Spalding Gray

Monologuist of 'Swimming to Cambodia'
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The Independent Online

"Even before Seinfeld," noted a US critic, "there was Spalding Gray." Gray was a respected writer and performer, and landed film roles alongside Meg Ryan, Bette Midler and Sharon Stone, but it was for his autobiographical monologues - most famously Swimming to Cambodia, which became a one-man show, a book and in 1987 a film - that he was prized. Gray, who deserved his tag as "a new wave Mark Twain", combined the pragmatism of Wallace Shawn and the suppressed mania of the British actor Ken Campbell with the erudition of George Plimpton.



Spalding Gray, actor: born Barrington, Rhode Island 5 June 1941; married 1991 Renée Shafransky (marriage dissolved), 1993 Kathleen Russo (two sons); died New York c 10 January 2004.



"Even before Seinfeld," noted a US critic, "there was Spalding Gray." Gray was a respected writer and performer, and landed film roles alongside Meg Ryan, Bette Midler and Sharon Stone, but it was for his autobiographical monologues - most famously Swimming to Cambodia, which became a one-man show, a book and in 1987 a film - that he was prized. Gray, who deserved his tag as "a new wave Mark Twain", combined the pragmatism of Wallace Shawn and the suppressed mania of the British actor Ken Campbell with the erudition of George Plimpton.

Gray was born into a Wasp family in Barrington, Rhode Island, in 1941. By his own account it was a difficult childhood, during which he found himself edged out of his mother's life by her suicidal impulses. In his monologue Impossible Vacation, he would later write of contemplating self-harm as a child. "I think I figured I'd just break a leg or something," he wrote,

and end up in a cast for the rest of the summer, and that would be much better than dying because of all the attention I'd get. But then I also realised that Mom wouldn't be able to give me any attention, because she was cracking up and needed all of it for herself.

While filming Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill in 1993, Gray was called upon to act out a suicide scene. When the day's shoot had finished, he went into a nearby shop with his wrists still caked in fake blood, and appealed to the assistant for help:

It was a vicious thing to do. I realised that I was enacting a reversal of my mother's suicide. I had turned to my mother and said, "Look - what does it feel like to have your son commit suicide?"

After graduating from Emerson College, he moved to New York, where he joined the experimental theatre outfit the Performance Group in 1970 and took small roles in pornographic films, among them The Farmer's Daughter (1973), Ilsa: harem keeper of the oil sheiks (1976) and Maraschino Cherry (1978). He would later deny any association with those movies.

While that dubious work was paying the rent, Gray was honing his writing skills on anecdotal monologues drawn from the experiences of his youth. The first of these, Sex and Death to the Age of 14, trawled through his Rhode Island upbringing and premiered in New York in the late 1970s. In 1975, he had co-founded the experimental theatre company the Wooster Group, which continues to specialise in radical reworkings of classic texts.

He also began landing parts in more reputable films. It was one of his earliest "straight" roles, in Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984), which in turn led to Gray's own biggest success. The experience of working on Joffe's picture, combined with Gray's impressions of modern Cambodia, formed the basis for Swimming to Cambodia.

Despite the sombre events that Gray incorporated into the piece, its progress from subtle horror to surreal comedy and back again was handled with elegance: one moment he was articulating the boredom of the film set; the next he was running through a history of the Khmer Rouge with appalled bewilderment; before the audience knew what had hit them, he was dishing the dirt on freakish Cambodian strip-clubs where dancers did unspeakable things with fruit. Somehow Gray never brushed up against bad taste, or risked trivialising his subject matter. It was all in the delivery - he had the look of a question mark about him, and his words and cadences sang with an infectious, quizzical curiosity.

The book and theatrical monologue were impressive enough, but it wasn't until Swimming to Cambodia was adapted into a film in 1987 that Gray received his due acclaim. The key to the potency of this adaptation was that it hardly qualified as an adaptation at all. Its director, Jonathan Demme, pared the performance to the bone. The camera budged from Gray's face only to glance at a map, or to accommodate a brief clip of The Killing Fields. That aside, it was just Spalding Gray, a table, a chair and a glass of water.

Demme's refusal to open out the piece, and his faith in Gray's power as a performer, enhanced the material. When Gray revived Swimming to Cambodia on stage in 2002, he even grumbled about the high regard in which the film continued to be held: "Now it bugs me . . . I feel like I'm competing with it by doing the live event."

The popularity of the monologue and film ushered in Gray's busiest period as a film actor. He played a man who hadn't spoken to his wife for 20 years in True Stories (1986), directed by the Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. He was Bette Midler's love interest in the tearjerker Beaches (1988). He played a gruff psychiatrist alongside Dolly Parton in the screwball comedy Straight Talk (1992). And he brought a touch of class to more routine pictures, including The Paper (1994), Diabolique (1996) and the time-travel romance Kate and Leopold (2001) starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman.

Gray continued throughout the rest of his career to write and perform monologues, three of which followed Swimming to Cambodia into cinemas under the guiding hands of notable directors: Thomas Schlamme made Spalding Gray: terrors of pleasure (1988), the documentarist Nick Broomfield presided over Monster in a Box (1992) and Steven Soderbergh filmed Gray's Anatomy (1996).

Other pieces were restricted to the stage, including Morning, Noon and Night, which focused on Gray's move to Long Island with his second wife, Kathleen Russo, and It's a Slippery Slope, which detailed his obsession with skiing. His last pieces, Blind Spot and Interrupting Life, sprang from a visit to Ireland for his 60th birthday in 2001, during which his car was hit by another vehicle, causing him persistent pain, from sciatic-nerve damage and a cracked hip-bone, for the remainder of his life. One reviewer noted that, "The sad evidence could be seen throughout the performance [of Blind Spot] - his feet were constantly fidgeting and there were fleeting pauses as he suppressed bitter winces."

Still, it was characteristic of Gray that he should squeeze bright material from one of his darkest hours. In his writing he revelled in the bizarre rituals of the Irish hospital in which he stayed, noting fondly the impromptu daiquiri sessions during visiting hours, or the transvestite who served his tea. But comic detail co-existed with maudlin dread, and at his most reflective Gray settled into a dusky melancholy. "There are so many regrets," he once said:

I only start to see the colour of everything, the intensity of everything when I'm leaving it . . . I fantasise about going back to high school with the knowledge I have now. I would shine. I would have a good time, I would have a girlfriend. I think that's where a lot of my pain comes from. I think I never had any teenage years to go back to.

Gray had attempted suicide on several occasions and on 10 January went missing after a visit to the cinema with his son. It was reported that a man matching his description had been seen that evening on the Staten Island ferry in New York. His body was found on Sunday in the East River near Brooklyn.

Ryan Gilbey

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