He tackled the weather in 2009 (“Owning the Weather“), pro-wrestling in 2012 (“Fake It So Real“), and this year documentarian Robert Greene has taken on another tempestuous, albeit much more intimate, subject with “Actress.” It’s the portrait of Brandy Burre, playing herself, as an actress who voluntarily placed her career on the back burner in favor of playing some of life’s hardest parts: a mother raising children and a partner trying her best to maintain a happy home life. She’s a familiar face to the perceptive viewer with a great memory, for Burre’s most prestigious role was Theresa D’Agostino, the politically savvy campaign manager in HBO’s “The Wire.” After her biggest gig, however, Burre took a hiatus and decided to concentrate on family. Greene takes an avant-garde approach in detailing her attempt at getting back into acting now that her two children have grown out of diapers. It’s an expertly documented portrait that feels half-measured in its approach to each of her three roles, ultimately recommendable for its expressive approach and brimming potential, rather than its contents.
“I break things,” says Brandy when we first see her, in the first of many double entendres that make you think twice on whether “Actress” is secretly scripted or not (like any true-to-form documentary, it doesn’t have an official screenplay). Then again, actors are a particular breed of person, and there is no doubt that somewhere in the back of Burre’s mind, she realizes just how ironically meta this documentary really is. She is an actress who wants to get back into the acting world, and part of that process is playing herself in a documentary about an actress who wants to get back into the acting world. She must be aware of the symbolism behind some of her statements, perhaps most astutely when she says, “I’m amazed at how many roles there are, and how we all agree to them, even when we don’t.” It’s a wallop of a declaration, carrying the kind of gravitas that’s able to condense the entire documentary in one sentence. This dance between fiction and fact extends from the dialogue into every other element, more often than not revealing an expert efficiency, while keeping your complete investment at bay.
Nonetheless, it’s undoubtedly admirable in more ways than one, which explains the success Greene’s documentary is having with critics. It’s in the use of music (various artists contribute, including Colin Blunstone, Colleen, Rachel Grimes, Verdi, and Brandy herself singing a riveting rendition of “Fools Like You”) that douses the entire picture in a beautifully tender sort of melancholia, similar to the work Carter Burwell used to do for the Coen Brothers. It’s in Greene’s directorial technique of using the ennui of the everyday in montages that show rather than tell Brandy’s creative imprisonment. In one of the most effective of these instances, Brandy verbalizes the most personal struggle she had with her partner Tim while a montage sees her at the kitchen sink, water running through her fingers, a mountain of dishes refusing to surrender. Greene captures Brandy’s stifled creativity and desire for personal freedom every chance he gets, whether it’s the stress of house chores, subway cars whizzing by, or shoveling the glistening snow in the backyard. It’s clear that this is a woman yearning for her own place, unattached to any children or men, and it’s clear that this is a director overflowing with prospect and signs of a bright future.
In another deliciously meta move, “Actress” shows us how terrific Brandy Burre is as an actress. A fascinating aspect of the documentary is the glimpse we get of the hardship an average actress goes through. Her most famous part was a reoccurring role in one of the most critically lauded television shows of all time, but if you thought for a second that there was any glamour behind the scenes, “Actress” quickly brings you down to earth. It’s vital, of course, to make this gender distinction between “actor” and “actress” and there is an obvious reason Greene chose to add the “-ess” to his title, even though Brandy often refers to herself as an “actor.” It’s the moment in the car, when she talks about looking for parts at her age and how old she was in “The Wire,” when you realize that only women in the acting world have to do deal with these kinds of difficulties. Whether by accident or by design, in playing herself and letting it all out in certain moments, Brandy Burre plays the role of Brandy Burre brilliantly, and this is the other half of the reason why you should see this documentary.
“Actress” is a fragmented portrait of a woman that’s neither here nor there when it comes to her own feelings towards her boyfriend Tim, and her profession of acting. She loves her children, that much is obvious, but Greene doesn’t focus much on her role as a mother. In fact, Greene doesn’t focus too much on any of the three major roles in her life—professional, mother, partner—at the moment of filming. Instead his focus is on a bombastic approach at exposing an intimate feeling of entrapment. While zooming in and out of Burre’s life, Greene foregoes true insight in favor of a stylistic approach, using the kind of cinematic language that’s often reserved for fiction and feature films, and the result leaves you admiring “Actress” greatly, but from a distance. [B-]