Jim Kirkwood, An Extraordinary Mentor to Many

WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this article exactly ten years ago in the year 2010.

It was just another day at the office for me, staring at a computer and taking calls, when I got a message from my good friend Shane whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He informed me our acting mentor from Diablo Valley College, Jim Kirkwood, had passed away at 5 a.m. this morning. For the past year or so, Jim had been fighting cancer and had to endure an operation to remove a tumor which lasted several hours. Hearing this news was a blow to me and everyone else who had the unique privilege of having taken an acting class taught by him.

Right now, my heart feels so heavy and I am wondering why tears are not coming out of my eyes. I want to feel this loss fully for Jim had such a profound effect on my life and so many others in Northern California. For many years he was an acting teacher at Diablo Valley College, and I enrolled in several of his classes during my time there before I transferred to the University of California at Irvine. Much had been said about him and how hard it was to get into his classes, and that he had studied with some of the greatest acting teachers including Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. For those truly serious about acting, you could not pass up any course he taught.

When it came to my first class with Jim, I was nervous to say the least. The man was treated like a legend in the area, and it felt incredibly intimidating to be in his presence. Giving out grades was never a priority for him, and his one rule which stood out among others was if you missed three of his classes without informing him as to why, you were out. This was back in the day when those strict guidelines actually unnerved me.

Anyway, I came to this new place of learning straight out of high school where I did many plays and considered myself a really good actor. Of course, the whole thing about acting back then is that when you’re onstage and you have nothing to say, get off. That first day with Jim, he immediately gave you a sense of what acting was really about. It was about living in the moment, acting with purpose and having an objective in mind. You could not think too much about the outcome of the scene you’re in because it would just take away from the thing you are fighting for. Every character has something to go for, and this is what empowers the actor through the entire show. Even when you are onstage and have nothing to say, he made you see listening is a big part of performing as well.

Among the lessons I remember the most from his classes was when he explained you did not need to have preconceived ideas of how to play a scene or say a line. It was never about pushing for some grand emotion which spelled out award-winning to the audience; it was about letting the emotion come to you while you pursue your objective. To just deliver a line in a preconceived way would just kill the moment. You would just come across as lifeless and vacant, and your scene partner would suffer as a result.

Jim demonstrated the danger of preconceiving what you will do beforehand by giving different readings of the line “get the hell out of here!” The first one was angry, the next was dismissive, the one after that had him laughing like he was talking to a friend, I think he made it look like he was crying in another and so on. By the end, everyone in the class including myself were laughing because he made it all look ridiculous, and it was. By getting stuck in this way of acting, you were never really connected to the scene or those you are working with onstage.

Sooner or later, we came to see that we get our performance from the other actor in the scene. While this became more abundantly clear to me years later while I was a student at Second City, this lesson really originated in Jim’s classes. There was no “me, me, me, me, me, me” in his class because we were all put on the same level. No one was necessarily better than the other, so no prima donnas were ever present (thank goodness for that by the way).

For those new to Jim’s classes, his regimen was to break us down and get rid of all those high school emoting habits many of us had been stuck with for far too long. He could be brutally honest with you, but it was never in a Simon Cowell kind of way (I would have dropped out of his class were it the case). He wanted you to see what you did wrong and how you could improve on it for next time. Feelings did get hurt from time to time and our self-confidence took several direct hits at what seemed like point blank range, but it was never done out of spite or cold-heartedness. Simply put, we had a lot to learn and the road we were on was designed to be a long one and for good reason.

Of couse, he was quoted one time as saying the following, “Getting talent out of this person is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!”

Another great lesson he taught us which has never left my mind was when he did the “pick up the pen” bit. With this, he went back to when he was an acting student himself and being taught by Lee Strasberg. Now Lee instructed him to pick up a pen which was laying there on the stage. Since he did not tell Jim how he should pick it up, Jim just walked up on stage like he was doing a happy skip across the park and just stumbled upon the pen. We were all laughing hysterically as he looked at the pen with a giddy look on his face, playing up the emotion of the scene as he picked it up.

