“The only way to learn to act, is to act!”
When an aspiring actor (Reni Santoni) in 1938 NYC meets a grandiose acting school owner (Jose Ferrer) eager to take his “tuition” money in exchange for a part in a play, Ferrer’s daughter (Elaine May) convinces her father to hire Santoni for the role. Meanwhile, Santoni’s overbearing parents (Shelley Winters and David Opatoshu) — who want him to enter pharmacy school — are against his career choice, Santoni’s employer (Jack Gilford) is upset that Santoni is always late for work, and Santoni’s girlfriend (Janet Margolin) tries to be supportive but gets suspicious about May’s interest in Santoni, as well as Morris’s friendship with a gorgeous secretary (Nancy Kovack).
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Actors and Actresses
- Aspiring Stars
- Carl Reiner Films
- Elaine May Films
- Janet Margolin Films
- Jose Ferrer Films
- Shelley Winters Films
Carl Reiner’s directorial debut was this adaptation of Joseph Stein’s 1963 play, originally featuring Alan Arkin in a Tony-winning performance. Unfortunately, Santoni doesn’t seem to be up to the task of embodying the lead role, as we quickly lose interest in him and his goals: his character is a terrible actor (and he’s meant to be), but aren’t we simultaneously supposed to be rooting for his success in his chosen field? Or should we take it as a telling sign that this would-be actor doesn’t even realize that “(Enter laughing)” refers to stage directions rather than dialogue?
Meanwhile, he’s surrounded by a cast of well-known (real life) supporting actors trying hard but unable to resurrect the production — including Jose Ferrer as the world-weary Great Actor gladly taking Santoni’s money, and Shelley Winters as a stereotypically overbearing Jewish mother:
Coming across the best — simply because she’s as wacky and unpredictable as always — is Elaine May as Ferrer’s romantically inclined daughter:
… who is primarily interested in rehearsing her love scene with Santoni as often as possible. Clearly, audiences at the time resonated with a story set back in the 1930s, when free theater in NYC was apparently a thing if you were willing to sit through a crappy production featuring actors paying for the privilege of appearing on stage (this was a different era of entertainment opportunities).
Note: There should be a category on this review site called “Overbearing Parents”, since that’s really the dominant theme in this movie; consider it an honorary one designated as of now.
Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:
- Elaine May as Angela Marlowe
No. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.