Ian Holm – Bilbo Baggins (image from the movie The 5th Element)
Slipping into a Slippery Identity
By Jim Beckerman
The Record Online – April 8, 2000
Can someone who doesn’t write be a writer? You might as well ask Ian Holm if someone who doesn’t act can be an actor. In “Joe Gould’s Secret,” the 68-year-old British veteran (“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Big Night”) plays a 1940s Greenwich Village crank, a self-proclaimed writer whose masterpiece remains in his head rather than on the page.
Holm can sympathize. For a long while, he was a stage actor in name more than reality, with a severe bout of stage fright keeping him off the boards for years. “I started to dry up and the brain kind of atrophied and I would look blankly at people — this was in rehearsal-and they would look horrified,” says Holm, recalling a 1980s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” that proved to be his Waterloo. “I staggered on for two or three previews and then folded up in a fetal position in the dressing room.”
Luckily, his condition didn’t extend to the other two media where Holm had established a presence-TV (“Jesus of Nazareth,” “King Lear”) and film (“Alien,”
“Brazil,” and “Chariots of Fire,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination). But it wasn’t until 1993 that this Royal Shakespeare Company veteran nerved himself to get back in front of an audience.
What snapped him out of it?
“I finally ran out of excuses,” Holm says.
If the artistic process is that maddening for Holm, a highly acclaimed actor who was knighted in 1998, then just imagine what it’s like for the character he plays in “Joe Gould’s Secret”-a shabby little man with nothing but his ego and the kindness of strangers to sustain him.
Stanley Tucci’s new movie, also featuring Susan Sarandon, Steve Martin, and Tucci himself, opened Friday.
Gould was a real Greenwich Village character-a homeless man who bummed nickels off strangers (he called this a contribution to the Joe Gould Fund), claimed to understand and speak the language of seagulls, and collared anyone willing to listen with grandiose talk about his “Oral History of Our Time,” a masterpiece that would be three times as long as the Bible when complete.
Whether Gould was really a mute, inglorious Milton (poet Thomas Gray’s famous phrase for the artists-in-spirit who never write), or a bohemian version of the Peter Sellers character in “Being There,” whose naive utterances are taken for wisdom, the film leaves open.
There’s no question that many of the artists that Gould encountered in the 1940s did think he was a genius-including the poet e.e. cummings and playwright William Saroyan. And also perhaps Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer played by Tucci in the film, who transformed Gould into a minor celebrity when he wrote a magazine profile titled “Professor Seagull.”
The words “eccentric genius” are often used in tandem, but Holm warns against the tendency to automatically see Gould as a genius just because he was eccentric. “I don’t think Joe Gould is a genius,” Holm says. “That’s my own personal opinion. I think he had this enormous tome up in his head, and if it had ever gone down on paper it might have been something extraordinary. But he got diverted so many times.” This is Holm’s second teaming with Tucci, the actor-turned-director who previously gave him a juicy part as a rival restaurateur in “Big Night.” “The great thing about ‘Big Night’ was that he kept telling me to do more,” Holm says. “I’m a minimalist, and nobody ever said that to me.”
But for “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Holm ran into a frustrating roadblock: He couldn’t get a bead on the character. He also couldn’t get a handle on the character’s vaguely Boston accent (Gould claimed to have been a Harvard graduate). “For Brits, it’s very hard to do a Brahmin accent, because it’s so close,” he says.
What to do? In the end, costume and makeup came to his aid.
“I had no idea who Joe Gould was when I sat down in the makeup chair, but fortunately we had a brilliant team. They shaved my hair back, used my own beard, gave me nicotine stains and this wonderful costume — [costume designer] Juliet Polcsa had the brilliant idea of my wearing two shirts-and there he was in the mirror. And I thought, ‘Oh, great.’ The rest was comparatively easy. This is one of the few parts I’ve ever played where I worked from the outside in.”
Holm is no stranger to the makeup table.
He was all covered in green paint for his film debut as Puck in Peter Hall’s 1968 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and he had to speak through a mouthful of dribbling white goo as the decapitated android in “Alien.” “That was an extremely uncomfortable movie to make,” Holm says.
Nothing compared to his upcoming opus, “The Lord of the Rings.” In director Peter Jackson’s long-awaited live-action film of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, Holm plays Bilbo Baggins, the gnome-like hobbit patriarch.
Bilbo, contrary to popular impression, is not the lead character in this epic story of the hobbits, dwarfs, and other Middle Earthers who band together to destroy an all-powerful “one ring” before it falls into the hands of the arch-demon Sauron. But playing Bilbo required long hours in the makeup chair.
“The makeup, when I was doing the very old character at the end of Part 3 … was a complete mask,” Holm says. “It took upwards of five or six hours to put on and an hour or two to take off.”
Then there were the hobbit feet-described by Tolkien as “large and hairy.” “They had these things like boats with toes,” Holm says.