Lee, however, was not impressed, and Jim said he was made to put it back up on the stage and pick it up again. This time he moved stealthily around and looked like he was about to steal the pen. In this moment, he made it look like he was waiting for the perfect moment and then found it by absconding with the pen just like Indiana Jones took off with the golden idol in the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Lee again shook his head and told Jim he was still doing it wrong and to do it again.

Now Jim came onto the stage as if his leg were broken, and he was limping over to the pen. At this point, he tried, and failed, to make it look realistic when he was struggling to reach for the pen despite the injury he was faking miserably. Once again, he got the pen and went offstage. It was at this point that Lee was really losing his patience with him:

“Jim, did you hear anything of what I just said?!”

“Yeah, but what am I doing wrong?”

“I told you to pick up the pen!”

“I DID!”

“Well I didn’t tell you to go all over the place doing this big act around it, did I?”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

“JIM, JUST PICK UP THE PEN!!!”

“Fine!”

So, Jim just walked straight up to the pen and picked it up, and then he walked off the stage as quickly as he got on it. After that, the audience of his fellow students, one of whom was James Dean, applauded him loudly. Jim said he did not understand what the big deal was, and Lee, who also applauded, explained it to him:

“You followed through with the objective. You didn’t think about it, you just did it and with the same level of energy. You didn’t need to put on a big show, you just needed to just pick up the pen. In that moment, that was your only objective. This is the difference between a good performer and a great actor.”

This last sentence has stayed with me to this very day. It is easy to get up and put up a big act just to get laughs from all your friends, but it is another thing to be the character instead of just playing one. You never play the emotion, you play the action, and the emotion will come to you.

I went through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout my time in his classes. Back then I was trying to get all my general education courses out of the way so that, when I transferred to a four-year university, I could concentrate solely on my major. As a result, I did not always give his classes my full-on attention, and it did lead to me having a nervous breakdown one day. It felt like I was failing the class and myself, and while my fellow classmates were there to console me, I was a complete wreck. Jim took pity on me though, gave me a hug, and he always had everyone give their scene partners a hug before and after a scene, and urged me to not be so hard on myself.

But in the end, through all that emotional agony, we each came into our own and got to have that one moment where all the training and character work we did paid off. We had gotten to where we had studied the scene and memorized our lines so many times, we were no longer thinking about what we were doing. All that mattered was we went after our objective. Nothing else mattered. Getting a compliment from Jim was not always easy, but when you got it, you knew you damn well earned it. When we each got that moment, it wasn’t just a victory for us, but for the class as well. Each of us wanted the other person to succeed.

On the last day of Jim’s Advanced Acting class, we all chipped in and got him a plaque thanking him for all he had done for us. He looked at it and immediately burst into tears. It meant so much that we did this for him, and it was a symbol of the kind of people we were becoming thanks in large part to the time we spent with him. Everyone in the class came around to give him a hug, not wanting him to cry. Another guy, I can’t remember his name, offered him a bottle of scotch but then realized he had already drunk it.

In the end, Jim’s classes were never about becoming a star or a celebrity. His classes were about how an actor must live life to the fullest and be serious about their art and their individual craft. It was about getting better and taking on new challenges throughout our lifetimes, and to never be complacent as artists. The life of an artist, be it an actor or director, is never meant to be an easy one. But then again, how else could you learn and grow? It’s like what my brother keeps telling me, “If life were easy, no one would bother showing up.”

I loved how I got to make Jim laugh. I was in his directing class and did this one scene where I used magazine covers with gorgeous women on them as stand ins for a couple of characters. He got a kick out of the fact one of them was an issue of Playboy Magazine with Pamela Anderson, and he jokingly asked me if he could borrow it. Being the embarrassingly literal-minded person I was back then, I thought he was being serious and handed it to him earnestly. Along with the class, he was in utter hysterics.

Then there was another time where we were working on scenes and voicing out what was going through our minds in order to keep us in the moment. Be it if you didn’t know your line or were frustrated and had to vent it somehow, we needed to be there fully and not let all these distractions cloud our ultimate goals. For me, my chief distraction involved a comedy album I bought a few days earlier from a nearby record store. It got to where I could no longer resist it:

“DAMN IT!! I GOT STEVE MARTIN’S NATIVE AMERICAN SINGING GOING THROUGH MY HEAD!!!!”

Jim got a kick out of that and would never let me forget it. It’s nice to have such memories of him this way.

