Sunday, March 06, 2005

TV: Unscripted

HBO’s semi-improvised series about struggling actors wrapped up its first and perhaps only season last week. Despite the network’s marketing savvy and the presence of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney as producers, it didn’t make much of an impact. I can understand why. It’s a frustrating and at times maddening show. But one that I couldn’t stop watching.

It did a lot of things wrong. Every week the actors (playing themselves, and there’ll be more on that in a moment) were subjected to contrived humiliations that more often than not were their own faults. Their “characters” were inconsistent. Jennifer Hall, for instance, supposedly knows Hollywood player Akiva Goldsman well enough for him to land her a job as Angelina Jolie’s stand-in on the upcoming movie MR. & MRS. SMITH. But she’s so naïve that she plops down in co-star Brad Pitt’s chair without thinking, and asks director Doug Liman if he’s “involved with the production.” Promising storylines – like Krista Allen’s conflicted feelings over her son’s success as a child actor while she tries to overcome her soft-core past – were never developed.

But the show succeeded in showing acting for what it is: a craft that’s also a difficult, punishing job. Every episode had at least one scene that brought the point home. Bryan Greenberg going up for a movie role that mirrors his own life only to be told he’s not right for it. Or being privy to the thoughts of casting agents and producers (which veer from lust to jealousy) as Krista auditions for a sitcom. And Frank Langella dazzled as acting teacher Goddard Fulton. A man drunk on his own insight, at times justifiably so.

Langella has an unfair advantage over his co-stars, in that Fulton is clearly a character. One partly based on him (footage from his performance in 1970’s THE TWELVE CHAIRS was used in one episode), but a fictional creation nonetheless. Jennifer, Krista and Bryan are playing scripted versions of themselves, which I fear in the long run may hurt their careers.

I was a big fan of Bravo’s THE IT FACTOR, which followed actors in New York and Los Angeles as they tried to break in. When I see people from the show in movies or on TV (most recently season one’s Nathan Wetherington in BAADASSSSS!) I experience a small, I-knew-them-when thrill. Which doesn’t detract from their performances because THE IT FACTOR was a documentary. It didn’t present Jeremy Renner as a “character,” but as a relative unknown weighing whether playing the heavy in the big-screen version of SWAT was a good career move.

Conversely, established actors can “play themselves” without fear because they’re actually tweaking the public’s perception of them. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH hasn’t affected the actor’s ability to be accepted in other roles.

But UNSCRIPTED strands its principals in a shaky middle ground, giving us “Krista,” “Jennifer” and “Bryan” as characters and as actors, with no history to separate them. On the show, Jennifer landed work as an extra in CONSTANTINE. When she showed up on screen, I was instantly knocked out of the movie. Later this year, Bryan will appear in PRIME opposite Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. But will I see a twenty-something New Yorker in love or “Bryan” pretending to be one?

Believe me, I know how to separate an actor from a role, even though I still refer to Colm Feore as Glenn Gould. But it’s getting harder. We know too much about our actors now. Fay Weldon calls movie stars an invention of the 20th century – and notes that we live in the 21st.

Tonight’s debut of THE STARLET won’t help matters. And it’s only going to get stranger. Krista Allen’s next movie is FEAST, the making of which will be documented on the third season of PROJECT GREENLIGHT. So the next time she’ll be on TV it won’t be as “Krista,” but as Krista. Until the movie comes out, when she’ll be someone else.