Before watching all of the show in such a short time, savoring the oeuvre of Grayson Hall in Dark Shadows wasn’t very high on my to-do list. And nearly mid-way (!) through, I have to say that it’s been one of the greatest highlights.
My favorite actors have – and I mean this as a compliment – no versatility. When I say “versatile,” I really mean “bland.” I don’t want real. Reality is boring; that’s why we have art. I want true. Think about Frank Oz as Yoda. There’s nothing real going on there, but that performance is one of cinema’s most underrated yet beloved.
Thank goodness there’s nothing really versatile about Grayson Hall on Dark Shadows. She has great fun as Magda, but it’s still Grayson Hall. And The Grayson can pierce through the thickest of dialects and all of the makeup in the Ben Nye catalogue. That’s a good thing. She will not be assimilated by the Borg of performance banality.
Surprisingly to many, her roots were very much in realism. Among her fans was Harold Clurman, one of the big wigs with the Group Theatre – the ensemble who reinvented American acting into how we see it today. But not all situations are realistic. Their definition of acting was (kinda, depending on who you ask) “responding truthfully to fictional situations.”
I can’t really say whether or not Grayson was “realistic” as an actress because Julia’s predicaments are so supernatural. How are you supposed to react to that Dick Smith age makeup? Beats me, but her characters never “phone it in.” They never roll their eyes. Grayson Hall is not there to give things 50% and pick up a check at the end of the week. She gives these moments total commitment in a very raw and fearless way. These are problems bigger than irony can belittle. Very few actresses would “go there.” They’d probably be very flat and predictable. Grayson carries almost all of episode 361. It’s a performance as potent and confrontational as the situation stimulating it.
One of my theories is that her willingness to show emotional vulnerability, pedal-to-the-floor, makes people uncomfortable. Situations aren’t scary until we see people react to them. And she can react the hell out of these scripts. Interestingly so.
Back to casting, there’s a theatrical adage that says, “If you have to choose between real and interesting, choose interesting.”
Hall gives us both in the series. I think that some people can be prejudiced against sharp, middle-aged women who are not traditionally “attractive.” She’s smart and vulnerable, hold the Photoshop. The voice is husky and bold. The intentions are clear and intense. And she is very attuned to her romantic desires… yet another thing unseemly (to many) when displayed by an average-looking middle-aged woman. When she’s strong, she’s predatory, and when she’s weak, her characters are still navigated by a fearless performer.
I don’t know if we have a modern analogue. Maybe Dale Dickey, although she has the sclera of “hardened southerner,” which kind of explains her strength in the minds of modern Americans. A metropolitan intellectual woman just doesn’t have that protection.
The inability to deal with this representation of women is very clearly evidenced in the new movie. They write her off as an alcoholic joke, perhaps because they’re too scared to handle what Hall (who was as much the “author” of the character as were the writers) offered. It is equal parts astounding and sad that Helena Bonham Carter would make such sport out of the show, totally ignorant to the multifaceted potential of playing Julia Hoffman. It is a Comedy Central Roast-level presentation of a character (as created by Hall) worthy of Albee.
Who’s afraid of Grayson Hall? Not me!