Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech;
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.
HAMLET, Act II, scene 2
The North Crawford Wig and Mask Company is a community theatre servicing a small New England town. Townspeople perform and direct, make the sets, and their neighbors come out in droves to see them do Shakespeare, Moliere, Thornton Wilder. Theatre is done for the love of it, in their spare time, with no pay. But the theatre company is a microcosm of the larger role that art can play in our lives, and in a way what the North Crawford Wig and Mask Company does is no different from what goes on in a multi-million dollar movie with movie stars as the leads. Acting is acting. The desire to play “make believe” into adulthood is at the heart of it. It’s what Angelina Jolie wants to do, it’s what Daniel Day-Lewis wants to do, and it’s what the actors in North Crawford want to do.
Who Am I This Time?, an American Playhouse production from 1982, is one of the best movies about acting, and what it is, and why, that I have ever seen. It’s up there with Cassavetes’ Opening Night, and if you know me, then you know that that is high praise indeed. Directed by Jonathan Demme, and based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, it is a funny and accurate look at why grown men and women put on costumes and cavort about with fake swords for a paying populace.
One of the misconceptions about actors is that they are show-offs and egotists. I have spent my life around actors, and this is hardly the case. For the most part, actors are introverts, sometimes socially awkward and quite shy. Most of them are very good listeners, better than most. The showoffs are the exception, not the rule. There is something freeing about pretending to be someone else, especially for natural introverts. There is an exhibitionistic quality in the pursuit, but that comes from the shy person who cannot “show up” in his real life and only can be “seen” when he is pretending to be someone else. This is not to say that acting is made up of neurotics and head cases. That is another misconception. It is really about the desire, and the need, to still play make-believe when you are an adult. The fantasy is preferable to the reality. You can do things, say things, even feel things, when you are acting that are not acceptable in society, things you would never allow yourself to do. What freedom, what beautiful freedom. It becomes an imperative for the actor: He MUST be someone else, and only then can he fully be himself.
The title of the movie, “Who Am I This Time?” addresses the open and eager dynamic of the actor willing to lose himself, to NOT be himself. He can be Lear, Oedipus, Felix or Oscar. Just tell him who to be, and he’ll be it. What’s Hecuba to him, you ask? He’ll figure it out and you can bet he will then weep for her. His life is nothing without those periodic “dreams of passion”.
Harry Nash (played by Christopher Walken) is a shy bumbling hardware store clerk, with a secretive strange past. He can barely speak without stuttering and he can barely walk without tripping over himself. There are awkward terrible pauses as the listener waits for him to say something … even if it’s just “Yes” or “No”.
And yet, he is a celebrity in North Crawford due to his intense passionate performances in the North Crawford Wig and Mask productions. When the movie opens, we are in the middle of the final performance of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, with a rapt audience filling the community hall. Cyrano, in plumed hat and puffy black costume, staggers around on the stage, wailing to the sky, as his fellow actors look on. His performance is so intense that one woman forgets to say her line; in that moment she has become an audience member. We can’t see that it’s Christopher Walken because of the costume and the nose, although the voice is unmistakable. He gives a monologue that would rival Edmund Kean in its bombast and passion. His gestures are huge and dramatic, his voice supple and full, his eyes traumatized and pained. On some level, it is totally ridiculous (I laughed out loud), and on another level, it is painfully beautiful. He is on a small stage in a hall where they probably have community events, and also voting booths on election day, but for those brief moments, he transforms it into 17th century France. The set is hand-painted, the costumes second-hand, the acting over-the-top, but the play’s the thing. We get the sense that he is giving yet another performance that the town will be abuzz about … until the next one.
Harry is so shy that he can’t deal with the curtain call, and always takes one quick bow and then disappears, much to the befuddlement of his cast members, still onstage bowing. He never goes to cast parties.
At the reception following the performance (which Harry, of course, does not attend), Doris, the director (played by Dorothy Patterson) pulls aside one of the actors, George (Robert Ridgely) and says that she doesn’t think she will be directing the next play which will be Streetcar Named Desire. “Mother’s sick, I won’t have time… Besides, I think it’s about time the club started developing some new directors”. She then makes an impromptu announcement to the crowd that their next show will be A Streetcar Named Desire, and it will be directed by George. Everyone cheers. George is stunned and afraid. He runs a successful business installing storm windows, but this will be a new experience for him. He doesn’t know how to direct a play.
But he already knows who will play Stanley. Who else could do it but Harry Nash?
