How does one utilize the cinematic medium, and the documentary form per se, to provide a window into all the depths and layers of a genius? In the purest sense, that may not quite be possible, but documentarist Christopher Monger and his team travel as far toward the apex of this goal as anyone has with the warm and reverent documentary Special Thanks to Roy London, a biographical profile of the titular acting instructor. Self-financed by Monger and his team, produced in 2005 and deservedly screened at Tribeca but then inexplicably bypassed for stateside distribution for quite some time. It checks in as essential viewing for anyone passionately committed not simply to learning about the craft of acting, but to learning about humanity itself.
If Roy London’s name doesn’t immediately register, this is hardly accidental: one of the quirks of his life was his extreme privacy, his unflinching refusal to let his classes be filmed, recorded or documented in any way, to speak about his actors or their work in the press, or to advertise his trade with a sign outside of his studio in Southern California. At still other times, he held private acting classes in the home he shared with his partner. Though he did allow photographs and PR for his work as a director and actor, London was an extraordinarily guarded person, and steadfastly avoided socializing outside of a close-knit circle, at public Hollywood events such as screenings or parties. This anonymity seems all the more ironic, then, when one realizes the degree of impact that London (who began as a protégé of Uta Hagen) has wielded over contemporary film acting styles – arguably more than any drama coach of the past 30 years. His list of clients alone reads like a who’s who of Hollywood celebrities: Patricia Arquette. Geena Davis. Jeff Goldblum. Garry Shandling. Sharon Stone. Patrick Swayze. Hank Azaria. Famke Janssen. The list goes on endlessly. Those actors – and many, many more – all turn up onscreen in Monger’s film for deeply involving reflections and insights, and one of the most fascinating aspects of the film is that on a level that can’t quite be verbally articulated, one can sense a thread running through those very different performers’ acting styles. The thread, one realizes, was entirely attributable to Roy’s influence, that exerted itself over decades of features – and humbly, gently, remarkably, he existed in the wings, responsible for so much, but letting others take public credit for the talents that he shaped and molded.
This documentary’s existence itself – and the fact that it delivers the level of emotional impact that it does – represent something of a miracle given the utter dearth of visual material featuring Roy. Monger and his collaborators did manage to locate and utilize a couple of brief, essential interviews with London taking a rare opportunity to open up and expostulate on his theories about the craft of acting, and that footage represents a vital inclusion. Not that it necessarily provides all of the answers, but therein lies much of the film’s intrigue: to the extent that we hear the philosophies from London himself, or from the various actors – who struggle as they attempt to describe the coach’s acting principles in depth – we seem to be getting the most tantalizing snatches and reflections of genius as we peer into the void of something that may not be fully knowable – the abyss of one man’s mind and soul. And if, in the end, we may be able to articulate a collection of principles on how Roy worked – for example, his philosophy about not simply using Stanislavsky’s Method school to tap into emotions from one’s own life, but to actually tap into the emotions a performer is experiencing in that given moment and use them to make any line of dialogue work, no matter how awkward – we walk away stunned by the sense of how much could have been learned from actually being in London’s presence for any period of time. These interviews, in the short span of one film, seem to challenge and shake up all of our presuppositions about acting itself.
The participants’ reflections are uniformly gripping – incisive, heart-rending, and at times painfully honest – with the best segments belonging to Stone (who tells a hilarious and very unusual anecdote about a delicate subject – her own premature anticipation of Roy’s impending death), Lois Chiles, and Elizabeth Berkley.
The film is slightly flawed, in the sense that the first twenty minutes feel a little bit overdirected – Monger & co. make too fervent use of intertitles, lightning-flash cutting and transitional effects – when it would have been more than enough to simply trust the strength of the material. It scarcely matters, though, when the director fits the individual segments of the film together so snugly and intuitively that it feels perfectly cohesive – melded into an organic whole. In the final analysis, one walks away from the film deeply moved and grateful for the opportunity to have met such an exceptional and remarkable individual, however briefly. Mr. London would have been deeply touched and honored by this homage to his life, art and perspective.