stage, because it was all about the eyes and the smile. The camera had to get in close in order for the impression to register. Otherwise, Stiller would come across as weirdly intense. Sort of like he always does.

Consider this year’s Academy Award winners. I imagine the Oscars used to be a big deal for impersonators: whose voice do I have to work up now? But you could do a flawless rendition of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, or Charlize Theron and odds are I’d assume that was how you normally spoke. I might be able to figure out Renee Zellweger if you scrunched up your face and threw in a little Texas twang. But I might not.

I’m not saying that the actors of today can’t hold a candle to the stars of yesteryear. I don’t buy that. But I wouldn’t mind it if we got a little personality along with technique. Just for variety’s sake.

Other tidbits from the show: Reilly talked about the hell of working on Sid & Marty Krofft shows like LIDSVILLE. The producers had such limited budgets that they would shoot an entire season’s episodes at once. Every scene set around the Great Hoodoo’s fireplace would be filmed on the same day, making it impossible for the actors to keep the stories straight. (People are so quick to blame drugs when it always comes down to money.) He also said that he shouted all of his dialogue because it was the only way the children would listen. And it turns out Charles Durning and Jack Warden fought on the same card at Madison Square Garden. Who knew?

TV: Last Comic Standing

Will Durst is a contestant this year. Will Durst is also famous. Isn’t this like putting Michael Jordan on the Olympic basketball team? And whatever happened to last year’s winner, Dat Phan?