Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Curious Effect of Vincent D'Onofrio

Fellow OSer Beth Mann made an interesting comment in my last post about my marathon viewing of Law & Order: Criminal Intent during a stretch of bad pain. She said, “If you're going to go for a Law and Order marathon, try not to make it Criminal Intent. Vincent D'Onofrio has a strange effect on me over time.”
Even though she didn’t get into specifics, I knew exactly what she meant. There is indeed something odd about Vincent D’Onofrio, and I understood her warnings about him on a visceral level.
No one would argue that he’s a talented actor, and I can remember feeling excited when it was first announced that he was joining the Criminal Intent cast, as I’d always been a fan, as far back as his first Hollywood role as the overweight, unbalanced recruit in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, for which he’d gained 70 pounds.
Yet what makes a constant diet of him so troubling, as Beth so keenly observed?
When he first made his appearance as Det. Robert Goren on Law & Order: CI, he was all ticks and twitches, bending this way and that as he interrogated suspects, clearly attempting to carve out a memorable character who was the quirky genius with odd habits and a knack for solving the case.
The ticks bothered me, but as with all new and promising shows, I try to give them a little time to find their stride, and in time, D’Onofrio did seem to tone down the affectations and get more to the heart of the character, especially when the writers began to explore his history with his schizophrenic mother and drug-addled brother.
It wasn’t until close to the end of his tenure with the series, however, that these more human elements entered the show, so for years, we watched him play Goren as the quirky detective guru—attractive and brilliant, but somehow inhuman, and therein lies the rub.
Whenever I’ve seen Vincent D’Onofrio in any television show or film, there is a strange lack of heart, and thus a peculiar hollowness seems to permeate every character. He’s there but he’s not there, and he’s certainly not interacting with his cohorts, who I imagine must find him a challenge to work with. I once heard Antonio Banderas comment that Angelina Jolie was one of the most generous actresses he’d ever worked with, yet I can’t imagine anyone saying this about D’Onofrio.
While he says his lines to perfection, and his characters are keenly observed (he’s been called “an actor’s actor"), it’s as though he’s playing to himself in each and every role; it doesn’t seem to matter whether anyone else is in the room or not. Even when he played the romantic lead with Renee Zellweger in The Whole Wide World, the chemistry just wasn’t there, and this was with a woman he supposedly had a real-life affair with.
Perhaps not coincidentally, his characters are nearly all attractive loners, and Beth is right. A steady diet of these people, be them on TV or in real life, are a danger to those psyches that seek out connection, for while the loner can seem the strong, silent type, very often he’s just too afraid to speak the truth about himself, and cowardice is frustrating indeed. He wants to draw you in for company and amusement, perhaps even adoration, but he doesn’t really want to give anything in return, and he certainly doesn’t want you to get to know him.
When D’Onofrio began to withdraw from Criminal Intent, sharing the lead duties with actor Chris Noth, it was obvious that his stifled soul was beginning to devour him, exemplified by all he began to devour. As the years passed, the sleek movie star slowly turned into a pasty, overweight, tortured version of his former self, which the writers cleverly worked into the script, a development I’d like to think helped him work through some of these demons.
As for myself, I have to question what draws me to these characters, and to people like this in real life, as I’ve become involved with them at my own peril. Early on, I suppose there was the part of me that thought I could save them, until I began to realize that many of them don’t want to be saved. They prefer to remain distant, resting on the laurels of their talent, there for you to admire but never really know, comfortable on their pedestals that are always just a little bit above you.
But if these loners have any soul at all, the artifice just can’t last, and they do end up paying a high price for the costly walls they build around themselves. In D’Onofrio’s case, aside from the loss of his Hollywood luster, he succumbed to what the press said was “exhaustion,” and he slowly had to retreat from the show. I suppose we’ll never know whose idea that was, his or the show’s producers.
I’ve seen it happen to other creative types, too. John McCrea, the lead singer-songwriter of the rock band Cake—who could write killer melodies and clever lyrics galore in the late ‘90s—got so deeply mired in irony that by the time he wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter, it was too late. Old fans like myself had become weary of the hipper-than-thou stance, to the extent that by the time he’d realized his mistake, we were long gone.
Years ago, a friend handed me a magazine article about D’Onofrio, and I’ll never forget the strange reaction I had to it. There it was…a full feature on him, along with a one-page photograph, and for some reason, it actually felt awkward to hold the piece, as if it was the strangest thing in the world that there would be an article about Vincent D’Onofrio. I just couldn’t imagine him wanting to ever do something like that, and it was as though I could feel the hostility in just holding the paper in my hands.
My drummer friend, Jagoda, was there to witness the moment, and mentioned how he couldn’t stand the guy. Apparently, he had been in a theater house band for an off-Broadway show that D’Onofrio was starring in, and he said it was a completely forgettable endeavor until the last night of the show’s run, when the understudy took over the lead role. Jagoda said that the understudy completely transformed not just the role, but the whole show, bringing a humanity to the character that D’Onofrio had completely missed.
I didn’t bother to read the article, but for some reason, I’m still hooked on the Criminal Intent reruns. The show may be committed to film, but that doesn’t stop me from hoping that maybe something will change, that maybe Det. Goren, and by extension Vincent D’Onofrio, will expose his soul after all.
So close do guys like him keep their cards to the vest that even saying something like that sounds like heresy. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that one.