Now Jim is gone, and this loss is deeply felt by all those who were lucky to be in his presence. I write this with a heavy heart, and it will still take some time to accept the fact I won’t get to see or talk with him ever again. It didn’t matter how old he was, he left us way too soon. The last time I saw him was at a Christmas party with friends from his class, and he dropped by and was endlessly interested in what we were all up to. His words of kindness meant a lot to me and I will never forget them.

I thank him for all those lessons on character development, understanding a script and the character’s place in it fully, and of the passion he brought out of all of us. We did not just come out of his class as better actors; we came out as better people. Much of what he taught still comes back to me every once in a while, so I know I am still growing as an artist.

I miss you Jim. Why did you have to leave us now? Leonard Cohen was right; this is no way to say goodbye. But what you taught will live on through all of us for you touched so many lives, and everything you taught will be passed on to future generations. You will live on with us always.

I still wish you were here though. It feels very empty here without you.

‘Hamlet 2,’ A Most Unusual and Unexpected Sequel

WRITER’S NOTE: Eddie Pence selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 15, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” But while the host of the podcast, Ralph Garman, was not particularly crazy about it, I think it is better than Garman gives it credit.

“Hamlet 2” starts off with an invisible voice telling us that to be an actor, you have to live in a dream. But dreams do die however, and the question posed here is this: Where dreams go when they die? Well, if you are Dana Marschz (played by Steve Coogan), then you go to Tucson, Arizona to spend the rest of your life teaching high school drama. Being an actor myself, there is something quite scary about the fate of this particular actor who is best known for his herpes medication commercials. Here in Arizona, he hopes to pass on his love of acting to high school students, and this is the thrust of the plot which powers up a motion picture dealing with one of the most unlikely sequels ever to be created.

“Hamlet 2” was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and while it didn’t quite live up to the hype in my eyes, it was still a very clever movie which kept me entertained from beginning to end. It is a hilarious look at how art can never truly be suppressed, and this includes art which was never all that good to begin with.

We meet up with Dana Marschz sometime into his career as a high school teacher, and he only has two students, Rand Posin (Skylar Astin) and Epiphany Sellers (Phoebe Strole), who really seem to care about drama and acting. His latest class, he discovers, is largely populated by Latino students who are in attendance because their other electives have been cut, and drama is the only one left. It reminds me of all those high school kids with who were in drama class because was the only one they could get an easy A in other than physical education. Dana, however, is convinced this is being presented to him as a challenge he must face with no fear. While these students may seem unenthusiastic about drama, he is determined to change their minds.

Dana’s existence is a recovering alcoholic with a wife named Brie (played by the great Catherine Keener) who drinks a margarita from a gigantic martini glass. They also have a boarder, Gary, (David Arquette) who is sleeping with Brie while Dana rollerblades to school because he cannot afford a car. His gift to the high school is plays he wrote which are direct adaptations of the movies “Erin Brockovich” and “Dead Poets Society.” Still, they get ripped to pieces by a young critic who shows no mercy for Dana’s passion. Dana’s basic cry for all the negative criticism is, “He fisted us!”

Dana ends up conversing with this unsympathetic teenage critic to seek inspiration, and he suggests to Dana that he write something original and put everything into it. Thus, he comes up with what in many ways is a completely unnecessary sequel to one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Hamlet.” There is a rather large problem though as just about every character dies at the play’s end. But Dana, still up for an artistic challenge, remains undeterred by this, and he comes up with a device to solve this problem in the form of a time machine. Upon discovering the rather racy nature of the play, the most suburban students do everything they can to keep it from being performed, but Dana ends up proving to everyone that you cannot stop art.

It’s a little hard for me to critique “Hamlet 2” objectively because Dana’s fate is one I hope to avoid. It is made clear from the outset that he is not particularly talented, and we get a montage of scenes featuring him as an actor. The funniest one is a commercial he did for Herpes medication as he tells us, “Right now, I am having a herpes outbreak. But you wouldn’t know it!”

In the process of writing and directing his sequel play, it gets banned from being performed at the high school, and Dana ends up inspiring the Latino kids to put it on at another location. He even gets help from the ACLU to keep his play from being censored. Talk about free publicity!

