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The Big Picture

03 Aug

The Big Picture ­­­­–– directed by Christopher Guest. Satire. A film student gets discovered by Hollywood and barters away his soul, almost. 100 minutes Color 1988.

★★★

I am actually zero degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. For back in the palmy days of the 70s, my lady friend drew me from Greenwich Village to a big Thanksgiving party in the Philadelphia house of Kevin Bacon’s parents, whose father was city planner. Kevin was a kid running around the yard playing touch.

Because of this gratifyingly high position I hold in his life, I have always wanted him to be a favorite actor of mine, but there are too many degrees of separation for that.

There is a human model called Fusion, which divides folks into two outer types, either the controlling or the withdrawn, and each of these combines with an inner type, either the steady or the volatile. Katharine Hepburn would be Volatile/Controlling, and Spencer Tracy would be Steady/Withdrawn. Kevin Bacon would be Volatile/Controlling also, and his best friend in the movie and his girlfriend would both be Steady/Withdrawn.

The problem with Kevin Bacon as an actor is that his Controlling energy is used, probably unconsciously, not to control his surroundings and make them better, but to control himself. The result is a tension ever present and useful only in dramatic roles. In a comedy, which this film is, it is useless and indeed detrimental. In dramatic roles it gives him a certain deadness; this makes him an ideal villain. But it prevents him from being a natural comic actor, someone who is inherently funny. And without this quality the present film falls flat.

And it falls even flatter by contrast when there appear in it actors who are inherently funny, or who can do funny things, or both. Such ones are Fran Dresher, who is marvelous as the Hollywood wife who is forever redecorating her home. Or Martin Short, whose exquisitely and imaginatively rash take has an uncanny viability as a gonzo Hollywood agent,. Or Teri Hatcher as the sex-bomb starlet. Or Jennifer Jason Leigh, my least favorite actor, who, in a very well-written part, is brilliant in making the manically volatile film student into someone one’s heart bleeds for. These four have talents that can rise to meet the challenge satire demands.

As has the great J.T.Walsh as the sinister, controlling studio head. But Bacon is so tense, even his teeth are tense. It throws his timing a half-beat short. It makes everything he does preplanned, so even his improvisations seem like nothing is actually happening to him. Nothing looks fresh. Everything looks thought-out even when nothing is. He is a very good actor, but his presence in this material is the ruination of it. It’s a Tom Hanks part; it needs someone you can get behind, someone inherently a fool. The best Bacon can come up with is routine naiveté. It wants not just an actor you like but one you can admire for making a jackass of himself, someone so vulnerable they are lucky.

 
 
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