Inside the Actors Studio has been running on the Bravo cable network for twelve years. Its 200+ episodes have stuck to the uncomplicated premise of the series: James Lipton sits in front of an audience and talks to a famous actor or director about his or her career. When the show is at its best, the featured guest really opens up and discusses the art and craft of acting in a level of detail we rarely hear on less erudite talk shows or read in entertainment rags. As Lipton notes in one of his introductions on this DVD set, the show is not scripted, there are no pre-interviews, everything is as it happens on the night. The Inside the Actors Studio: Icons boxed set presents four of those nights on three DVDs. As the title suggests, the focus is larger-than-life individuals who have careers spanning many decades: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, and Clint Eastwood.
Love him or hate him, you can't deny that James Lipton is able to get the best out of people. Perhaps it's his oft-parodied sycophancy that does it, the obvious glee he takes in every little nuance of a person's career opening up a comfort zone to talk. The actors can say what they want, they know the judgment will be positive. His technique is well-crafted and well-proven. Each show follows the same arc: Lipton starts by asking about the guest's origins, moving through school to early career, and then climbing chronologically through their achievements, generously illustrating the journey with photographs and movie clips. When they discuss a specific film, it's not just zippy stories about on-set antics, but real questions of how one achieves a genuinely felt performance. Once the conversation--and it generally is a real conversation--catches up to present time, Lipton switches gears for the final quarter of the episode. Beginning with a now infamous series of questions originally invented by Proust but polished by French talk show host Bernard Pivot (as we are reminded every episode, and as Will Ferrell had so much fun saying in his portrayal of Lipton on SNL), asking personality questions about favorite words and loves and hates, Lipton loosens up the format. The intention of these questions is to get a bearing on who each actor is as a person, but it also provides a reference point to compare and contrast based on the expanse of answers from one actor to another. To finish off, Lipton turns the microphone over to the students (much of the audience is from the school run by the Actors Studio, and each show is intended as a class session), and they ask the guest things they want to know.
The thing that is interesting about this strict path of discussion is that it draws each performer out by sparking their memory to life and assembling the puzzle pieces of their greatest influences. In this set, Barbra Streisand in particular benefits from the way Lipton takes her from year to year, as talking about it causes her to make connections between things that she never connected before. Of the four episodes featured here (all of them around 90 minutes long), Streisand's was the biggest surprise for me. I've always been ambivalent about her and haven't seen many of her movies, but she's also the guest I had the most preconceived notions about. Her open and humble manner on stage tore down my preconceptions and gave me a newer appreciation for her as a performer and as a citizen (her defense of her political activism is a marvel). The biggest compliment I can pay Inside the Actors Studio is that they made me want to go and watch Barbra Streisand's movies.
The Paul Newman installment was actually the first episode of the series, and so it makes sense that it was chosen to lead this collection. It's interesting to see how far the show has come. The production values have greatly improved over the years. The format was in place from the very start, however, with the only deviation being that the discussion with Newman moves from the classroom/theatre to an outside venue that has more of a party/family reunion atmosphere. Otherwise, the show has been what it is from the very start.
There is an added logic to the coupling of Newman and Redford on the first disc of the box, as the two have been longtime friends and of course have starred together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Watching the programs back to back, you hear them each talk about the movies they did together. Add the Streisand show to the mix and have her discuss The Way We Were, the movie she made with Redford, and it sews all three together. Lipton even quotes the previous interviews and shows pertinent clips, letting one actor react to what the other has said about their working together. An additional thread is woven from Redford to Streisand and on to Clint Eastwood: all three went from acting to directing and have excelled at both. Plus, all four featured guests have been politically active in their lives, and thus have the greater perspective of not just a long and varied career, but a life well-lived.
Shot in full frame for television, and given an excellent transfer. Any flaws in the picture are just elements of the production. For instance, the audience reaction shots are grainier than the well-lit stage shots, which is just the nature of the beast and not a problem with the DVD process.
There is no special sound mix, but it's not a problem since the program really is just two people talking.
Each episode has a new introduction by host James Lipton. He talks about the experience of working with the featured actor, and the Newman/Redford disc also has an introduction to the entire series. Additionally, the Newman, Redford, and Eastwood episodes have deleted scenes, anecdotes cut from the final broadcast.
The three discs are all in individual slimline cases and come in a high-quality slipcase.
There are many reasons to buy Inside the Actors Studio: Icons. If you like listening to smart conversations or if you have an affinity for any of the actors involved or a desire to know more about what it takes to put a movie together, you should find these programs infinitely fascinating. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.