Film Studies: The master of the monologue exits, pursued by rumours. A farewell to Spalding Gray

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The Independent Culture

For a couple of months, people in the know had been wondering out loud about Spalding Gray. You could probably have put together an awkward but touching drawing-room play, Waiting for Spalding, a collection of all the stories that were going around about not just where he was, but, more to the point, whether he was. There was a chance then - a modest one - that the play might turn out a comedy in which Gray at last appeared, in one of his plaid shirts, preoccupied, absent-minded even, and mystified by all the fuss. But tragedy was always on the cards. In which case, we still need Gray - a ghost of himself - at a plain table, telling us about the matter-of-fact things that led up to his suicide. Making it manageable, if not explicable. For now we have found his body in the East River, off Manhattan island. There are reports that he jumped off the Staten Island ferry.

It's not easy to say what Gray was, except that he was a new kind of person or performer. On the one hand, he was an actor. Born in Barrington, Rhode Island, in 1941, Gray had never done much except theatre. In Houston, and then off-Broadway, he had had small parts, often in modern plays. But he was not an outstanding actor - by which I mean to say that while he was very thoroughly an actor, and believable, he did not at first seem available for large, commanding parts. He did not have the spectacular energy that can play Lear or Hamlet. He was much more suitable as Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, or the Fool in Lear, an onlooker at the big scenes, and someone with a dry but valuable point of view. He needed to act, I dare say, but not to be caught or praised for it. His contentment was in the trick working, so that no one in the audience ever felt tricked, or wowed.

He worked with small experimental companies - the Performance Group and the Wooster Group - and he had done a trilogy of plays about growing up in Rhode Island, regular plays, with casts and scenery etc, and Gray was near enough the actor suited to play the lead. But then something happened, 20 years or so ago, where Gray the actor yielded to Gray the writer, and found that the former had written for him - or unloaded on him - this immense part, that of delivering the monologue. From that moment, Gray chose to come on stage, sit down at a plain desk or table, and tell stories - or talk about himself. Which was it?

This seemed odd, for it could easily look like enormous vanity, in which Spalding Gray surpassed the difficulties of getting good parts on stage by assuming the only part. And because he talked about things that were very like those that happened to the real Spalding Gray, it was possible to conclude that the motor of his art was self-centred. But then there was that strange feeling that Gray was up there talking about himself as part of the process of escape. From himself.

It wasn't to everyone's taste, and that was because a lot of us need to know where we are with actors, we need to have safe boundaries. It may have made Spalding Gray difficult company for others - from the immediate outside, as it were. But it left little doubt that the view from the inside - his own - was every bit as problematic.

Over the years, Gray had small parts in movies. He was in Almost You, True Stories, Stars and Bars, Beaches, Heavy Petting, King of the Hill, The Paper, Beyond Rangoon and Diabolique. He was fine, not sharply memorable, but fading into the texture of the movie. Very real. It was from one of those films, The Killing Fields, that he fashioned his first great monologue - the work that made "Spalding Gray" famous - in which he reflects on the different worlds and attitudes of Pol Pot's Cambodia, and attempts to make a faithful film about it. He was a witness from different hells - our real extremity and our unreal urge - and he was ghostly already. You can see that now.

That first monologue was called Swimming to Cambodia (and Jonathan Demme would make a notable film of it), but what meant the most to Gray was done on stage. His grip tightened if you were there in the room with him. The other shows were Monster in a Box (about writing a novel - Gray did write one, called Impossible Vacation - and Monster... was later made into a film directed by Nick Broomfield), Gray's Anatomy, It's A Slippery Slope, Point Judith and his last show, Interrupted Life.

He was candid in these shows without being a show-off: he discussed his infidelity to women, without ever seeking justification or forgiveness. And it became clear that he was not well. He was depressed. Gray's mother committed suicide when he was in his mid-twenties, and his earnest, unsmiling delivery on stage - no matter how casual the stories - began to convey the impression of someone not sure he would be able to finish.

I know, it sounds like self-indulgence, and there will be those who feel able to condemn the man who took his young sons to see the Tim Burton film, Big Fish, on 10 January, and then disappeared. It is a film about a father and a son.

There were alarms straight away. There had been a previous suicide attempt, and in 2001, in Ireland, Gray had had a very serious driving accident that smashed his hip and caused extensive skull damage. He seems to have suspected that he was never going to get better, and he may have been taken over by the demons of his last show, Interrupted Life - which he gave up, unfinished.

You can say that Spalding Gray was talented, ironic, mercurial and very moving on stage, and that is all very well. But the thing that seems to me most interesting is the difficulty in talking about him and knowing where acting and reality meet. The critical thinking about acting, plays and films will surely go on a long time yet (look in any newspaper and see how many pages are assessments of "performance"). We are obsessed with acting, or the attempt to be a self. But we don't see it as simply an art or a profession any longer. Acting is something we all do now; it's an uneasy way of life in which sometimes we are "good" without coming in sight of virtue, or honesty.

Spalding Gray, I suspect, may be seen one day as a hapless pioneer in this peril; a turning point in the road that begins to ask what acting is and why we do it.