SARAH SILVERMAN SUCKS at being Sarah Silverman on the screen in “I Smile Back,” but she was great being Sarah Silverman in the flesh at the Aero Theater Monday night.
A pre-release screening and Q&A with the star was arranged for the members of the American Cinematheque at their Santa Monica flagship movie house the Aero. It was packed, because honchos of the limited-membership American Cinematheque made a wise move (again) to extend the invitation to SAG-AFTRA members as well, filling the seats, to everyone’s advantage. They did the same for a Sept. 19 screening of “99 Homes” at the Aero and I hope they continue. Why leave Santa Monica for your screenings, in Hollywood or the Valley, especially when you can’t (gridlock)?
I must observe that it was disappointing that she didn’t get a standing ovation upon being introduced (I think her body of work merits it, and I’ve seen many lesser lights get that respect), and that the moment the Q&A ended, many jumped up and hit the aisles running like they thought they were at the painful waning moments of another Lakers fiasco. That generally does not happen when the crowd is entirely fellow professionals (SAG-AFTRA).
When I say she sucked at being herself on the screen what I mean is she wasn’t funny at all, not one bit, not the Silverman we’re used to, the acerbic comedian who floats so dexterously and dangerously between humor and insight, satire and irony. There has always been that side to her work but it’s always mixed in with the silly and outrageous and just plain dumb.
When a well-known comedian takes on a dramatic role you can’t help but look for the natural comic to slip out. Wait, is that a real grimace or is she setting us up? Will a twinkle in her eye turn the moment upside down? A tougher job, I think, than just playing a part. It doesn’t really work unless you can leave the comedy 100 percent behind, and she did.
She was a serious actor in a serious role, and through the force of her acting turned a clich√©d story memorable. Comedians going dramatic is a clich√© itself, and what more obvious vehicle than descent into a personal hell? (Jennifer Aniston, “Cake.”)
Upscale Jersey family, very successful yet doting husband/father, two cute kids, how perfect can it be? But Silverman’s Laney, almost from the first scenes, shows us her passive aggression and hidden agonies. (Slight spoiler alert, next sentence.) It gets bad enough to go to rehab, looks good for a while then she slips back, recovery, slip again, what’s happening with the kids and hubby?
IF I READ THAT PLOT SUMMARY I WOULD NEVER GO SEE IT.
I’m not entirely sure why I cared and remained riveted until the end, but it definitely was about her performance. Silverman, in person, said she believed people’s reaction had a lot to do with their personal childhood and how that’s played out in their life. “Some hate the way this story goes,” she admitted, “some find it hopeful.” When a question from the audience started, “I didn’t find this to be unrelentingly dismal…” Silverman practically jumped out of her chair with incredulity – “You didn’t!?! Really?!!”
Another questioner praised her handling of the ending, which she came up with, she revealed. “Yeah. I am pretty great.” That’s the Sarah we know, love, admire and worry about.
It always seems like a calculated career move: Here I am being just an actor, no comedy, in a role so unrelentingly dismal you have to see me differently and admit that I can a-c-t (even though comedy is surely acting). But one of the things I love about show business is that so much of what we assume had a plan and a path, when you hear the real story is often far from it.
So she and her managers and agents went looking for just the right vehicle to launch Silverman as an ac-tor, right?
“I was on the Howard Stern Show talking about my depression,” she told us, “and Amy Koppleman, who wrote the novel in 2008, heard it and somehow figured I’d be perfect for the movie of it and sent me the book and I read it through a couple of times and loved it so when she called and asked me if I’d do it I said… Sure! Sure! I ‘attached myself’ to the project, is how we call it in the business. Figuring, why not? This movie is never, ever gonna get made. Most don’t, you know…
“So when she called again two years later and said, ‘Guess what? We got the money. We’re making it!’ I said, ‘Great. Great!!’ and immediately collapsed onto the bathroom floor, in a ball. So, in 20 days of shooting, we made it, for $400,000.”
There was an audible gasp from the audience, and Silverman rose slightly in her chair and shot glances around the theater “What?! Is that a lot? Too much? … I don’t know…” For those of you completely unfamiliar with making films: that’s the catering budget for many movies.
There were questions about “getting into” the part, and concerns about her image. “Well, if you’ve got a job to do, the best thing is to just do it. I don’t think Mother Teresa walked around worrying about her thighs, you know, she had things to do. This was just a different kind of scary for me.”
The moderator recounted seeing the film at the Toronto Film Festival and asked her a question about comedians, is it different for them? Silverman seemed puzzled, screwed up her face and said, “I don’t understand.” He repeated it and she interrupted, “Oh! Comedians! I thought you said Canadians, and, you know, I’m not…one of those.”
Another question from the audience praised her writing abilities and asked, when are you going to write some projects for yourself?
“Well, unfortunately,” she replied, “I smoke pot, and I’m 44, so…” Shrug.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “One of the things about acting is it allows you to live other people’s lives without having to pay the price.” – Robert De Niro
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org