I've been a fan of Inside the Actors Studio for a while now. In fact, I was kind of a fan of the show before I even saw it. It was one of those things I heard about and knew I would like, but I didn't have a cable package that included Bravo, so I wasn't getting the chance to find out for myself. Flash forward to a business trip and a hotel with Bravo in their selection of television stations, and I was able to tune in midway through the episode of Actors Studio with Robert De Niro. Not an inauspicious place to start by any means.
Except, I am ashamed to admit, there was someone else in the hotel room with me who could not understand my desire to watch De Niro talk about his craft when we could be doing other things. Things that involved two people, and not a television set, if you catch my drift. I suppose that's the first time you know for sure you're a real film addict, when you'd rather look at images projected on a screen than indulge in the here and now. Thankfully, the person I was with was patient with me and waited until the closing credits rather than just leaving, even listening to me lament that I had missed the beginning of the show.
Coincidentally, an income change allowed for a better cable package shortly after, and I got Bravo. Amusingly enough, the Robert De Niro episode became my white whale. For whatever reason, I could never manage to catch a rerun where I would see the beginning. I would only ever see the end.
Until now, with the release of the second DVD boxed set from the series, Inside the Actors Studio: Leading Men. Three DVDs, four episodes of the series, featuring De Niro, Al Pacino, Sean Penn, and Russell Crowe. Hosted by James Lipton for 13+ years, the model of the show is a shining example of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Lipton alone on a stage with an actor, sitting in front of an audience of drama students, discussing the actor's life, career, and craft, punctuated with film clips and leading up to a questionnaire developed by Marcel Proust and perfected by French talk show host Bernard Pivot. ("What's you favorite/least favorite word?" "What sound or noise do you love?" etc. A version of it also appears in the back of Vanity Fair magazine every month.) After the Proust, then the audience can pose their own questions to the esteemed guests. The goal, and one that Lipton is very good at achieving, is to get the featured actor talking candidly about how life informs art, and vice versa. (It's in that spirit that I offered my own candid introduction to this review, revealing what I am willing to sacrifice for you, my reader.)
De Niro leads the set, and though the actor's notorious shyness is in evidence, he does his best to open up and give Lipton as straight an answer as his memory will allow to each inquiry. At times, he even seems amused by the process, deferring where his own sense of history fails him to the information he knows is awaiting him on Lipton's famous, oft-parodied stack of cards. Always an imposing figure on film, De Niro comes off as gentle and thoughtful in this setting, and it's a credit to Lipton's interview skills, as fawning as he may be, that he sets the actor at ease to this degree. If there is any complaint about the De Niro episode, it's that it's only a standard-length installment, clocking in at about 50 minutes. There are too many films to discuss, not enough time. (In fact, both Deer Hunter and Untouchables only get mentioned in the deleted scenes given as bonuses on the disc.) It's also now slightly out of date, filmed sometime around the release of A Bronx Tale back in 1993.
Far more extensive and more up to date is the Al Pacino episode. Shot to promote the release of The Merchant of Venice and the An Actor's Vision box set, this double-length segment (about ninety minutes once the commercials are taken out) gives Pacino and Lipton much more room to talk about everything. They still have skipped over some things that some will probably consider a favorite, or you might grumble that they didn't give enough time to certain projects, but Pacino is far more willing to talk than De Niro, and he really gets down into the nitty gritty of how he approaches his art. For film enthusiasts, the best episodes of Inside the Actors Studio gives us remarkable access to our favorite artists, exposing how the sausage was made in conventional language so that it is neither repulsive nor difficult to digest.
De Niro and Pacino are two of the finest actors--if not the finest--to have worked in film in the last forty years, redefining how movie actors moved and talked after the dissolution of the studio system and post-Brando. It is fitting that they would head up Leading Men and that two of the actors who have most benefited from their pioneering performances, Sean Penn and Russell Crowe, would finish it off. (The mind also boggles to thinking not only have Pacino and De Niro worked together, but Crowe and Pacino were both in The Insider, and that Penn has worked with both of the older masters, as well.) These two performers share the third disc in the set, while their spiritual mentors each get their own.
Both Crowe and Penn step onto Lipton's stage with reputations for being "bad boys." Both put that reputation to rest, revealing other nuances of their personality, while also showing the independent streak that led to them being branded this way.
Penn is an eloquent speaker whose explanations of where he comes from and how he grew up go a long way to showing how he became such a thoughtful, risky, and passionate artist. People have a lot of opinions about what he does and why he does it, but until you hear the man explain how he tackles life and how everything he undertakes is so intrinsically linked to his work, you won't truly understand where he is coming from. He talks at great length about his process, but also about the poetry and philosophy that drives him. His parting words to the class about what he sees as the power of the written word and storytelling is awe-inspiring. (Given that the episode was filmed back in 1999 when the actor was making Sweet and Lowdown, it's well ahead of any recent political controversies.)
Russell Crowe, on the other hand, is a much shyer subject, and Lipton has to tease the raconteur into action. It's Lipton's greatest strength as an interviewer: he finds what his guests are willing to talk about, and he puts them at ease by guiding them to that space. Crowe came to acting from a different angle, almost a working-class, practical approach that reminds me in many ways of classic performers like Cary Grant. He's very aware of the tools at his disposal and his responsibility for preserving them. I was most intrigued by how caught up I got in Crowe's stories and his unassuming manner, as of the four performers, he has made the least movies I'm actually a fan of (I could chuck out just about everything he's made from Gladiator on, really; this show was shot for the release of Master and Commander, his best picture of recent memory). Yet, based on his showing here, I'd love to grab a drink with him and talk about art.
Watching Inside the Actors Studio is like a shot in the arm as far as being excited about creativity and the pursuit of artistic ideals. While I'm not an actor, the Leading Men collection still gets me fired up. All four men featured attack everything they do with vigor, and you begin to see that the reason for their success is as much due to a dedication and a curiosity about life as it is about talent.
I hope there will be more Inside the Actors Studio DVD sets. Comedians perhaps? Some leading ladies?
(The first volume of the series, Icons, is reviewed here.