How Roman Polanski and Jonathan Demme Blur the Line Between Fiction and Reality

Two New Movies Celebrate the Art of Acting

Foregrounding a Vision: Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Almaric in Roman Polanski’s ‘Venus in Fur.’
Courtesy of guy ferrandis
Foregrounding a Vision: Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Almaric in Roman Polanski’s ‘Venus in Fur.’

By Ezra Glinter

Published August 10, 2014, issue of August 15, 2014.

One of my favorite TV shows — and one of the best TV shows of all time, I’d argue — is “The Larry Sanders Show,” a sitcom that ran from 1992 to 1998 on HBO. Created by and starring comedian Garry Shandling, “The Larry Sanders Show” was a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional late-night talk show and the lives of its producers, writers, staff and star. The show was great because it offered a savage take on the entertainment industry, while exposing the hubris, weakness and vulnerability of its characters. It was naturalistic humor with a very dark edge.

Although the show was set mostly in a beige production office, it also featured scenes from the fictional show-within-a-show, in which Larry interviewed real-life celebrity guests. These parts were performed and recorded as full-length talk show segments, then edited down to be used in the sitcom. This resulted a lot of unused material, some of which can be found on various DVDs and box sets.

One of these outtakes came to mind recently thanks to two new movies: “Venus in Fur” by Roman Polanski, based on the play by David Ives, based on the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch; and “A Master Builder” by Jonathan Demme, based on the Henrik Ibsen play “The Master Builder,” as translated and adapted by Wallace Shawn and directed for the stage by Andre Gregory.

Beyond superficial resemblances — both movies are adapted from stage plays, and both have 19th-century roots — “Venus in Fur” and “A Master Builder” share deeper preoccupations as well. Both movies blur the line between fantasy and reality in the lives of their characters, and both are concerned with the art of acting itself. “Venus in Fur” depicts the shifting power dynamic between the director of a play and an actress auditioning for the lead role, while “A Master Builder,” though not about acting directly, is the culmination of a 14-year rehearsal period that was as much about the process as about the product. But the best illustration of the strange magic these films evoke is a single deleted scene from “The Larry Sanders Show.”

The segment, included as a special feature on the 2007 DVD collection “Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show,” presents David Duchovny as a guest on the very last episode of both the fictional talk show and the actual sitcom. For some reason he’s wearing a kilt — he claims to have investigated his mother’s Scottish ancestry and to have found the “Schwartz plaid” — so he and Larry joke about that (Larry: “I only say this because this is a farewell show, but could you close your legs, and let’s say, ‘Farewell’?”), and Larry asks him about “The X-Files,” and about his then-wife, Tea Leoni, whom he had recently married.

During the scene, which is about 12 minutes long, strange things start happening with the actors. After making a joke about his sporran (a pouch worn over the kilt), Duchovny says how the bit was “unscripted.” Larry’s sidekick, Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), cracks up, causing Duchovny to start laughing as well. Larry yells to his producer, Artie (Rip Torn), to ask if it’s time to take a commercial break; Artie yells back from offstage, “Absolutely mythic!” Larry proceeds to ask Duchovny how many more seasons of “The X-Files” he’ll be doing and then, “Why don’t you honestly right now… you are so out of character I can’t even stand it. Why don’t you put some pants on and come back later, as a man.” Then he announces a commercial break.

As the camera pulls away from the desk Shandling chides himself for having broken character; when he thought Tambor and Duchovny were falling out, they were actually continuing in their roles as sidekick and guest. “I fell out, I fell out of character,” Shandling complains. “I could have stayed in… I’m not good enough… I fell out.”

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