"[While] the rest of us were toying with chemistry sets [Tommy Wiseau] was lighting the lab on fire," says Greg Sestero in his film memoir about The Room.
The inherent difficulty in trying to create a portrait of somebody who does not want to be captured is that subject's refusal to tell the truth. No matter how close we feel towards our subject, and regardless of how close we might have felt towards them during the time we shared together trying to make a cinematic dream come true, the target remains elusive. This is the problem Greg Sesteros (and co-writer Tom Bissell) have with The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, an account of a few years at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st living their own version of the Hollywood dream. Their product may in fact be one of the most unabashedly bad films of recent memory, but this book goes deeper beneath that fact and more or less succeeds in creating something much deeper than the curious reader might have expected to find.
Who is Tommy Wiseau? That's what we want to know, and the fact that we basically don't get a clear answer is probably understandable. For Greg Sestero, a struggling actor just 19 years old in 1998 when he encounters Wiseau in a San Francisco acting class, getting an immediate read on this man doesn't seem to be a priority. They are both dreamers eager to find an available slot in the Hollywood dream factory, Here is this man speaking mangled English in a vaguely identifiable Eastern European accent, a hulking presence with long, stringy greasy hair and a fixation on James Dean. Any discernible talent he might have that distinguishes him from the rest of the crowd is hidden beneath all this peculiarity. He has a short temper, delusions of grandeur, and a seemingly endless reserve of money.
This type of story could go many ways, and especially in our current climate (inside and outside of Hollywood) of sexual molestation and abuse allegations from people in power against the young and impressionable, the reader wonders where this is going. We understand through the fact that The Room became a midnight movie/guilty pleasure cult classic, thanks to eager word-of-mouth from film students Michael Rousselet and Scott Gairdner in the pre-Facebook and Twitter days of 2003. Wiseau's only real crime is his inability and unwillingness to surrender to the fact that he has no talent, no self-awareness, no humility, and he will not stop until his dream is fulfilled. Early on. Sestero knows how to illustrate a picture of Wiseau that will make us want more:
"Gene Simmons after three months in the Gobi Desert? The Hunchback of Notre Dame following corrective surgery? An escaped Muppet? The drummer from Ratt?"
The reader will need to draw on a large reserve of generosity -- not towards Wiseau so much as Sestero. Is he playing us? Can he sustain a full narrative about this guy he doesn't really know? We never get a definite sense of Wiseau's age (IMDB claims he's a 62-year-old Polish refugee.) It isn't until late in the book (perhaps too late?) that Sestero gets down to something a little more serious. Perhaps it's the best he can offer, considering the elusiveness of his subject, or maybe it's the struggle of two competing narratives. Are we meant to laugh about the development/ production/ distribution of an absolute cinematic disaster, or is this supposed to be the portrait of a doomed aspiring actor who somehow made it big by being bad?
"I've never gotten the sense that Tommy is mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. Rather, he is an incredibly guarded person trying to be less guarded. But the emotional fortifications Tommy has built around himself are too entrenched…Tommy offers up fantastical, sad, self-contradictory stories. I've heard these stories many times."
The stories are deep and interesting, and in the end they're somewhat in conflict with the light tone of the narrative describing the production of The Room. Basically, what we read about is a young man under the spell of Disney films, dreaming about coming to America. "Sometimes he wants to be a movie star. Other times, a rock-and-roll musician." Wiseau makes his way from his country (never identified here) and eventually settles in California, with dreams of becoming James Dean or at least getting some of that Rebel Without a Cause magic by connecting with people even tangentially linked to the actor's short yet legendary career.
"Tommy loved movies, though I wasn't sure he'd seen anything made after 1965. I think he thought I looked like Spartacus because for the first time in my life I was wearing a beard."
