Inside the Actors Studio has welcomed over 200 glittering participants to its no-frills stage since the show’s inception in 1994. Chronicling and deconstructing the art of performance with an unfussy documentary style, the show presents itself as the definitive authority on the art of acting and is hell-bent on showing the world how serious it should be about performance and all of its various off-shoots.
Usually it is an actor, but occasionally a director or writer will offer up their views and considerable experience on the subject at hand: Broadway, the famed acting instructors of ’50s New York City, the Hollywood studio system, adversity, and scandals are merely the beginning of the journey for most of the living legends that grace the stage opposite deliriously deadpan host James Lipton (Dean Emeritus of The Acting Studio at Pace University in New York). Lipton gamely toes the blurry line between zombie-like stalker and gushing schoolboy when it comes to the VIPs, but he gets these powerhouse players to join in the discussion en masse: it seems that every living actor worth their salt has acquiesced to sit in that chair. And then there are those that are a little more, well, questionable, to be frank.
This is the inherent problem with the show, and it is a mind-bending, elusive paradox: can there be a discussion on great acting when there are not great actors appearing on the show? When the guest is a highly regarded old pro like pioneering actress Ellen Burstyn or perhaps a legendary playwright Arthur Miller, a case can be made for listening at attention. When interspersed with the dubious offerings of such cinematic luminaries as the esteemed cast of Everybody Loves Raymond or talk show host Rosie O’Donnell (yammering on about the technical aspects of her performance in A League of Their Own), one has to begin to question the actual authority of the show.
Can a show be so rigorously dedicated to acting as an art form and keep it’s credibility if it separately features guests such as Queen Latifah and Vanessa Redgrave recounting on-set antics and sharing tips on sense memory? One was in Howard’s End. One was in Bringing Down the House. Both are Oscar nominees, yet it still is not exactly a level playing field. The oddball mix of absurdly theatrically trained actors and the more low-brow popcorn players actually works, ratings-wise: the show has been on for over 12 years and will premiere another new season this fall, attracting film lovers the world over. Somehow, they are still managing to get the biggest names. If you are looking for this season’s great paradox, look no further than to the upcoming premieres of episodes featuring Al Pacino and Teri Hatcher. Yes, he of The Godfather trilogy, and she of Soapdish, are finally immortalized on the show; forever linked together as acting Gods by the geniuses at Bravo Television who also thought it was appropriate to give Jennifer Lopez an hour to share her expertise.
The polar opposite guests that the show attracts may be distracting, but somewhere in between the best and the worst is Inside the Actors Studio: Icons, a newly-released collection of discs taken from some of the shows most classic appearances: episodes featuring Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand are given the royal treatment (in addition to the over-the-top, reverent introduction from Lipton on each disc). What are the ties that bind these American entertainment legends to this particular set? All are hugely accomplished, mega-awarded auteurs, for starters. Each participant on the set is a pioneer, usually in many different capacities.
Tuning in to see stars at their most bat-shit loony is one of the most pure forms of contemporary American entertainment, so there is a grain of merit to be found in each episode, no matter if you’re into serious British thespians like Anthony Hopkins or a bawdy television personality like Roseanne Barr. At the very least there is unintentional hilarity and a boat-load of irony involved in the selection of guests. The Icons collection is no exception.
The uneven quartet featured here generally manages to steer clear of the hell of self-congratulatory verbal diarrhea. Well, everyone except Streisand, who hams it up like a ridiculous caricature squawking about her love for “the Chinese people” (she did work in a Chinese restaurant as a take-out girl, you know!) or awkwardly begging for a Kit Kat Bar from the stage rather than talking about her work.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is consummate class act Newman (the show’s first guest and a former President of the Actors Studio), who brings a gruffly sweet illumination to this disc when talking about the legendary collaborators he learned from: Tennessee Williams and wife Joanne Woodward were both frequent creative conspirators. The people shown here seem more interested in exploring their profession with introspection and grace, while Streisand seems dedicated to baseless, preposterous revelations about the supernatural. The latter most certainly makes for more delicious viewing, but is not very informative when it comes to issues of craft. Her disc is the equivalent of junk food: there’s very little nutrition involved. Streisand doesn’t really want talk about anything of substance when it comes to acting, but she turns up the crazy meter to ten when talking about her daddy issues: thankfully we are at long last given an explanation as to why the song “Papa Can You Hear Me” is used three times in Yentl. Now I can sleep at night, again.
Streisand definitely emerges as a fly-weight, though, when stacked up against manly man Eastwood, who discusses everything from his early Sergio Leone westerns to his uber-macho mystique; all in good humor. Lipton spends more time mooning over his newly-prosperous directing career than on his rather blasé acting resume. Although to be fair, Lipton does spend what seems like an hour on Every Which Way But Loose, in which he is shockingly more interested in Eastwood’s co-star: an orangutan (never mind that there is not a single mention of his co-star and long-time former lover, Sondra Locke). Eastwood and Newman do come off as congenial and seminal professionals but Redford and Streisand seem to be out to deify themselves.
The climax of the show features Bernard Pivot’s now-famous form interview questionnaire and is one of the show’s most awkward, fun, and telling elements (Barbra’s biggest turn-off? “Apathy”. The sound she loves to hear the most? “Orgasms”). Lipton then hands his subjects gingerly over to their “class”, an auditorium filled with the nervous energy of about 200 or so acting students, star struck eyes as big and blank as saucers. The idols toss them pearls of wisdom and jolly bon mots that are surely found somewhere in a collected volume of clichéd, common sense advice. Although Lipton insists there is no pre-interview or screening process in the discs’ meager extras, you can glean that each of the subjects likely practiced their rapid-fire banter in front of the mirror at least once. That is except, again, Streisand. When a gay male student rises to address the diva by professing “This is sort of an honor for me”, she fires back a cool, acid-tongued “sort of?“, and then immediately pretends like she didn’t mean it to sound so nasty. It is the kind of human, candid celebrity moment that we live for, as that kind of spontaneity and comedic timing cannot be practiced or taught. Not even by stars of this magnitude. Hopefully there are plans afoot to continue the series’ DVD releases with a more grounded, realistic perspective, but this set is at least a good start.