Archive for August, 2012

Character Studies 23: Five Great Soul Scenes

August 23, 2012

While Paul Michael Glaser’s David Starsky is steady and consistent (even when he explodes, it usually comes after a prolonged simmer which telegraphs his actions far in advance of his making them), David Soul’s Kenneth Hutchinson is far more of an unpredictable and mercurial presence in this series, and Soul’s portrayal is a tour de force. Hutch is both vain and anxious, sarcastic and genuine, deeply invested in his professional and personal relationship with Starsky and determined to upend it by being a complete jerk. Despite extraordinary good looks and a privileged background – or maybe because of these things – he can be contrary, sharply disapproving of conventionality and drawn to fads, alternative lifestyles, junky cars and damaged women. Part of him is a psychological mess and part of him is steadfast, brave, thoughtful, and rational. All of him is charismatic. Soul leaps into the challenge on day one and never disappoints in the four years he portrays this magnetic, bad-tempered, loving, deeply moral individual. I’ll probably overuse the word “emotional” but that’s what David Soul does best: he’s an actor with great depth and dexterity, and there’s nowhere in the prickly, dense, scary underbrush of the human condition he’s afraid to go.

Here are some of his best characteristics and the scenes that embody them:

Alienated: irked by rules and regulations in “Lady Blue” (written by Michael Mann) There’s nothing better than Hutch frustrated by the mechanics and confines of modern society. Any other actor given these diatribes would wear out our patience and perhaps lessen our allegiance, but Soul’s sparkling wit and energy gives these speeches a special piquancy which approaches – but never quite steps into – comedy. You just never tire of them. You laugh and feel sad at the same time. They give us access to his complex personality, a man who feels thwarted and misunderstood despite an overabundance of natural gifts. In this instance, anger over car troubles sends Hutch on a hilarious rant against phones, corporations, numbers, numeric systems and issues of personal identity, and it’s a joy to watch. Soul keeps it tight, never tips it into caricature, and easily reins it into drama a moment later.

Patient: negotiating with a psychopath in “Bloodbath” (written by Christopher Joy, Wanda Coleman, Ron Friedman) Beautifully filmed, Hutch’s two interrogations with Simon Marcus are unremittingly intense and show us the intellectual, patient side of this emotion-driven character. Hutch is forced to control both fear and antagonism in order to find information necessary to save his partner. Very often the series uses threat to the partnership in order to bring out the best in both characters, and here it’s perfectly played out as Hutch understands his baser instincts are no match for someone with nothing to lose.

Kind: being a true friend in “Starsky’s Lady” (written by Robert Earll) The beautiful tag on the end of a harrowing episode in which Starsky’s girlfriend is murdered is a showstopper. Hutch is alternately funny, warm, silly and wrenchingly grief-stricken. This scene is made more difficult by the fact both are drunk, and intoxication is notoriously difficult to act convincingly. Alternately goofy and serious (at the same time), tears swim in his eyes as he reluctantly faces his own grief and responsibilities while opening the letter and gift from Terry. In this scene, as in many others, we’re aware of his unusually expressive voice, and how he uses it in subtle ways to convey deep emotion.

Indomitable: the ransom run in “The Psychic” (again written by Michael Mann, who knows a thing or two about dramatic escalation). Yes, I have gone on about this scene more than once, but it does sum up the remarkable gifts of Mr Soul, whose speed and endurance is front and center here, and much missed after a skiing accident in the third season reduced him physically for the remainder of the series. I imagine extreme exertion and an acting performance are normally mutually exclusive, but here Hutch is not only running hard and bursting through the doors of bars and booths and Laundromats, he’s conveying fear, determination, and rage. Every second of the ransom run keeps you on the edge of your seat, and at the end you’re nearly as exhausted as he is.

Volcanic: Coming upon the murder scene in “Gillian” (written by Ben Masselink and Amanda J Green). Mere words can’t describe the devastating impact of this scene, and Soul’s incredible acting range in this and other moments of this episode (the “freeze” scene in the alley, for example). He goes from confusion to dawning realization, from horror to violent rage and finally to sobbing grief within minutes. There is not a false note or hesitation here, from his expressive voice to his extraordinary fearless body language – and all of this matched point for point by note-perfect Glaser. There has never been more painfully acute depiction of what true friendship really means. It’s ugly, raw, redemptive, astonishing. It helps this was reportedly filmed in one take, giving the actors a rare chance to let it flow naturally, and the result is very difficult to watch, but even more difficult to turn away from.

