Christian Slater: Back from the Edgeby Nigel Goodall
Starring in the acclaimed cult films Heathers and Pump Up the Volume, and drawing comparisons to a young Jack Nicholson, Christian Slater was the embodiment of teenage cool. His position as an A-list star continued through the 1990s, with brilliant performances in films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, True Romance, and Broken/i>/i>/i>/i>
Starring in the acclaimed cult films Heathers and Pump Up the Volume, and drawing comparisons to a young Jack Nicholson, Christian Slater was the embodiment of teenage cool. His position as an A-list star continued through the 1990s, with brilliant performances in films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, True Romance, and Broken Arrow that further established him as a formidable force in acting. But fame and success did not sit easily with the young actor, and his off-screen behavior earned him a "bad boy” reputation. Despite the tabloid headlines, the actor has remained successful; more recently, he has turned his talents to the theater, starring in the stage version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as well as The Glass Menagerie. Nigel Goodall’s previous book was What’s Eating Johnny Depp?
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Back from the Edge
By Nigel Goodall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2005 Nigel Goodall
All rights reserved.
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Saturday, 22 January 2005 was Christian Slater's last night as Randle P McMurphy. It was the night that followed a supposed (and later denied) knife attack on Christian outside the stage door and was a typically cold winter's day in London. Although by evening the temperature had dropped below zero, the chill didn't stop anyone from turning out to see Christian's final performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the Gielgud Theatre in the heart of London's West End.
Looking around the audience that night, one could not help but wonder if there wasn't anyone that didn't leave the theatre angered and indignant – not at Christian's performance, but at the barbarity of the treatment inflicted on the role that Christian had been playing for the previous six months, the one that made Jack Nicholson so famous (or the one that Nicholson had been made famous by) and the one that would forever cause Christian to be constantly compared to the veteran Hollywood actor. As Daily Telegraph theatre critic Dominic Cavendish noted, if anyone should fall into the trap of reassuring themselves that what happens to Christian's character and those of his fellow inmates of a psychiatric ward doesn't happen any more, they should think again: 'The most shocking thing about Dale Wasserman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel is that it can be held up as a play for today; the old asylums have been shut down in the drive towards care in the community, but, in certain key respects, what went on back then goes on now.'
Although Cavendish admits that his comment sounded wildly sensationalist, it was nevertheless, he discovered, a conclusion easily drawn from readily available sources of information. And although he admitted he was a theatre reviewer and not a health correspondent, when he went online to gain a greater understanding of the procedures referred to in the play, and to see whether the abuses described (based on Kesey's own experience of working on psychiatric wards in the late 1950s) could be corroborated by published testimonies, he didn't expect to find present-day parallels. 'Call me naïve,' he wrote, 'but because Cuckoo's Nest is so fixed in the mind through its 1975 film incarnation, I'd assumed it was a museum piece.'
He couldn't be more wrong. Yes, he knew that psychiatric medicine was big business, from the early sequence in the film and the same scene in the play, when patients are seen queuing up for their daily doses of medicines, presenting an image that, according to Cavendish, is more pertinent today than ever; a quarter of drugs prescribed by the NHS in Britain every year are for mental-health problems, and the amount spent on anti-depressants has soared. In the States, George W Bush has declared war on mental illness, proclaiming, 'Mental disability is not a scandal; it is an illness. And, like physical illness, it is treatable, especially when the treatment comes early.'
As Cavendish also noted in his programme notes, 'For the foreseeable future, Americans will – like Britons – keep taking the pills. That in itself is concerning, but it's what else that's on offer for those in need of treatment that foments nightmares. The dreaded lobotomy, the final weapon in character Nurse Ratched's armoury, enabling her to deal with recalcitrant patients, has long been discredited, its reputation indelibly associated with heartbreaking stories of patients left brain-damaged, among them, most famously, Tennessee Williams's sister Rose, John Kennedy's sister Rosemary and the Hollywood actress Frances Farmer.'
