The lament and the antidote

September 3, 2006 at 7:39 pm (Bloom Status: Upward)

I just read this piece in the New York Times Magazine, about an actress called Vera Farmiga. I can barely write about this, my chest is all squeezed up. The piece called up all sorts of feelings that I’m very handy at suppressing, but I guess it doesn’t do me any good to have an all-suppression policy. So, out with it. Get the shovel in there, stomp on it and unearth this churning thing.

eleanora duse

(The above isn’t Vera Farmiga. It’s Eleanora Duse. So there’s no confusion.)

Bear with me, this won’t be fluid. I don’t know how to begin. So I’m going to come at it all sideways and erratically, lunge from here and there. Vera Farmiga is an actress whose work I’ve never seen, but she’s likened to Meryl Streep in terms of her talent. She’s very ambitious, but not for fame itself. She’s artistically ambitious. She says:

“I really don’t feel a need to be famous, but I do feel a need to make a difference, to shed light on human emotion through acting. It sounds strange, but I don’t recognize myself in the women in most films. And I should be up there somewhere. We all should.”

When she auditions for films, she takes it upon herself to make a video of herself as the character in the most fully realized way possible, with costuming and thorough, detailed characterization. She apparently has a pile of videos that she’s sent out, some of which have won her parts with directors like Martin Scorsese, and she pops in a few for the interviewer. There are Romanian prostitutes, drug-addled young mothers, all kinds of creations.

When Scorsese wanted her for his film “The Departed”, she had to go to the studio and do a ‘pretty pitch’ wearing a skirt and makeup, so they could see she was attractive enough to play the role. Anytime I read about a successful actress, I get a little twinge-y, because I love acting dearly but I certainly haven’t grabbed the brass ring about it. But the twinge really kicked in at the mention of the pretty pitch. Also, a point was made in the article that it’s more often the foreign actresses who are artistically ambitious, although Farmiga is American. And the twinge was turned up a notch higher.

I haven’t pursued acting with the vigor I could have, for various reasons. I don’t enjoy the feeling of being scrutinized, which is certainly a handicap. But one of the biggest reasons I haven’t pursued it with Vera Farmiga’s kind of verve is that it seems to me that I’m not pretty enough. And I’m a perfectly decent-looking woman. I’m not remotely glamourous, but neither am I particularly haglike. But the consciousness is drummed so deeply in me that my efforts would likely be in vain because I’m not anywhere close to the neighborhood of bombshell territory. That part about American actresses not being as artistically ambitious makes me cringe – I imagine that there are hordes of gifted actresses out there who either aren’t given the chance, or, like myself, pre-emptively don’t give themselves the chance to go out there and make themselves known for quality work, all because they’re not physically stunning enough. And actresses, with few exceptions, aren’t required to be pretty. They’re required to be off-the-charts, pants-poppingly gorgeous.

This really makes me ill when I allow it to. There’s room for the John C. Reillys, the Philip Seymour and Dustin Hoffmans, but there just isn’t the female equivalent. This isn’t groundbreaking news, here, but it shocks me freshly every time I consider it. And this isn’t just the case in the Hollywood. A version of the same thrives here in little old Seattle as well.

Vera Farmiga’s quote up there about shedding light on human emotion through acting – I feel the same way, very deeply. I’ve noticed that nearly every night when I go to sleep, I spend my dream time acting and learning about acting. And I could really cry when I think that I’ve let such a deep part of me wither a little because I’ve internalized some hostility towards my looks, towards my gender.

I’m jealous of Vera Farmiga, and proud of her. Anyone who owns their place as an actor both pisses me off and has high respect from me, because that’s something I’d like to do and haven’t. I love her selectivity, and I’m impressed by the lengths she’ll go to in order to let people know what she can do. I’m boggled by her self-confidence.

