Monday, March 24, 2014

I Just Don't Give a Rat's Ass

We went to see “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” Sunday. It’s a documentary about (obviously) Elaine Stritch. While it touches on her life and career, it’s more concerned with who she is today, an 89-year-old theatrical legend (and I use that term because the legends and stories about her are plentiful) at the end of her career, and, more importantly, her life.

Not that she’s dying – no more than the rest of us – but she’s old; she’s diabetic; she’s a “recovered alcoholic” who drinks (she allows herself two drinks a day, figuring what the hell difference can it make at this point?); she has memory problems; and she’s not who she once was. Just like all of us.

Stritch -- being shot.

What the movie pointed out to me, though, was something I noticed in both her one-woman show, “At Liberty,” and the film version of that show: her fearlessness.

We often read about actors giving fearless performances, or taking risks, or being brave about the choices they make.

This is, of course, nonsense. Acting involves neither bravery nor risk-taking. Soldiers are brave. Cops are brave. Firefighters are brave. People who jump out of planes or mine coal or handle explosives are brave. Dressing up and pretending to be someone else is not brave.

Kent McCord and Martin Milner: not brave.

Sure, there are mental and emotional risks in exposing yourself in public that way; there’s a risk of being laughed at, but that’s not really life-threatening, is it?

So, with that definition in mind, let me talk about Stritch. It’s not that what she does in dealing with her daily life isn’t any braver than the rest of us. (In fact, in some ways, it might be easier; she seems to have plenty of money and her wits about her.) It’s that she has no fears now – nor seems to have had in the past – about doing and saying exactly what she wants. There are no false fronts, no pretensions, no bullshit. I’m not saying she’s 100% pleasant – by her own admission, she can be a pain in the ass.

Stritch being a pain in the ass to Hamm.

I am saying she’s an intelligent woman and a fine actress, even if her choices aren’t always “right.” She herself tells the story about how, when she was doing “Company,” she didn’t understand the lyric “a piece of Mahler’s” in “The Ladies who Lunch,” thinking that, rather than talking about classical music, she was maybe talking about a pastry from a bakery called, yes, “Mahler’s.” And she admits that she used to read only her part of the scripts of the plays she was acting in, so that when she did “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” she thought that (spoiler alert) George and Martha’s son was real and not imaginary.

But, in spite – or maybe because – of, those quirks, she allows herself to get out of her own way when making artistic choices. What I admire about her is that she doesn’t seem to hold anything back in either her performances or her life. There’s an old sports cliché about “leaving it all out on the field,” and that’s what Stritch does. She’s big and bold and theatrical, and most importantly – and this is the takeaway I’d hope to emulate – she just doesn’t give a rat’s ass.

 Yeah, that's what it is ...

That’s something my wife and I have discussed for years: The Rat’s Ass Philosophy.
As ruled as we all are by the opinions of others (“What will they think of me if I do that?;” “Will they like these clothes?”), I don’t think I generally need those opinions or that approval to feel fulfilled. (That said, the mere fact that I’m putting these posts out there mean I’m seeking some kind of approval, doesn’t it?)

I think this is especially true for people in the arts – we specifically place ourselves in positions where we’re going to be judged. I was going to say we hope that we all hope to find approval, but that’s true for anyone, isn’t it? (Meaning, that we hope others will approve of us and what we do.) But for all of that, a lot of the time, I just don’t give a rat’s ass what people think. I don’t mean that I’m rude or thoughtless to them. (Not that I’m never rude or thoughtless.) I try to consider what they want and/or need, but in most cases, I’m not going to be affected by what their opinions of my actions or manner of dress or conduct might theoretically be.

Again, I’m not out to get in peoples’ faces or act in an obnoxious way. I just don’t want to let what others might possibly think overwhelm the way I live in either my “real” or artistic lives. I’d hope I can be as bold and, well, “brave” in my life as Stritch is in hers.

To boil it down; to just not give a rat’s ass.  

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