“Hamlet 2” is a terrific star vehicle for Coogan, and he is never afraid to make himself look completely silly. He shows no fear in portraying Dana as a complete failure both as an actor and a drama teacher. That he somehow inspired these students who have grown up in a far different environment than his is pretty amazing. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if Dana is really bad or good because he gets the play up to the excitement and infuriation of everyone in Tucson, Arizona, the city where dreams come to die. Coogan proves to be a brilliant comic actor here, and he still is all these years later.

The director and co-writer of “Hamlet 2” is Andrew Fleming, and he does a good job of not taking things too seriously. Fleming started off his career as the writer and director of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” wannabe, “Bad Dreams” (this title tells you all you need to know). From there, he went on to direct “Threesome,” “The Craft,” “Dick,” and “Nancy Drew.” Suffice to say, he has been around for a while, and this film proved to be one of his stronger efforts.

“Hamlet 2” also features a terrific performance from Elisabeth Shue who plays herself here. In this movie, she has given up on acting and appears to be much happier working as a nurse in a sperm bank. Dana goes gaga over Shue and invites her to speak with his class, but they have no idea who she is. We all remember her from “The Karate Kid,” and she earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” but over the years her star has not ascended in the way we thought it would. Still, she works constantly and is always on the verge of giving us her next memorable performance. And, as “Hamlet 2” shows, she has a great sense of humor about herself.

Anybody who has ever been involved with community theater or in high school plays will get a kick out of this film. In retrospect, the high school students were the ones who manage to get the show up and running, and this is shown here. That Dana manages to inspire these kids through his embarrassing ways is astonishing. When you are already deep into the production of a show and your director flakes out or becomes useless, you can’t just give up. As Dana’s personal life hits rock bottom, it’s those kids who pull him up from the abyss.

I also like how “Hamlet 2” got into the conflicts Dana has with the school and parents because everyone in these situations always acts in an overly conservative way. As time goes on, I get more interested in what does not offend people because it seems like we are always looking to get mad about something. Granted, you can see why people might object to Jesus Christ kissing Satan or with a song entitled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” a song which was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination. But everyone in the end is saved due to the protected freedom of the 1st amendment of the Constitution. That pisses a lot of people off, but that’s their problem.

The ACLU eventually gets involved when the show is threatened to be shut down, and a lawyer comes to visit Mr. Marschz to lend her help. She is played in a kick ass scene stealing performance by Amy Poehler. Her character of Cricket Feldstein is a ball buster about protecting the production, and she makes sure everyone involved gets to put it up. Her disinterest in whether or not the play is any good (“It’s irrelevant,” she says) is hilarious, and Poehler continues to show why she is one of the funniest actresses ever.

“Hamlet 2” is a lot of fun to watch, and the play which comes out of it is a hoot as it is a quasi-musical in which Hamlet and Jesus team up to change the past. Granted, they take all the drama and tragedy out of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but it is a little hard at times to argue with Dana who calls the play “a real downer.” In addition to “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” there is another song called “Raped in The Face” which is Dana’s stab at the critics who keep taking apart his plays based on movies. The song title alone demands your complete attention.

All the same, I wished the filmmakers had pushed the envelope a bit more. Seriously, you have to expect some envelope pushing when one of the writers, Pam Brady, is from “South Park.” I’m not saying “Hamlet 2” had to be insidiously evil, I just wished the satire in parts was a little sharper. Or perhaps I got a little depressed with Dana’s station in life because it is one I hope to avoid in my own life, and this made it hard for me to be more objective about what I saw. Still, this comedic film has stayed with me since I first saw it, and at some point, I need to watch it again.

Shakespeare once wrote about how all the world is a stage, and he was absolutely right. We are all merely players in this crazy thing called life, and “Hamlet 2” plays with this to such an enthusiastic extent to where I wonder if another “Hamlet” sequel is in our future. Or better yet, maybe we can get a “Romeo & Juliet” sequel as young love does not have to be so infinitely depressing. Seriously, everyone deserves a second chance.

