Acting Like Ourselves

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What is your deepest secret? Can you share it with the people you love most? This is the theme of “City Island,” a wonderful little indie film set in a working-class fishing community on the eastern shore of the Bronx. The film suggests that everyone has a secret, everyone wears a mask, and true bonds are formed when you have the courage to take off the mask and reveal your whole self.

As the film opens, the Rizzo family is gathering for a holiday weekend. They seem like the typical working-class family — loud, contentious, but solid. Each one has a secret. The film implies

that this is typical too. Their secrets are probably a little more outlandish than yours: Junior (Ezra Miller ) harbors a fetish for 300-pound women; daughter Vivian (Diminik Garcia-Lorido) is secretly working at a strip club to earn money for college; all of them are hid- ing the fact that they smoke. But we all have secrets we’re afraid to reveal. “City Island” is the best kind of comedy, rich with understanding of human relationships, and funny because it reveals our foibles, not because the characters mouth comic quips. The humor is natural and satisfying.

Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a prison guard who secretly longs to be an actor. His dream is so secret, in fact, that every week he tells his family that he is going to a poker game when actually he is sneaking off to an acting class in Manhattan. You can guess what his wife Joyce ( Julianna Margulies) will begin to suspect he’s sneaking off to do. Meanwhile, Vince discovers (and quickly hides) an even bigger secret: Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), a young man being paroled at the prison where Vince works, is his own son from an early relationship, a son he never acknowledged or supported. Tony needs a sponsor, so Vince decides to bring him home to do some construction work in the backyard, without revealing to anyone, including Tony, their true relationship. Vince wants to test the family dynamic first. Let’s see: hot wife, sexy daughter, and a handsome, bare-chested ex-con lifting lumber in the backyard, who doesn’t know they’re related . . . potential dynamite might be an apt description of the dynamic.

The film’s underlying themes of acting and secrets give it depth and stay- ing power. Shakespeare said it well: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” as we act our way through life. In this film, the acting class is a metaphor for life, and the characters are a training session for actors.

Michael Malakov (Alan Arkin), Vince’s self-important acting teacher, chastises his students for pausing as they read their lines: “Keep going! Say the line! What are you pausing for? Jesus, everyone thinks he’s Brando. Just say the line!” The film’s self-conscious focus on acting makes the audience pay more attention to the subtleties of the actors on the screen, as well as to the masks we don in real life.

For example, when Vince and his acting partner Molly (Emily Mortimer ) begin working on their class assignment together—an assignment in which they are supposed to reveal a deep secret to each other and then use it in their next class dialogue — they pause, they think, they struggle to find the courage and the right words to say it. In short, Garcia and Mortimer do exactly what the acting coach has said not to do — and it works. Brilliantly. Suddenly we understand what it was that made Brando such a brilliant yet seemingly effortless actor — he let his character think before he spoke.

In the next scene, the Rizzo family eats dinner together and everyone talks at once, stepping on each other’s lines in the way we do when we’re having a conversation. No one pauses, no one listens. This style of acting was developed by director Robert Altman and perfected by actress Meryl Streep, who is the queen of thinking, listening, and acting at the same time. It reminds us that most of the time, we don’t think and we don’t listen. We just talk.

Later, when Vince reveals to Tony that he is going to acting school and is headed to his first audition, Tony tells Vince not to sweat it. Everybody acts all the time. He had to act from the moment he walked into the prison, he says; he had to create a persona and act tough and unconcerned because if he revealed his true fears, they would have come true. Tony demonstrates this in Vince’s face, and Vince uses Tony’s demonstration word for word in his own audition. Use what you see and make it your own — that’s another mantra of acting. The three different acting techniques, strewn effortlessly through the film, make it an actors’ movie and give it an intellectual undertone not expected in the working-class setting.

Of course, removing the mask and being oneself is the goal. One of my students at Sing Sing said recently, “We all wear masks in this prison. We have to act the tough guy, we have to act like we agree with things. But here in this classroom we can take off the mask. With these men in this classroom I can be who I really am and say what I really think. Then I put the mask back on and go back to the cell block.” “City Island” asks you to consider this: where can you take off your mask? Where can you be your true self? The person you can reveal your secrets to is your true family, your true friend.

“City Island” shows that it may not be easy to take off the mask, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

“The Joneses” and “City Island” come to the same conclusion, although they approach it from completely different directions: life is more satisfying when we can take off the mask and be ourselves. In a season when most big-budget films have been flawed, these two independent films stand out as gems.

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