Thursday, July 30, 2009

Austin Pendleton Speaks.

It was some surprise that I saw an interview with character actor Austin Pendleton on the Onion AV Club. I knew his work, primarily for what the author, Nathan Rabin, calls "his daft, sweet, quirky presence," from a lot of movies. Like some other actors (all of whom deserve the title "veteran character actor"), Pendleton has done a lot - much of it good - but he's always Austin Pendleton, if for no other reason than the fact that he has a very memorable, distinctive voice.

It turns out, much to my surprise, that Pendleton is probably a better raconteur than he is an actor, and he's not a bad actor. For example, he discussed Peter Bogdanovich's relationship with Orson Welles,
[This is Orson Welles is] the best book about Orson I’ve ever read. And it’s just Orson talking. It’s absolutely delicious, and perceptive, and profound, and all those things he was, in addition to being a very bad boy. And his bad-boy aspect comes out in it, too. He would boast on the set of Catch-22 how he had thrown Fred Zinnemann off the set for his scene in A Man For All Seasons, and directed it himself. He loved to do that. I met Peter, because he would sit with Orson in the middle of the desert in a canvas-backed chair, right next to Orson, with a tape recorder, just for hours. And Peter would be dressed every day in a black suit, in that heat, and his skin would of course be totally pale, and it was the most unforgettable sight. And Peter was very unapproachable in those days. He’s now the opposite of that. But he was very serious. It was before The Last Picture Show and all that. At that time, he was essentially a film historian who had made one film for Roger Corman.
I am not a fan of Bogdanovich for much the same reason Dick Cavett has never engaged me (despite Clive James' scintillating essay on Cavett in Cultural Amnesia): being friends with a famous artist -- be it Orson Welles or Groucho Marx -- gets you so far, but then you need to stop talking about it. That's probably asking too much of two men whose job it is or was (to some extent) to talk, especially when they knew two of the 20th century's seminal artists. I ask anyway.

Pendleton manages here to encapsulate the strangeness of a relationship that I find strange indeed (especially if, as I do, you think Bogdanovich didn't get much out of the deal other than a perennial spot in any Welles documentary). One can imagine the massive, voluble late-period Orson Welles telling his stories to pale, skinny, black-dressed, but deeply grateful Bogdanovich in the desert -- which may be one the most magical images I can imagine. In a way, Pendleton has given us an image that says a lot about Orson Welles -- even if his audience was a film nerd in a suit with a tape recorder, Welles was ready to perform his favorite role -- Orson Welles: Frustrated Artist.

What is even more interesting is the fact that Pendleton has a similarly engrossing story for each of the films discussed -- ranging from My Cousin Vinny to Buck Henry's flop, First Family. I, for one, would welcome Pendleton's memoir after this little example of the stories he has to tell and his way of telling them. There is a seeming lack of self-serving artifice, which may well be self-serving, for all I know, which gives his accounts the air of being retellings of stories he likes rather than an opportunity to gild his lily.

God knows, and I think he'd say this, anyone who has been in a Hulk Hogan vehicle probably shouldn't be gilding his lily. Anyway, an interesting interview well worth the read.


At 1:42 PM, Blogger Chiliarches said...

So your blog came to mind this afternoon.

It is quite disappointing that you stopped writing, you know. There was a time when I followed your blog quite faithfully.

Also, it's a bloody shame that you've made it so hard to continue any sort of discussion via Facebook - I could neither "add" you as a friend nor even message you a greeting!

Best wishes,

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