In the be-bop version of Chekhov’s little-known one-act, “The Cherry Pop-Tart,” Ernie [Borgnine] plays a provincial bank teller who secretly cross-dresses and embezzles from the Tsar to buy an angora sweater. It’s a daring role, even for off Broadway.
“You’re cheating,” Lee confronted Ernie in today’s class. A pin-drop silence rippled out.
“Cheating?” Ernie said, indignant.
“You have been wearing a sherbet-green angora sweater and strolling through Central Park. Shelly [Winters] was blabbing about it in the patio,” Lee said.
Ernie sputtered with barely checked rage, “I worked strictly within sense-memory and constructed the back story of the poor sap desperate to date the gal who wears the angora sweater, but who won’t give him the time of day.”
“You were promenading like a two-bit tart around Central Park last weekend in the sweater,” Lee assailed. “We even have photographs of you being fondled by a leprechaun.”
Ernie glowered at Shelly, who was hiding awkwardly behind a sombrero, “You told me there was no film in that camera.”
“You, Shelley, should know better: in the Actors Studio we have discipline,” said Lee.
“We avoid reopening trauma and the analyst’s couch by digging into old, well-seasoned memories. You: Ernie. Shame on you for cheating. I would tear up your performance like a sheet of paper if I could. It’s all about the work. And instead of working through the five senses, how a provincial, 19th century Russian cross-dresser may feel, you dress up and see how it really feels. Why didn’t you go interview Milton Berle, for Christ sake? It’s all about the work. Go and clean the toilet, you piece of filth. And get those stinking bongo drums off your chest!”
“What’s my motivation?” Ernie replied, tears rolling down his unshaven cheeks.
“Your motivation is do what I say. Or else. And do an immaculate job on the toilet. Polish the top of the bowl where people dribble, make it glisten, and be sure to brush behind where all the scum and dust gathers.” After initial fuming, Ernie slouched off obediently.
“After you finish the toilet, beat some rugs for me,” Lee shouted after Ernie’s retreating form. I stand in awe of Lee’s sheer genius.
After class Tuesday Ernie offered Lee an olive branch. After hugging, they satisfactorily explored their different concepts of “action” and its importance. The meeting was necessary after Shelley’s statement that “action” is the vital thing that moves the actor toward the culmination of a potentially unknowable transaction of energy and desire and relates to the scene as a whole and the arc of the play. Lee holds that the primary problem with “action” is that it should be italicized instead of appearing in quotation marks. Lee and Ernie respectfully agreed to disagree. When that truce didn’t last, they had a duel at 20 paces in Central Park. Thank god, Lee is near-sighted and his bullet grazed a pigeon.
Afterward, he remained fascinated by a detective’s .38 special, the weapon used in our duel (he had not seen one before). Great for a sense memory exercise, Lee remarked, and they discussed action as a resource when emotional memory, as in the case of the .38 special, has not been mastered. Lacking the memory-emotions, the actor carries out the action, “I want to blow a hole in you the size of a water buffalo.”
Lee had not thought of that. He now accepts Ernie’s acceptance of Growtowski and the application of plastiques as taught by Stokowski. After hearing my own philosophy of action, in line with Ben Gazarra, Lee was in awe. He said he knew of no place in the U.S. and maybe the world where such training was being offered. We kissed each other on the cheeks and resolved to resume in the next class, soon as Ben Gazarra’s face is pried off the floor.