Monday, September 14, 2009

The Curious Case of Bill Shatner

William Shatner's gloriously messy autobiography Up Till Now contains perhaps the single greatest concluding sentence in all of western literature: "Do I wear a toupee?" The fact that every reader with marginally functional eyes knows the answer does not diminish the existential power of the question. For like everything else surrounding the Man Who Was Kirk, that Tribble that sits atop his head has developed a mythology unto itself. Is it a mere hairpiece? Or an intelligent being engaged in perpetual mind-meld with its host? Does he wear it, or does it wear him? Only the Shat knows for sure.

But what if that concluding question had been "Am I a good actor?" Ah, that is a far trickier nut to crack. The prosecution would direct you to Devil's Rain, or the "Khaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnn!" scream in Star Trek II as damning evidence of his crimes against celluloid. But I would point you to Spock's death scene (also from Star Trek II), Judgment at Nuremberg, and his masterful, note-for-note perfect performance as Denny Crane in The Practice and Boston Legal as evidence that William Shatner can, occasionally at least, be an effective, nuanced, and even quite moving actor.

So why, then, does he suck so badly the rest of the time? Up Till Now provides some intriguing clues. First, there's the simple fact that the Shat was trained as a stage actor and had a long, fairly impressive theater career before breaking into television. When I watch him in his default mode of grand gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, and booming voice, I begin to think that he never quite made the transition to acting in front of the camera. I can't help but wonder how it would all look from the balcony; probably electrifying. In his early years he appeared in many Shakespeare plays alongside Christopher Plummer, and by every account he more than held his own. When Plummer took ill right before a performance of Henry V, the Shat stepped into the lead and made it his own--literally inverting the performance: taking scenes that had been loud and making them soft, standing when Plummer had been sitting, etc. Plummer has said that when he read the reviews later, he knew at that moment that his colleague would be a big star.

The makers of Boston Legal, as well as some Star Trek directors, understand that Shatner's mad energy and celebrated vocal tics can be harnessed to great effect. With the right script and the right guidance, the man becomes a force of nature. The problem is that William Shatner rarely works with these types of people. Which leads directly to the second probable cause of Bill Shatner's on-again, off-again sucktitude: his absolute lack of standards. For every Judgment at Nuremberg, you get ten White Comanches. This need to always be working, no matter how awful the project, may be the result of having been born at the height of the Great Depression. Even now, pushing eighty, he confesses to being unable to take a break. Well, whatever the cause, the guy has racked up an impressive resume of very, very bad movies and TV shows. No matter how much talent an actor brings to the table, if he's working with the script of Kingdom of the Spiders, there's only so much he can do.

If Shatner had his way, he'd probably want that fabled performance of Henry V to be his legacy. If I had my way, he'd be remembered for Rocket Man, a performance so surreal as to give Fellini and Dali pause, his intentions as inscrutable as Joyce's in Finnegan's Wake.

Split the difference and you get Kirk. In the final analysis, is that really so bad?