Friday, December 3, 2010

A Little Bit of Chutzpah Goes A Long Way

It's not exactly a secret. If you want something pretty badly, you're going to have to become the engine of your own success. 

One of the hardest lessons for many freelancers to learn is how to get out into the marketplace and sell themselves and their work. Some feel they should be automatically recognized for their art and not have to prostitute themselves by acting like salespeople. The sad truth is that without their pushing against obstacles, the obstacles have no reason to yield.

Few musical numbers capture this situation as clearly -- and with as much moxie -- as Fanny Brice's first number "I'm the Greatest Star" (lyrics by Bob Merrill and music by Jule Styne).  Here, from the film version of Funny Girl, is Barbra Streisand singing the number which not so coincidentally described her own entrance into show business.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to fearlessly go where few have dared.  Lon Chaney, Sr. became known as "the man of a thousand faces." The speed and dexterity with which actors like Robin Williams and Dan Hoyle can switch between different voices is often unnerving.

Over the past several years I've had the pleasure of watching the growth and development of Charlie Varon's one-man show, Rabbi Sam. Varon's central character, Sam Isaac, is a young, progressive American rabbi who, following his wife's premature death due to cancer, has become a single father. Hired by a progressive congregation to bring "an island of sanity" to the Jews of Semanitas, California, he immediately stirs up controversy -- to the annoyance of the temple's more traditional board members. 

Most of the characters Varon has created are easily recognizable to American Jews, as is their emotional baggage. Among the people Rabbi Sam must contend with are a survivor of Auschwitz who refuses to cast a vote, a social worker who is more interested in feeling compassion for herself than others, and a man who wants to include his "open letters to Louis Farrakhan" in the congregation's newsletter.

There is Harriet Kahn (who is all about numbers), Bob (the congregation's current President who claims to have interviewed some rabbis whose resumes were as thick as a brisket), and Jerry Gomberg (who can't understand why he shouldn't be allowed to meet the anonymous donor who is offering the congregation a $2 million membership grant). As he struggles to retain his job, Rabbi Sam is also subjected to the third degree by Sarah Schimmel -- the widow of the congregation's former President. Sarah's a tough old broad who minces no words.

Varon recently released a 2-CD recording of Rabbi Sam that was taped during a live performance at The Marsh in June of 2009.  My initial concern as I unwrapped the package was that, without the visuals of Varon's facial expressions and deft body language, his show might suffer. But I decided to listen to the CD very carefully while lying in bed with my eyes closed. The result took me completely by surprise.

What I experienced was not just the memory of Rabbi Sam's unrelenting chutzpah and the gravelly cynicism of Sarah Schimmel. Instead, the experience harkened back to the grand old days of radio theatre (but without commercials), when people would sit in front of a console listening to actors read (and improvise from) their scripts. Under these circumstances, I was able to listen more carefully to Varon's writing without being distracted by any visuals and imagine certain scenes in my own mind.

Listening to Rabbi Sam on CD proved to be a surprisingly moving experience. Although you can easily listen to the show while you're driving down a long and lonely highway, you might want to set aside some "quiet time" to just lie there and embrace Varon's collection of characters with their distinctive voices and perspectives. You can order a copy of the new CD set (or download the show in MP3 format) by clicking here. Rabbi Sam makes a wonderful gift that can easily reawaken a recipient's love for the spoken word.

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I can't think of a clearer example of "pushy is as pushy does" than Jim Carrey's performance in I Love You, Phillip Morris. Every time I caught myself  wincing at the tackiness of some of the scenes, I remembered that this film is based on the amazingly true story of professional con artist and impostorSteven Jay Russell who, despite a recorded IQ of 163, is now serving a 144-year sentence.

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the team that created Bad Santa)I Love You Phillip Morris doesn't pull any punches. Once Steven realizes that he's gay, the film embarks on an over-the-top trajectory of screaming queerness that leaves no clone unturned. Russell's various compunctions lead to the kind of obsessive/compulsive behavior that does not allow a person to do anything halfheartedly.

