Tales From the Script

George Clooney's HBO series about L.A. acting culture is a mashup of fact and fiction.

By Leo Charney
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 19, 2005

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North Country
Director: Niki Caro
Starring: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand
Opens Fri., Oct. 21


Who'd have thought that George Clooney--aging Casanova and failed sitcom sidekick--would create a whole new genre for himself? In just two movies and two TV shows, he's patented a unique mashup of fact and fiction, mixing real footage with actors playing real people. He does it both in his new movie--the earnestly dull (and strangely punctuated) Good Night, and Good Luck--and in his new DVD: the 10-episode HBO series Unscripted, which puts real people in fake situations.

Clooney works with maverick movie director Steven Soderbergh, who can make the experimental Schizopolis as easily as the glossy Ocean's Eleven. First they tried Washington politics in the underrated HBO series K Street, which mixed actors with real politicians and real political consultants in made-up stories and situations that felt real. It was like a documentary, but not; like The West Wing or Commander in Chief--but more real. Or was it?

If people are filmed doing things, and we watch them, does it matter if they're called "real" or "actors"? Does it matter if the situations are slotted into a category called "real" or one called "fake"? With a deceptively nonchalant, tossed-off style, Clooney and Soderbergh are working their way through big questions, which have no simple answers but are central to our era of reality TV, MySpace, celebrity culture, blogs, Internet dating and the whole blurring of the line between private and public lives.

So it's perfect that they turned their attention away from politicians and toward their natural subject: actors. Only an actor could keep obsessively coming back to this issue of the real in the fake and the fake in the real. After all, an actor is actually doing and saying the things his "character" is doing and saying, so he feels the blurring of the real and the fake right in his own body.

Unscripted follows three young aspiring actors in the same L.A. acting class: Bryan Greenberg, a Jewish frat-boy type who winds up with a regular role on the WB show One Tree Hill and the lead in a Meryl Streep/Uma Thurman feature; Krista Allen, a thirtysomething sexpot and single mom who once starred in soft-core movie Emmanuelle and now can't get anyone to take her seriously; and Jennifer Hall, a sincere, hardworking type saddled by low self-confidence and a maudlin storyline about her senile grandfather.

The actors are real actors, using their real names and real lives--Bryan Greenberg's really on One Tree Hill and in the new Streep/Thurman movie, and Krista Allen is really trying to live down her soft-core past--yet they're not strictly playing themselves. To make this point clear (or more confusing), the real actors appear every week in a fake acting class, led by veteran actor Frank Langella playing not himself, but a character: an acting teacher named Goddard Fulton, who's the show's most complicated and compelling figure.

Full of Zenlike maxims, Goddard is neither a pompous blowhard nor a selfless educator. He's a Hollywood washout, a failing writer who lives on the beach and hooks up with his hottest students (including Krista Allen) yet also has genuine passion and intellect to convey to his callow students.

Langella uncannily nails the character's complex brew of manipulation, education and self-infatuation, and his mesmerizing performance alone makes the DVD worthwhile. (He's also a highlight of Good Night, and Good Luck, as frosty CBS boss Bill Paley.)

As if this isn't enough, the show adds a new character halfway through: an aging actress named Diane Baker (played by an aging actress named Diane Baker) who becomes the series' most poignant figure, a ghost of Christmas future hovering over the youngsters. Still attractive yet invisible to men (including Goddard, who's too busy getting with youngsters to pursue her advances), she's rueful and defeated but not bitter, nobly determined to keep going while clear-eyed about her marginalization. Celebrating her birthday with kids less than half her age, she's not really maternal but not exactly pathetic either--a Hollywood survivor with little to show for her scars.

Like all the series' other characters, she's drawn with the subtlety and sympathy that make Clooney one of the potentially great actors turned directors. The show has all kinds of young-actor storylines--Krista tells off the wrong director, Jennifer gets caught in a pyramid scheme, Bryan loses a part he feels born to play--but its heart lies in its tone of exquisite balance: not just between fact and fiction, but also between real emotions and self-justifications, between narcissism and consideration for others, between fame and nothingness.

L.A. emerges as a culture on an emotional precipice, where everyone's walking a line between real and fake. That's not news, but Clooney and Soderbergh make it feel fresh with their emotional empathy. Stripping away both knee-jerk cynicism and knee-jerk reverence, they create a picture of L.A. acting culture that's heartfelt yet unsentimental.

Skillfully contrasting the eager young with the washed-up old, they find the heart inside the cynicism, the insecurities inside the posturing, and the youthful ideals inside the pretensions and failures. They don't give up their idealism, but they've been around the block enough times to see the young actors and the old actors as mirror images--time-machine reflections of goals made or left behind, dreams planned out or lost along the way.

Melinda and Melinda

What the hell happened to Woody Allen? He's gone from great movies to pleasantly inconsequential movies to a movie as jaw-droppingly, brain-freezingly mortifying as this excruciating so-called comedy, in which stiff acting runs neck-and-neck with lazy writing.

The film starts from a clever premise, like one of Allen's old New Yorker short stories: Two writers are arguing about comedy vs. tragedy, and they start telling similar stories--both about a woman named Melinda and her New York friends and lovers--but one version is a comedy and one is a tragedy. Great idea, right?

But the stories, which both play out in the movie, are interchangeable: One's no more comic or tragic than the other. Painfully dull and cliched, both rehash the same old boring plots about the anxieties and infidelities of upper-middle-class white New Yorkers, who all have creative jobs and live in improbably huge, fabulous Manhattan apartments. (If Allen were living in the present instead of 1974, he'd know these characters would actually live in Park Slope or Williamsburg.)

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