Beatrice and Benedick or Fred and Wes? Or, What does a knowledge of the Whedonverse add to Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, 2012)?
Despite a half-hearted Twitter campaign attempt by me, which never really got off the ground, to persuade someone to screen Much Ado About Nothing in Hull, I had to travel to Sheffield to get my Whedon fix. I went to the marvellous Showroom and watched back-to-back screenings of the film. So that, plus the travelling, was Monday night. Tuesday night has been spent writing three pieces on the film, one of which is this, the other two being a short review and a longer piece for the excellent alternatetakes.co.uk, which will appear on that site soon. Those other two pieces are critical writings in which the first person and the references to other Whedon stuff are held in check. In this more personal forum, I thought it would be fun to see if and how it’s useful to read Much Ado through the other things its key performers have done with Joss Whedon. What follows is pretty off the cuff and firmly in the celebratory mode, but I’d love it if any like-minded readers wanted to pitch in with supplementary or corrective comments. (NB. I toyed with titling this post Much Ado About Buffy.)
Amy Acker: Beatrice/Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle/Illyria/Dr Claire Saunders/Whiskey
Composing the above list of character names has made me realise that in both the Whedon series she appears in, Acker plays two different characters, which underlines her versatility. Fred is probably Acker’s most-loved Whedon role, where she is all gangliness, gaucheness, intelligence and enthusiasm. Beatrice possesses a similar spark, but is much more poised and astute, especially when it comes to gauging the foibles of others. In Much Ado, Acker definitely puts me in mind of a young Katharine Hepburn. They have the same beady-eyed wit, a similar relationship to their bodies (extreme grace combined with an ability for physical comedy), and a bearing that quietly declares that they are not merely there, as Laura Mulvey would put it, to be looked at.
Alexis Denisof: Benedick/Wesley Wyndham Price
As Wesley gradually described his magnificent arc across the Buffyverse, he gradually became less comedic. At first he was the butt of a great deal of humour due to his combination of pomposity, ineffectuality, and his tendency to scream. Later (in ‘Guise Will be Guise’, for example), he occasionally got to show excellent comic timing and a capacity for body humour. Denisof’s performance in Much Ado is quite different. He is a comic romantic lead, which requires him to be simultaneously comically deluded and plausibly attractive (in the Buffyverse he was, by and large, first one then the other, Cordelia’s crush notwithstanding). (Straying beyond the Buffyverse for a moment, albeit to a series populated with Whedon alumni, Denisof’s recurring bit part as sleazy buffoon Sandy Rivers in How I Met Your Mother offers further demonstration of his skills as a comedy performer.)
Nathan Fillion: Dogberry/Malcolm Reynolds/Caleb/Captain Hammer
A student of mine once observed that in a just world, Nathan Fillion would be even more famous than he already is. That thought has stuck with me ever since, because I agree. Hammer is the closest precursor to Dogberry, as both men are hilariously over-inflated and pompous. However, whereas Hammer is a man of action, Dogberry is predominantly a man of words (words which he very often gets wrong). As with Captain Hammer, it is the attitude that Fillion’s character expresses towards himself that is at the heart of the comedy created. Anthony Quinn is spot on in his Independent review when he notes that ‘there’s no fool quite like a solemn fool’.
Tom Lenk: Verges/Andrew Wells
Tom Lenk is a very effective performer, but I find it hard to put that effect into words. Like Hammer and Dogberry, Lenk’s characters are deluded, but also tend to be less self-assured and more needy. Verges is Dogberry’s equal in incompetence, but whilst Dogberry needs to lead, Verges is usually happy to follow. I’ve never liked Lenk as much in anything else as I like him in this, nor was I prepared for just how well his double act with Fillion would work.
Fran Kranz: Claudio/Topher Brink
Onto the Dollhouse boys now. It must be said, Claudio is no Topher. Topher is a whirlwind of nervous energy, and a man who looks askance at decorum and rules. There’s a brilliant scene early in Dollhouse where Topher asks his ‘manfriend’ Boyd why he wears a tie if it doesn’t keep him warm. ‘It’s just what grown up men in our culture do’, is (the beginning of) Topher’s answer to his own question. Claudio wants to be one of those grown up men. If Topher is the programmer, he is the programmed, seemingly unable to step outside conventional pieties about honour or love, or outside of himself.
Reed Diamond: Don Pedro/Mr Laurence Dominic
Diamond’s Mr Dominic (as his boss insists on calling him) in Dollhouse is an initially unsympathetic character who eventually earns at least our pity. As both Dominic and Don Pedro, Diamond portrays a man in a suit and a position of authority with a substantial commitment to doing things by the book. As Don Pedro, Diamond can cut loose a little more (and play some good acoustic guitar riffs), because he is more comfortable (complacent?) in his role. As with Lenk, Diamond brings a very precise quality to his roles (especially fitting in Dollhouse) that I struggle to quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s that I like to watch him without immediately liking the characters he portrays (a bit like Arthur Kennedy in that respect). The other thing that I want to say is that, during the course of his speech, Diamond occasionally accesses a lower and more throaty register, and when he does it’s hilarious (‘If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods!’).
Sean Maher: Dr Simon Tam/Don John
My heart swells with joy every time Simon does something heroic on Firefly, which is quite a lot of the time. Simon retains the manners of his privileged upbringing, but possesses none of the hypocrisy and but little of the snobbery that often accompanies such a background (especially in fiction). He is also utterly fearless (‘The doc’s many things, but a coward ain’t one of them’, says Mal at one point, if memory serves.) In the Firefly episode ‘Safe’, Simon’s confrontations with his parents, who place the maintenance of the appearance of propriety over their daughter’s safety and wellbeing, dramatise especially well his attitude. Don John is Simon’s negative reflection. He too has turned his back on the propriety of his upbringing, yet still encounters it on a regular basis. Simon rejects that world to help another. Don John rejects it because his sense of autonomy and self-worth rules out the possibility of displaying deference (‘I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any’). Whereas Simon acts on his principles, whatever the cost to himself, Don John takes pleasure in creating misfortune for others, and is not even the ‘plain-dealing villain’ he claims to be. A differently-inflected version of Don John might move closer to Dr Tam, but that is not what we are given in Maher’s performance.
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Summing up, then, I don’t think that a knowledge of the Whedonverse adds greatly in a direct way to one’s experience of Much Ado About Nothing at the level of individual performances. The strengths and personae of the gifted actors named above are pretty clear to see in the performances within the film. I was actually surprised by how little of the film I spent thinking, even at the edge of my mind, ‘Wesley and Fred are back together again!’ But of course, being invested at a more general level in the way in which the film was made, like an extended home video by an improbably gifted family, whom one has seen come together over the years, must be informing my experience, and it’s an important ingredient in the film’s charming overall effect.