How Roman Polanski and Jonathan Demme Blur the Line Between Fiction and Reality
One of my favorite TV shows — and one of the best TV shows of all time, I’d argue — is “The Larry Sanders Show,” a sitcom that ran from 1992 to 1998 on HBO. Created by and starring comedian Garry Shandling, “The Larry Sanders Show” was a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional late-night talk show and the lives of its producers, writers, staff and star. The show was great because it offered a savage take on the entertainment industry, while exposing the hubris, weakness and vulnerability of its characters. It was naturalistic humor with a very dark edge.
Although the show was set mostly in a beige production office, it also featured scenes from the fictional show-within-a-show, in which Larry interviewed real-life celebrity guests. These parts were performed and recorded as full-length talk show segments, then edited down to be used in the sitcom. This resulted a lot of unused material, some of which can be found on various DVDs and box sets.
One of these outtakes came to mind recently thanks to two new movies: “Venus in Fur” by Roman Polanski, based on the play by David Ives, based on the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch; and “A Master Builder” by Jonathan Demme, based on the Henrik Ibsen play “The Master Builder,” as translated and adapted by Wallace Shawn and directed for the stage by Andre Gregory.
Beyond superficial resemblances — both movies are adapted from stage plays, and both have 19th-century roots — “Venus in Fur” and “A Master Builder” share deeper preoccupations as well. Both movies blur the line between fantasy and reality in the lives of their characters, and both are concerned with the art of acting itself. “Venus in Fur” depicts the shifting power dynamic between the director of a play and an actress auditioning for the lead role, while “A Master Builder,” though not about acting directly, is the culmination of a 14-year rehearsal period that was as much about the process as about the product. But the best illustration of the strange magic these films evoke is a single deleted scene from “The Larry Sanders Show.”
The segment, included as a special feature on the 2007 DVD collection “Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show,” presents David Duchovny as a guest on the very last episode of both the fictional talk show and the actual sitcom. For some reason he’s wearing a kilt — he claims to have investigated his mother’s Scottish ancestry and to have found the “Schwartz plaid” — so he and Larry joke about that (Larry: “I only say this because this is a farewell show, but could you close your legs, and let’s say, ‘Farewell’?”), and Larry asks him about “The X-Files,” and about his then-wife, Tea Leoni, whom he had recently married.
During the scene, which is about 12 minutes long, strange things start happening with the actors. After making a joke about his sporran (a pouch worn over the kilt), Duchovny says how the bit was “unscripted.” Larry’s sidekick, Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), cracks up, causing Duchovny to start laughing as well. Larry yells to his producer, Artie (Rip Torn), to ask if it’s time to take a commercial break; Artie yells back from offstage, “Absolutely mythic!” Larry proceeds to ask Duchovny how many more seasons of “The X-Files” he’ll be doing and then, “Why don’t you honestly right now… you are so out of character I can’t even stand it. Why don’t you put some pants on and come back later, as a man.” Then he announces a commercial break.
As the camera pulls away from the desk Shandling chides himself for having broken character; when he thought Tambor and Duchovny were falling out, they were actually continuing in their roles as sidekick and guest. “I fell out, I fell out of character,” Shandling complains. “I could have stayed in… I’m not good enough… I fell out.”
You can probably understand Shandling’s confusion, and at this point might share it yourself. Here is one actor (Shandling) playing a fictionalized version of himself (Larry), interviewing another actor (Duchovny), who actually is playing himself. The setting is fictional, but it is also a fiction of a fiction, since the talk show situation it represents is also a performed routine. When Duchovny says that his joke was unscripted, is he breaking character or is this something he would say on a late-night show? When he starts to laugh, is he laughing as the actor playing a character on a sitcom or is he laughing as David Duchovny, a celebrity guest? The distinctions are never clear.
The scene, which didn’t air, wasn’t the show’s finest. Conversation drags, jokes fall flat and there’s a lot of awkwardness between Larry and his guest. Yet it’s uncanny to watch the exchange as it was shot, before it could be condensed into the funniest snippets. In a few minutes you see a fictional scenario come to life and then flicker in and out of existence as the actors fall in and out of character. The fragility of it makes the contrivance oddly visible, like a hallucination you know isn’t there but that you can see nonetheless. The talk show could pass for reality — and in a sense it’s as real as any late-night talk show might be — but it’s also invented, a reality conjured into existence out of thin air.