The following day, George has an errand to run at the phone company. There is a shy serious woman behind the counter, and she informs him that the phone company has installed a new automatic billing system and there are still some bugs in the system. She will remove the incorrect calls from his bill immediately. George, now in directing mode, considers the woman behind the counter. There’s something about her. Something about her that says ……. Stella. North Crawford is a small town. “I’ve never seen you around before,” says George. She is taken aback, and says her name is Helene, and she works for the phone company and travels around from town to town, training the local girls in how to use the new machines. “How long will you be here?” George asks. “I stay in each town eight weeks,” replies the woman. Her manner is unfriendly, but George presses on. “Have you ever acted before?”
What a question. She is startled. He tells her that they are having auditions for a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and he thinks she would be great for the part of Stella, they’d love to have her. The woman, with a white headband, and crisp white shirt, doesn’t know what to say. She finally goes for the truth: “I’ve been traveling from town to town for two years now, and this is the first time anyone has ever approached me about participating in a community thing.” The woman is named Helene, and she is played by Susan Sarandon, and this is the moment, the moment where we see her truth. The perpetual outsider, seen as such by the towns she visits, and George, in his casual offer, has cracked through that. He says (and truer words were never spoken), “Well, there is no better way to get to know a nice group of people than by putting on a play.”
Auditions follow. Doris and George sit in a room at the local library, and hopeful actors line up outside running lines. George is getting frustrated with the auditions. He murmurs to Doris, “All we have out there are Blanches.”
It’s one of my favorite lines in the movie because it is so smart not just about acting and life, but about theatre. A Streetcar Named Desire has passed into mythical status in terms of its place in American culture, but it remains a challenging work, difficult to capture correctly, and that line shows one of the main problems. Blanche is, yes, a difficult part, and a bad Blanche can derail the whole thing. But the really challenging part, the key to the whole thing working, is Stella. Everyone wants to play Blanche, “all there are out there are Blanches”, but without a good Stella, Streetcar can’t work. Kazan had issues with Kim Hunter in the beginning, so did Tennessee Williams, she was too actor-ish, she pushed too much. She improved, but it goes to show you the challenges in that part. Blanche and Stanley are not the only leads, and actually if you read that script, Stanley is a relatively minor role. The two leads are the sisters.
Is it enough for the actress playing Stella to loll about in a negligee, pregnant? No, it is not enough. We must see how far she has fallen. We must see her degradation, her willing enslavement to sex, and we must see around her, like an aura, the society girl she once was. If you don’t get THAT, then you don’t have Stella. It is a very very hard part.
Who Am I This Time? barely deals with Blanche at all. The focus is on finding the Stella. What a pleasure it was last summer to go to Williamstown to see Sam Rockwell play Stanley in David Cromer’s Streetcar Named Desire, and to finally, finally, see Stella take her proper place in that play.
Helene surprises everyone by showing up at the audition. George is thrilled. But his excitement quickly dwindles when he witnesses her wooden reading. She doesn’t look up from the script, she loses her place, she is stiff and nervous. She doesn’t even know what is being asked of her. She has never acted before. She reads a scene with Doris, Doris playing Blanche, and Doris stops to coach her from time to time. “Can’t you put more fire into it? Stanley brings out the animal in Stella.” Frankly, Helene doesn’t know what Doris is talking about. George, trying on his director’s hat, tries to get her to remember a time when she was in love. “I move around too much to meet anyone,” says Helene. “Well, how about puppy love, high school?” Helene goes blank. “We moved around a lot when I was a kid, too.” Doris murmurs to George, “We finally find our perfect Stella, and she doesn’t know what love is.” Helene breaks down in tears. “I’m a walking icebox,” she cries.
At that moment, Harry enters the library unannounced, already in character, and shouts in a rage, “ARE YOU READY FOR ME YET, GEORGE?” It’s Stanley Kowalski. In the flesh. When he is acting, Harry has no fear. It is the only way he can actually get a taste of what it is like to live, to engage with others. It’s a hilarious performance from Walken.
George decides to have Helene read with Harry. Harry struts and swaggers around, and Helene is struck dumb by his behavior. To get “in character”, Harry slowly takes off his shirt. Helene stands back, gulping, the camera zooms and pulls back at the same time, showing her disorientation and, frankly, awakening lust. Harry is unaware of her. He is not doing it for her. He is doing it for him. They then read the scene, Helene desperately trying to keep up with Harry. In her nerves and in his intensity, she forgets trying to ‘act’, and finds herself arguing, cajoling. It is the famous “Napoleonic Code” scene, with Stanley rifling through Blanche’s suitcase, and criticizing all of her belongings. Walken uses whatever is close to hand, picking up his shirt and saying, “What’s she doing with a solid gold tiara?” Sarandon reaches out and snatches it back saying, “She bought that for a costume ball.”
