“She’s the Best Thing in It” is an affectionate portrait of Mary Louise Wilson, the Tony-winning actress who’s spent more than a half-century as a highly versatile staple of the stage and screen. An infrequent directorial exercise for veteran scenarist and producer Ron Nyswaner, the docu focuses primarily on Wilson’s late-in-life first stab at teaching an acting class. The result is pleasant enough without revealing as much as probably intended about the subject’s craft or profession — or about her, period. This lightweight portrait will be best suited to broadcasters of the PBS ilk, for whom its modicum of human interest and showbiz lore will suffice.
Wilson is introduced finally winning her Tony in 2007 for the musical “Grey Gardens” — an honor she herself thinks is long overdue, given a diverse career we glimpse in a montage of stills and clips. But she ruefully reports its effect was “that I never worked again”; offers fall off as producers assume her post-Tony asking price would be higher, though she’d never achieved the kind of marquee value that turns a reliable scene-stealer into a bankable star. So she heads to New Orleans, where she was raised, to teach a course in character acting at Tulane U.
The film’s decision to focus on this maiden voyage into instruction proves a mixed bag: In her late 70s at the time, Wilson admits she’s uncomfortable speaking extemporaneously, without an author’s memorized lines. Drawing on her training in the Meisner technique, which emphasizes “connecting with feelings,” over the Tulane Drama Dept.’s usual, more physically oriented approach, she at first baffles her 15 students with seemingly pointless repetition exercises that she has a difficult time explaining. What’s meant to be an inspiring exchange between veteran and aspiring talent instead proves somewhat frustrating for both. Even by the course’s end, it’s hard to tell just what if any impact she’s had on them, or how their acting might have improved as a result.
More insightful are brief talking-head interviews scattered throughout with other established actresses (including Frances McDormand, Estelle Parsons, Tyne Daly, Charlotte Rae and Valerie Harper) who discuss the rewards and sacrifices of the profession. They’re glimpsed in performance clips that, like most of the footage scattered here, tend to highlight the best-known movie and TV work — suggesting the pic is aimed at an audience not particularly schooled in theater, though that’s exactly where Wilson has flourished. (Her own film and TV roles have been many but seldom distinguished, and she admits a period spent pursuing them in Los Angeles was utterly miserable.)
Eventually the docu turns toward probing its subject. But she’s more willing to talk about others (a brilliant but tormented gay brother, a still-living elder sister) than to indulge in any heavy self-analysis, notably refusing more than cursory mention of her sole, short-lived marriage. There’s perhaps an element of escape in this true character actor whose “idea of acting is disappearing into roles” — as we duly see via usually brief excerpts (including as Diana Vreeland in the Off Broadway hit “Full Gallop,” a solo show she co-wrote) which a casual observer would be hard-pressed to identify as featuring the same performer.
Some insight into her process of creating such wildly diverse stage personae in physical, vocal and psychological terms — the very opposite of what she perceives as today’s tendency among young actors to “play themselves” — would be most welcome. But that’s nowhere to be found in “She’s the Best Thing in It,” which offers appreciation but little real insight.
Assembly is pro in a conventional pubcaster style.