And Everything Is Going FineDocumentary, not rated
Spalding Gray—Spuddy, as he was known to family and friends—was a leading practitioner of the autobiographical monologue, which began its rise in the early 1980s. Gray liked it simple. He sat on a bare stage at a desk with a notebook and a glass of water, and he talked for 90 minutes. And it was riveting. His topics were himself and the world, through the lens of his experience. Creative narcissism, he called it, or sometimes poetic journalism. Regular journalists file their stories as soon as possible, he said, but he liked to sit with his topics and let them become part of his unconscious. Gray was a hunter of skeletons in his own closet, of narratives in his daily life, until his suicide in 2004. It is believed that he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. His body was found in the East River two months after he was reported missing. By the end of his life, Gray had amassed a glowing critical reputation and an adoring fan base, and now director Steven Soderbergh has created a biography of Gray told memoir-style, in Gray’s own voice, through clips from performances, interviews, and other footage, including conversations with his father. And Everything Is Going Fine is an homage for serious fans as well as a tantalizing primer for novices just discovering the work.
Gray grew up in Rhode Island and began acting after college in the mid-1960s. He came to national prominence in 1987 after his one-man play, Swimming to Cambodia, about being in Thailand and acting in the movie The Killing Fields, was shot for the big screen by Jonathan Demme. And Everything Is Going Fine shows us that Gray appeared on MTV and E! during this burst in popularity, historical documentation that counters those networks’ current emphasis on reality programming—although it could be argued that Gray was the original reality show, with his willingness to speak about the deepest parts of himself and his audiences’ endless appetite for the gory details. He claimed to have always been an actor, a ham, despite an unnurturing upbringing in the Christian Science faith. His father spoke in euphemisms, and his mother suffered from increasingly severe psychological problems that eventually resulted in her 1967 suicide. Soderbergh tells Gray’s life story through the monologues Gray performed to tell the same story, so the true artistic moviemaking feat here is in the editing: Gray does not age chronologically in the film, but instead the film is pieced together to tell a chronological tale. Gray’s hair zings from dark to light and back again. The mainstay throughout the years is his calm demeanor, even when he really gets going with a story. His process, it is revealed, was to first tell a story and then write it down. Many of his monologues were published in book form, and in 1992 he published his only novel, Impossible Vacation. He later recorded the experience of writing and publishing his novel as the monologue Monster in a Box, which was later turned into a film by Nick Broomfield.
The older he got, the more comfortable Gray grew with his dark side, but a monologue about his first year in college reveals his reaction to encountering the wider world after his sheltered childhood. “My bed was right by the window, and the room was so small that no matter where I moved the bed, it was basically near the window. I was upset because I was reading Freud for the first time, and I read that Freud had discovered an unconscious. I don’t remember how, but he had. And this was a shock to me because until then, I thought I was here; I didn’t know there was a whole part of me that was missing; I didn’t know there was this Un, which, if you didn’t know how big it is, could go on forever, and I thought that it was housing all the self-destructive shadow aspects of myself, and if I went to sleep by that window the Un would take over my body in the night and jump out the window with it. And halfway down, the conscious self would be desperately grasping at the bricks.”
Gray flirted with depression as well as manic tendencies throughout his life. In 2001, he was in a car accident in Ireland that left him with several injuries, including a skull fracture and brain injury that made writing and performing difficult, though he tried. The monologue he performed in his last public appearance was published posthumously in 2005 as Life Interrupted. In a well-known tale about the night before he disappeared, Gray watched Tim Burton’s Big Fish, which ends with the line “A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.” According to many sources, Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, said that Gray cried afterward: “I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die.”
This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 02/25/2011