Comedy writers usually struggle to come up with outrageous stunts that will further their plot. In the case of I Love You, Phillip Morris, that work had already been done for them. According to Wikipedia:
  • Over the years, Russell used at least 14 known aliases
  • Among the identities he used during his escapes from prison, Russell masqueraded as a handyman, a judge, a police officer, and a physician.
  • On May 21, 1993, Russell escaped from Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas, wearing civilian clothes he had obtained. 
  • Following his 1993 escape from prison, Russell fabricated fake credentials in order to obtain a job as the Chief Financial Officer of North American Medical Management (a company from which he embezzled thousands of dollars). 
  • In 1995, Russell's crimes were discovered and he was imprisoned for insurance fraud. Once again, he was placed in Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas, where he met his future lover, Phillip Morris.
  • In 1996, while still in Harris County Jail, Russell impersonated a judge and ordered his own bail bond decreased from $900,000 to $45,000 (which he paid, thus securing his own release). 
  • Ten days later, Russell was arrested in Florida and transported back to Texas
  • In 1996, Russell began participating in art classes provided by the prison. During each time, he stole a green Magic Marker which he hid under his bed. 
  • Eventually, Russell accumulated enough markers to change the color of his prison uniform from white to green. Since all the prison's medical personnel wore green uniforms, he was then able to walk out of the prison while impersonating a doctor.
  • In 1998, Russell returned to Harris County Jail to serve a 45-year sentence for stealing $800,000 from a Houston company that managed physicians' finances (in addition to serving 20 years for his previous escape). He later managed to have Phillip Morris transferred to the Dallas County Jail and tried to have him released.
  • While in prison, Russell had read extensively about HIV and AIDS. After taking laxatives to mimic the symptoms of AIDS, he forged a medical document claiming that he suffered from AIDS on a prison typewriter. Russell used this document to convince doctors of his condition on February 24. 
  • After duping the prison doctor into believing that a 'special needs parole' to a Houston hospital had been authorized, Russell was released on March 13. Once free, he posed as a doctor and informed the prison staff via telephone that Russell had died from AIDS.
  • On March 20, 1998, in an attempt to legitimize a $75,000 loan from NationsBank in Dallas, Texas, Russell posed as a Virginia millionaire. When bank officials became suspicious and called the police, he faked a heart attack and was transported to a local hospital where he was placed under guard by FBI agents. Russell then managed to impersonate an FBI agent on his cell phone and convinced those guarding him that he could be left alone. He was soon able to leave the hospital without being stopped.
Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) and Steven Russell (Jim Carrey)

Had someone presented this story as a fictional script, the plot might have easily been dismissed as sheer lunacy. Except that truth is often stranger than fiction.

And if, as a result of some of his hyperactive movie roles, you ever thought of Carrey as a flaming queen just waiting to break out into song and self combustion, I Love You Phillip Morris gives him the opportunity he's been waiting for. Every move is flashy, grandiose, and despite Steven's protestations that he just wants to make Phillip Morris happy, deliciously self-serving.

Compared to his usual round of physical stunts (Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, The Mask, Liar, Liar), he almost seems to be underplaying the role of Steven Russell. Why? Because while the actor's total commitment to the role is obvious, Carrey actually has a character that is every bit as over the top as he could hope for. Steve Russell is the kind of man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants -- and achieve his goals in the most unbelievable ways (faking an AIDS diagnosis because, in Texas, no one would even check to see if he's HIV+). And Carrey has the swagger to go with the role.

Jimmy (Rodrigo Santoro) and Steven (Jim Carrey) taking in the sun.

What Jim Carrey brings to the production (in addition to potentially large box office receipts) is a swagger and bravado from someone whose confidence is either astronomical or pathological (or both). Ewan McGregor has some wonderful scenes as Phillip Morris while strong support comes from Leslie Mann as Russell's hyperreligious wife and Rodrigo Santoro as his first boyfriend.

While, to some people, tackling I Love You Phillip Morris may seem like a big career risk for Carrey, it really is not (this is an established star with a loyal following). Some of the more cowardly types in Hollywood may worry about an "ick" factor affecting box office returns but if, over the past 20 years, Carrey hasn't succeeded in creeping people out, they're probably already numb to his antics. Frankly, I think the exact opposite will happen. My guess is that Carrey fans (as well as teenage girls) will take this film's release as a clear sign that they should "get with the program" and see what a magnificently unapologetic gay love story looks like. Here's the trailer:

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