Once seen as a simple, cheap solution to a wide range of disorders, from acute anxiety to chronic backache, the prefrontal lobotomy is nowadays regarded as an abomination, and the awarding of the 1949 Nobel Prize to one of its pioneers, Egas Moniz, remains a source of bitter contention. Nevertheless, continued Cavendish, 'Psychosurgery or neurosurgical treatment on the frontal lobes of the brain continues to this day. The techniques have been refined and the number of people treated is negligible by comparison with the 50,000 estimated to have been lobotomised in America between the 1930s and the late 1950s. But it goes on.'
In England and Wales between 1997 and 1999, seventeen psychosurgery operations were authorised, a number that dwindled to nine between 1999 and 2001. Even so, that was still nine too many as far as Mind, the UK's National Association for Mental Health, was concerned. The charity stated, 'Mind is not happy with the continued use of psychosurgery and believes that there should be a rigorous review to determine whether any continued use is justified.'
In 2003, in an article entitled 'New Surgery To Control Behaviour', the LA Times reported, 'At several institutions around the world, including hospitals affiliated with Harvard and Brown universities' medical schools, surgeons have been operating on dozen of patients each year with severe psychiatric problems, including depression and, more commonly, obsessive-compulsive disorder.'
If the numbers of 'psychosurgery' patients remain small, but significant, what of electric-shock treatment, such a favourite of the Cuckoo's Nest staff, asked Cavendish. 'An astonishing number of people continue to be given electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), even though the medical community remains divided about its benefits. And all too often those electrodes are applied without proper consent. In Italy, where it began more than sixty-two years ago, ECT has almost been abolished, but in the UK thousands are estimated to receive ECT every year: 9,000 in England alone in 2002. And in the US, the figure rises to 100,000 a year.'
In 2001, Mind conducted a survey of ECT patients and found that almost three-quarters of respondents weren't given any information about possible side-effects, and that over half of them claimed to be unaware that they could refuse treatment. In total, some 84 per cent of respondents reported that they experienced side-effects after receiving treatment, including short- and long-term memory loss, an inability to concentrate, headaches, drowsiness and confusion.
The internet is awash with testimonies of people who feel that their lives have been scarred by ECT. 'The biggest medical mistake of my life,' an American woman called Faith declares on a site called etc. org, while David, a British respondent, sums up his experience thus: 'I was tortured and left damaged.'
Perhaps this is what still makes Cuckoo's Nest as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Kesey presents the tale of a man who takes on the authorities at a psychiatric institution and briefly manages to drive them nuts, and in doing so he inspires the inmates around him to stick up for themselves. And perhaps the film resonates so much today because part of the tragedy of the play and film comes from knowing that there are no McMurphys to call on for those who get caught up in the mental-health system. Hospitalisation and de facto incarceration might be much rarer today than they were thirty years ago, but the feelings of powerlessness experienced by individuals classified as mentally ill are as potent as ever. Beginning as a tale of spirited rebellion, Cuckoo's Nest becomes a bleak reminder about the potential for those within the medical establishment to abuse their authority and treat their patients as second-class citizens.
Maybe Cavendish was right, and maybe this was the reason why Christian took on the role. But maybe also it is that the wild, fun-loving radical character of McMurphy, incarcerated for engaging in sexual relations with a minor, is a role that every actor dreams of playing. To avoid prison work, McMurphy feigns madness and is sent to a mental asylum, where his fellow patients are sad, over-sedated and institutionalised. McMurphy promptly plans to inject colour, life and laughter into their grey world of strict rules and regulations. His only obstacle is Nurse Ratched, an infallibly cool and immaculate air-hostess figure, all flicked hair and lipstick, who cares for her 'boys' with a possessive motherly love. Into her regimented ward, McMurphy introduces the chaos of gambling, indoor basketball, democratic voting rights and glamorous visitors, instigating a vicious duel of words between the two. Each plays their own psychological game to outwit the other, but soon Ratched's demeanour begins to crack, revealing a cruel, sadistic streak.
