PROVIDENCE, R.I. – In his very personal monologues, Spalding Gary was usually seated behind a battered desk, wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. His props were merely a glass of water and a schoolboy's notebook. But they allowed him to become a troubadour of his own life, his own view of the world.
From sweet and hilarious pieces of his boyhood in Barrington such as "Sex and Death to the age of 14" and "Booze, Cars and College Girls" to later works concerning everything from his sexual adventures and health problems to the killing fields of Cambodia, Spud, as he was sometimes called, always had his say. He usually told it with a soft, laconic, New England accent. "Garden" became "GAH-den" for instance. Sure, he acted in films, and on Broadway. But he never left his own life, and opinions, for very long. "A kind of creative narcissism," he once called it.
His forte was a kind of theatrical minimalism, one actor, one man's thoughts, fears, dreams, hopes, tragedies. His monologues were "an urbane version of front-porch storytelling,' one observer noted. All-in-all, they made him well-known among people who followed the arts closely.
Gray's life truly began to unravel after he was involved in a serious automobile accident in Ireland. He never recovered physically or mentally. His injuries -a fractured skull and hip, a plate inserted in his head -- lead him to greater and greater depression, which ran in his family. His mother had committed suicide. And so did Spalding Gray, leaping into New York harbor from the Staten Island ferry in January 2004.
Now, Steven Soderburgh, who's made films ranging from "Sex, Lies and Videotape" to "Ocean's 11," has put together what might be called a Series of Spalding.
Soderburgh has said that any posthumous work about Gray had to be all Spalding, all the time. The director linked the Rhode Islander's best, most informative, filmed moments into a 90 minute piece. The result is a biography that's informative, amusing, and, in the end, very sad. It shows Gray as a man of off-center intelligence, shifting self-knowledge, great complexity, and someone always reaching out. The title -- "And Everything Is Going Fine" -- is taken from one of Gray's own works. It is both ironic and heartbreaking.
[Full disclosure: I knew Spalding a little, interviewed him a few times, socialized with him once in while. One day at a bar in New London, he asked if I'd like to talk with him about my life. I demurred. I knew I didn't have his ability, or desire, to tell the world secrets.]
As you watch Spalding Gray in Soderburgh's film, you begin to realize - even more than you did in the 80s and 90s - what a fine actor he was. His timing is precise. His stories built beautifully. Yes, the man was performing. But he was showing you himself, too. That's the mark of a first-rate actor.
Whether you are seeing him interviewing his own father, telling tales of Cambodia, talking of his family history, or telling of the joy he, finally, found in fatherhood, Soderburgh's film gives a record of some of the life and times of Spalding Gray, a man much worth knowing.
When you watch it, you know you are seeing a remarkable person, one who was, finally, heartbreakingly, overwhelmed by events in his life. "Everyone knows they're going to die," Spalding Gray once said. "But no one believes it."
EDITOR'S NOTE: "And Everything Is Going Fine" is available on Cox Cable's "On Demand" channel. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for WRNI.
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