In Character: Actors Acting

by Matt Damsker


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Directed and photographed by Howard Schatz and foreword by Roger Ebert. 264 pages; 125 color and black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 0-8212-2907-9; 2006, Bulfinch Press, Time Warner Book Group, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; $50 (U.S.), $67 (Can.). .

The consummate, confidant pro, Howard Schatz takes the coffee-table tome to a new level with this latest concept in celebrity portraiture--not purpled celebrity, a la Britney-Paris-Lindsey, but the well-earned fame of working actors, veteran faces we've seen countless times. Schatz asks each to play a series of emotions ("You are a father watching your baby daughter take her first step," for example, or, "You are a district attorney whose star witness has just perjured himself") and captures the result in often extreme, cinematic, always affectionate close-up. It amounts to 260 pages of mugging, perhaps, but these are master muggers, and just a glimpse of Scott Glen's weathered face affecting the gaze of "the dark-horse challenger in an international chess final," or Edie Falco wrapping her everywoman features around a version of "a little girl telling your mother that your twin brother said a dirty word," is to be wonderfully amused and entertained.

And these are great faces, to a one, from Falco to Don Cheadle and Richard Dreyfuss to Amanda Plummer and Melissa Leo, to Martin Landau, James Earl Jones, Ellen Burstyn, Hal Holbrook, Natasha Richardson, Rosie Perez, Alan Cumming, and too many others to name--indeed, this book dreams the list called Laundry, dense with participation and gamuts run, with "acts" arranged to depict Comedy, Anger, Suspicion, Flirtation, Tragedy, and so forth. The execution is immaculate, but the whole project will strike some eyes as elaborate shtick, a frothy novelty lacking the gravitas of such previous Schatz volumes as "Pool Light," with it underwater imagery, or the flower portraiture of "Botanica." Still, Schatz and his players deliver human vitality and performative intelligence on a grand scale, and that counts for a lot. Roger Ebert's foreword gushes a bit, but also makes good points about the intimacies achieved here, and the nature of the actor's craft: "There is something curiously intimate about what actors do on these pages. As a reader, I began to feel like the mirror in their dressing room. I wasn't looking at them. They were looking at themselves."

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.