In Christopher Monger’s celebrity-packed tribute to acting coach Roy London, the stars — far from providing mere laudatory window-dressing for the lesser-known London — serve as living testaments to his unorthodox methodology. London, whose approach encouraged actors to be themselves to the max, reaps surprising posthumous rewards as unlikely disciples such as Geena Davis, Julie Brown, Brad Pitt, Drew Carey and Sharon Stone speak of their thespian guru with enormous affection and rare candor. Snappy, highly entertaining pic should wow on cable and home-vid.
Monger gets London’s backstory out of the way with consummate brevity: math genius on the cover of Life magazine at age 5, charismatic Broadway actor at age 20, performed playwright only shortly thereafter, then on to L.A. and a misguided attempt to go straight, only to finally joyously embrace self-acceptance, discover his vocation and die of AIDS at age 50.
An occasional photo of pixyish young London in an Open Theater production, a TV clip of his “House Calls” turn as a garrulous cabby, and short chats with life-partner Tim Healey and playwright Lanford Wilson cursorily testify to the brilliance of London’s early career. But, by and large, it is the trail-blazing acting teacher who took Hollywood by storm that pic celebrates.
Few of London’s acting precepts appear particularly revolutionary. The notion that one must diligently study one’s craft in order to “throw it away” and venture beyond into uncharted territory has been a staple of art theory for years, though perhaps not as prevalent in acting, nor as physically embodied as in Sharon Stone’s staggering, falling-down improv in “Casino.”
But London’s belief that the actor, instead of raiding the past for appropriate emotions, should creatively use whatever he is feeling in the present is a tack that seems novel. Thus Patricia Arquette in “True Romance,” unable say she finds killing people romantic, incorporates her disbelief by subtly reinterpreting the line as a lie prompted by fear.
Sherilyn Fenn’s awkwardness during a strip scene vanishes when she imagines her rowdy audience as a bunch of terminally ill men. And Geena Davis converts her liking for Susan Sarandon into a discovery that Thelma was experiencing intimacy for the first time as she joyously plunged into the Grand Canyon.
But the point is perhaps made best by London himself in rare TV interview excerpts in which he analyzes a clip from “Niagara” where Marilyn Monroe’s plaintive uncertainty about her acting colors her request for help from a train ticket seller.
Apposite film clips add greatly to testimonials from luminaries of the large and small screen, making theoretical points suddenly resonate as unknown underpinnings of familiar tropes. Gary Shandling touts the input London had on Shandling’s HBO hit “The Larry Sanders Show,” and an extended excerpt from a London-directed episode begins to make the program’s whole post-modern shtick seem positively London-inspired.
Pic’s most amazing segment, however, belongs to Sharon Stone. With unbelievable honesty and self-deprecating humor, she recounts how she cast herself as the star of Roy London’s death. Transported by the idea of being the one he chose to die in front of, she admits to being depressed at the discovery that he wasn’t dead yet. In contrast, Lois Chiles relates an eerily mystical version of the maestro” demise, complete with psychic nurses and shared visions of the afterlife.
Tech credits are slick. Pic maintains high energy throughout, despite some annoying video gimmickry designed to make talking heads more palatable to the attention-challenged.