Some of my happiest times being alive have been on stage, involved in productions that tap into something deep. I love the feeling of being asked to go to daring emotional places, being asked to project myself into some human being’s life-shaker of a moment. I’ve had times on stage where I felt like I was swimming in this effortless way – like I described in my dream of greatness posts. Acting is for me what sports must be for sporty folk: the rush of adrenaline, the feeling of being forced into the present moment. I know that I’m an actor in some fundamental way, and I kick myself for all the times I’ve disbelieved it.

I’m all over the map, here, I think*. Sorry.

This is all a classic actor’s bitch, that external and internal forces are working against us, and what are we to do?? It’s a favorite pastime of a lot of actors, I think*, this lament. But it’s tiresome, isn’t it? It’s good to diagnose the problem, it’s good to get mad, but then you’ve got to do something else or really shut up about it, I think*. It’s easy to get mired in negativity, which is a totally uncreative state.

*Somebody likes to say “I think”.

What I want to do is find the antidote. I want to get that part of myself up and running. I want to own the talent I have, and get busy using it, no matter whether I’ve got the backing of some amorphous establishment or not. I want to approach all of this positively. I don’t want to read articles like that and get all tense and weepy. If there’s something I want to share with the world, I need to just plant it and grow it and set up my own roadside stand. Making my own show is going to be one part of that, so that’s good.

Hey, I started with soil and digging, and I’ve ended up with a planting metaphor. Well, all right.

I think I want to start a thing here in Seattle, a little play-reading series that would take place in my living room or somewhere private like that, where actors get to cast themselves in whatever roles they’d like, and they cast the rest of the play in a way that makes them happy, and have the joy of hearing the play out loud that way. It’s one actor’s night to go nuts. Maybe do this once a month or so. Make an evening of it. Make an occasion of it. Everybody gets dressed up. We make a good ambience. We have refreshments. Maybe it’s just the actors, or maybe each actor could invite one audience member. We build a little satisfaction just for ourselves, give the art in us a little pot to bloom in. I feel like that could be the first domino to fall in a long row of dominos that leads I don’t know where, but somewhere good.

I love this idea. I’m going to do it. Ha ha! I’m happy again, suckers.
peter brook's hamlet

Bloom status: Upward! Ba-boom!


  1. la Ketch said,

    rodley and i were talking about this article last night. as a matter of fact she and i were having a conversation so similar to these musings that i begin to wonder if we were talking while you were typing. I was comparing this article to an article on the psycology of fame, which i linked to on my blog last week and then also talking about the article that keroac says linked to about that horrible guy that does the “girls gone wild” videos. how fame and money and recognition are so closely intertwined that it’s difficult to differentiate. How can you have recognition without fame? How can you get paid a living wage without recognition? How can you be an actor in a vacum. You can’t. It’s the most frustrating art to practice because you need someone else’s permission to do it and that person is most likely not going to realize your full potential. rodley and I concluded (once again) that the only way to go is to take matters in to your own hands and create something, like this woman does with her audition tapes. It’s the same thing we come to every time but as we get older it becomes more difficult. There’s less free time and less tolerance for poverty but nonetheless, we must do it ourselves. If an actor does a monologue in her bedroom, does anyone hear it? no. If a small group of actors get together and read a play to eachother…. yes. it’s like a jam session. you should do it!

  2. Kris said,

    Ha HAH! I LOVE this idea! I’m not an actor, but I’d be very happy to know that this kind of artistic endevour was happening someplace. It would enrich all of us in the end, don’t you think? How can it not? It’s not just the artist who suffers under the prevalent system.

    Maybe I could be your invited guest, just once.

  3. dorothy said,

    oh my god ! What a great idea !

    i’ve having the exact same kinds of thoughts about women and roles and accents and stuff. so yah.
    i hear you.

  4. lindsay said,

    i’m late again, but we’ve been talking about doing this for a year. the very informal play reading. i always thought we’d make a big giant tureen of soup or something, you know, with crusty bread, and we’d all have soup and wine. unfortunately we live in a shoebox where only four people can sit down at a time. it’s on my make-me-happy-list for if and when we move somewhere more hospitable.

    or we could rent a space, maybe. or only read four person plays. i suppose the make-me-happy list isn’t really something one should wait on . . .

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