* * * out of * * * *

Forget ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ and Check Out ‘The Duke of Burgundy’

the-duke-of-burgundy-movie-poster

Looking at the trailer for “The Duke of Burgundy,” I couldn’t help but expect a sexploitation flick with lots of nudity and dozens of butterflies. But while the movie does deal with a sadomasochistic relationship between two women, it actually turns out to be a domestic drama about two people who love one another deeply. When the movie starts, however, it looks like this relationship is reaching its breaking point.

“The Duke of Burgundy” starts off with an innocent looking woman named Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) cycling over to a grand mansion where she is greeted coldly by Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who bluntly informs her she is late for work. From there it looks like Evelyn works as Cynthia’s maid and is rudely ordered around and made to do chores, each of which are increasingly demeaning. It’s a daily routine for these two, and the day ends with Cynthia punishing Evelyn behind a closed bathroom door. We have a good idea of what Cynthia’s doing to her, but director Peter Strickland is more content to let us visualize what’s happening instead of showing us everything.

At this point, I became very eager for Evelyn to smack Cynthia in the face, but as the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. What’s actually happening is that these two are in a relationship where Evelyn is the submissive one and Cynthia is the dominant one. They are deep into role playing and enjoy each other’s company more than we could have realized. But as “The Duke of Burgundy” continues on, it becomes apparent that a compromise in this relationship is desperately needed. We see in Cynthia’s eyes a longing for a more normal relationship, but Evelyn has become hopelessly addicted to the submissive role she plays and wants her lover to punish her more aggressively than ever before. With any addiction, you eventually come to find too much is not enough.

This movie surprised me throughout as it plays around with what you think you know about sadomasochism to where you’d expect Cynthia to come out dressed as a dominatrix and carrying a big whip. But if you strip away the strange and painful things they do to one another, you see their relationship is no different from any other, and like any relationship, there needs to be some compromise. The question is, who’s willing to compromise more?

Both D’Anna and Knudsen are perfectly cast, and they nail each of their characters’ complexities with a lot of depth. It’s fascinating to watch their relationship evolve to where the most dominant one is actually Evelyn as she continually begs Cynthia to feed her dark desires. Knudsen, in particular, has a great moment where she’s getting intimate with D’Anna, and you see this wounded look in her eyes which says without words how this relationship is becoming a lot less comfortable for her.

“The Duke of Burgundy” is also one of the most beautifully filmed movies I’ve seen in a while as it looks like it was shot on 16mm film to where you think you’re watching something from the 70’s. To my astonishment, I discovered it was shot digitally which completely blew my mind. Many congratulations go to cinematographer Nic Knowland who has been working in movies since the 60’s. The lush and hazy look he gives this movie feels magical and makes you realize what amazing things can be captured with digital cameras. It was also fascinating to learn many of the images were created in the camera and not in post-production.

The movie also features a very unique and original score by Cat’s Eyes, an alternative pop duo made up of two musicians from entirely different disciplines. Their music adds immeasurably to the story which reaches a fever pitch towards the end when this relationship looks to be doomed. Like Mica Levi’s score for “Under the Skin,” I have a hard time comparing Cat’s Eyes score to others out there. Here’s hoping they compose more film scores in the future.

Strickland previously directed “Berberian Sound Studio” which brought him to the attention of many film critics who became immediately enthralled with his work. I regret to say I haven’t seen that movie yet, but watching “The Duke of Burgundy” does make me want to check it out sooner than later. Strickland shows a strong mastery of the filmmaking process, and he ends up taking us on a journey unlike few other have recently. He also tricks us into thinking we are watching one type of movie, and he ends up giving us something which is not only different but far deeper and more mesmerizing than we ever could have expected.

I also want to point out that there’s not a single male character to be found in this movie. That’s actually pretty amazing considering how hard it is to think of an American movie where this is the case. I’m sure there’s one like this one out there, but nothing comes to mind right away.

What bums me out is audiences will not be quick to come out in droves to see a movie like “The Duke of Burgundy.” Small and original movies like these tend to get swept under the rug far too quickly in this day and age of superhero franchises, and I hope those with a taste for challenging and unusual material will give it a shot. What Strickland has given us is an edgy fairy tale which could take place in any time period, and he sucks us into a story you cannot help but be enthralled by. With any luck, we’ll get more challenging movies like this one in the future. At the very least, it’s infinitely better than the awful monstrosity which is “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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