Is It Time for Some Drama?
Posted by: Neil Hollands
John Lithgow’s memoir, Drama: an Actor’s Education, is a refreshingly frank and focused take on the familiar actor biography. While there are a few tidbits here about the many famous people he’s shared a stage or screen with, and a little bit of backstage gossip, the bulk of Lithgow’s book is not about name dropping or self-aggrandizement, it’s about what the title says, how an actor learned his craft.
To me, this book strikes a nice balance between the boasting that ruins some memoirs and the transparent false modesty that condemns others to phoniness. Lithgow is proud of his achievement, but also acknowledges his mistakes and the many times when luck and good connections helped him advance. His story is framed by memories of his father, Arthur Lithgow, an actor, director, and theatrical producer who worked for many major repertory companies but never achieved anything like his son’s fame or stability. The relationship between father and son is complicated, sometimes distant but full of mutual admiration, often supportive but also a little competitive.
Lithgow also talks frankly about his failures as a husband during his heyday in 1970s theater, when he let the romance of the stage lead to a series of affairs, culminating with one with Liv Ullman that contributed to the demise of his first marriage. In fact, he confesses his failures in this book–highlighting the lessons that he learned from each–more often than he crows about his successes.
If you’re looking for stories about Lithgow’s best known films and television roles, look elsewhere. The focus here is on his learning curve, his early stage and film roles when he was still picking up his craft, not the years in which he’d already achieved success and stability. There are praises for some of his favorites: Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, and several less famous early directors, but he refrains from taking cheap shots at others, concealing their identities when he doesn’t have something nice, or at least balanced, to say. What a reader will learn about both the highs and lows of the actor’s life will more than compensate for this shortage of dirt dishing.
If you’ve ever seen Lithgow’s reception from other actors at an awards ceremony or other occasion, you’ll know that he’s held in high esteem by his collaborators. After reading this memoir, I can understand why.