J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Tribeca ’16: Starring Austin Pendleton (short)

His imdb page looks impressive, but it only covers a fracture of Austin Pendleton’s work. While the movie industry largely sees him an eccentric character actor, the theater world better understands his talents. Whether it is a grand Broadway theater or an Off-Off Broadway cubby-hole, rarely a week goes by in New York without a stage-production either starring or directed by Pendleton. The instantly recognizable thespian finally gets an overdue cinematic ovation in Gene Gallerano & David H. Holmes’ short documentary Starring Austin Pendleton (trailer here), which had a special Tribeca Talks screening at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Once you see Pendleton, you will totally recognize him. He had recurring roles on Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street, as well as supporting parts in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind and the Oscar-nominated Amistad, but he is probably best known as the stammering attorney in My Cousin Vinny. In fact, Pendleton has a lot to say about how he came to terms with his close association with that film.

In most of his interview segments and those of his admiring colleagues (including Ethan Hawke, Nathalie Portman, Peter Saarsgard, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), we get a sense of Pendleton’s generous spirit and professionalism. However, we also see he can let loose some attitude when it is warranted. An appropriate example is Janet Maslin’s dubious NYT Magazine piece, in which she dubbed Jeff Bridges the “most under-rated actor.” (At that point, Bridge had three Oscar nominations to his credit.) It was a ludicrous piece, much like when Yahoo Movies features one-hundred-million-dollar grossing films on listicals of overlooked sleepers. Viewers will second his venting, just like Ethan Hawke.

One thing that clearly comes through in the twenty minute short is the adventurousness of Pendleton’s stage work. He is willing to give new works a shot, simply because they are interesting. We’ve covered him as the star of the fascinating Another Vermeer and the director of the Pearl Theatre Company’s first Tennessee Williams revival, Vieux Carré, both of which took a bit of guts, but the resulting productions were excellent.

Pendleton’s career could easily sustain a feature length American Masters treatment, but for now, Starring is an admirable bite-sized overview. It is also sadly fortuitous Gallerano and Holmes were able to record Hoffman’s tribute to Pendleton, whom he credits for launching his stage career. Anyone with any interest in the craft of acting should keep an eye out for Starring Austin Pendleton, following its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

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