An Ontological Condition
“We were always afraid of being afraid. Never ending.” Reflecting on his childhood, Spalding Gray sounds at once rueful and bemused. Seated at a desk on a stage, as he was inclined to do during his monologues, Gray in this moment is holding up a vintage Playboy magazine, a reminder of his fearful past.
The scene is one of many assembled for And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s homage to the subject of their previous collaboration, Gray’s Anatomy. Here, as he often did, Gray is remembering his mother, who struggled with mental illness for years and killed herself when she was 52. He was in Mexico City on vacation in 1967, and when he returned to Providence, his brother met him at the airport, armed with a bottle of tequila. “So how’s mom?,” Gray remembers asking. The answer was typical of the ways his family dealt with his mother’s illness: “She’s gone.” Gray goes on here to think out loud about the effects of such euphemism. She was gone, in some broadly romantic fashion, “like dying of a broken heart.” She was “not dead, not killed herself,” he says during an interview, not on stage. “Again, that was avoidance language in Rhode Island. When my mother’s obituary appeared, it was ‘deceased,’ and rumors were she died of cancer, no mention of suicide.”
As Gray says, his own efforts to sort through the complexity of Betty Gray’s experience, or more precisely, his experience of her, became something of a lifelong project. Not quite ironically, the film makes no mention of Gray’s own suicide in 2004 (at age 62, he jumped from the Staten Island Ferry). This makes his death frame all of And Everything is Going Fine, every mention of Betty or his own ideas about suicide reverberating. This is not to say the documentary is about suicide, or depression, or even Gray’s lifelong interest in either. It is to say the film does not avoid the subject, but instead goes at it from a variety of angles, sometimes melancholy, sometimes funny, and sometimes provocative.
Gray creates these many tones in the film’s many clips of his performances. These are gathered from every point in his career, in home movies (a conversation with his father shows their similar sense of humor), monologues, and interviews in which he discusses his work (as a very good actor and a brilliant confessional monologist), such that the film is a series of refractions, each scene illuminating and then re-illuminating what comes before and after. He explains that he was an actor less by choice than by disposition. “Some people are born people,” he says. “And they grow up as people and then they decide to become professionals because they have to make a living.” But if some people pursue acting (as others pursue medicine or the law), others, like him, are “born actors. It’s an ontological condition. There’s no way out.”
The film illustrates this condition repeatedly, but not repetitively. As he describes the development of his monologues, the film shows his contemplation in a remarkable series of very different Grays—young (in a button-down plaid shirt and jeans, a look that would become familiar over the years of his performances) and older (his hair long and white), in a one-on-one interview and before an audience. As he came to appreciate his “massive associations and memories,” culled from audiotapes he made for himself, he shaped monologues (almost all 19, he says, “came in at an hour and 30”—like this film, a monologue in another way). Like his first autobiographic monologue, “Sex and Death to the Age 14,” the others were produced through a particular method of working. “I became like an inverted method actor,” he says. “I was using myself to play myself. I was playing with myself. It was a kind of creative narcissism.”
As the film remembers, this narcissism was ever complicated by his relationships—with his mother certainly (he says in one show, “I dated my mom until I was 23”), but also Renee Shafransky, his longtime partner whom he married while he was also dating Kathie Russo, who became his second wife—and mother of his two sons (and executive producer of And Everything Is Going Fine). Gray’s efforts to understand his feelings about Betty are shaped here into stories about her. In one instance, he was 14 and had knocked himself out (the monologue does not go into how this came to be an end a boy who had failed seventh grade might pursue).
The result was that he burned his arm on a radiator, “a third-degree burn that looked like rare roast beef,” in fact. When he showed his Christian Scientist mother (who was watching Gunsmoke on TV, he says, the kind of detail that makes his stories vivid and oddly abstract at once), she was resolute. She “looked at it and said, ‘Oh, put some soap on it, dear, and know the truth,’ you know, the truth being that there is no pain and suffering in God’s world, there’s no imperfection.” He explains, “That is enormous distance, you see. That’s what I mean by basically alternating current. Any mother, I don’t care what religion she’s in, I believe, her intuition would be to fly to her child. But for her, it would represent acknowledging the condition.”
Gray doesn’t seem so much angry at his mother (though this may be inevitable), as he is mystified, by her “distance” and her lack of understanding. His mother’s inability to acknowledge “the condition” troubled Gray throughout his life, and also pressed him to peer into it. He saw the condition as “chance,” he says, and in his stories, he tried to comprehend it, and or even more importantly to share it. On one level, the motivation is obvious, as storytelling is a chance to find (or impose) order. As he tells an interviewer, “I enjoy telling the story of life better than I like living it.” The story approximates meaning. He saw life as a process of “making it up as you go along,” responding to chance. “And certainly, doing the monologue is making it up and getting control of it, giving structure to what is normally chaos to me, every day.”
On another level, the public performance of those stories may not be so clearly motivated, though we might be grateful that this was the outlet he found. He describes his process of writing and performing, of creating order out of disorder: “It starts as a true story, but it’s filtered through me, through my imagination, so at its best, it comes out in the form of poetry.” In addition to the monologues that made him famous (Monster in a Box, which was made as a film by Nick Broomfield, or Swimming to Cambodia, the film version directed by Jonathan Demme), Gray also conducted “conversations” on stage, with audience members, sometimes faux therapeutic and sometimes enlightening, both exposed and intimate. And Everything is Going Fine includes just a few of these moments, the camera close on a conversation partner in a chair and a spotlight, seeming to speak only with Gray, a performance of intimacy that underscores the impossibility of intimacy.
Soderbergh’s film shows the aging, post-car-accident Gray throughout (on the road in Ireland, his skull was shattered, leaving bone fragments in his brain), but towards its end, this version of the man is especially haunting. On crutches, thin, and visibly enfeebled, he insists on the good of stories. “I think that we return to the elements,” he muses, “Age is a great pain, but a great comfort. The older I get, the more weight I feel, the more gravity.” If that weight is enormous, it is also, in this complex, challenging film, also invigorating. “One way to reincarnate,” Gray offers, “is to tell your story. I get enormous pleasure from that. It’s like coming back.”