If you follow the live theater, you are likely familiar with Tony winner Mary Louise Wilson. Everyone else will likely recognize her face (not her name) from various TV and movie appearances – ranging from “One Day at a Time” to Nebraska (2013). Ms. Wilson is one of the very few who have enjoyed a fifty plus year career as a character actor. Her own differentiation between a star and an actor: Stars are themselves playing others, while character actors disappear into the role. For her, this is heart of acting.
Director Ron Nyswaner is a well known writer (Philadelphia, The Painted Veil), and this is his first documentary. It would be incorrect to label this as a biopic. Though Ms. Wilson is the main focus of the project, it seems more accurate to call this a portrait of acting … especially female actors. How and why do actors do what they do? What makes them keep going? Mr. Nyswaner admitted during the Q&A that he “loves” and appreciates actors … not something we always hear from writers.
The cameras follow Ms. Wilson to her first teaching gig in New Orleans (where she was raised). Watching this energetic and passionate octogenarian work so hard to connect with a class of twenty year olds is intriguing, and as frustrating at times for the viewer as it is for her pupils. They struggle to comprehend her directions and critiques, as do we. She brings her 50 years experience and the knowledge of her legendary acting mentor Sanford Meisner to a group who mostly seem more in love with the idea of stardom, rather than a desire to develop a craft.
The real insight here comes courtesy of interviews with such actresses as Tyne Daly, Frances McDormand, Valerie Harper, Estelle Parson, and Melissa Leo. These extremely successful people come clean on the hard work, dedication, insecurities and the pain (“That’s the point” according to Ms. McDormand). Though they touch on the topic, I was anxious for more discussion on the challenges women face in the industry. One thing was clear for each … they LOVE acting.
Another enjoyable piece revolves around the reuniting of Ms. Wilson with her sister, a local playhouse actress herself. The two ladies reminisce about their childhood, and what motivated them to escape into “play pretend”. They both agree that being peculiar and feeling inadequate provided the natural desire to escape into roles.
This is one of the best looks at acting that you will find. The struggles, the motivation, the ups and downs, are all captured here in a perfectly titled film.