On actor Ben Foster and making discoveries

Even if you watch the kind of movie trailer that outlines half the plot, you’re likely to be surprised by any decent film, just as you’re likely to be surprised in some manner or degree by most other works of art or entertainment. The experiences they create are just too dense or extensive to be conveyed in reduced form; the reason we read the book that just got good reviews or see the movie everyone’s talking about it is to find out for ourselves what it’s like. But you can get a special kind of kick, or jolt, or unsettling sensation, from going into something with near-total ignorance. One of the strangest experiences I ever had occurred back in the 70s, when I turned on the TV, maybe changed the channel once or twice, and started watching something without knowing whether it was a series or a movie, what it was called, who was in it, anything. It turned out to be a film based on a William Faulkner novel, and since at the time I was barely acquainted with Faulkner’s work, this Temple Drake character and her shadowy, sordid story struck me as not just unfamiliar—though I lived in the Southwest and this was a tale of the South—but downright otherworldly. (What I was watching, I learned only later, was a 1933 film based on Faulkner’s Sanctuary, called The Story of Temple Drake; one blogger headlined a piece about it “The First David Lynch Movie?”)

That may be an overstated introduction, but having things like that happen to me is why I like to drop into movies that I find on TV. Not long ago, I discovered a good actor that way. The movie was called Rampart (given today’s TV-delivery systems, it’s hard to avoid learning at least the title of what you’re watching), and it featured Woody Harrelson playing some kind of bad cop. Harrelson’s character had a complex relationship with a guy in a wheelchair who hung out at a convenience store, haranguing him, leaning on him hard for information, abusing him, sometimes pitying him and sharing a drink or a smoke with him. This relationship was fascinating in itself, but there was also something riveting about the kid (as he seemed) in the wheelchair; sometimes he frightened me, sometimes I pitied him, sometimes I thought he was deranged, always I wondered what he’d do next, and he wasn’t creating any of these effects in a predictable way. That was Ben Foster.

In 2014, Foster was cast as Stanley Kowalski in a Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which he played opposite Gillian Anderson as Blanche and Vanessa Kirby as Stella. I dumbly passed up a chance to see it when it was transmitted in the National Theatre Live series, and I haven’t seen the transfer of that production which is now running at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn. But writer Patricia Bosworth, whose connection with New York theater goes back decades, has seen the show at St. Ann’s. She said in a tweet that Foster’s performance “made me forget Brando,” and she wrote, in the introduction to a Q&A with Foster that she conducted for vanityfair.com, “I was mesmerized by Foster’s intensity.” I don’t doubt that he’s intense; what’s more interesting, or easier to talk about, at any rate, is Foster’s approach to the role. His Stanley is, it seems, still and always a soldier, but also “kind of middle-management.” You can read the Q&A here.

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