Hot Docs Review: 'Actress'

(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Robert Greene
Programme: International Spectrum (International Premiere)
Brandy Burre plays many roles. She has steady parts as a mother and a lover in the drama of her own life. She also played the part of an actress once when she landed a recurring role on the acclaimed HBO crime drama “The Wire.” Being an actress, though, shouldn’t be a token role in the filmography of a performer. One can play many parts, as the shrewd creativity of Actress shows as it chronicles Burre’s decision to return to acting.

Actress takes observational cinema to bold new heights as it watches Burre juggle the roles of her daily life. She tells of putting acting on the backburner to focus on being a mother, but each glimpse into her offscreen roles feels like a performance. Some moments are candid (or improvised), while others are staged drifts into stylish expressionism. One striking shot, for example, follows Brandy as she nabs a hanger and walks dreamingly throughout the house. It's either an expertly planned take or a spontaneous stroke of luck. The shaky available light photography makes Actress feel like a mumblecore film just as much as it resembles a documentary, and the artful cutting and composition of the film gives this beautiful doc an energy that feels exciting and new.

The same queasy thrill of discovery rings in Brandy’s cue to take the stage. Claiming the sexy role of the actress isn't easy after one has been typecast as the mother, the Beacon wife, and at worst, the actress ‘past her prime’. Burre is only forty, though, and the bogus double standard of Hollywood sexism makes it even harder for her to return to the scene unless she wants to play, well, a wife or a mother.

Being a mommy offers Burre her only creative outlet, she says, as she invites Greene into the playroom and the camera watches her clean up toys. Actress shows the artist in her element as Burre makes a play of her own life and practices her skills day by day by inflecting daily chores with thespian flair.

Actress is part observational cinema and part performance piece as it gives Brandy the spotlight and lets her improvise. Each fly-on-the-wall glimpse into her domestic chores sees an exaggerated pantomime—a little twirl whilst shoveling snow, for example—that adds a twist of self-reflexive theatricality to Brandy's tale. Actress, for example, shows Brandy transforming herself for a musical performance when her husband, Tim, and the kids are out of town. (Burre is actually quite a good singer.) She sits before a mirror, stenciling make up, doing her hair, and layering herself with a tinge of self-awareness that one needs to perform (or that one naturally assumes when one is before a camera). The intimacy of the shower space, on the other hand, lets Brandy rock the sideboob shortly after she mocks the constant call for partial nudity in roles for women.

Especially dramatic are the many confessional moments that pepper the film. Actress sees Burre knock back a decanter of wine and pour her emotions for the camera, and her teary-eyed reflections on the state of her life convey the honesty and the vulnerability that makes for a great performance. Acting, it seems, is a natural state.

Actress blurs the line between art and life with the experimental energy with which Greene infuses the film. One can never really tell where the performance ends and where life begins and vice versa. It’s not an especially flattering portrait of Burre as a person, but the artistry of both the piece and the performance is obvious. Is Actress a demo reel masquerading as a documentary or is it a candid commentary on the tricky gender roles of the entertainment industry? It’s a little of both, for even the most obviously staged moments of Actress contain a grain of truth. The film features a recurring image of Brandy washes the dishes in a vibrant red dress. The stage is set with theatrical lighting—the change in warmth and brightness is striking—and the mood shifts to a meditative sadness as she finds herself stuck in the role of a woman doing the dishes. Acting is, after all, an outlet, so there is no better opportunity for an actress to grow than these years of experience. Actress, take a bow!

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Actress screens:
-Saturday, May 3 at 7:00 PM at Hart House

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information on this year’s festival.