Staying Power

Watching the last of our annual New Year’s day chumfest, Moving Violations, starring John Murray, Bill Murray’s brother, Sally Kellerman, and Jennifer Tilley as a rocket scientist. Yes, a rocket scientist. See, it’s funny because Jennifer Tilley doesn’t seem very smart. I want to watch Paranoid Park, dammit. But the spouse does cling to tradition sometimes.

Anyway, the only interesting thing about this dreadful piece of shit, which is bad but not marvelously bad like previous spouse gems Cheaper to Keep Her and Viva Knievel, is that Don Cheadle has a tiny, tiny part as a guy at a fast food drive-up window. This movie was made in 1985. Boogie Nights, Cheadle’s big break, was more than 10 years later.

Cheadle’s tenacity – and the guy can act, but this is a good 10 years in the trenches, playing shit role after shit role – brought to mind my housemate at Cornell, Jane Lynch. The Cornell MFA Acting program, now defunct, was small and aiming to be elite. After all, once Yale Drama School started cranking out Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, and Sigourney Weaver, all the Ivies wanted to get in on the act. I was thrilled when I was accepted in 1983, along with 7 other people.

Jane was in the class before me; the class before that had graduated Jimmy Smits, and I think the year before that was Catherine Hicks, who most recently has been mooing it up on Seventh Heaven. Jane had a great speaking voice, lots of ambition, and was a good character actress who had gotten used to playing leads. The year I came in, the 3 women admitted, including moi, were all pretty leading lady types, and one of us, Barbara Kearns, was gorgeous; she looked like a red-headed Sharon Tate. We all competed, and I can’t imagine Jane was thrilled at having to compete with all of us on looks; I know she thought, rightly so, that we couldn’t compete with her on talent.

When I got cast in the lead for a Restoration play, the big show of the second semester, I know she was pissed. I imagine she felt that she had more talent in her pinky than I had in my entire body (the ratio was probably more like 2:1), and there’s no question I got the part because I looked pretty spectacular in the costumes. I got terribly sick a couple of weeks before the show and took 2 days off from rehearsals. When I was up and about, I couldn’t find my script. Jane had taken it, learning my lines, just in case. She was cast in the same show, as my spouse’s crazy mother, but she always seemed extremely affronted that I’d gotten the plummy role while she had to dress up in the old lady clothes.

The play wasn’t my finest hour; my confidence was shot, I didn’t work well with the director (I found out in New York that my strength was sketch comedy; I was never able to demonstrate a huge emotional range, but I gave great deadpan, which wasn’t enough for this particular role). In fact, a friend came up from New York to see it and told me that night that I shouldn’t come back for a second year because the program was killing my talent. Thanks to him, I ended up taking a leave of absence and moving to New York to sublet his sister’s apartment for $265 a month. I never went back to Cornell.

But anyway, back to Jane. I think that after she graduated, she went to Chicago for a while, then ended up in New York. We didn’t stay in touch; it’s not like we were friends, just housemates, along with Hugh Palmer, a terrific writer who got me involved in the early days of Cucaracha Theater, but that’s a different story. A couple of years after I’d moved, I saw Jane as the mother in the stage version of The Brady Bunch. The cast was interviewed on New York 1 and all of them remarked on how nice it would be if families could really be all caring and loving like the Bradys, except for Jane, who said something to the effect of, “My family was just like the Bradys, and it was wonderful.” I had only seen Jane with her parents once, but I hadn’t been struck by things being particularly blissful. But nor were they something out of Sam Shepard. It was a very Jane remark; she tended to exaggerate. Her worst insult (she threw this one at me a few times) was, “You were acting up a STORM!!!”, spoken with a disdainful sneer.

Then Karl, my first husband, started to get sick and I obviously had plenty of stuff to preoccupy me. I didn’t think much about Jane, keeping tabs on her primarily through Hugh, who ended up moving to L.A. I did see her on some kind of glass cleaning commercial at some point. Then she showed up as a nurse on the previously mentioned 7th Heaven, and for a while seemed to have kind of a lock on bit parts on WB shows.

Then the spouse brought home Best in Show one night, and there was Jane. She’s absolutely wonderful in it, and that’s very much how I remember her, though she hadn’t yet come out (but honestly, it was kind of like when Clay Aiken came out). So she’s a lot more secure then back when we lived in Ithaca, and a lot funnier. But then again, I’m not competing with her any more.

I always thought I’d be so jealous if someone besides me made it big, and yet there was Jane being completely awesome, and I was thrilled. Since then, I’ve caught her in The 40-year-old Virgin, Talledega Nights, and the other Christopher Guest movies. Jane did it. She really, really wanted it, and she stuck with it, and she’s got a helluva resume.

So here’s a little shout-out to her and Don Cheadle for gutting it out. Because acting as a profession sucks even more than writing; at least writers get better with age, but even when actors do get better, there are fewer and fewer roles, especially for women. Survivors rule.

One thought on “Staying Power

  1. Pingback: The 3 Faces of Nan… | Nanarama

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