Monday, March 7, 2016

Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard, Toronto, Sept. 1990

CELEBRITY IS A DIRTY WORD. Considering how much of my career was spent doing what's called celebrity portraiture, I have never been comfortable with the idea that someone is inherently interesting based on some their fame, deserved or not. For one thing, it puts you in an unequal, even subservient position when you have to take their portrait as a photographer; you're hobbled by deference and even trapped by their public persona and find yourself working harder to create something fresh.

Sometimes it's hard to ignore a subject's stature when they're assigned to you. Tom Stoppard was one of the first people I photographed whose reputation overawed me; I remember thinking when I put down the phone after my editor gave me the job that I had - to me, at least - reached a kind of career milestone.

First of all there's my dirty secret: Before I even owned a camera or knew I wanted to be a photographer I was a budding actor and theatre minor in college. Which means that I was more than familiar with Tom Stoppard and his work before I knew who Irving Penn or Richard Avedon were. Stoppard was part of a pantheon of living legends in the theatre alongside Beckett, Ionesco, John Osborne, David Hare, Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter, and a season didn't go by without a local production of The Real Inspector Hound, Travesties, Jumpers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth.

His plays were - still are - smart and challenging and cleverly structured. He'd married well, but his profile was enhanced even further by work on Hollywood screenplays like Brazil and an Indiana Jones movie. In 1982, the debut of his latest play, The Real Thing, was a major event surpassed only by the Broadway production two years later. In 1990, even with my theatre ambitions long behind me, getting Stoppard in front of my camera felt like a very big deal.

Tom Stoppard, Toronto, Sept. 1990

It seems a long time ago now. It's really just over a generation ago but serious theatre - like art films, literary novels, classical music and painting - has fallen far from the cultural mainstream, joining opera, ballet and poetry. A guilty admission: When I decided to post these portraits to the blog, I had to do a quick Google search to see if Stoppard was still alive.

My search turned up a recent article where Stoppard complains that he'd had to re-write jokes three times during previews for his latest play, The Hard Problem, to get them to the point where they'd get a laugh from the audience. It's been this way for a while, he said, citing a reference to Goneril, Lear's daughter, in his play Travesties:
"In 1974 everybody in the audience knew who Goneril was and laughed," he recalled. "In about 1990 when the play was revived maybe half knew [who she was]."
Tom Stoppard, Toronto, Sept. 1990

Think about it: a British audience in an English theatre watching a Tom Stoppard production who didn't know the name of a character from one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. There was once a common body of knowledge that was shared and is now being jettisoned. Having a portrait of someone with his stature in my portfolio once felt like quite a coup. Today I'd have to explain who he was, and even then I'm not sure if there are enough shared references to bring it off.

When I was growing up comedians made jokes based on Waiting for Godot; I can only imagine the blank looks a reference like that would cause today. Tom Stoppard has certainly seen them.

Stoppard was in town promoting the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the film festival. While it looks like this was shot in some stately home, it was actually in the drawing room off the lobby of the now-defunct Sutton Place hotel. Shot with my Rolleiflex, I'm fairly certain, with a tripod and shutter release. I approached my subject with no small amount of reverence and I think it shows in the results.


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