Spalding Gray (1941-2004) was a performer and writer, best known for a set of filmed autobiographical monologues produced in collaboration with directors Jonathan Demme, Thomas Schlamme, Nick Broomfield, and Steven Soderbergh. The trailer above for 1981’s breakout hit, Swimming to Cambodia, directed by Jonathan Demme, with music from Laurie Anderson, draws attention to the accoutrements of Gray’s trademark austere performance with “a man, a desk, a chair, a glass of water” and usually not much else. The form of Spalding Gray’s live monologuing is part of his spectacle, and enveloped by the artifice of cinema, in collaboration with Demme, Swimming… establishes a mutated, cinematic version of a Spalding Gray monologue, which later filmed collaborations adopt as a template.
The character of these collaborations is appreciable in the degree that they accent Gray’s performance with invisible or expressionistic editing, non-diegetic sound and footage, mise en scene, camerawork, and extra cast members.
Gray walks off a busy 1980s New York City street and into the Performing Garage theatre in the opening to Swimming…, moving past his audience and settling into his role as performer in a sleek, movie-esque sequence befitting the monologue’s story about the production of a major motion picture. Demme couches Gray’s performance in subtle edits, incorporating a nearly invisible POV transition at one point.
Spalding Gray: Terrors of Pleasure (1987), directed by Thomas Schlamme, attempts to contextualize the storytelling with cumbersome cut-away reenactments. While Monster in a Box (1992), directed by Nick Broomfield, pares the cinematic monologue form of most its flash, supporting Gray with the (illusory) momentum of a continuous, one-and-done performance that develops with novelistic complexity as it's allowed to go on uninterrupted.
The cinematic monologue is exploded in Gray’s Anatomy (1996), where director Steven Soderbergh subsumes the performance in elaborate set changes, visual effects, cut-away footage and additional performers. Soderbergh’s film is wildly expressionistic compared to the others, which is afforded by excising the live audience, that understated, yet still crucial element to Gray’s monologue format and theatrical performance overall. As much traditional theatre is a collaboration between performers and audiences, the cinematic monologue begins with the introduction of the camera as an actant in the traditional theatrical schema. Where Gray could perform to the audience and react to the camera in the previously mentioned films, Gray’s Anatomy deprives the performer of an audience, resulting in Spalding Gray’s most solipsistic, droning and preening collaboration.