The Special Ironies and Uncomfortable Complexity of Robert Greene’s ‘Actress’

Cinema Guild

With Actress, Robert Greene now has an unofficial trilogy of films exploring characters of a certain gender at a certain age. His breakout, Kati with an i, focuses on a girl at the crossroads of womanhood as she graduates from high school. Fake It So Real deals in concepts of masculinity while documenting a week in the life of young men involved in amateur wrestling. The subject of Actress is a woman approaching middle age, a time notoriously difficult for her profession, as she considers a return to work after having children.

The actress of the title is Brandy Burre, best known for playing a minor recurring role on the HBO series The Wire before she took a break from her career, had two kids and settled down with their father in the suburbs north of New York City. Even before leaving she had experienced premature signs that she was losing parts to younger women, and then she was only in her early 30s. In the film she explains that her character on the series was older than she was, and that probably resulted in her being viewed as older by casting directors.

When we meet her, she’s nearing 40, and she fills a particular gender role rather than an acting role. Yet it’s still very much a performative part, one that she’s cognizant of as being played more than fully inhabited. She is really a mother and domestic partner, but she seems to have a slight separation from these positions. Not that she isn’t completely accepting of what she is; more that she’s especially aware of what she is. Leftover from her training, she clearly can not be the part, real or dramatic, without fully comprehending and analyzing it. Maybe even overthinking it.

“Brandy, you’re not living in a movie,” she says, quoting a friend. That’s one of many special ironies at play in Actress, because obviously here she is doing just that. Greene has layered two movies on top of each other, both starring Burre. There’s the documentary of her life and the dramatization of that life. Some scenes are pure observation, others acted out. Not all moments are easily deduced as one or the other — I’m not sure if even the filmmaker knows all. And moments of direct recognition of the camera aren’t necessarily free of phoniness. In one scene Burre addresses the camera, telling of how she quit acting to be a mother, and in the same cut she repeats the same line as if doing another take of scripted dialogue for a fiction film.

During the course of Actress, which takes place over a year, Burre looks into returning to her career. More ironies commence as she complains about the parts she’ll potentially go out for. She could be someone’s wife or girlfriend, characters frustratingly defined as female strictly through their romantic relation to a male part. But here, in this film, she’s technically no better off. In real life she’s in a role that’s affixed to old-fashioned ideas of femininity, as mother and housewife. Even the title classifies her by gender. During one job search, she addresses how all the parts for woman call for brief nudity. As did Actress, which features a shower scene.

It’s not normal to see such a scene in a documentary, and even if we’re to consider that one of the staged, acted-out bits, it’s hard not to think about the person standing there with the camera in that moment. Actress is as much about the role of the filmmaker off screen as it is the actress and subject on screen. If Greene shot the whole thing as observational without any breaking of the fourth wall, the shower scene as well as shots where he’s apparently in Burre’s bedroom as she’s sleeping and in her home at three in the morning waiting by the door for her partner to come home would just be understood products of the invisible camera. Instead, because the camera is acknowledged at other times, those very intimate scenes can come off almost kind of creepy.

Greene and Burre have an extra-textual narrative, too. While not mentioned in the film, they were next-door neighbors and friendly for some time before he started documenting her for Actress. Greene has a tendency to make films about people he has a personal connection to, such as his sister with Kati with an i, without recognizing these relationships as part of the context of what’s on screen. That aside, it’s still surprising how he’s such a silent presence behind the camera, even in scenes where Burre is being conversational. Some of her exposition has to be forced, because Greene would presumably already know it.

For the filmmaker, the special ironies are less apparent. Unlike Burre, Greene doesn’t explicitly state his desires or intentions or feelings about what he’s doing here, at least not in or through the film. He’s certainly playing with the form, blurring the line of documentary and drama. I’d maybe subtitle Actress “Real It So Fake.” And he’s probably interested in the concept of performance in not only nonfiction cinema and in front of the camera but in life itself. How being an actress doesn’t necessarily make Burre any more likely to be acting for a documentary lens or any unrecorded everyday situation.

The irony might be that Burre is possibly playing with the same things from her end, too. As a participant in staged scenes, she’s obviously a very knowing subject. That makes her as fascinating in the game as, say, Joyce McKinney in Errol Morris’s Tabloid, only without such an apparent overt psychological need for attention. Burre isn’t out to deceive, either. She’s identifiable, relatable in her falser moments as well as her instances displaying genuine emotion. She isn’t playing at anything to be gained, although she may in fact get something out of doing this film. With Actress, Greene has potentially produced a documentary with impact. It’s too early to tell, but he’s likely a facilitator in Burre’s professional comeback.

He’s also produced his most complex effort so far, even as it seems to tackle the most basic of themes, especially that of aging women in image-based careers, compared to the previous two docs in his unofficial gender-dealing trilogy. The measure of its manipulation of reality and each moment’s authenticity is a puzzle that becomes a little bit clearer, albeit likely never completely clear, with more viewings. And the ambiguity of its ending could be discussed forever.

It also might be Greene’s most uncomfortable, as in structurally jarring more than disturbing, and therefore less universally accessible. It’s not easy to like all of the more obviously artificial parts, including a recurring staged shot of Burre washing dishes that’s become Actress’s central motif. But it’s still all essential, because how else are we to consider what is truly real without awareness of what’s truly fake?

This review was originally published on February 28, 2015.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.