For actors, I imagine, such experiences must be commonplace. Their art is to transform themselves into fictional characters and to convince audiences of those characters’ reality. But for those of us who experience such metamorphoses only once they’re complete, viewing them in action reveals the sorcery we usually take for granted. Mostly we see the final product, and extra-fictional aspects stay outside the frame. Even in “The Larry Sanders Show” these moments are apparent only in deleted scenes and outtakes, not within the actual sitcom. But there are a few artists who make these kinds of transformations the subject of the work itself. When it’s done well it can be magical and also, sometimes, horrific.
In the 1981 movie “My Dinner With Andre,” directed by Louis Malle, Andre Gregory tells a story to his dinner partner, Wallace Shawn, about an acting workshop he led in Poland at the invitation of experimental theater director Jerzy Grotowski. At that time, Gregory was burned out and disillusioned with the theater: “Exercises meant nothing to me anymore; working on scenes from plays seemed ridiculous.” But he told Grotowski that if he could find “40 Jewish women who speak neither English nor French… and if these women could all play the trumpet or the harp, and if I could work in a forest, I’d come!”
Grotowski couldn’t find 40 Jewish women who all played the trumpet or the harp, but he did find 40 women and a few men who were all questioning the theater, played a musical instrument, and didn’t speak English. Also, he found a forest.
“Technically, the situation is a very interesting one,” Gregory tells Shawn. “Because if you find yourself in a forest with 40 people who don’t speak your language, then all your moorings are gone.” He continues:
What we’d do is just sit there and wait for someone to have an impulse to do something. Now in a way, that’s something like a theatrical improvisation… Except that in this type of improvisation… the theme is oneself. So you follow the same law of improvisation, which is to do whatever your impulse as the character tells you to do, but in this case, you are the character. So there’s no imaginary situation to hide behind, and there’s no other person to hide behind.
While this kind of exercise may have had its roots in theater, it was also a means of introspection and self-knowledge — that is, a spiritual practice. In the 2013 documentary “Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner,” directed by Gregory’s wife, Cindy Klein, Gregory compares Grotowski’s physical acting exercises to the breast-beating found in Jewish prayer, and he describes Grotowski’s goal as “trying to find the theater of God.” In “My Dinner With Andre” he tells Shawn that the experience resembled a return to childhood — an attempt to “play” as a child plays, without any pretext. Such para-theatrical exercises stressed the idea that the “self” is as much a construct as a fictional character, and they forced participants to reassemble that self from scratch. When we remove ourselves from our usual surroundings, who are we really, and whom might we become?
Grotowski eventually abandoned such open-ended exercises, finding that the lack of structure had its own limitations. And while it’s enticing to think we might be people other than the ones we normally think of as ourselves, even Gregory would admit that such a possibility is achieved only through hard work, if at all. But for actors the prospect of becoming someone else is the essence of what they do. As Shawn wrote in a 1996 essay titled “Myself and How I Got Into the Theater”: “Our daily pretense that we know who we are is abandoned by the actors, who… try out the possibility that what they think and feel is not limited by… the supposed outlines of their supposed biographies.” Most of us don’t wake up one day and decide to become someone else; actors, however, do it all the time.
As a director Gregory has become famous for long, open-ended rehearsals culminating in small productions held in nonconventional spaces. His version of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” as adapted by David Mamet, took four years of practice at the abandoned Victory Theater on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and was never performed for the public. His 1999 production of Shawn’s play “The Designated Mourner” was held in an abandoned men’s club in Lower Manhattan for an audience of no more than 30 people at a time. In 2005 he directed Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” in an unfinished building in the middle of a Texas desert.
It might be Gregory’s aversion to theater as mere performance that inspires such unusual stagings; holding an event in an abandoned building automatically turns audience members into participants, rather than just spectators. But Gregory has also enlisted film as a medium to illustrate the porous boundaries of his work. While the possibilities of theatrical transformation might be experienced in the middle of a Polish forest, or witnessed in an unusual rehearsal space, filming a play allows him to portray both the fictional world of the work and its relationship with real-world surroundings. For those of us watching from home, it allows us to see the effect even when we can’t participate in it directly.
This dynamic is most evident in “Vanya on 42nd Street” (1994), directed by Malle and based on Gregory’s four-year “Uncle Vanya” rehearsal. At the beginning of the film we see Gregory, the actors and members of the audience approach the theater from the street, either alone or in small groups. Shawn leans against a building, waiting for the others and snacking on a knish. The venue is the New Amsterdam Theatre — another abandoned space on 42nd Street — and the audience is restricted to a few friends. Although the performance was being filmed, Gregory tells an audience member that it is actually just a rehearsal, albeit a complete run-through.