There's a third narrative strand in The Disaster Artist that will prove of interest to readers comfortable with the common story of the struggling artist. In 1996, Sestero lands bit roles in the TV series Nash Bridges, and uncredited roles in the films Gattaca, Patch Adams, and Edtv. He engages in clumsy small talk with Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. He makes an unsuccessful audition tape for a big role in the film The Virgin Suicides. This all culminates in Sestero meeting Wiseau, and they become improbably connected acting scene partners. Of course, we don't have the luxury of comparing Wiseaus narrative with Sestero's, but the reader gets a palpable sense of the excitement felt in those first encounters:
"What made him so confident? I was desperately curious to discover that. It wasn't his acting, obviously, which was extraordinarily bad. He was simply magically uninhibited; the only person in our class… whom I actually looked forward to watching… The rest of us were toying with chemistry sets and he was lighting the lab on fire."
Gradually, we get a clearer picture of Wiseau. His library features scores of self-help books. He and Sestero are fascinated with the romantic tragedy of James Dean. Sestero writes: "The aspect of Dean's life that affected me most deeply was the lack of support shown to him by his father…" The reader wonders if this might have been an element that connected Sestero and Wiseau. This young man was looking for a mentor, a father figure, a man to escort him into the realms of the film world that might be difficult to navigate alone. When Sestero tells Wiseau he's his own planet, we get a deeper reflection that might explain why this relationship warranted a memoir:
"I had goose bumps. This man sitting in front of me had no detectable talent, did everything wrong, wasn't comfortable saying how old he was or where he was from, and seemed to take an hour to learn what most people picked up in five seconds… I believed he could have his own planet."
While there might be some inconsistencies and confusion in the motivations behind writing this memoir, and the reader wonders why this story still resonates with Sestero after reading the malevolent portrayal of Wiseau through the entire production of The Room (not paying anybody, demanding total allegiance on the set like a dictator), what provides a foundation for The Disaster Artist is a legitimate literary sensibility. Each chapter features epigrams from either the screenplays to Sunset Boulevard or The Talented Mr. Ripley. Sestero never explains the connection to the latter, but the informed reader should understand. In Sunset Boulevard, a fading Hollywood screenwriter hack (William Holden) connects with a fading silent film star (Gloria Swanson.) We know it's disastrous from the start (Holden's character is dead, face down in a pool in the first scene), and the connection is clear. Relationships in Hollywood can take a fatal turn when dreams once secured are clearly no longer in reach.
It's Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley that resonates most with Sestero and Wiseau. They go see the film (second time for Sestero, first for Tommy) and it clearly means something.
"Tom Ripley is someone who wants to belong to respectable society so deeply that he'll do anything. He loves Dickie Greenleaf's life, and this love turns into an obsession with Dickie himself."
Both stories end in tragedy, and the love triangle motif of Tom, Marge, and Dickie motif finds its way into the garbled mess that is the theme of The Room. Sestero might be reaching too far with this literary connections, but he's certainly informed. The Talented Mr. Ripley seems to be the impetus that draws Sestero back to L.A., inspires him to create The Room, and without it the story would not exist. The reader may wonder if it should exist in its current form. It's not so much the crowded cast of characters as it is the multiple story lines that don't receive adequate development. The essence of the relationship between Sesteros and Wiseau is stretched here and spread onto a large canvas. The weak parts of the painting show, but Sesteros can be forgiven as we end this story. The Disaster Artist is a sweet, fun, and warm story in spite of everything against it.
First released in 2013, this book's re-release (in conjunction with the upcoming James Franco film adaptation) should give it a deserved greater mass audience. Wiseau is a delusional failure who latches onto an impressionable young Sestero, who in turn helps the older man create The Room. There's enough in this book to make it a welcome addition to the ever-growing library of Hollywood failure narratives. It could have become tragic (like Sunset Boulevard, Star 80, Barton Fink, and countless others) but instead this is a warm book that aspires towards an equal balance of clear humor about a disastrous film shoot, and pathos about an Eastern European immigrant who comes to America to fulfill a dream with his empty supply of talent. That Sesteros and Bissell don't seem to have a clear vision of their most important theme here is not as important as the fact that at its core, this is a book about identifying and embracing creative dreams. If failure comes, that's part of the picture.