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Six Characters in Search of an Actor

In wresting his returning characters out of the clutches of the talent, Todd Solondz robs them of depth.

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LIFE DURING WARTIME Directed by Todd Solondz

In Luigi Pirandello's 1921 meta-play Six Characters in Search of an Author, a theater company rehearsing a new piece is invaded by a family of characters who've been created by a playwright and then abandoned. The father manages to talk the theater director into staging the family's story but is taken aback when the director wants to cast an actor to play him. "No matter how much this gentleman may try with all his good will and all of his artistic ability to make himself into me," the father explains to the director, "it will be difficult to play me as I really am. It will be more . . . how he feels like me—if he does feel like me—and not how I myself feel inside of me."

Pirandello's play posed the tantalizing question of who owns a theatrical character, a question that becomes even more pointed when an actor's performance can be immortalized on film. Legally, of course, a character belongs to the writer who created and copyrighted him. But in practical terms, the writer loses control of a character as soon as the script is produced and the producer and director take over. They in turn surrender some control when they choose an actor to play the role, which is why many of them will tell you that casting is the most important part of their job. Even that's not the end of it, because once the public embraces a character, and the performance takes on a life of its own in the popular imagination, the character is beyond the reach of the writer, the producer, the director, and even the actor. The people may not accept another actor in the role, or accept the actor in any role but this one; when that happens, the actor often discovers that the character controls him, not the other way around.

Todd Solondz—who wrote and directed Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998), Storytelling (2001), and Palindromes (2004)—has often been accused of hating his characters, a charge he heatedly denies. Part humanist, part sick comedian, Solondz subjects his creations to such emotional torment that you can understand why some people see him as a kind of dungeon master. But in fact the reverse may be true: having lived through hell with his characters, Solondz loves them so much he can't let go of them. The miserably unhappy Wiener family from Welcome to the Dollhouse turns up again at the beginning of Palindromes, and the miserably unhappy Jordan family from Happiness returns in Solondz's latest release, Life During Wartime. Solondz has grown so possessive of his characters, in fact, that he's begun to guard them jealously from any one actor: he cast eight different people, male and female, to play the heroine of Palindromes, and for Life During Wartime he's jettisoned the original cast of Happiness, often recasting the roles with actors who are stridently different from their predecessors.

Solondz has offered various aesthetic and logistical explanations for this trend, but I suspect that the real reason is Heather Matarazzo. She was an unknown 14-year-old actress when Solondz cast her as Dawn Wiener, the painfully geeky seventh grader at the center of Welcome to the Dollhouse, and in 1997 that touching and hilarious performance won her an Independent Spirit Award, which jump-started her career. But when Solondz approached her to reprise the role in Storytelling, Matarazzo turned him down (her big project in 2001 was Disney's wholesome The Princess Diaries). Rather than recast the role of Dawn, Solondz wrote her out of the script. He tried again with Palindromes, but again Matarazzo declined. "I begged that actor as I have begged no other actor," Solondz told the Village Voice. "But she refused to play that role again." In the end Solondz elected to kill off his most popular and beloved character, opening the movie with Dawn's funeral.

With Life During Wartime, Solondz announces that he's never going to let an actor hold one of his characters hostage again. He's called the recasting of the roles "imperative," though the only actor from Happiness who's a hot property now is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played Allen, the obscene caller. The other principals range from the successful but hardly unobtainable (Jane Adams, Dylan Baker) to the eminently available (Jon Lovitz, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson, Louise Lasser). With its disturbing story of a suburban pedophile (beautifully played by Baker), Happiness was one of the most controversial American movies of 1998 but also one of the most highly regarded; it's hard to imagine many of the original players balking at the chance to appear in a sequel.

