In New Film, Spalding Gray Tells His Own Tale
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
To say that Spalding Gray was an actor misses the mark. He certainly was. He appeared in more than 40 films. On Broadway, he played the narrator in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."
But Gray, who committed suicide in 2004, was perhaps best known as the narrator of his own life through monologues with names like "Sex and Death to the Age 14," "Monster in a Box," and his most famous, "Swimming to Cambodia."
Steven Soderbergh directed Spalding Gray in the film "King of the Hill," and now he's made a documentary about the master of the monologue. Karen Michel reports.
KAREN MICHEL: The movie opens as a performance is about to begin. Onstage, there's a simple wooden table, a glass of water, a lamp. Spalding Gray enters, takes out his text and settles in.
Mr. SPALDING GRAY (Writer, Performer): I can remember riding around on the back of my mother's bicycle in her little, the little seat, the basket seat on the back.
MICHEL: The film flips between sections of Gray's monologues and sections of Gray talking about himself, his life, the source material for his stories, with himself as both narrator and hero or fool. The title of the film, "And Everything Is Going Fine," comes from one of Gray's nearly 20 monologues.
Mr. GRAY: And everything is going fine except this particular day, it's summer, and we're eating outside, and the only problem is flies. There's a fly, look out, a fly. Close the door, get out the bomber. My father got out this big fogger and set it off by the picnic table out back, and my stepmother, who collects antiques, got out the antique fly gun, and you pull it back like this, and you line it up a certain distance from the fly, and if you're, if you're all right, the thing goes (makes noise).
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GRAY: And everything is going fine, and everything is going fine except...
MICHEL: It's a title full of irony, for in Gray's life, things were seldom fine. They were complicated, messy, but on stage, he could re-form those events, control them.
Ms. KATHIE RUSSO: He really was a perfectionist when he was on stage. There was no room for slip-ups.
MICHEL: Gray's widow and one of the film's producers, Kathie Russo.
Ms. RUSSO: Whereas in life he would sort of let things happen to him instead of taking action. So he took action on stage, but he kind of took a backseat when he was living.
MICHEL: The documentary reflects Gray's simple, direct performance style. There are no re-enactments, no famous heads recollecting, no one reading from the dead man's diaries, just footage of Gray's performances, home movies and recorded interviews with him, all from Gray's extensive archive and arranged by director Steven Soderbergh.
Mr. STEVEN SODERBERGH (Film Director): I guess I began to define it by what I didn't want it to be. It certainly didn't make sense to me to interview people on camera and have them talking about someone who was arguably one of the world's best talkers.
MICHEL: The first part of the film is about Gray's childhood, growing up uber-WASP in Rhode Island and his early days as an actor. We hear about his mother's decision to kill herself as part of a monologue and then Gray's learning about her doing it in an interview.
Mr. GRAY: My father didn't tell me over the phone. I had called him from Houston because I'd taken a train up to Houston and was going to fly in from Houston to Providence.
And he picked me up. It was a very hot August day. And we rode in silence for a bit, and I said: So how's mom? Because I knew she'd been having this nervous breakdown for two years, in and out of shock treatments.
And he just broke down while he was driving. He started to cry and, like, whimper. It wasn't - like, it wasn't really full-blown. He said: She's gone.
MICHEL: For Gray's widow, Kathie Russo, working on the film was a series of revelations. There were parts of her late husband's life she hadn't known about and parts she wasn't so sure their two sons were ready to know.
Ms. RUSSO: Maybe we didn't really discuss that Spalding dabbled in bisexuality. But I think Forest was aware of it. I mean, he was aware that he was in porn movies. He came home from school one day and said, was Dad in a porn film? And I go, yeah, he was. He actually, he writes about it, if you, you know, you want to read it. And he goes, wow. I said, well, how do you feel? He goes, I don't know too many other kids whose parent was in a porn film.
MICHEL: There likely aren't too many other kids whose father refused to see him for the first eight months of his life. That's in the film, too, as is the story of Russo meeting and mating Gray while he was with his previous wife.
There's lots of messy stuff here and lots of talk of death. Director Steven Soderbergh.
Mr. SODERBERGH: He speaks about it so often that I really feel like that subject is sort of central to almost all of the monologues. So in a way, in putting the film together, I felt like he was commenting on something that was going to occur.
Mr. GRAY: I was always worried that my epitaph, which I will never see, will read: Spalding Gray, who found a niche of making a living at talking about himself.
(Soundbite of dog howling)
Mr. GRAY: And the dog is already howling for the dead Spalding Gray. And I would hope that it would say talking about himself and his loved ones and people he's encountered in his travels.
MICHEL: The viewer won't see that epitaph, either, for Gray's death in 2004, a suicide, is not in the film, though Kathie Russo thought it would be.
Ms. RUSSO: And we all expected it to be. But there's no footage on it. Therefore, to stay true to the mission that Steven wanted to accomplish, if there's no footage on it, then, you know, he can't include it in the film.
You know, I've seen the film now maybe, like, 10 times. You understand, it's not necessary. We all know the end.
MICHEL: Russo feels that in a way, the film is as if Spalding's telling his last monologue.
MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.
(Soundbite of dog howling)
Mr. GRAY: God, that's just wild, like Chekhov. It's a lamentation.
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