"A Man, A Desk, A Chair, A Glass of Water": Spalding Gray & the Cinematic Monologue

Curator's Note

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.  


Hi Braden. A nice shift here in authorship, from three posts about writers/directors to performers. Here, as you outline, the collaboration between director and actor mediates the actor's signature style (for better or worse, as you note). I immediately thought of Robin Williams and the core of his stage persona: a calculated spinoff mid-coversation (or mid-scene) into a seemingly aburdist monologue in which characters, puns, ideas ricochet in a cacophony of creativity. I wonder if the way his signature style was harnessed/shaped (or set loose) by filmmakers over the years is similar to what you see happening with Spalding Gray.

A nice reframing of the conversation!

Thank you, Braden, and RIP Spalding! As Colleen notes, your post shifts the conversation to encompass performers, but it also suggests the most fruitful collaborations occur when a filmmaker adapts to their subject (meaning both their collaborator and the subject matter on which they’re collaborating) – quite a departure from the traditional notion that the auteur bends material to suit his signature themes. As you illuminate, Soderbergh’s directorial accompaniment does both filmmaker and monologist a disservice by not fitting form to content, and by losing sight of its original context in adapting it for the screen. While I don’t typically associate Soderbergh with a “wildly expressionistic” aesthetic, I wonder if the collaborative nature of this project encouraged him to overexert his authorial presence.  

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