“You Can Call Me Bill” is the latest documentary from director Alexandre O. Philippe, who specializes in plucking tasty subjects out of the pop cosmos and doing deep-dive meditations on them. Philippe often leans into horror (“Memory: The Origins of Alien,” “Doc of the Dead,” and his greatest film, “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene”), but even with other subjects (“The People vs. George Lucas,” “Lynch/Oz”), what he’s always looking for is the heady ineffable curveball insight. So if you go into his new movie, which is all about William Shatner, presuming that it’s going to be something other than a conventional portrait of William Shatner, you’d be quite correct. The movie is built around an interview with the legendary 91-year-old actor, still vigorous and voluble, with a seize-the-day cornball glow to him. In “You Can Call Me Bill,” Shatner sits under the hot lights, with the camera close to his face, talking, talking, and talking — about life, death, acting, fame, love, desolation, and trees.
No one else is interviewed. At no point is Shatner called “Bill,” and at no point does he say, “You can call me Bill.” No mention is made of his hairpieces, which practically deserve a documentary of their own. But “You Can Call Me Bill” cuts engagingly between the wit and wisdom of William Shatner and a wealth of footage from his career — the “Star Trek” shows, the “Star Trek” movies, the early TV work (“The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,”), the other movies he was in (“Judgment at Nuremberg,” “The Intruder”), his “T.J. Hooker” moment, his Priceline commercials, and his stentorian reading of “Rocket Man,” all of which blend, after a while, into a glorious glob of Shatneressence. The film’s theme, which is never enunciated (that’s part of its affectionate joke), is the continuity between Shatner the actor and Shatner the philosophical showbiz life coach who, on some level, is never acting more than when he spews his innermost thoughts and feelings. He’s wired that way. That’s the zen of Shatner.
Is William Shatner a good actor? That’s a question that, if you really explore it, could make your head explode. It’s the question that “You Can Call Me Bill” is, on some level, an investigation of. For a certain sort of Trekkie fundamentalist, the answer is clear: Of course he’s a good actor! There are people all over the globe, and have been for decades, who idolize William Shatner for his performance as Capt. James T. Kirk. Shatner brought something indelible to “Star Trek,” a beyond-the-call-of-television rhythm and conviction that people still cherish and impersonate. Yet there’s another kind of Shatner fan, less devotional and more amused. I’d put myself in that camp — and, indeed, you can’t really get into it without using the word camp.
As Shatner explains in the documentary, he had two acting idols: Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. And when you see Shatner in the ’50s TV episodes that raised his profile (though he was also a stage actor who appeared on Broadway and launched his career at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival), you can see how he was being groomed as a handsome young Method successor, part of the Newman and McQueen generation. But he fell into a schlockier lane, developing a reputation as someone who would take almost any role (he was very practical and Canadian about it, regarding acting as work). So while you might envision him as the last in the line of the moody new-realism hunks, following in the footsteps of James Dean, Albert Finney, Richard Burton, and Christopher Plummer, the latter of whom he resembled, Shatner turned out to be something altogether new: the cheeseball TV version of them.
It’s telling that he understudied for Plummer in “Henry V,” and went on as the king for one performance, in which he offered a very different interpretation of the role than Plummer’s. The Shakespeare connection is key, because when you think about the dramatic mythology of Capt. Kirk and the way Shatner played him — the intensity, the burning eyes, the staccato pauses followed by rapid bursts of words — it was all an attempt to bring a Shakespearean cut and thrust to Kirk, the noble but perpetually conflicted leader of the starship Enterprise. To boldly go! Even the awkward grammar (that split infinitive!) in the show’s opening monologue, as spoken by Kirk, sounded archaic and maybe a touch…Elizabethan. It was Kirk’s job to solve the moral questions that, each week, confronted the ship’s crew. And in that role he was always, on some level, alone, a man standing there in a skin-tight velour shirt, searching for the answers, not just taking action but acting — acting! — in the void of the final frontier.
Kirk, who was also sexy and gregarious (Shatner says he tried to make him a commander confident enough not to have to command), had a philosophical bent, which is why he could match wits with Leonard Nimoy’s gnomic Spock. “You Can Call Me Bill” shows you how Shatner drew that quality out of himself, only to spend the rest of his life and career capitalizing on the cultivation of his inner Kirk-ness. The success was not instantaneous. “Star Trek” started off as a hit, but its ratings drooped over time, which is why it was canceled, in 1969, after three seasons and 79 episodes. Shatner relates a startling anecdote that takes place shortly after the show’s cancellation, when he was broke, divorced, and just about living out of his car. Who could have guessed, at that point, that “Star Trek” had enjoyed only the first of its nine lives?
The documentary captures how Shatner, as he began to make a career out of performing his public legend, merged his very identity with that of the hambone thespian inside him. In “You Can Call Me Bill,” Shatner, the words pouring out of him, speaks with fervor about the environmental crisis of the Earth. One can’t help but feel that Shatner experiences it, in some way, as a Kirkian conundrum. It’s his to solve! Yet the passion is real. He’s an infectious spieler, even as the thoughts turn repetitive (which isn’t his fault; it’s Philippe’s decision to keep the focus so completely on Shatner, turning the film into a winking piece of superfan obsessiveness). Shatner describes being raised, in a conservative Jewish household in Montreal, by his stern clothes-manufacturer father and a mother who lacked all maternal instinct, and what you feel, in the luscious theatricality of Shatner’s emotionalism, is almost a desire to act out the love he never got from his mother.
Shatner, who will turn 92 next week, knows that the end of his life is approaching. He’s touching and ruminative about it. He talks about wanting to come back as a tree, which he’s considering doing by having his ashes poured into the earth, under the roots of a giant sequoia. The film features images of those extraordinary trees, and the metaphor, to me, couldn’t be clearer. William Shatner will die. But his delectable overacting is forever.