When one thinks of New York's art/theater scene in the 1980s, a few names come to mind -- and Spalding Gray's is usually near the top of the list, as someone who transcended his humble beginnings without ever losing track of his roots.
A self-described "poetic journalist," he did one-man performances in which he sat at a table with a notebook in front of him. Then he would tell stories about his life. Eventually, his reach extended far beyond the New York scene he conquered. He gained a certain modicum of fame when Jonathan Demme filmed his monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, about Gray's experiences while acting in the film The Killing Fields.
Two more of his pieces -- Gray's Anatomy and Monster in a Box -- would eventually be filmed as well. Gray got better film and theater roles as an actor -- but killed himself by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry in 2004. He had been despondent about his slow recovery and ultimate impairment after a car accident in Ireland in 2001.
Now Steven Soderbergh -- who cast Gray in his 1993 film King of the Hill and then shot Gray's Anatomy (about Gray's problems with macular degeneration) -- has assembled And Everything is Going Fine, opening in limited release Friday (12/10/10) a documentary look at Gray's life told by, who else, Spalding Gray.
Soderbergh has gathered excerpts from Gray's shows -- which were invariably autobiographical -- and assembled them in a chronological order, supplemented by archival footage of interviews with Gray, who would talk about almost anything with a reporter. (I interviewed him a couple of times and he seemingly had no edit function when he was talking). Most of the footage is from tapes of stage performances, as opposed to the movies of his shows.
Soderbergh takes Gray from his childhood in Rhode Island (his mother committed suicide when he was 26) through his challenged school years (he battled dyslexia) to his decision to become an actor. He moved to New York, where he connected with avant-garde theater whiz Elizabeth Lecompte at the Wooster Group -- and discovered that, while he couldn't spell and could still barely read, he could "write" these long monologues that had dramatic structure.
Before long, he was a brand name, traveling the country giving his shows -- and finding work as an actor as well. Yet, as this film shows, he still had problems being happy, accepting success or believing in his own popularity. He remained in therapy to the end of his life -- including while he was having an affair (and eventually producing a child) with a new woman while still living in unwedded bliss with his longtime girlfriend.
Was Spalding Gray solipsistic? He says in the film that he and his therapist struggled long and hard to figure out what part of his life actually was private and not fodder for his work. As he tells one TV interviewer, he tended to not really experience his life, except as he recounted it in his monologues. He once told me that there were times when he worried that people approached him and did weird things solely to become part of his work.
If there's a shortcoming to this film, it may be the lack of excerpts from the film versions that made him more famous. It may not have fit Soderbergh's scheme -- or it might simply have been a budgetary consideration -- but it still would have been nice to see bits of Swimming to Cambodia and the others (though Nick Broomfield's Monster in a Box didn't really work because of the director's overbearing style).
Spalding Gray was always more famous than he thought, but never famous enough to be considered a "star" as we understand it. He was, however, a unique, insightful and entertaining performer, who found ways to turn his life into his art. It's only fitting that that his life is told in his own words in And Everything is Going Fine.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine