If Orson could do it

There is a big difference between a bad movie and a boring one. I would rather sit through Plan 9 from Outer Space three times than have to endure Out of Africa once more. Until recently, Plan 9, directed by Ed Wood, the acknowledged DeMille of cinematic debris, has often been cited as the worst film ever made. Its pedigree for the honor is impressive if only for the pie plate flying saucers and the abrupt disappearance of its titular star, Bela Lugosi, who mercifully died before the movie was finished.

There is a kind of perverse grandeur to a really bad movie, like gazing in awe upon the blackened skeleton of the Hindenburg as it lay on the ground. If you want to invest a bad film with grandeur, then you have to cede a certain nobility to its creators. And using that debatable premise, then Tommy Wiseau should be a candidate for sainthood.

Wiseau, whose past remains as elusive as his talent, ended up in Hollywood from points unknown with stars in his eyes. The particular brand of uniqueness that he possessed, however, didn't bode well for his chances. His range of facial expressions ran the gamut from blank to sullen and his thick, quasi-European accent rendered lines of dialogue practically unintelligible.

Tommy couldn't understand why other actors got agents and job offers while he was still trekking from one audition to another without as much as a single call-back to show for it. He decided that the only way he was going to see his name on a marquee was to make a movie himself. If Orson Welles could write, direct, and star in his first movie, then Tommy Wiseau could, too.

Unlike most people who set out to immortalize themselves on film, Wiseau had the financial means to make the attempt. The origin of his fortune was just another aspect of the puzzle, but Tommy drove a Mercedes Benz and the checks he was writing to buy expensive equipment weren't bouncing. Unlike Welles, who had to answer to RKO executives while he was making “Citizen Kane,” Wiseau answered to no one. He could stamp his movie, unimaginatively titled “The Room,” with his own unique personality. He was certain that audiences would never forget the experience. He was right.

Greg Sestero was a young, upwardly mobile actor who became acquainted with Tommy at an acting class. Sestero had attracted attention from a powerful Hollywood agency and considered for leading roles in a number of television series, but the only job he had landed was in a cheesy horror film called “Retro Puppet Master.” When Tommy was casting The Room, his good friend seemed the perfect choice for a major role and Greg was, as they say in Tinseltown, between jobs.

When he was asked what he thought of “Caligula,” John Gielgud said that he would never think of criticizing a movie that he had accepted money for appearing in. Mr. Sestero must have faced an even greater temptation in his entertaining book, aptly called The Disaster Artist, about the evolution of a cult phenomenon. Avoiding acerbic observations concerning the filming of “The Room” would be a little like avoiding the subject of snow in “Doctor Zhivago,” but Sestero and co-author Tom Bissell temper any inclinations toward condescension with hints of genuine affection -- and even respect -- for the hapless Mr. Wiseau. Many hundreds of movies, all of them infinitely better made than “The Room,” come and go without creating a ripple in the Hollywood tidepool. If Mr. Wiseau’s original intent was to make a movie that people remember, he succeeded far beyond his own inflated expectations.

The primary ingredients in The Disaster Artist are resigned affection and abject frustration. Because of his financial resources, Wiseau could initially assemble a team of professional actors and technicians. Although the inane script -- about a man who discovers that his fiance is cheating on him -- may have raised some serious misgivings, the cast and crew were not hired to make critical judgments on their employer’s screenwriting prowess. If Wiseau seemed abysmally unaware of his own limitations as a filmmaker, he was very much aware of his position as master and commander of his very own movie. He could be arrogant, generous, pig-headed, contrite, and, above all, unfathomable. The book does an admirable job of assimilating characteristics that are completely incompatible in most human psyches.

The narrative in The Disaster Artist is not linear which occasionally results in some minor sequential confusion (a fancy way of saying “When was this going on?”). There are also a number of short segments in the book that appear to delve into Tommy’s murky past. His name is Pierre in these passages and they are detailed enough to be taken (or mistaken) as biographical, although Sestero and Bissell don’t ever quite commit them to the reader as absolute fact.

That Tommy Wiseau remains more a persistent enigma than a vindicated filmmaker hardly detracts from the authors’ perceptive and witty observations on both filmmaking and human eccentricity. To fully understand the book’s good-natured spirit, the reader should probably experience “The Room” itself. It will impart a fresh appreciation for what sheer determination can accomplish in the face of a spectacular lack of discernible talent and answer the troubling question that lurks in the minds of many film lovers as to why people would throw plastic spoons at a movie screen.

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The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made By Greg Sestero, Tom Bissell Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9781476730400
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Published: Simon & Schuster - October 7th, 2014