In my day NYU was one of three destination schools for theater majors. The others were UCLA and USC, so if you wanted to be on the east coast, NYU was the destination. No surprise, then, that I attended college with dozens of aspiring actors. Most would have been better off investing their tuition in therapy; their motives for becoming actors had more to do with their need for attention than their need to make art.
That came to mind while The Fabulous Wife and I watched the third and final season of Netflix’s The Kominsky Method. Michael Douglas, in his mid-seventies and perhaps thinking this might be his valedictory role, plays well-regarded LA acting coach Sandy Kominsky. Although the series is primarily a comedy about the tribulations of old age, it’s also a vehicle for Douglas, abetted by eminent writer-producer Chuck Lorre and a superb supporting cast, to make the case for acting as an art form, a means of revealing eternal truths about human nature.
“Love of character, not the pursuit of fame or money, is what separates the great actor, the true artist,” Douglas/Kominsky tells his class in the first episode. Given a rare opportunity to appear on-camera — a commercial for reverse mortgages — he storms out of the shoot in righteous dudgeon. And in the next-to-last episode (there are 22 altogether, each roughly half an hour), he watches two students re-enact Jack’s death scene from Titanic. Without criticizing the students’ choice of scene or their performance, he says:
What I’m asking you to think about is what actually happens in those final moments. I’m not talking about a shocking, violent death. I’m talking about when you know it’s coming. When you’ve fully surrendered to the ultimate magic trick, when we really and truly disappear. I’ve sat at the bedside and I’ve held the hands of friends and loved ones as they breathed their last breath. And I can tell you this. The dramatic soliloquy at the end of life is pure and utter nonsense. If anything is being said, it’s internal. You can almost hear it. They’re having an internal conversation filled with disbelief and wonder that their life has come to an end. They hardly notice you sitting there at all. For the dying, the living are irrelevant. So, if you should ever have the opportunity to play such a scene, approach it with reverence. Consider it holy. Make sure it receives your utmost care and respect.
This isn’t just a slap at mawkish Hollywood blockbusters. It’s the wisdom of old age conveyed through acting — the very subtext of the story.
Which raised a question looming larger now that I’ve started life’s final act: granting that (except for suicide) you don’t get a choice about when the curtain falls, and there’s no right time, would you prefer it fall too early or too late? An early death is the ultimate unfairness, but you avoid the pain and humiliation of advanced old age, as well as the grief of surviving loved ones and friends. A belated death means you experience all you care to, but endure extended debility and loneliness.
Today I’m inclined toward the latter. But if you ask me tomorrow, I might say the former — and then prefer the latter again the day after.
Sorry for the morbid tangent, but those are our prospects, and I probably would’ve remained in denial had I not watched The Kominsky Method. The show made me a little braver in the face of old age and death — and that’s what art does, no? Even if it’s not Michael Douglas’s last performance, it may be the capstone of his impressive career. I highly recommend it, even if you’re only in the first or second act of your life (although it’s not for kids).