Published in 1962 to immediate popular and critical acclaim, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a grim political satire that explores themes of individuality and rebellion against conformity, as well as ideas that were widely discussed at the time when the US was committed to opposing Communism and totalitarian regimes. The 1975 film with Nicholson won five Academy Awards, and the movie became a cult classic. Less familiar was the original play on Broadway a decade earlier, starring Kirk Douglas in the role that Christian took on, which became a highlight of the 2004 Edinburgh Festival. As one Festival reviewer noted, forty years on, the timing couldn't have been better for a revived stage version. However, there were some cynics who saw it as nothing more than an attempt by Christian to revive a flagging film career and to rise above accusations voiced by many that he was a washed-up movie star.
If Slater had indeed taken on the role to scotch the rumours touted by cynics, the job was well done. Even though, as critic Vivien Devlin noted, the production had a minimalist set featuring a grey-painted day room with nursing station and swing doors, combined with authentic costume design comprising hospital pyjamas and period clothes, 'Slater's McMurphy comes over as a cheeky, law-breaking rebel, inspired perhaps by Kesey's true-life drug-induced Merry Pranksters. The play has an ensemble of comic actors and comedians who play the inmates and staff with meticulous detail to physical mannerism and character.' Similar praise went to 'the chalk-white, skinny, wide-eyed McKenzie Crook', as Devlin described him, lauding him as being 'utterly convincing as poor stuttering, terrified friend Billy'. Devlin then went on to heap praise on the production of the play: 'Finely directed with a perfect sense of pace and tension, the dramatic thrust of this very intimate play moves from moment of manic energy to such heartbreaking pathos it makes you weep. Once again, five Oscars. This is a masterpiece.'
Masterpiece or not, the staging of the production was not without its difficulties. Not long after director Guy Masterson suddenly quit, Christian went down with a case of chicken pox and then, two weeks later, was diagnosed with a secondary infection that threatened the show's continued running. But on the day of the opening performance, at Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms on 6 August 2004, and after less than two hours of full cast rehearsals in ten days, producer Nica Burns had nothing but praise for him: 'He's one of the most heroic actors that I've ever met. He's hardly seen the set tonight and he doesn't even know where the doors are, let alone the chairs. Tonight, we're jumping off a cliff.'
Not that anyone would have noticed. The audience reviews, let alone the critics, were overwhelmingly favourable. And, although the Assembly Rooms' director, Bill Burdett-Coutts, was slightly worried at the very start, because 'Christian went very pale for a public dress rehearsal, there were no flaws. It was remarkable. It was brilliant.'
Less than brilliant, however, was one of the backstage dramas that had been going on behind the scenes before the production transferred to London in September. By then, Terry Johnson had stepped in to replace director Guy Masterson, who had quit, complaining of stress, personal problems and king-sized egos. And the word circulating through the theatre grapevine was that it was the fact that he could not develop a happy working relationship with Christian that had tipped him over the edge. Making matters worse were reports from the first rehearsals, prior to Christian's health setbacks, most of which described Christian's strong temperament.
Not that Frances Barber, who played Nurse Ratched, would agree, despite admitting, '[At first] I thought, Oh, here we go. We're going to have a Hollywood arsehole. But he's not. He's absolutely fantastic in every way. He's like my little brother, although he would probably say I'm like his mother. He's one of the greatest actors I've worked with, and he's one of the nicest men.'
But perhaps it is a matter of perspective? If it was true that the failure to develop an easy working relationship between Slater and Masterson contributed to Masterson's departure, then it wasn't the first time that Christian had been identified as a force to be reckoned with. In 1998, for instance, he told reporters, 'I like to be loud. I like to break things. I like to have a good time. I have that side to me, and, if I can express it in a creative manner, we're all a lot safer.'
