Judge Bill Gibron always knew there was more to Leonard Nimoy than pointy ears and a strange interstellar peace sign. This amazing one-man show from 1981 was just the acting icing on the cake.
Starry, starry night.
It's been a few days since the untimely passing of artist Vincent Van Gogh. At 36, he had been a preacher, a painter, and, most significantly, a pauper. His long-suffering brother Theo, having underwritten his sibling's many career paths over the decades, is angry and upset by the word traveling around town. Everyone from citizens on the street to fellow painters in the café claims that Vincent died deranged, killed by his own hand in an act of suicidal insanity. Calling together friends and family, peers and opponents, Theo hopes to set the record straight once and for all. He wants to discuss his brother's devotion to lost causes. He wants to clear the air about his medical (and mental) conditions. He needs to show society that his seemingly directionless relative was actually a man of great courage and masterful artistic skill, lost in the arenas of love and life, but brilliant in capturing his "impressions" of the world around him. From his earliest sketches to his final finished masterpieces, Theo is convinced that his brother was easily ignored and resoundingly ridiculed based on little more than rumor and innuendo. He plans to show the reality behind the gossip. He wants them to understand his fragile family member, Vincent.
It's easy to see why Leonard Nimoy and his most indelible, identifiable characterization—Science Officer (Mr.) Spock from the seminal sci-fi series Star Trek—were often at such personal and professional loggerheads. Creating what is perhaps the most recognizable alien in television history lead to a category of typecasting that's almost unheard of in today's multimedia ideal. Though he had memorable turns in such big-screen fare as Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and found additional TV success in Mission Impossible and the fan favorite In Search Of …, he was consistently hemmed in by that beloved Vulcan. As if to confirm his desire to distinguish himself from his incidental iconography, the title of his 1977 autobiography was a statement of single purpose: I Am Not Spock (in truth, the book was an attempt to reconcile with the role, not to distance himself from the character). Still, ever vigilant in his attempts to redefine his creative career, Nimoy took to the stage. One of his most famous forays into the world of greasepaint and curtain calls was a look at the life of one of the world's most tortured artists. Reworking a previous one-man play called Van Gogh by Phillip Stephens, Nimoy drew on over 500 letters between Vincent and his brother Theo and devised his own solo showcase, incorporating art as well as artifice to provide an evening of insight into a gifted, if haunted, master.
A true labor of love for its lead, Vincent is not actually the show you think it is. Written and directed for the stage and starring the once and future Trek titan, this brief but powerful presentation is part lecture, part impassioned plea, and all acting acumen. Nimoy gives what amounts to a true tour de force performance here, channeling the more famous Van Gogh while giving the main narrative elements to frequently forgotten brother Theo. In fact, this is really less of a biography and more of a meditation on the meaning of art and artistry in a world that measures success by sales. Even though we are dealing in an era where painters could practice their craft and still be viewed as viable, Theo makes it very clear that Vincent's various mental and physical failings (he was originally thought mad, though he was later diagnosed with epilepsy and, perhaps, schizophrenia) created a much harsher benchmark for his brother to reach. Indeed, because of the magnificence of his work, because of the boundaries he pushed as an impressionist and as a colorist, Vincent was viewed as strange and different. In Nimoy's view, this translated into a kind of communal freakdom. Vincent Van Gogh was viewed as the oddball, the outcast who would prefer to chase coal miners down the shaft, delivering sermons on the Gospel in evangelical fury, rather than conform to the typical mandates of a career artisan.
Selling this previously unheard of historical position (this is 1981, remember) would require a talent equal to that of the subject. Yet this is exactly where Vincent shines. Anyone who ever doubted Nimoy's chops, who thought him a one-note thespian locked in "live long and prosper" mode needs to see this terrific turn post-haste. Using his typical basso voice to bring both brothers to life, Nimoy employs the slightest hint of harshness to Vincent's brogue to divide the dynamic. Yet even if he projected in the same strong manner for both men, his acute actor's ability would make the differentiation easy. When he embodies Theo, Nimoy makes it very clear that this lowly art dealer is not much for public speaking. Sure, his comments are commanding, but the body language associated with them is all closed off and tense. But the minute he picks up a letter from Vincent, reading aloud the artist's own words, Nimoy changes his pose. He becomes more open and animated, shaking his fists and prowling the stage like a caged animal. In these moments, the play seems more rant than realistic, but Nimoy knows that nuance cannot be achieved with scenery chewing alone. Indeed, several times throughout the course of the story, images of Van Gogh's work are matched with beautiful classical music, allowing the actor a chance to rest and reflect. There is also a pair of emotionally charged moments when tears well up in Nimoy's eyes. Instead of accenting this showing of sadness with another speech, he just lets the weary waters flow.
In fact, nothing about Vincent feels forced or undeserved. This is a very funny play, with lots of witty asides and caustic rejoinders cast out on famed friends like Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin. Nimoy knows how to play to an audience and he does so brilliantly here. Alas, he's still a TV-trained performer and can't help but look to the camera every once in a while. Still, such insignificant instances do not spoil the staging and we frequently find ourselves lost in the amazing landscapes and haunting words that, together, frame a gifted, troubled spirit. Some may find the In Search Of …-style ending, with filmed material used as a follow-up on some of the questions and concerns the play raises, a little strange, but frankly it feels like a necessity. It allows Nimoy to add his own thoughts on the subject, while bringing some kind of closure to the entire Van Gogh mythology.
A must for any lover or art, as well as fans of their favorite interstellar icon, the DVD version of Vincent definitely deserves a look. Thanks to an impressive transfer, Image makes the presentation and packaging all the more inviting. The 1.33:1 full-screen transfer is truly impressive. The lack of old-school analogy issues—video flaring, bleeding, "greening," and ghosting—is commendable and the Dolby Digital Mono mix is moody and subtle. Image even throws in a pair of excellent supplements to increase our enjoyment of the production. First up is a full-length audio commentary featuring a proud and determined Nimoy. Hitting all the highlights of Vincent's creation—from the research to the touring, this is an excellent (if occasionally dry) alternate narrative. Next we have a decidedly different way of viewing the play. Seen behind Nimoy throughout the production is a slide show that illustrates many of the points being made onstage. Unfortunately, the slides are occasionally difficult to distinguish. But here, Image allows the visual presentation its own place on the DVD. This means you can listen to the entire show while viewing only the slides. Believe it or not, it's still an amazingly moving experience. Add in a booklet offering a breakdown of Van Gogh history and you've got a well prepared digital product.
It's important to note that, after the fan backlash over his first autobiography (and more importantly, its title) Nimoy penned a second memoir, clearing the air once and for all. Entitled I Am Spock, the work showed the actor seeming to come to terms with his celebrity symbolism once and for all. Frankly, all he really needed was wider exposure for his work in Vincent. If anything could balance out the seemingly set impression of Nimoy as an extraterrestrial, it would be this very real, very human one-man extravaganza.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Full-length Audio Commentray with Star Leonard Nimoy
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