Before the computer, you had to be able to run fast, jump high, write a book that said something worth a shit, write a movie, make a record, sculpt something.
—Billy Bob Thornton
Kentucky writer Wendell Berry remembers a time when people would gather on each others porches and tell stories. These stories in turn would be passed down to their children and the community at large. For Berry this is important because "the pattern of reminding implies affection for the place and respect for it". And what might seem to be a dying art in this era of digital madness, storytelling is actually thriving. The world of professional storytelling has its own tour circuit and produces its own "rock stars". It's no small achievement in this age of digital madness and electronic wizardry that one can hold our attention by relating a story.
There are perhaps only a handful of such individuals that come hell or high water, I would stick around and hear their stories. A couple of those – Richard Harris and Spalding Gray have gone to the story time circle in the sky. The acclaimed Irish actor Harris spun a good yarn whether he was sober or under the influence of alcohol. Some of those tales often involved other Irish actors under the influence. They called what Spalding Gray did a monologue, but what he was doing was telling a story in such a way that it left the audience spellbound. Discursive and rambling, it seemed at times there was no point to his stories. But there was always a point and the seemingly off the cuff monologue was often worked and reworked over several stage performances. His masterpiece Swimming To Cambodia has got to be one of the best performance pieces ever. With just a microphone, a desk, and a glass of water, Gray could work magic. And following in the tradition of storytelling that Wendell Barry found important, Gray's monologues often centered on his native New England.
Recent books by Billy Bob Thornton and Frank Langella have convinced me they belong in the class of world class raconteurs. The Billy Bob Tapes were recorded sessions put together by another grand raconteur Kinky Friedman – humorist/novelist/singer-songwriter/perennial candidate for public office/champion cigar smoker. The sessions according to one observer were fueled by beer, cigarettes, and espresso. Friedman stuck to his ever present cigar. As if to remind us that he was a musician before he was an actor, most chapters lead off with a relevant song lyric that Thornton has written. When not acting, he performs with his group The Boxmasters. Thornton essentially lays out his life story – his difficult childhood in Arkansas, his salad days in LA with writing partner Tom Epperson, and his interactions with a host of colorful characters. Later chapters deal with his dissatisfaction with the current state of the film industry. It certainly is a lot different since Thornton made Sling Blade for next to nothing. According to Thornton,Hollywood has gotten away from telling great stories by relying on gimmicks and gadgets. He hopes to get back to that great storytelling tradition with his next film Jayne Mansfield's Car.
The versatile actor Frank Langella, best known for his stage and screen role in Dracula presents recollections of other actors and celebrities he has rubbed shoulders with over his long career. As he so aptly puts it, "...actors are each other's best audience and when the stories begin, so does the bloodlust, and there comes a race to see who'll get the final call". Now in his mid 70's, Langella's candid memoir Dropped Names is a welcome stroll down memory lane. No longer worried whether he will "work in this town again" or not, he can afford to be candid. But keep in mind; all of his subjects are deceased. Dead men and women tell no tales, but the very lively Langella does. Some of the profiled subjects Langella has complete disdain for – Lee Strasberg, Rex Harrison, and Anthony Quinn come to mind. Some of his most powerful anecdotes come from the bittersweet reminiscences of Elizabeth Taylor, George C. Scott, Cameron Mitchell, Robert Mitchum and Tony Perkins. Urinating on the shoes of George C. Scott is one of the more funny stories Langella tells. While clearly revering the talent of Scott, Langella paints a picture of a man ravaged by alcoholism. The devastating portrait of Cameron Mitchell is itself worth the price of the book. While appearing with an aging Mitchell in some dreadful film, Langella relates how a wardrobe crew found an old coat Mitchell had worn in another film in his prime. The sad spectacle of Mitchell trying to fit into that coat speaks volumes about an aging actor trying to relive past glories. The book is about Hollywood and the New York theater scene. Gossip – perhaps, great storytelling – yes, indeed.