Much more entertaining and enjoyable than any movie I’ve seen in the last several days was actor F. Murray Abraham’s refreshingly plainspoken talk about his life in the theatre and the disappointments of his post-Amadeus film career. Holding court for a too-short 90 minutes at Northwest Film Forum this past Memorial Day, Abraham, every bit the engaging charmer, reminisced about working with Milos Forman, Woody Allen, and Lina Wertmüller (the last of whom confessed to him, over a few glasses of wine in between takes, “I haven’t been able to make a good movie since I got rich”).
Abraham also offered a delightfully contrarian dismissal of Daniel Day-Lewis: “He has scorn for acting. If you have to have surgery, you don’t go to a surgeon who operates once every three or four years. He makes shoes or something.”
Asked by moderator Jeff Shannon to elaborate on what he meant by saying “I teach arrogance” to his acting students, Abraham replied: “All of art is basically arrogance. Any creative artist is arrogant. You’re a creator—what does that put you next to? How else can you stand up in front of 5000 people and not control them, but take them with you?” Of his own training, he confessed that the longer he studied with Uta Hagen, the worse he got—that in emulating her techniques, he lost his own: “Don’t fall under their influence completely, forgetting everything you know. Don’t try too hard to please—find your own way.”
When Shannon asked Abraham what he ideally wants from a director, the actor stated, “A nose for truth. Milos Forman had it. There aren’t many who do,” and he added with a broad smile, “If you’ve seen some of the terrible movies I’ve been in, you know what I’m talking about!” On whether to refuse or acquiesce to a director’s demands to play a scene a certain way: “If a director is adamant about something you know is wrong, give it all you’ve got—to prove that they’re full of shit.”
If Abraham, dressed very informally in black cargo pants and a red and white long-sleeved “The Complete Works” t-shirt (American Airlines lost his luggage, he explained), seemed in his New York energy a tad supercilious, it was always with more than a dash of self-deprecation. I was amazed and moved when he admitted, “What’s happening at this point in my career is—I need help! Directors are afraid of me.”
Which brings us to the elephant in the room, candidly confronted: “I had certain demands when I won the Academy Award. I would only do starring roles, not supporting ones. If you say no often enough, people stop asking . . . ”