Feature by: Teddy Blanks
Posted on: 06 April 2008
Spalding Gray was a towering figure in 1980s avant-garde theater, a performer whose relationship with his own stage persona was so unique it spawned a new genre of playwriting. Somewhere between open-mic night and the confession booth, his personal monologues were full of diverse characters and themes, current events and political commentary, a perfect encapsulation of the hipster Boomer malaise. Was he self-centered? Grating? Narcissistic? Yes, sometimes, and definitely. But he was also hyper-aware of his persona, and he didn’t let you forget it. These qualities, far from making his work dull or pompous, are part of why you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
In 1987, still high off the house-burning of Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme brought his newfound confidence in filming performances to Gray’s most accomplished stage monologue, Swimming to Cambodia. In it, we see only Spalding Gray, but the film feels like a conversation between two idiosyncratic men at the top of their game and the height of their careers. It is a classic.
While Gray would go on to play bit parts in several major films, he continued writing and performing his stage monologues regularly, and two more films were made from his monologues. The final one, Gray’s Anatomy, was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who, with great care and (mostly) positive results, took to the task of artfully visualizing the world Spalding Gray creates with his words. It’s uneven, clearly without the crisp, effortless understanding for its subject that Demme exhibited a decade earlier, but more than either of the other monologue movies, Anatomy betrays its director’s love for Spalding Gray’s work, and for Spalding Gray the man. It is appropriate then that four years after his suicide, Soderbergh has directed a documentary about Gray that is set to premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
With the spotlight about to be back on him, it is a perfect time to revisit the three films that we have as records of his performances. They still stand out today as unrivaled in movie history. At the very least, they are the only films I can think of composed almost entirely of one man sitting at a table talking about himself. And somehow, three isn’t nearly enough.
|Swimming to Cambodia||06 April|
|Monster in a Box||06 April|
|Gray’s Anatomy||06 April|