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Character Studies 22: Five Great Glaser Scenes

August 16, 2012

Paul Michael Glaser is an interesting actor: understated, perceptive and nuanced. If he were a painting he’d be an Edward Hopper: realism without sentiment, able to reveal deep insight in what many might see as the mundane or everyday. In a sense he has not been given as meaty a role as David Soul has, or, to be more precise, the substantive part of the character has always been intended to be the physical one. One can easily imagine network executives insisting, “Hutch is the thinker, Starsky’s the doer,” a dichotomy that was broken down very neatly by Glaser early on (although amusingly restated by Hutch himself late into the series when he claims, “I am the brains of this operation, and you are the not-too-inconsiderable brawn”). Starsky is thoughtful, dependable, self-contained, not given to many emotional displays – if anything he tends to clamp the lid down pretty hard – and his internal thermometer pretty well stuck at a sunny 72. If pushed, he goes quiet. Like Soul, Glaser can be very funny, and his natural physical grace lends itself well to comedy, especially those wonderful moments I think of as fundamentally Glaser-made: a kind of self-aware, deft muscularity we see in his numerous chase or fight scenes, which he plays with a mix of intensity and joy that is very rare and special.

In this way it can be difficult to isolate “big” moments in the series even though he is a powerful, at times overwhelming presence. He is warm, generous and attractive, yes, but he’s so much more as an actor. Very often his technical skills – the moments you say “wow, look at that!” – are so finely tuned, so subtle it’s possible to miss them the first time around. He has explosive scenes, occasionally loquacious ones too, but for me the most electrifying moments can be as small as a hooded look or suppressed smile, or his choice to remain silent when another actor might make a lot of noise, letting energy build up around him until you can feel it. This is his particular genius. And here are five elements that make up this extraordinary character:

Persuasive: A speech to the troops in “The Plague” (written by William Douglas Lansford). This is a great example of how Starsky is able to imply emotion without giving any out; he does this with Roper later in the episode as well. He keeps his feelings in check while barking out orders to the assembled police officers about to look for an escaped hitman in the California desert. He appeals to their duty, not their passions or prejudices. He doesn’t look anyone in the eye. He asks for empathy, not sympathy (“good partners are hard to find”). He keeps it short, but there’s a cadence to his speech – an actor’s instinctive rhythm – that gives it a gritty majesty. A similar example of this is in “Lady Blue” in which he convinces Dobey to let him investigate an ex-girlfriend’s murder.

Intelligent: Reminding his partner who’s boss in “The Game” (written by Tim Maschler) Throughout this conversation, which begins while playing pool, continues in the car and ends in the police station’s locker room, Starsky shows us how genuine authority isn’t always obvious. Hutch is certainly the dominant one here, but watch how Starsky actually engineers – and controls – the entire situation. It starts with a calculatingly mild insult (“you couldn’t find a beer in a brewery”) and ends with an irrefutable declaration (“I know how, where, when you eat, walk, sleep, talk, who you know, what you know and how you know it, and there ain’t no hiding behind that”). Hutch of course takes the bait, hook, line and sinker. The magic of this scene is not in the script, as good as it is. It’s in the way Glaser uses the dialogue in a way that can only be called sly, managing to infuse his biting words with powerful affection.

Romantic: A master class in flirtation in “I Love You, Rosey Malone” (again written by Tim Maschler, who seems to have a special connection with the character). Narrowing down moments of Starsky’s breathtaking self-confidence with women is difficult (so, so many of them!), but the scene with Rosey in her gallery is noteworthy because Starsky starts out on the wrong foot and must overcome many obstacles in a short amount of time – and he does. In spades. He wins the trust of a nervous, rather high-strung young woman by performing the Starsky Special: calm to the point of remoteness, with a splash of humor. It’s terrific fun to watch but it takes repeated viewings to really appreciate Glaser’s acting choices, that unsmiling deliberation that would seem off-putting or intimidating in any other man, but which is, in fact, spellbinding. Any other actor, I’m sure, would try more, and succeed less.

Resolute: A friend in need in “The Fix” (written by Robert Holt). Words like resolute, loyal or trustworthy don’t quite measure up to the depth of friendship evidenced in the marvelous scene that begins twenty-nine minutes into the episode. It would be easy to be overshadowed by David Soul’s shocking performance, but Glaser is the necessary anchor here. Another actor might turn this into bathos, but Glaser is perfectly composed, unflinching. In a sense this is all body language. Starsky holds onto Hutch’s arms, hugs him and gently slaps him in a loving way that would be completely revolutionary to the average viewer of the time.

Creative: Scaring the daylights out of a suspect in “The Shootout” (written by David P. Harmon). The interrogation scene with Harry Sample is is basically a comedy routine, as Starsky veers hilariously – but perhaps not so hilariously – between frustration, rage, limpid-eyed promises of amnesty, and skin-prickling menace. How ironic this is perhaps the greatest variety of emotions we ever see from him at one time, and it’s all faked. In reality, he is not given to big displays. The more something gets to him, the less he is inclined to share it. But give him a role to play and he goes whole hog (as The Fan in “Long Walk” and “Moonshine”, the Instructor in “Tap Dancing”, the photographer in “Groupie”). It occurs to me now this may be a comment on the asininity of acting – a sentiment Mr. Glaser may endorse – but I’m going to leave it there.