More tellingly, that same year he admitted, 'There was a part of me that felt I had more to contribute than I really did. I would get involved with projects where there were people with less experience than me so that I could come in and feel superior.' But, if you asked him if he was still doing that, he would say no. And, although he thought Masterson was a lovely man and very creative, such praise wasn't unqualified: 'He had some things going on personally that made it difficult for him.'
It had been Masterson who, on the strength of his success with Twelve Angry Men during the previous year's Fringe Festival, had chosen Cuckoo's Nest as the ideal follow-up, with Christian – urged on by his mother, Mary Jo Slater – as its star. 'If ever an actor was born to play this role, it is Christian Slater,' he told Ed McCraken of Scotland's Sunday Herald. 'He's thirty-five years old, which is the age of the character. He's Californian, and the character is Californian. He is perfect for it, and, believe me, he is utterly amazing.'
All the same, Christian was nervous at first – or at least that's what he told journalist Aidan Smith during pre-Fringe rehearsals at the then vacant Duchess Theatre in London during a sultry summer afternoon. 'I've had a lot of Jack Nicholson comparisons in my career, and he was phenomenal in the movie, but my mother told me I had to come to Edinburgh because it's such a special place.'
But perhaps more than the place, it was Christian's chequered past that attracted Masterson to have him in the play. 'The personal history came from his edge. He wouldn't have been so edgy if he wasn't a troubled character. I've met Hollywood actors all my life. You grow up in Hollywood, as a child star in the public eye, and the pressures are just beyond anything that we comprehend. You couple that with an anarchic personality and, yeah, you're going to do some troubling things.'
In his interview with Aidan Smith, Christian affirmed that he was 'trying to remain focused and energetic and positive and concentrating on my acting, being a good man and living kind of quieter than before', although his interpretation of the term 'quieter' was a little more broad than most people's. On the evening of the day that he spoke with Smith, he was reportedly asked to leave London's Stringfellow's nightspot for refusing to remove his Richard Nixon mask.
It was Christian's late-'90s descent into rehab, coupled with his descent from being a bankable A-list star, that most of all intrigued the director, who put it down to simply a series of 'terrible films and bad advice'. To paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, all through Christian's cinematic dip, he remained big; it was the pictures that got small. 'I never thought of his star dimming,' said Masterson. 'You can see his ability in it. [He just made] bad choices in films. I actually enjoyed him in Hard Rain, which was a bit of a shit thriller, but he was superb in it.
'Anthony Hopkins was going down that route of drinking and being dangerous, and he made a choice that changed his life: he went back on stage and then went into this psychological thriller called Silence of the Lambs. Now he is regarded as one of the leading actors in the world.'
As Ed McCraken noted in his Sunday Herald feature, however, for every Hopkins who has resuscitated his or her career on stage, there is a Keanu Reeves playing Hamlet to clamorous boos. Frances Barber was also painfully aware that, for Christian, treading the boards was like treading on eggshells. 'Let's face it, he's got more to lose than anybody in this. He's the Hollywood superstar, not us. He's playing McMurphy. I mean, Nurse Ratched is a great iconic part, but he's got more to lose than me and, hopefully, has much to gain.'
As if exorcising critical demons, taking on a role made famous by the man to whom Christian has constantly been compared was indeed a risk, capable of being seen as either wanton self-destruction or a stroke of brave genius. As it happened, it turned out to be the latter. 'Christian is very realistic about [the comparisons that people will strike],' recounted Masterson just days before the production would play its first performance, 'but he's not scared. He's going to deliver a performance that will defy the critics. They're going to come in saying, "He's not Jack Nicholson" and go out saying, "No, he's not Jack Nicholson; he's Christian Slater."'
Excerpted from Christian Slater by Nigel Goodall. Copyright © 2005 Nigel Goodall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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