Monday, April 12, 2010

Worst Case Scenario (Not On My Watch)

Like everyone else, actors have bills to pay. Which would have to explain why once-hot performers like Kelly McGillis and Eric Roberts turn up in the most god-awful made-for-television productions on the Syfy network. But why am I also seeing still-successful stage and film actors there, actors with the stature of Brian Dennehy and Dianne Wiest?

There are basically four genres of films on Syfy: the doomsday scenario (an asteroid hits the moon and chaos ensues on earth, solar flares threaten life on earth, an earthquake of 10 on the Richter scale threatens California), the mega monster flick (giant sharks, giant pirranhas, giant crocodiles, giant aardvarks), the almost doomsday scenario (a mega-cyclone is heading for Boston, seriously jeopardizing opening day at Fenway Park). The fourth is the pseudo-mythological monster film, where some amalgam of historic cultures (feudal England mixed with the Byzantine empire mixed with Octoberfest) struggles to overcome some colicky, CGI-engineered beast (Kraken, dragon, Cyclops).

This last type is where someone like Eric Roberts is most likely to turn up, playing a Roman general or perhaps even an emperor (meaning that instead of a horse he's issued a sedan chair so he can be carried into the action by slaves). You can tell by the way he slinks through each scene that it's not the Cyclops that's eating him alive, it's the realization that he once had a viable career and that his estranged sister Julia will never have to stoop as low for a pay check. The battles and confrontations with whatever monster is at hand are always the same: they result in a comical display of severed limbs pumping gallons of blood, like a Monty Python film without the self-awareness or the self-effacing humor. 

You have to ask who Roberts offended to be cast into this filmatic purgatory, but actors like Kelly McGillis don't fare much better. An A-list star in the '80s with such credits to her name as Top Gun, Witness, and The Accused, I recently spotted her piloting a boat through a swamp with Supergator in hot pursuit. She performed the scene like a soccer mom who'd made a wrong turn on the expressway after band practice, mildly annoyed that jaws the size of a drawbridge had seized her boat by the stern.

So failure engenders necessity, and that might explain those two actors and their presence on Syfy. But last night I came home from a party and turned on the TV to see Brian Dennehy slumming in something called Category 6: Day of Destruction. In the first scene I saw, someone is explaining to him that the unthinkable has occurred, and two major hurricanes are about to converge over downtown Chicago (of course you have to forget that there's never been one hurricane in the midwest, let alone two, but this is the rare realm where facts will only weigh you down). This award-winning actor, who's received accolades for his performance in Death of a Salesman, manages not to snicker as he looks meaningfully off into the middle distance and utters, "It's the worst-case scenario we've been dreading." Now that's acting.

Later on, Wiest gets a chance to demonstrate that she's as much of a trouper as her esteemed colleague, bringing her unique brand of sturdy, matronly common sense to the situation, possibly as mayor, or was it the head of the weather bureau? It doesn't matter. One of her underlings (there are many underlings in these disaster films, as they serve to supply plot exposition and, at the same time, can be dispensed with in showy, graphic ways) lays out the situation for her, and reassures her that there wasn't any way she could have known in time to protect the public. "Yes," Wiest says, looking wistfully away in the same manner as Dennehy, "but they'll remember that it happened on my watch."

The reward for sitting through all this is a few seconds of second-tier special effects where Chicago is besieged by a veritable confetti storm of loose paper so it's obvious the characters are running around in a wind storm (wind being, after all, invisible). I've experienced several hurricanes and while I remember lots of traffic signs and shingles hurtling about I don't recall anyone emptying the contents of a Staples into the air. By the time three tornadoes sheared through the Miracle Mile I'd seriously lost interest and was ready for bed.

So my conclusion is that perhaps actors -- even the really employable, high-calibre ones -- are just like freelance writers: unable to turn down work of any kind, because you just never know when (or, in the case of Eric Roberts, if) the phone is going to ring again.

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