Once everyone is inside the building, the play starts without announcement. It’s difficult to tell at what point the actors become the characters in the play, although, given the presence of the camera, they are actually acting from the start. There are no costumes aside from the clothes they are already wearing, and barely any sets other than tables and chairs, a bottle, glasses and a few books. There is almost no effort to create the illusion of a fictional setting, and some of the props even have the opposite effect. At one point we see Shawn as Vanya, supposedly the manager of a large Russian estate, drinking out of an “I Love NY” paper cup.
And yet, thanks to the skill of the actors, who include Julianne Moore and frequent Gregory collaborator Larry Pine, the world of the play takes shape before us — at least until intermission. Then, as if we were in an actual theater, we see the audience get up to chat, move around and have a bite to eat. A few minutes later it’s back to the play. The result of this juxtaposition is to create once again a thin boundary between theater and life, the flimsiness of which makes the fiction even more apparent. The message seems to be that the creation of worlds doesn’t require any special infrastructure — just ability and imagination.
Indeed, Gregory has said as much himself. In “Before and After Dinner” we see him tell a group of students at The New Actors Workshop: “All you need is a tiny room with a few friends, and you can make a miracle, with time.” And by “time,” he means a lot of time — as much time he needs, without any commercial pressure. This was his approach for his first major production, an experimental version of “Alice in Wonderland” that ran for seven years, and it’s been his strategy ever since. His latest project, “A Master Builder,” was rehearsed for 14 years before it was finally performed and turned into a movie.
Unlike “Vanya,” the film version of “A Master Builder” takes place entirely within the fiction: There is no on-screen audience, and though the sets and costumes are minimal, they belong to the play. The story centers on Halvard Solness, a dictatorial architect trying to justify the hardships he inflicted on others in order to achieve his success. As he struggles to maintain control over his wife, his mistress and his employees, a mysterious young woman appears at the door, seeming to promise a fresh start.
In Shawn’s adaptation, Solness is also deathly ill, and his conversations with the young woman, Hilde Wangel (played by Lisa Joyce), take on a confessional air. Although the actors are all excellent — including Julie Hagerty as Solness’s high-strung wife, Pine as Dr. Herdal and Gregory himself as the elderly architect, Knut Brovik — Shawn outdoes himself as the cruel and imperious Solness. Despite being frequently cast in comic roles thanks to his unusual voice and appearance (he was the evil Vizzini in “The Princess Bride” and Grand Nagus Zek on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), Shawn is a dramatic actor of the first order, and his performance serves as the film’s center of gravity. Joyce, dressed like a mountaineering sex kitten in white shorts and hiking books, is unnervingly exuberant, but given her symbolic role that is perhaps not inappropriate.
Although “A Master Builder” is more conventional than “Vanya,” it too is intense and unusual and, like its predecessor, depends entirely on acting. Not only does the action stay within Solness’s house, at least half the shots are close-ups of the actors’ faces. Though the set is spacious and bright, the tone of the movie is a barely contained hysteria and the emotional tenor is suffocating and claustrophobic.
Yet the most interesting aspect of the movie are the rehearsals that preceded it. In “Before and After Dinner” we see parts of those rehearsals, which take place in a comfortably furnished apartment, and the preparations for the staging of the play, which took place in 2011. Most fascinating, we hear Gregory explain the purpose of his epic preparations:
One of the reasons that I work for so long is that we wear masks, and even when actors have easy access to expressing emotion — deep emotion — even that emotion can be a mask. So what I’m doing is I’m not adding to the performance… I’m stripping away. Less and less and less, so I’m always working for a kind of simplicity…
For Gregory, the years-long rehearsals are not about teaching actors the roles they need to play in order to become characters. Rather, they’re about the roles the actors are already playing and which as characters they need to drop.
If Gregory represents a world in which acting opens the door to discovery and imagination, then Roman Polanski represents the nightmare. Whereas in Gregory’s plays the blurring of an actor’s self with his fictional character leads to deeper understanding and enlightenment, in Polanski’s movies the destruction of such boundaries leads only to terror.
