I have, of late, been re-watching the HBO series Unscripted, which is about a group of actors living and working in Los Angeles. It’s classified as a comedy but, aside from the customary having-to-stand-on-the-street-wearing-a-stupid-costume-in-the-service-of-advertising horsing around, and a certain amount of ‘joshing’, it’s about as close to being a comedy as is The Panic in Needle Park. This is a collection of people whose existences are, by and large, torment.
The actors in question play themselves in fictionalised versions of real-life scenarios, which, given the show’s title, I take to have been improvised. For example, one of the actors, Bryan Greenberg, when starring in the film Prime with Meryl Streep, turns up to the set for the first time either still drunk or massively hung over from carousing the night before. I know that Greenberg was actually in this film because I saw it – at the movies, no less – but I doubt that he ever actually turned up drunk. In any case, the point is that the actors are pretty much always having a hard time, invariably at the mercy of hardboiled casting agents and their acting teacher, Goddard Fulton, who, of course, has a grey beard and the apparent intention of breaking their spirits. (Frank Langella plays Fulton and is about the only person who isn’t playing himself, presumably because he doesn’t want to go down in history as a cunt of the highest order.)
Like so many who didn’t care for schoolwork, when I was growing up I, too, yearned for the actor’s life. Thus, I took Drama in Years Seven to Nine, which usually meant nervous appearances at the City of Sydney Eisteddfod or at Mosman Town Hall in plays like Sunday Costs Five Pesos and My Daughter Coppelia; the kind of works that are never performed outside of arenas such as these. (Of course, the Eisteddfod is now the McDonald’s Performing Arts Challenge, because, I assume, no one could spell ‘Eisteddfod’ and because ‘Challenge’ makes participation in it seem more manly.)
Luckily, I was diverted from the, what would have been for me, disastrous course of trying to be an actress by reading Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar. It is about a middle-class Jewish girl in New York in the nineteen fifties, who decides she wants to strike out against her bourgeois life and take to the stage. She has an affair with a wastrel composer named Noel Airman and is loved from afar by honest writer Wally Wronkin. She doesn’t get anywhere with the acting caper but, worst of all, the book concludes with Wally visiting Marjorie, and finding her to be, despite the fact she’s probably only about thirty-five, a grey-haired old dowager. Anyway, just reading Marjorie Morningstar was sufficient to discourage me from treading the boards.
But when I was seventeen and failing to get anything at all out of my first year at university, I had a waitressing job at that unmourned Sydney institution the Old Spaghetti Factory. The restaurant was best known for having an original Bondi tram in the centre of the premises, which was the place all the patrons fought to be, and who could blame them? Pretty much every staff member except for me was a self-described ‘singer-dancer-actress’ and all went to the same performing arts school, so that it was like working with the touring company of The Kids from Fame. I envied these people their outgoing manner, and the way they would talk vivaciously at the end of a shift, seemingly about to erupt into ‘Hot Lunch Jam’, while all I was thinking about was not missing the ferry. They made me nostalgic for a time (about one year previously) when I, too, had wanted to do something remotely exciting with my life.
Possibly, of course, they are all still waitering, which brings me back to the hard life of the thespian. I’ve never been able to understand why actors weren’t keener on the concept of the studio system that ruled the roost in the golden years of Hollywood. This was, of course, the arrangement by which Louis B Mayer, or someone, signed you to the kind of contract under which the studio had complete control of your existence. Spirited stars such as Bette Davis were always ‘going on suspension’ because of being offered lacklustre films, and Davis even famously sued Warner Bros to get out of her contract.
Of course I admire her mettle, but I have to say that the idea of being on the studio payroll has always appealed to me no end; I would have liked to have had my life run for me, and to have had my hairline altered and teeth capped at no expense to myself. I would have been pitifully grateful for a lot of thought being put into what my new name might be (name changing was, of course, pretty much the default procedure, although some, such as Una Merkel, fell through the cracks, it seems). What always appealed to me most of all, though, was the situation whereby some ‘starlet’ would be put under contract for a healthy sum of money a week and then given no acting work whatsoever. I failed to see then, and fail to see now, how life can get much better than that.
The thing is that actors just have to go to so much bother these days. Not only are they not nestled under the wings of the studio system, they always seem to have to do a lot of research – often involving the attempted mastery of accents – to play any part at all. Society as a whole seems to regard acting as an effete occupation that doesn’t involve ‘real work’, which is, I think, why you always have the more he-man variety of actor ludicrously insisting that he does his own stunts or going on about how much he likes the football. David Niven or Stewart Granger would have found it unseemly to put in all the blood, sweat and tears that is such a big part of acting in the twenty-first century. In my opinion, most actors, in fact, work much too hard, and should instead be doing what they can to bring the drawing-room comedy back to, rightful, prominence.