A Fighter Turns Thoughtful
Of the many hats Alec Baldwin wears as a performer and public figure — film, stage, and television actor, writer, comedian, radio personality, political activist, etc. — there is also that of the combative provocateur (the “bloviator” to some), the man who can’t seem to avoid public confrontation.
Part of the expectation in picking up Mr. Baldwin’s new memoir, “Nevertheless,” is that the author’s more pugnacious tendencies will be realized. Given the freedom of a memoir, you think, a warrior like Mr. Baldwin couldn’t resist the temptation to rekindle old battles, relitigate lost cases, refire missed punches. This is, after all, part of the appeal of writing a memoir: You get to have the last word.
As one would expect, there are moments of raw pugnacity in “Nevertheless”: Custody lawyers and celebrity photographers can still stir Mr. Baldwin’s ire. But the surprise for many readers will be just how thoughtful and measured a book this is. A successful second marriage, and perhaps a bit of age, seems to have mellowed the actor/author, and the overriding tone of “Nevertheless” is more rueful than contentious.
The memoir spends a good deal of time on Mr. Baldwin’s childhood, and these early chapters are evocative in bringing to life the author’s rough-hewn boyhood. Mr. Baldwin grew up lower middle class in Massapequa, in a cramped, ranch-style home overstuffed with siblings and overseen by unhappy parents trapped in a bad marriage. Money was forever in short supply. Their home, he writes, “was always receiving notices about the electricity or phone being turned off.”
It is perhaps these early struggles that fueled his ambition. “If I wanted money,” Mr. Baldwin learned in those years, “I’d have to go out and get it.” His attempts to earn his own cash, however, were often short-circuited by his mother. After a day of mowing lawns, he’d come home to find her at the kitchen table, weeping about finances. “The 40 or 50 dollars she was short was, uncannily, the amount I had in my pocket at that moment. . . . And whoosh, out it came, she took it, no more tears.”
He finds refuge in sports, but also reading; he devours all the major best sellers of the era. And of course there are movies, which he watches on television by the dozens with his father. Mr. Baldwin’s favorite actor of all time? William Holden, who, he writes, was “handsome, graceful, charming, and funny. . . . Holden could do it all.”
Of course William Holden was also notorious for his alcoholism, and, like his hero, Mr. Baldwin would eventually encounter his own challenges with addiction. “Nevertheless” is brutally frank about the writer’s drug and alcohol problems, which seemed to grow as swiftly as his charmed early career.
After a truncated foray to George Washington University, Mr. Baldwin auditions for acting classes at N.Y.U. and is duly accepted. Shortly after, he lands a recurring role on the daytime soap “The Doctors,” and then in prime time on “Knots Landing.” He writes how during these years he begins to “steel” himself for stressful auditions with whiskey-and-sodas (drinking to relax was also an acting trick of William Holden’s). The partying grows in intensity, possibly buoyed by his father’s fatal bout with cancer.
Finally there is a meltdown at a hotel in Oregon, where he is shooting “Knots.” In a viscerally harrowing narrative sequence, Mr. Baldwin recounts his descent into the abyss. We pick up one early morning after he has been snorting cocaine since 4 o’clock the previous afternoon.
“When I call room service I fumbled for the words, saying something like ‘. . . I know how busy you can be and I was wondering if you might send over a bottle of champagne NOW!’ — punching certain words, as I am slightly deaf when high. ‘. . . I would appreciate that. One bottle of champagne. NOW!’ ”
Suffice it to say that the bottle is delivered and then consumed in under a minute, more lines are snorted, and a delirious Mr. Baldwin ends up asking for help from the TV image of Jane Pauley. Finally his heart stops beating and he ends up in the hospital. Luckily, this is the beginning of the end of it: Mr. Baldwin enters A.A. for both alcohol and cocaine. He has been substance-free for decades.
The career grows, but not without its stops and starts. After starring in “Beetlejuice” and “The Hunt for Red October,” he is offered a part in “The Marrying Man,” a project he knows is subpar but for which he will receive his first million-dollar payday. The movie is a flop, and there is a fallow period in Mr. Baldwin’s career that includes stinkers such as “The Shadow” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” He is oddly dismissive of his unforgettable turn in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” writing, “I’ve still never really understood audiences’ appetites for that kind of double-barreled acting.” Huh?
He credits his role in Broadway’s 1992 revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” for revitalizing his interest in his craft. When he does return to film, he finds nourishment in a series of prestigious character roles, in, for example, “State and Main,” “The Departed,” and “The Aviator.”
Of course it’s not a Hollywood memoir without a certain amount of dish, and Mr. Baldwin doles out a decent helping. Of Harrison Ford, he writes, “Ford, in person, is a little man, short, scrawny, and wiry, whose soft voice sounds like it’s coming from behind a door.” The director Philip Noyce, he writes, is a “marginal talent.” And you can almost hear him biting his tongue as he gently chides his ex-wife, Kim Basinger. “I went to New York knowing that I needed a break from her and her self-absorption as well. Kim could be funny. She could be a mess. But most of all Kim was about Kim.”
Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Meryl Streep all garner high praise. As does Tom Cruise, whom Mr. Baldwin admires for his work ethic. Never one to follow popular opinion, he even speculates that Scientology might be the key to Mr. Cruise’s success, rather than a distraction. “Does Scientology,” Mr. Baldwin asks, “function as some kind of coach that not only gives permission to its flock to unabashedly pursue their dreams, but demands that you go for it, without apology, keeping your focus on yourself and your goals?”
As fun as much of this is, the last third of “Nevertheless” feels schematic and rushed, with Mr. Baldwin offering quick anecdotes when more elaborate commentary would be welcome. How exactly do people like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen work? What is the key to their genius? The writer seems too intent on the finish line to tell us. He does, however, spend an inordinate amount of time going over his MSNBC case, in which he was dismissed from his talk show after only a few episodes.
And in an endless chapter titled “The Interests of the Great Mass,” he enumerates, in exhausting detail, his years of political activism. Even if you share the actor’s political perspective, it’s a momentum killer for the reader — though there is an amusing anecdote about Bill Clinton. At a political fund-raiser at East Hampton’s Turtle Crossing restaurant in 1997, Mr. Clinton spoke intimately with Mr. Baldwin and Kim Basinger about the then-ongoing Monica Lewinsky scandal. The author quotes, “ ‘Even if I did do it,’ ” he said, ‘don’t I deserve to be forgiven?’ . . . Kim spun toward me and squealed, ‘I think he just told us he did it!’ ”
By the end, you begin to notice the strange pyramidal shape of “Nevertheless,” broad at the bottom about Mr. Baldwin’s childhood and early days as an actor, then increasingly slender as you move toward the present day. I suspect the writer’s early ambitions for the book were curtailed by a deadline. Or maybe he just lost interest along the way. As a result, “Nevertheless” ends up being a book intermittently evocative and wise, hurried and superficial.
It’s not until the very last chapter, where again he hearkens back to his childhood, that Mr. Baldwin’s writing reminds us of the book that might have been.
“Those football games at dusk, the testosterone and ego galloping up and down the field we carved out within the golf course. I can feel that air around me now. We were so focused and present. No cell phones. No streaming TV. . . . What I wouldn’t give to go back and see us then. Just to look at us, at my young self, and say, ‘Do you realize that you have everything you could want right here?’ ”
Kurt Wenzel is a novelist and book and theater reviewer for The Star. He lives in Springs.
Alec Baldwin lives in Manhattan and Amagansett.