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Memoir of a Character Actor: Dark Visions of a Golden Age

Memoir of a Character Actor: Dark Visions of a Golden Age

Rick Lenz’s memoir “North of Hollywood” is full of “good drinkers.” Jason Robards was one, shimmying up a flagpole one night; George C. Scott was another. Jackie Gleason, smashed through much of the shoot of a failed comedy called “How Do I Love Thee?” (1971), is not counted a “good drinker.” He couldn’t hide the slosh behind the smile.

Whether Lenz himself was a good drinker is at some level immaterial, because every good drinker is only good until the moment his car goes off the road or someone’s feelings are hurt or he can’t nail the big laugh. Though its prose perhaps leaves something to be desired — the phrase “thicket of vampires,” used once, is already overused — “North of Hollywood” (Chromodroid Press, $23.95) provides a bleak, even bilious corrective to our romantic visions of Hollywood’s easy riders and raging bulls. Lenz reminds us that for every Redford and Hackman there are a few dozen young actors who’ve had to make do with something less than stardom.

Lenz is probably best known for originating the role of Igor Sullivan in “Cactus Flower” on Broadway, then taking it to the screen in Gene Saks’ 1969 film adaptation, with Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau, and Ingrid Bergman. Since then, he’s admirably pieced together a career in film, television, and the theatre, in acting and writing. The book traces most of Lenz’s life, personal and professional, but its beating heart is the period following “Cactus Flower,” in which he tried to parlay the exposure into a permanent place in Hollywood’s constellation.

Where good drinking comes in is at the parties, dark bars, and dressing room pow-wows of what’s come to be called a Hollywood renaissance, and Lenz’s view is distinctly less sepia-toned than the one I’d come to believe in. Showbiz is for killers, he writes, but he seems temperamentally unable to put the knife in when he needs to. The book rings with regret rather than nostalgia, brimming with bit actors and stars alike who made a living of singin’ through the rain. It is, in the end, a dark vision of the acting life: the ability to always be playing someone else is predicated, despite the gloss and gleam we see, on losing sight of one’s self.

And yet. For all its tasty morsels, “North of Hollywood” fails to build any narrative momentum. The chapters are divided into fragments that shift forward and backward in time, as though the memories were published in exactly the order they were transcribed. This may be how memory functions, but these are Lenz’s memories, not ours. Jump cuts and flashbacks work in movies, but even there they are sustained, each thread a short story in its own right, lashed together to form a coherent whole. Every time you’re pulled into Lenz’s tale, the scene shifts; new characters are introduced; the work of being seduced by the narrative begins anew.

I’m reminded of Lenz’s own description of Jackie Gleason phoning it in on “How Do I Love Thee?”, Lenz’s first experience shooting out of sequence. He describes being comforted by Maureen O’Hara, who tells him all he can do is “grit your teeth and act your heart out.” This may be true, and shooting (or writing) out of sequence requires from practitioners a unique set of skills. But after “cut” is called, there’s always an editor to put the pieces together so it’ll play in Peoria. Unfortunately, “North of Hollywood” does not.

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