Gilbey on Film: being serious

Thoughts about comic actors turning straight.

There's a special frisson when a performer renowned for comedy goes straight. I didn't feel it when the stand-up comic John Bishop popped up as the hero's murdered chum in the flashback scenes during Ken Loach's Route Irish, but that's only because a mixture of luck and careful planning has enabled me to avoid that species of TV comedy show on which Bishop has appeared -- Live at the Apollo, 8 Out of 10 Cats, and all the other ones that you can watch for three or four minutes before the urge to grind broken glass into your eyes becomes irresistible.

I recognise his larky lad persona, and I can see why Loach used him: Bishop emphasises the present-tense chirpiness, rather than making the character a living portent of the tragedy which is to befall him. Besides, the director has a history of looking to the stand-up circuit and the working men's clubs of the north for his actors, among them Bruce Jones (star of Loach's Raining Stones, and later a Coronation Street regular) and Crissy Rock (who played the lead in the harrowing Ladybird, Ladybird).

With more established comics who bring the baggage of their previous work, the change of tone can be jarring; it may not always work, it may even capsize the film, but there's a unique tension for us in watching a performer from whom we expect warmth or humour, only to find those qualities absent or mangled. Maybe Stanley Kubrick was just having a terrific wheeze when he entertained the idea of casting Steve Martin in the role that eventually went to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. But he was undoubtedly prescient -- that was back in the late 1970s, when Martin's only leading film role had been in his delirious vehicle The Jerk, yet Kubrick must have seen in his mania something fraught that could be used to serve dramatic material. Sure enough, Martin was outstanding a year or two later in the rhapsodic movie version of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven.

Cut to a decade on and other directors (along with Martin himself) came round fully to the idea of him as a "straight" actor, with the comic playing earnest in Grand Canyon, untrustworthy in Leap of Faith and subtly chilling in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. Is it the proximity of comedy and aggression (comics "slay" or "kill" their audiences, after all) that makes it strangely appropriate when comedians not only turn serious, but get sinister with it?

There are rebranding opportunities, to be sure. Robin Williams seemed pretty much spent as a comic actor before he relaunched himself as a nasty piece of work in a toxic hat-trick of movies (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, One-Hour Photo). Those pictures prompted half the audience to marvel that they had no idea he could be so creepy, and the other half to exclaim: "So you didn't see Patch Adams, then?" Even if that defection to the dark side didn't stick, its residue could be felt recently in Williams's work in the pleasingly unpleasant black comedy World's Greatest Dad.

Likewise, Adam Sandler's career didn't take a turn for the avant-garde after Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as a wuss with a temper in Punch-Drunk Love, but it's nice to think it let some fresh air into his persona, and allowed him to accept that he didn't always have to be the guy with whom moviegoers would most like to have a pint (see Funny People for another example of how fine Sandler can be when he's not sending valentines to the audience).

It must be galling that comedy is so rarely rewarded or even acknowledged by the award-winning bodies. Despite more than 20 years of devilishly inspired comic performances, Bill Murray never got within sniffing distance of an Oscar until he landed a Best Actor nomination for his melancholy work in Lost in Translation. I wouldn't claim Dan Aykroyd as Murray's comic equal but it's striking that he too was noticed only once he'd notched up some respectable, "real" acting in Driving Miss Daisy.

Will Ferrell has voiced his irritation with this divide between comedy and drama, where all the recognition goes to the latter. He put his case most eloquently in a song he performed with Jack Black and John C Reilly at the 2007 Academy awards ceremony. It began with Ferrell reciting: "A comedian at the Oscars/ Is the saddest man of all/ Your movies may make millions/ But your name they'll never call," and ended with him resolving to play "a guy with no arms and legs/ Who teaches gang-bangers Hamlet." Somewhere in between, he imagined dining with Jeremy Irons, then threatened to break Ryan Gosling's hips.

As with most comedy, it was deadly serious in intent. He told me: "I don't think the producers of the show even got what we were doing. They were backstage saying, 'Oh, that was lovely. Very funny.' They didn't realise every word was true."

Comedians are bitter and unhappy. This much we know. But it's rare that they reveal that side of themselves on screen. When they do, it can be deeply unsettling, chiming as it does with those moments in childhood when a cherished and apparently good-humoured parent shows a darker aspect to their character. Sometimes the sourness is already so present in their comedy that it isn't hugely jarring to find that it translates well to drama -- was anyone really surprised that Murray could play a bullying, insecure mob boss in Mad Dog and Glory?

That familiarity isn't always a shock absorber. I wonder if I will ever forget the sight of James Bolam, a fixture from my childhood thanks to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, playing an avuncular pimp in the gloomy British film Stella Does Tricks. Bolam's appeal was always mildly unsavoury, but it was inspired casting to imagine him as this predatory monster. He plays it like a cross between Michael Caine in Mona Lisa, Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanours and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. He oozes ugliness; after his scenes, you feel like scrubbing yourself clean. Part of the disgust is inevitably bound up with his past life as a Likely Lad. You look at him and you think: "Oh, Terry..."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era