12 July 2007

I'm Brian Dennehy, Dammit


I had a curious experience last week. My Dad has a birthday coming up, and his choice of celebration was to spend it with us seeing a show in New York. Which, you know, makes it kind of like our birthdays as opposed to his, but he hasn't figured that out yet and we are loathe to draw notice to it. His choice of show was Inherit the Wind, but sadly it closed before his actual birthday. Not one to stand on custom, dear Dad bought tickets for a performance the Friday of the show's closing weekend. It was a great show, thought I, and my parents said they enjoyed it much more than the film, which they of course rented in preparation for their theatrical experience (neither of them attempted to tackle the book). Even my sister and her fella' (Friend Adam) enjoyed it, and they had been dreading the experience for months once they researched what the show was actually about.

A couple of days later, on something of a whim, I had another entertainment experience of a somewhat different variety. Sucker that I am for cartoons of any sort, I found myself sitting in a movie theatre packed to the projector with minors, watching a story about the struggles of a young rat who eschews convention to become a connoisseur of all things edible. Ratatouille is the latest Pixar flick, and I have to confess that my feelings about it were about as ambivalent as my sister's and Adam's were about Inherit the Wind, prior to the experience. I was, in part, coaxed into it by a review I read that heaped praises upon the animators for their close study of the movement of classic physical comedians. Which is to say, I was drawn by the strange mix of excitement for new possibilities and dread that they are gradually rendering me obsolete.

And just what in the holy hinterlands do these two things have to do with one another? Well, Google it out a bit, and I'm sure you'll put it together.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

Hint: The clue is in the title. Of this post. That underlined thing at the top.

You got it! It's Teh Dennehy. He's the voice of a fatherly rat, Django, in the aforementioned Pixar flick, and in Inherit the Wind he played the side of creationism in the form of "Matthew Harrison Brady". The essence of my experience was in watching Ratatouille and thinking, over and over, "Where have I heard that voice recently...?" (It appears as though my inability to recognize celebrities on the street extends to recognizing their voices out of context.) Eventually I put it together, and spent a lot of the rest of the movie marvelling at the eccentricities my and Teh Dennehy's (barely comparable) careers share. Odds are that when he was working on the rat thing, he probably hadn't even been offered Inherit the Wind yet, and yet they neatly overlapped in execution, allowing me as audience member to indelibly associate them. And perhaps they were more related than was at first apparent. The Disney money Dennehy made from playing a disapproving father (rat) may have allowed him to take what we have to assume was a lower-paying gig on stage.

The tradition of stacking "prestige" projects with crowd-pleasers is ages old, and not limited to film actors. It's an interesting aspect of a career that includes a degree of choice. Which is to say, a career with enough success that others offer you roles, instead of you constantly offering yourself like a dessert menu during the post-dinner lull at a restaurant. I believe, however, that the variation in choice of roles is based on a common ethic, regardless of degree of success or intention for calculated results. Said ethic:

Ya' never know.

(I am reminded here of an imitation of a random woman Todd, Heather and I met whilst working on Silent Lives. The show was performed in [and, in part, based on] the Hotel Jermyn in Scranton, a building that had been converted mostly to housing for senior citizens and one that now serves as home to The Northeast Theatre. In various silent-film-era costumes we'd bounce from the abandoned ballroom on the second floor to the common area on the first for the bathroom, and there would always be a circle of octogenarians there blithely minding their groceries and gossip until we'd suddenly show up, a flash from their youths. Anyway, the snatches of conversation we'd pick up from them [once they accepted we weren't there to mock their youth {well, not exactly, anyway}] have stayed with us still. The woman we quote most had two gems I remember. The first: "Always cook with fennel. I get real bad gas, and fennel clears that right up. Ya' gotta cook with fennel." This with a strange, nasal sort of dialect blend that I associate with 1940s Poconos somehow--midway between a Jersey and a Pittsburgh. And the other jewel, chanted at least three times without pauses: )

Ya' never know.

It ain't exactly hope. It's a more cynical admission of just how unpredictable the business is, and how mysterious the forces of fortune can intervene in an actor's life. It's a mantra supported as much by great missed chances as it is by ones somehow caught. To mine a previous example, imagine kicking yourself for scoffing at that show you were cast in for which they wanted you to sing and dance with a Muppet-style puppet, said kicking because the show moved to Broadway and won a Tony. Or, imagine yourself as Nikki Blonsky, the brand-spanking new starlet of the brand-spanking new Hairspray movie practically plucked from the halls of her high school.

Those who subscribe to the "Ya' never know" school of thought do know one thing, however. That is, whatever you are giving a chance, when you walk into the first audition, the first rehearsal, the first performance, you give the "never know" chant a rest long enough to give yourself this little chirp:

I'm [insert name here], dammit.

2 comments:

Moheggie said...

(holding up my right thumb)

Davey said...

"I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?"
"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash"
"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past"
"I am the Walrus" (Goo goo g'joob)
"I am the law"

and of course:
"I'm Gumby Dammit"