Polanski is a versatile filmmaker, and the breadth of his work makes it impossible to pin him to any particular genre. Over more than 50 years he’s made black-and-white psychological dramas (“Knife in the Water”), genre spoofs (“The Fearless Vampire Killers,” “Pirates”), satanic thrillers (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Ninth Gate”), and sprawling period pictures (“Tess”), not to mention his genre-defining neo-noir classic, “Chinatown.” But over his wide-ranging career he has also turned repeatedly to themes of mental disintegration, and to the terrifying conflation of hallucination with reality.
Polanski’s own life has been marked by the kind of instability that makes sanity seem like a thing to cling to rather than experiment with. As a child he was imprisoned with his parents in the Krakow ghetto, where he witnessed his father being rounded up and deported to Mauthausen — an experience he drew on in his Oscar-winning 2002 film, “The Pianist.” After escaping the ghetto in 1943, he spent the remainder of the war hiding among his Catholic neighbors, coming close to discovery and death several times. Polanski’s father survived the war, but his mother was murdered at Auschwitz.
Polanski’s life continued to be turbulent after the Holocaust. Although he achieved early success in Poland — his first full-length feature, “Knife in the Water,” was nominated for a foreign language Oscar — he fled Communist rule in the early 1960s, settling in France instead. Later that decade, after he began making movies in Hollywood, Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, then almost 9 months pregnant, was murdered by the Manson family along with four others. Since 1977 he has been living in exile from the United States after raping 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, whom he was photographing for French Vogue. Despite pleading guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor,” he fled the country before sentencing after several plea deals with the judge fell through.
Whatever the connection between Polanski’s life and work — and one is not strictly reducible to the other — there’s no avoiding his obsession with madness. “Repulsion,” his 1965 black-and-white horror film, depicted a young Belgian woman who loses her grip on reality after her sister leaves her alone for the weekend in their London flat. His next movie, the bleak “Cul de Sac” (1966), portrayed a married couple living in a grim castle on a tidal island in Northern England. When a fugitive criminal invades their home, the husband, George, develops a case of Stockholm syndrome, taking his captor’s side against his wife and guests. In one fraught scene he shaves the hoodlum with a straight razor, groveling apologetically after he nicks him. By the end of the movie, George seems to lose his mind completely, lashing out at both his tormentor and his wife.
Polanski’s darkest movie, and perhaps his most disturbing, was “The Tenant” (1976), starring Polanski himself as Trelkovsky, a mild-mannered Polish immigrant living in Paris. At the beginning of the film he rents a decaying apartment from the stern Monsieur Zy, only to learn that the previous tenant, an Egyptologist named Simone Choule, had committed suicide by throwing herself out the window. As the movie progresses, Trelkovsky comes to believe that his neighbors are conspiring to transform him into the late Choule and manipulate him into a suicide identical to hers. Whether it’s his disturbed state that becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy or there are really evil forces driving him to madness is never clear.
Polanski’s latest film, “Venus in Fur,” though not a horror movie, has a similarly disorienting feel. The film is based on a 2010 play by David Ives, which depicts an audition for a stage adaption of the classic 19th-century erotic novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Like “The Larry Sanders Show” or “Vanya on 42nd Street,” “Venus in Fur” is a work about another work — in this case, a movie based on a play about a play, based on a book. The book itself also contains layers, with the unnamed narrator of a shell narrative representing Sacher-Masoch directly, and the narrator of the main story, Severin, standing in as yet another version of the author. The novel is actually autobiographical, although it is cast as fiction.
But it’s the movie’s subject matter more than its convoluted structure that makes it natural territory for Polanski. In films like “What?” (1972) and “Bitter Moon” (1992), he explored the extremities of sexual relationships, and in the latter he incorporated verbatim a passage from “Venus in Furs.” Moreover, the idea of sadomasochistic role-play — which is a kind of acting, after all — suits his interest in the confusion between waking life and nightmare. Although a role-play scenario is supposed to have boundaries, it also has the potential to transgress them, and to change in a flash from titillating to terrifying.
In Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Severin enters into a relationship with a young widow named Wanda von Dunajew, convincing her to take him as her “slave” and to fulfill his masochistic fantasies. (Sacher-Masoch’s name is the source of the word “masochism.”) Ives’s play, and by extension Polanski’s movie, is about a playwright’s adaptation of this story, and about an actress — by apparent coincidence named “Vanda Jourdain” — who comes to audition for the role of Wanda. Like other movies about theater (John Turturro’s “Illuminata” or Alain Resnais’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet!” come to mind), their fictional roles quickly become confused with the real-life situation. And because this is a movie by Polanski, the effect is both trippy and sinister.