The power of make-believe. The saying “Yes” to the given circumstances. A shirt becomes a gold tiara just by an actor SAYING that it is so. Helene doesn’t think twice. She is a rational businesslike woman, with a big job, but she doesn’t scoff at his make-believe. She starts to play. She says Yes. Jonathan Demme lets the Streetcar scene play out. At one point, they go off script, they get so into it. Walken, in a gesture that makes me laugh out loud, stares at her and suddenly flips the script off into the air, like, “Fuck this script – what’s going on between you and me RIGHT NOW?” Helene finally collapses into a chair, breathing heavily, unaware of where she is, who she is. Who am I this time?
George and Doris are stunned. They have found their Stella. When the scene ends, Harry suddenly becomes Harry again, and nervously says to George, “So … do you think … uhm … do you think that there’s a chance … uhm … that I could play Stanley?” George says, “We are seriously considering you.” “Thank you.”
When Harry and Helene are onstage together, their chemistry is electric. Helene emerges from backstage in a white negligee, for the denouement of the “STELLA” scene, and you cannot believe that this is the same uptight woman in the telephone office. She trembles at Harry’s touch. Harry is lost in his part, weeping and kissing her. There is a very funny moment, look for it, you might miss it: Right before he calls for Stella to come down, the poker game breaks up. Stanley is out of control. Walken tips the table over. For no apparent reason. He punches one of the other guys, and when he punches him, Walken shouts, “BANG!” He is doing his own sound effect! Like anyone would ever punch another man and shout, “KAPOW.” It’s such a mixture of amateurishness and passion that it broke my heart. The best part is, it doesn’t matter. What Walken shows in that moment, that funny moment, is that Harry is totally in the dreamspace where he IS Stanley, and when you are in that dreamspace, everything you do is right. The other cast members stand back and watch Helene and Harry grope one another, Helene suddenly ripping his T-shirt down his back. The actress playing Blanche whispers to George, “You aren’t directing this play. Mother Nature is directing this play.”
But what happens when you fall in love with your costar? Are you falling in love with him as himself, or him as the character? Aren’t the lines blurred? Meryl Streep was once asked how she created all of these different characters, and she replied, “Well, they’re all in me already.”
Personality is a fluid thing, especially when you are talking about something like art, and Helene starts to learn that. She reaches out to Harry in between scenes, and finds him so shy he can’t even speak. He almost runs away from her to avoid conversation. But onstage? He is all over her. He is fearless, shouting, “Stella, where’s my dinner?” Helene doesn’t question any of this at first. The actress playing Blanche tries to warn her that Harry is very different offstage than on. “I played opposite him when he played Abe Lincoln and I was almost convinced by the end of the play that he had freed the slaves.” Helene, lost in the fantasy of the scene she had just played, states, “He is the most wonderful man I have ever met.”
Before Helene and Harry start to rehearse their scenes together, as everyone bustles around them getting ready, they often make eye contact, and smile, and stare … getting themselves into the world of the play. You wonder: Does Helene know that he may only be doing that to get into his part?
Helene is so caught up in the process that she requests from the telephone company a permanent transfer. George is worried. Everyone is worried. The actress playing Blanche says to George, “What is going to happen to that girl when the play is over? When she discovers who Harry really is?”
The play opens. I thought of Cassavetes’ Opening Night while watching how Demme films some of the actual performances. The camera is onstage with the actors. Sometimes we can see the watching audience behind them. There are things blocking our view, people, furniture, so that we really feel we are crouching behind the table onstage. The camera is sometimes handheld, giving the action an immediate live-theatre feeling. When Harry first walks onstage in the first scene, the audience, locals all of them, burst into applause. He is their celebrity. You can see Helene backstage, waiting for her entrance, looking out at him, basking in the glow.
Helene has tried to open up to Harry a couple of times at rehearsals, and those conversations were agonizing. Walken barely says two words to her and takes 20 minutes to get those two words out. He is desperate to get away from her. He hides from her in between scenes. Helene, someone who described herself as a “walking icebox”, now finds herself behaving in a nurturing womanly manner, bringing him hot soup, trying to get him to open up, feel comfortable. Frankly, she doesn’t know who she is anymore. Now she’s in the dreamspace.
Sarandon is beautiful in the part. She’s in love. The great equalizer, and the great discombobulator.
His strange behavior, familiar to the townspeople, is now apparent to Helene. Why won’t he stay onstage with her to take their bows together? Why won’t he go to the cast parties? Something has opened up in her through playing Stella, something long dormant, or something that was never born at all, and she cannot separate Harry from that awakening. She tries to tell him that, in a very funny exchange on the sidewalk in front of the hardware store. He is agonized for the entire conversation, and she is just as nervous. She says to him, looking off to the side, “Because of you … I’ve faced my fears …” Meanwhile, Harry has taken the opportunity of her not looking at him to sneak off without her noticing. So there she is, opening up her heart to him, as he tiptoes away in a panic.
