May 19, 2010

THE FACE presents a very funny but dark view of movie actors. Have you ever met any nice ones?—Kevin, New York

In my experience, Porky Pig is not a bad guy, and while Donald Duck is excitable, he’s got a good heart. Kermit the Frog is a sweetie. Fame is potentially as corrupting as power, but in fact I have met a few nice actors in addition to Porky and Donald and Kermit. The kindest and classiest was Peter O’Toole, who had a role in PHANTOMS. I wrote the screenplay for PHANTOMS. The filmmakers realized some—but not all—of the scenes well. The movie was overall a disappointment for two reasons—an inadequate budget and the production company’s desire to emphasize creepiness, attenuating scenes at the cost of action and forward-motion suspense. The director was talented but apparently not that interested in discussing character motivation with the cast, so some of the actors called me to discuss their roles. Some wanted wholesale dialogue changes that would have made their characters seem stupid or incoherent. By contrast, Peter called to ask if he could drop just one conjunction and elsewhere add a comma—and he had an elegant explanation for doing so. In another call from London, a few weeks later, he started reading the dialogue of all the characters in the scenes that involved him. He made no comments, just cited page numbers and read dialogue, hopping through the script. He has that brilliant voice, all the technique of the finest stage actor, and listening to him can cast you into a pleasant kind of trance. After about five minutes I interrupted to say, “Peter, I’m sorry. I’m dense. I’m hopeless. I know you expect me to hear something inconsistent about your character, something that needs fixing, but I’m not getting it.” He said, “No, no, dear boy. There’s nothing wrong with this dialogue. In fact, it’s marvelous. I just wanted you to hear how wonderfully it flows as written.” I was stunned. Peter O’Toole was one of the finest actors of his generation, rich and famous, yet here he was taking time to call me from London to let me hear my dialogue being properly delivered. I said sheepishly, “Oh. Well—go ahead.” And he did, for about another ten minutes. Most actors with many fewer achievements than Peter’s are too full of themselves to be capable of such a kindness. By the time the film was shot and edited, I realized that he knew some of the other actors would “massage” their dialogue until much of the wit was squeezed out of it and that the private reading he did for me would be the only time that I would hear all the lines in major scenes delivered to their full effect. That was such a kind and decent thing to do, the act of a gentleman.

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