A few years back, when I attended a press conference for Palindromes at the Toronto film festival, Solondz explained that he'd decided to carve up his main character among eight actors—ranging from a little black girl to an obese young woman to a boy in drag to Jennifer Jason Leigh—because he couldn't make up his mind which one he wanted and felt that all of them communicated an innocence that was the character's essence. That conception of character would make sense to the father in Pirandello's play, who feels that actors only corrupt "our expression, our way of being." The theater director sees it from the actors' perspective, telling the father, "Your expression becomes material here to which the actors give body and form, voice and gesture. . . . [I]f it should manage to hold up on stage, the merit, you can believe me, belongs entirely to my actors."

The real problem with Solondz's conception of character is that, in real life, people do have body and form, and these often dictate their experience. Dawn Wiener isn't tormented by her classmates because of her essence; she's tormented because she's ugly. In Life During Wartime, Solondz has replaced Philip Seymour Hoffman with Michael Kenneth Williams, best known as the fearless drug bandit Omar from HBO's The Wire. I wouldn't question for a moment that Williams can communicate the essence of Allen the obscene phone caller as well as Hoffman. But there's no way that a chunky, blond white guy and a dark-skinned black man with an eight-inch scar down the middle of his face could've had the same life experience growing up in America.

Even an actor's voice and gesture can have enormous implications for the character. As Bill Maplewood, the stable family man who succumbs to his lust for little boys in Happiness, Dylan Baker made splendid use of his flat, papery voice as he tended to the mundane details of suburban life; only his fishy eyes betrayed the awful sexual impulses roiling beneath the surface. By contrast, Ciarán Hinds, who plays Bill in Life During Wartime, has a deep, sonorous speaking voice and a haunted gaze that, even more than his imposing height, account for his numerous roles as powerful, violent men. There's a similar disconnect in Solondz's recasting of Trish, Bill's blandly happy and narrowly conventional wife: Cynthia Stevenson, who played Trish in Happiness, had a light, chipper voice and a shallow cheer that are worlds apart from the deeper, inherently sardonic delivery of Allison Janney in Life During Wartime. These are just not the same people.

Solondz might have overcome this problem the same way he overcame his schizoid presentation of the heroine in Palindromes—by telling a story so shocking and brilliant that it nudged the stunt casting to the sidelines. But Life During Wartime is the least inspired of all his features (not including his 1989 debut, Fear, Anxiety & Depression, which I haven't seen and Solondz has disowned).

Ten years after Bill's arrest and imprisonment, Trish has divorced him and moved the family from New Jersey to Florida. Just paroled, Bill wants to track down and make amends with his son Billy, now a college student. Meanwhile, Trish's selfish older sister, Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle in Happiness, Ally Sheedy here), has become a Hollywood screenwriter, and her selfless younger sister, Joy (Jane Adams in Happiness, Shirley Henderson here), is trying to save her marriage to the perverted Allen. The movie is Todd Solondz on autopilot: his comedy of delusion and petty cruelty seems pat and nihilistic, and his theme of forgiveness is so baldly stated that it comes off as didactic.

One can only imagine how Life During Wartime might have turned out had Solondz managed to round up the original actors: their presence might have highlighted how little he had left to say about the characters, or they might have brought the story to life in a way the new cast couldn't. Once a character and an actor are bonded on film and internalized by an audience, the performance becomes something bigger than any one person who helped create it.

Among the actors Solondz recruited for the new movie is Paul Reubens, taking over for Lovitz as Joy's spiteful ex-boyfriend, Andy. (The character kills himself in Happiness but reappears as a ghost in Life During Wartime). My wife watched the new movie with me on DVD. When Reubens appeared on screen, she immediately blurted out, "Pee-wee!"   

Related Film

Life During Wartime

Director: Todd Solondz

Producer: Christine Walker, Derrick Tseng, Elizabeth Redleaf and Mike S. Ryan

Cast: Shirley Henderson, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Allison Janney, Michael Lerner, Chris Marquette, Rich Pecci, Charlotte Rampling, Paul Reubens, Ally Sheedy, Dylan Snyder, Renee Taylor, Michael Williams and Gaby Hoffmann

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