Few films have the time or budget to shoot in sequence; one is frequently introduced to a colleague for the first time, and then plays an intimate scene in bed. Actor-writer Gordon Pinsent begins Next with “I was in bed with Julie Christie.” While this situation would be enviable for many men, it was in service of something more important: Sarah Polley’s wonderful Away from Her (inspired by an Alice Munro story), which details the nuances of married love interweaving with incremental Alzheimer’s. Pinsent and Christie give performances I will see forever.
Pinsent, a Canadian from the Land of the Newfound, now 82, has been an almost-always-working actor practically since birth. He declares this as “always,” saying, “I act. Always have. Sir Ralph Richardson said of us. ‘We are printers … we copy life, and the living. We ride invisible horses, wear fall-away costumes, until they fall apart and we exchange them for others. One job does us for a while until that job ends and we see or hear something else that takes us over.’”
Pinsent has eagerly been “taken over” in every performing medium, in virtually every style of project. He’s also created successful works for himself, most notably The Rowdyman and John and the Missus, and, along with countryman Donald Sutherland, given his resonant voice to documentaries and commercials.
In Next, Pinsent avers that he can’t stop saying “yes.” That sounds a bit like the parody of a helpless old-world damsel. I’ve met Gordon Pinsent. While always gracious, friendly and kind (in my experience), he seems, quietly, far stronger than that. It is, I suggest, as with many actors, a combination of loving the work of creating characters and feeling that one is too small, even insufficient. Also, characters provide an invisible companion to get one through the door in dealing with strangers. Actors are frequently private selves who do public work.
As to companions, for 44 of his 82 years, Pinsent shared personal and professional companionship and (sometimes feisty) love with Charmian King, one of the best (though, as is our tendency, insufficiently celebrated) actors of this or any country. King died of emphysema in 2007. Pinsent clearly adored her; Next begins with the dedication, Charm, this is for you, as is everything I do. In the present tense. For those who breathe life into invisible characters, having a loved and living wife for as long as one lives makes great sense.
For those who crave Famous Names, there is a full complement here: Christopher Plummer, Marlon Brando, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, Norman Jewison, Paul Gross and other starry people appear, inhabiting fine stories told with Newfoundland flair and humour (e.g, Brando’s best friend, Wally Cox, hiking with Pinsent and Brando on L.A.’s Mulholland Drive and repeatedly calling Brando, a Pinsent idol, “you fat bastard”).
As a “puppy actor,” I frequented a Toronto cafe called the Coffee Mill. It was filled with grown-up actors, including Pinsent and his best bud, Larry Dane. They, and their contemporaries, spoke of Hart House and the Crest Theatre. Dora Mavor Moore was a person, not a theatre award.
From those days to these, Next is rich theatre history. I don’t know where Gordon Pinsent’s voice leaves off and that of collaborator George Anthony begins, a tribute to the skills of both men. And the book provides a lively, discreet-where-necessary, tender and sometimes rueful record of one of our best-known actors … and, until now, least-known private persons.
Gale Zoë Garnett is a contributing reviewer for Globe and Mail books.