The movie opens on a rain-lashed Paris theater, where a director is getting ready to leave and go home. He is stopped by the entrance of Vanda, who has arrived for an audition late and soaking wet. Though he is inclined to send her packing, she convinces him to let her read. Before long the two of them are immersed in the play.
Even before they begin acting, uncanny things start to happen. Though Vanda presents herself as a boor, she seems to know more than she lets on. Not only does she possess an unauthorized copy of the script, but she also has learned it by heart. She professes not to realize that the story takes place in the 19th century, but comes to the audition equipped with costumes, including a vintage smoking jacket made in Vienna a year before the novel was published. She even seems to know things about the playwright’s personal life that she has no business knowing. And despite her uncouth manner, she turns out to be a stunningly good actress.
The actual actress in the role — Emmanuelle Seigner, who is also Polanski’s wife — delivers a masterful performance in which she embodies not one but two characters, and switches between them on a dime. In previous Polanski roles Seigner mastered the art of the femme fatale and here she brings it to a fever pitch. Mathieu Amalric is equally brilliant as playwright Thomas Novachek, perfectly capturing the character’s mixed feelings of innocence and guilt. It doesn’t hurt that he looks almost exactly like a young Polanski.
At the outset of the movie, the roles of the characters are clear: Thomas is the director, powerful in his domain, while Vanda is the struggling actress who is lucky to get an audition. Within the play, however, those positions are neatly reversed. There it’s Wanda who is in control, while Severin is her hapless admirer. But the deeper into the play Vanda and Thomas go, the more the two sets of relationships become confused. At one point she calls him Thomas in the play, effacing the distinction between the roles. Later in the story, when Wanda repents of her dominance and wants Severin to be master over her, the actress maintains her position by getting the director to switch parts. By the conclusion of the play Thomas is reduced to a blubbering mess in makeup and women’s clothing, a spectacle reminiscent of Trelkovsky’s end in “The Tenant.” Here, as in Sacher-Masoch’s novel, a situation that which was meant to be just an act turns out to be all too real.
In the documentary “The Making of ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’” also included on the 2007 DVD set, Shandling explains how he started doing stand-up comedy:
I went to The Comedy Store one night and got up on amateur night. And I walked off that stage and I thought: “My God, this could be a way to find out who I am. Because I’m so self-conscious up there that clearly I’m scared to death of being whoever I am.”
Unlike Shandling, I have never attempted to be a stand-up comic. Nor have I ever aspired to be an actor, or a theater director, or a filmmaker. I was never a theater kid in high school, and to be honest, theater people, with their — how else to put it? — theatricality, made me a little uncomfortable. I have never been at ease displaying emotion in front of strangers, and certainly not in front of whole audiences. Perhaps, like Shandling, I should view that discomfort as an opportunity to find out who I am.
But the truth is that I think I know pretty well who I am. I’m the kind of person who likes to sit by myself and watch movies and then write essays about them. I’m the kind of person who enjoys solitary work, but has less affection for group projects. And as much as I might appreciate the art of acting, I am not an actor. I like to have the kind of control over my output that is easier in writing than onstage.
And yet there are more similarities than there might seem to be. I, too, traffic in different versions of myself. The self I put on the page is a persona, and the truer I can make it, the more effective it is. Like Gregory’s conception of acting, the creation of a written self is a two-way process; it isn’t just the persona I project that I try to make as genuine as possible, it’s the self I “really am” that takes its cues from the person on paper. In order to create the writer that people want to read, I also have to become that person in real life.
At one point in “The Larry Sanders Show” documentary, we hear Roy London, a legendary acting teacher, describe his own ideal of acting. “What most people would like to do is figure out how to do it right before that camera ever shows up,” he says. But “to discover something about what the script is about, and yourself in the script, while the camera is running — are you willing to do that? Very few people are willing to do that.”
I don’t claim to do anything like that. Writing is a perfectionist’s medium in which you can keep making improvements, at least until publication. In comparison with film it’s more like what happens behind the camera than what happens in front of it. For me it’s the opposite of the “in the moment” situation London describes.
But there is courage required for writing too — the courage to become oneself in public, as truthfully and painstakingly as possible, one piece at a time. There’s the courage needed to avoid a false front — to be honest about oneself rather than merely get it “right.” As with any creative endeavor the rewards for such efforts are inconsistent, and the possibility of failure is ever-present. But I put my faith in what Gregory said to his students, and which I believe applies to us all: With a small room, and with time, we can make miracles.