One-Minute Book Reviews

May 20, 2009

Ambition 10, Fame 3 — Nancy Balbirer’s ‘Take Your Shirt Off and Cry,’ a Memoir of Near-Misses as an Actor in Hollywood and New York

Did she miss out on fame because Hollywood is ruthless or because she consulted wackos like the psychic who spoke in the voice of an ovary?

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. Bloombsbury USA, 256 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Balbirer updates the saying that acting is a hard way to earn an easy living in this uneven memoir of two decades of near-misses in show business. Balbirer tells lively stories about how she landed modest roles on Seinfeld and MTV while paying her rent through jobs like cocktail-waitressing and blow-drying friends’ hair for $20, all the while yearning for stardom that came neither in New York nor Hollywood.

But it’s unclear how much of her book you can believe, and not just because an author’s note warns – here we go again – that some facts have been changed “for literary reasons.” Balbirer takes her title and theme from a warning she says she got during a private conversation with the playwright David Mamet, one of her acting teachers at the Tisch School of the Arts. As she tells it, Mamet said that as a woman in show business, she’d be asked to do two things in every role she played:

“Take your shirt off and cry. Still, there’s no reason that you can’t do those things and do them with dignity and the scene properly analyzed.”

Did Mamet really say those lines as written? Good writers tend to keep related words together unless they have reason to split them up, and you wonder if Mamet said, “Take your shirt off” instead of the more graceful “Take off your shirt.” And his “still” seems stilted for a conversation between two people walking toward a Seventh Avenue subway stop.

In the years that followed her talk with Mamet, Balbirer took her shirt off – literally and figuratively — more than once. Yet her willingness to expose herself may have had more to do with a lack of self-awareness than with the raw exploitation envisioned by Mamet. On the evidence of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry, Balbirer has that paradoxical combination so often found in actors: enough intelligence to welcome complex Shakespearean and other roles but too little of it to stay away from con artists, whether they take form of tarot card readers or manipulative lovers. She’s hardly alone among would-be stars in having found an eviction notice taped to her door before she earned redemption (which came, in her case, from writing and starring in the solo show I Slept With Jack Kerouac). But you wonder if she might have avoided some disasters if she’d given less money to people like “a psychic in Tennessee” who spoke to her in the voice of one of her ovaries.

“Wacky, yes, and even wackier that my ‘ovary’ had a thick Southern accent,” she admits, “and still … I believed.”

Best line: Two of the “the enormous angry placards” Balbirer saw in the waiting areas of casting offices: “ACTORS MAY NOT EAT IN THIS AREA!!!” and “ACTORS: CLEAN UP YOUR GARBAGE!!” See also the quote posted earlier on May 20.

Worst line: No. 1: Some parts of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry are so neat, they leave you wondering if they include made-up scenes, dialogue, or characters. Balbirer doesn’t clarify the issue in a vague author’s note that says that she has “in some instances, compressed or expanded time, or otherwise altered events for literary reasons, while remaining faithful to the essential truth of the stories.” No. 2: Balbirer likes cute words (such as “humonguous,” “bazillion” and “suckiest”) that at times work against the serious points she is trying to make.

Published: April 2009

About the author: Balbirer co-owns the Manhattan restaurant Pasita.

One-Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

2 Comments »

  1. Interesting book. I wonder how it resonates with “everyday readers.” That is, what does it mean and/or what do I take away from it other than X hours of interesting reading? The reporters I know have an odd ability to construct the rather lengthy quotes from sources from (what appear to me) as a few scribbles in a spiral notebook. I doubt anyone else can do that, especially out of casual conversations when nobody was taking notes. The as-remembered dialogue in this book must be somewhat fictional. And, presuming that it is, why not make it sound more realistic? Ah well…

    Malcolm

    Comment by knightofswords — May 21, 2009 @ 9:33 am | Reply

  2. This book has a slight roman-a-clef aspect in that Nancy Balbirer was once close to an unnamed female superstar who, she says, later betrayed her by getting her fired from a TV show. The incident has inspired talk in print and on big gossip sites (whose writers seem to think they’ve figured out who the star is).

    That episode is a relatively small part of the book and, from my perspective, one of the least interesting. (Is it news that a superstar might try to get a cast member fired?) I didn’t deal with the incident partly because Balbirer’s assertions are unverifiable and not fully convincing: You wonder if she’s trying to save face after losing a part. But the incident may interest those “everyday readers” more than it does me and you …
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — May 21, 2009 @ 12:52 pm | Reply


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