In the afterglow of the Oscars, with Shakespeare’s 450th birthday approaching, the time is right for a column about actors and acting, not just on the stage and screen, but in so-called real life. Shakespeare lays it out for the ages in As You Like It when Jacques says “All the world’s a stage,” and we’re all of us “merely players.” Skip ahead 400 years and you’ve got reality TV and the 2014 Academy Awards.
As full of mischief and wicked energy as Puck in an Oscar-themed Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ellen DeGeneres gave a theater brimming with glitzy unreality a spin toward the real by darting in and out of the star-filled audience as if all that seated glittering glamour was a comedy waiting to happen; she wisecracked and kidded in an infectious “What fools these mortals be” style that stirred things up nicely and made for the first watchable-without-nausea Oscar night in my memory. Well aware that stars are humans whose stomachs would be growling because of the timing and length of the event, she waved her puckish wand and ordered pizza, and not just for laughs. When a real-life pizza delivery man showed up, she handed out slices that were devoured (reality bites!) and then hit on a real-life Mr. Moneybags Harvey Weinstein for the tip — “No pressure, only a billion people are watching, whatever you feel is right!” In that intensely artificial, self-conscious environment wherein spontaneous behavior is so rare that even the genuine article comes off looking staged, she created moments everyone everywhere could identify with, like the group-photo tweet fest that began as a selfie with Ellen and Meryl Streep and just kept growing (1.7 million retweets in less than an hour).
Without actually altering the hallowed, hackneyed ritual of the reading of nominations and calling out of winners, this mercurial emcee brought the ceremony down to earth and made the streamlined machinery of the show seem less ponderous and absurd. Above all, she shortened the distance between the folks at home and the event, turning the elites in the seats into photo-taking, pizza-eating mortals. It would have made Shakespeare smile. Hadn’t he been doing a version of the same thing when he had Queen Titania fall in love with a donkey? His Midsummer Night’s Dream may have been performed for the swells and the monarch, but you can be pretty sure he brought the donkey in knowing it would delight the groundlings no less than the swells.
Years ago I went to a Megan Terry/Tom O’Horgan production called Massachusetts Trust at Brandeis University. It was a free-form, deliberately incoherent, heavyhandedly “uninhibited” piece of work where the actors ran through the aisles and invited members of the audience to come mingle on the stage. For all the strenuous pretending that somehow the players were dashing the membrane between art and life, theatre and reality, the whole thing was totally bogus, as I found when I went onstage (a frustrated actor at heart) and found the actors all had scripted gimmicky phrases; when you tried to engage them in playful conversation by tossing out some inspired nonsense of your own, their eyes went blank and so did their minds as they said their prearranged piece.
If Midsummer Nights Dream is the most popular and most frequently reinvented comedy in the repertoire, there must have been occasions when the players spilled into the audience to breach that boundary between the stage of the theatre and the metaphorical real-life-and-death stage Shakespeare is outlining in Jacques’s soliloquy. No doubt Ellen DeGeneres had it all worked out in detail, but she made it feel real and fun. Whether she was wearing white or black or camping it up as Glinda the Good, she actually seemed to be enjoying herself.
50 Years Ago
Theater was the dominant presence 50 Years ago at the 1964 Awards, with a filmed musical, My Fair Lady, winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Rex Harrison) and Best Director (George Cukor). Even the Best Actress pick had implicit reference to the Lerner-Lowe original in that it went to Julie Andrews, the first Eliza Doolittle, for Mary Poppins; there had been much debate about whether Andrews should have been cast in the film instead of Audrey Hepburn, and others resented Hepburn’s being passed over when the nominations were made because her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon, which made it only “half a performance.”
It was at the 1964 ceremony that Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern’s hilarious black comedy Dr. Strangelove (with its spurious subtitle) actually crashed the high end of the party, copping nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Peter Sellers received a Best Actor nomination for his virtuoso triple-play as an understandably frantic British officer, a mild-mannered president, and the madman of the title. While the film was a comic field day for Sellers (not to mention George C. Scott, Keenan Wynn, and Slim Pickens), the purest movie acting in the picture was done by Sterling Hayden as Col. Jack D. Ripper, the supremely convincing supreme commander of precious-bodily-fluid paranoia who sets doomsday in motion. Hayden took it beyond caricature, in part thanks to the lines Southern gave him and the way Kubrick filmed him, in looming close-ups. Hayden is the most filmically effective actor in Strangelove because he plays it straight, resisting the sort of overacting Hamlet advised against in his instructions to the acting troupe performing the play he wrote to “catch the conscience of the king.” Shakespeare’s criteria are still valid: to let “your own discretion be your tutor,” to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” for “the purpose of playing” is to hold “the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” What makes Strangelove not only the best film of the year but one of the best films of the sixties is the audacity with which it expresses the “very age and body of the time.” In a lighter but equally fitting sense, the same could be said of the Beatles and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which was released in the summer of 1964.
This Year’s Best
The Shakespearean criteria are also relevant to the two Oscar-winning actors in Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. If you can humor me and imagine the Bard in his celestial den streaming this year’s flow of film, including not only the best of Hollywood but the best on cable, it’s likely that these two players would command his particular attention as lean and hungry humours of lust and loss, life and death and death in life, and wounded male beauty. In McConaughey’s AIDs-stricken wild man Ron (a Texas Christopher Marlowe), he would see a player suiting the word to the action in a situation where the stakes are as high in their way as they are in Hamlet. McConaughey’s wasted warrior’s physique is a soliloquy in itself, and his antagonist, rather than a fratricidal king, is the disease that turned his life around, making a homophobic substance abuser into a focused student of the plague. And the “conscience” of AIDS-the-king that he catches is the soul of the film, which is the endgame relationship developing between Ron and the transgender AIDS-stricken Rayon.
Being in heaven, with access to HBO, Showtime, FX, and Netflix, and no need to make distinctions between a feature film and a 12-part series, Shakespeare would also have access to the dark and driven extremes experienced by Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison in Homeland, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad and Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. What else can you call the arc followed by Walter Heisenberg White — from classroom to meth lab, science teacher to crime lord — but Shakespearean? That Dinklage is a dwarf, so much the better for an actor playing clown and witty prince, lustful warrior, hero, and villain, all in one. Claire Danes at her best is hair-raisingly expressive, but then so is the wide-eyed self-astonished fantastically verbal Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder in Justified. Of course the most openly Shakespearan performance currently on view is Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood in House of Cards, with his dark asides and Robin Penn Wright as his Lady Macbeth.
Spacey was also one of the most visible presences on Oscar night. He even gave the audience a Frank Underwood moment, a clear reminder of the power and glory of the television series as an art form. So did television’s Ellen DeGeneres, for that matter. I haven’t watched her show but apparently her interaction with Sunday night’s Academy audience was a more ambitious version of what she does for a living.
“All Human Souls”
Fifty years ago Rex Harrison, who was born on this day in 1909, stepped onstage to accept the Best Actor trophy from Audrey Hepburn, the Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. With the human touch Ellen DeGeneres gave this Oscar Night in mind, here’s a Henry Higgins quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that probably didn’t make it into the film: “The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manner for all human souls: in short, behaving as if you were in Heaven, where there are no third-class carriages, and one soul is as good as another.”
Puck says something similar when addressing the audience at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “So, good night unto you all./Give me your hands, if we be friends.”