Poor Helene. Poor Harry.
Helene eventually finds the key to Harry. He can only express who he is through the words of others. What he does onstage is not a lie, or a pretense, it is an illumination of a part of him, of his truth. She felt that from the beginning. Could she somehow get in there with him? Could she somehow find a way to NEVER leave the world of Streetcar?
I am in love with this film. I suppose I am in love with it because it thinks important what I think important. It honors what I honor. I love Waiting for Guffman as much as anyone, but there’s a mean-spirited quality to its take-down of people who spend all their time in community theatre that cuts a bit too close to home. Be careful of who make fun of because you may be making fun of the best parts of yourself. Community theatre is often the only chance for certain towns to see live theatre on a regular basis, and if you’ve been to a play, even a bad one, you know there’s nothing quite like it. Good and vibrant community theatres can do anything. They’ll do Macbeth, no problem. They don’t worry about who has done it before, or precedents of other productions. It’s a damn good play and it’ll get the asses in the seats and so-and-so would be a great Lady Macbeth, did you see her play Nora in Doll’s House last year, she was amazing!
People everywhere, in every culture, have the desire to put on costumes and say other words written for them by someone else, and have people watch them do it. We can certainly make fun of it, but I think that is a needlessly hostile way to look at one of our most primal impulses, in existence since men told stories about killing woolly mammoths around the campfire.
What we are saying in those moments is: “This is what it was like for me. Was it the same way for you? What was it like for you?”
There are shots of audience members with tears on their faces as they watch the last scene of Streetcar, the scene where Blanche is taken away. They sit quietly in the dark, men and women, in tears. Shedding tears for a fictional character. Weeping for Hecuba, vicariously. These moments of identification expand us, they expand our capacity for compassion and understanding. That’s what theatre can do. Demme does not make fun of that, he has a great affection for the world he is portraying, although he certainly allows for the humor that can come in amateur productions. (For example: why is the couch placed downstage facing away from the audience? It makes no sense, blocking-wise. Everyone has to walk around it, and it blocks everyone upstage of it from the waist down!) But what matters is Tennessee Williams’s words, the story being told, a story everyone already knows, and the passion and commitment of the actors up on the stage.
This is why theatre matters. This is why we do what we do. This is what it was like for me.
Harry Nash is a troubled man who can only come alive when he speaks the words written by someone else. Helene, unlike his co-stars before her, does not write off his odd behavior as “just the way Harry is”. She knows that what she feels onstage with him is real. She knows he is not faking it or pretending. She, the outsider, the woman who has never loved before, the icebox, she knows she loves him, and figures out a way to get him to speak. Perhaps it is a solution only an actor would understand, but I don’t think so. We all have “roles” in life. Falling in love is not easy on the best of days, and it is tremendously difficult when you are uptight and out of practice (or have no practice at all, like these two). We are assigned “roles” early on in life: “You’re the shy one”, “You’re the outgoing one”, and Helene realizes that that is the way to Harry’s heart. Don’t fight the fact that we are all acting at all times, to some degree. Embrace it.
Who Am I This Time? stars Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken at the height of their relatively new-found fame. Both had been around for years (Walken had been a child actor, a song-and-dance boy), but had recently hit paydirt with a couple of important films that put them on the map. Sarandon had just done Atlantic City. Walken was still riding the wave of Deer Hunter, appearing in diverse films such as Heaven’s Gate and Pennies From Heaven. Here, they are given two roles unlike anything they were being asked to play at that time in their careers, and not only that, but also Stanley and Stella.
The final scene packs a huge punch. Who knew that the words “Charming day, Miss Fairfax” would carry such weight and emotional impact? (Well, Oscar Wilde probably knew.) It was unexpectedly emotional for me, in a way that felt earned rather than pushed, and has that rare magical energy of something that is, actually, perfect.
When Helene first confides in George, the director, early on in the rehearsal process, that she is thinking of staying in North Crawford permanently, George says, “Have you talked to Harry about this?” Helene, baffled, girlish, starts laughing nervously and says, “Well, he’s been so busy learning his lines and getting into his role and everything.” George says gently, in a tone of warning, “If he gets any further into his role, he’ll never get out of it.”
But for some of us, George, that is the whole point. Because when you have “wept for Hecuba”, even saying the words that somebody else wrote, when you have experienced that singular “dream of passion” that only actors can experience, then you know that there is nothing quite as real in all the world.