Greatish Performances #1


#1 — Mason Gamble as Dirk Calloway in Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998)

Around the time of Rushmore‘s release, Bill Murray went onto Charlie Rose’s PBS program to discuss the film. The interview covered a broad range of Murray’s career, and even began with Rose asking the actor to comment of the business tumult going on with some Hollywood agencies at the time, but the host also eagerly did his duty to ask extensive about the film Murray was there to promote, particularly asking about this young director named Wes Anderson as if he were an extraterrestrial that had swooped down to kidnap significant stars. At one point he tried to keep the telecast moving by jumping right into a clip. It was the scene that featured a young Rushmore student confronting Murray’s businessman character about the affair he’d fallen into with a teacher at the school, pointing out how it was a form of betrayal to their mutual friend, the aspirationally precocious protagonist Max Fischer. Murray interrupted the flow a moment to interject his judgment on the young actor he worked with in the scene. He noted that he’d previously worked in a film adaptation of a comic book, uncertain if he’d played Richie Rich or Dennis the Menace (it was the latter, part of the less palatable legacy of John Hughes that everyone has been kindly ignoring during the extended mourning period). While he has a reputation of cantankerous behavior, Murray also has a notably generous spirit, and even though this was just a kid in a small role, Murray wanted to take the time to explain to Rose that he was really good.

I agree with Murray. There are a lot of excellent performances in Rushmore–it remains Anderson’s very best film in part because there’s more empathy and less quirky contrivances to the characters and therefore the acting–but Gamble’s is often overlooked. His is a deceptively tricky role. As Max’s right-hand ally, Gamble represents a sort of barometer for the audience of where Max is at in the bumpy progression of his story. We see the state of Max’s psyche reflected in Dirk’s interactions with him, no clearer than the moment when Max rebounds from a series of setbacks. He instructs Dirk to take notes as he speculates on likely members of a kite-flying society. The inventive screenplay by Anderson and Owen Wilson has already clearly signaled that this sort of organizational creation is a mark of Max’s ambition, and in the context of the film the return of Max’s ambition is a sign of the return of his spirit, but Gamble needs to play the emotion of the scene, a mix of surprise, delight and excitement that his friend is finding his footing. And he has to do it without any overt signaling, because he’s required to return to his station as accomplice and assistance to let the revivification take.

There are all sorts of little balancing acts for Gamble in the film. He was probably around eleven or twelve at the time of filming, and his character is often calibrated to react with the emotional immediacy of youth. He approaches his confrontation with Max with a urgency to hurt his friend back the way he himself has been hurt. He shares a secret he knows will plunge Max into despair, but lacks that knowledge to articulate in a way much beyond taunts informed by a kid’s schoolyard knowledge of how human sexuality manifests. Gamble is feigning toughness while revealing innocence, and when he confronts Max verbally his insults are delivered with an tenor of brattiness. Like Max, Dirk is a kid trying out adult emotions that he doesn’t really understand, and Gamble somehow manages to hint at both the playacting and the confusion that shadows it.

Since Max is a theatrical auteur, that playacting gets to take a somewhat more literal form when Dirk takes a feature role in the magnum opus that closes the film, the Vietnam epic Heaven and Hell. He plays a soldier who denies his place in the middle of the muck of war with the happy delusion that he’s not there, but he’s “in Cheyenne, Wyoming,” just another front announced right before he triggers his flame thrower with a howling commando rage. The Dirk seen in these scenes is a little more forthright, challenging the veracity of the ketchup makeup slathered on his face between acts, still loyal to Max but perhaps now aware that the friend he trails proudly isn’t quite as infallible as he once seemed. Dirk is growing up a bit, and Gamble gives him that tone.

In the play-within-the-film, Gamble’s Dirk isn’t especially convincing as the soldier. He’s still a kid playing an adult’s role. But I believed that Dirk believed in the performance, that he was committed to it. That in and of itself coheres to his portrayer’s work quite nicely.

22 thoughts on “Greatish Performances #1

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