The Hall of Hams #29: William Shatner

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The Hall of Hams is my series on some of my favorite actors who have brought the art of melodramatic acting into the modern era.

The piece below is adapted and expanded from a guest column I wrote for Hilobrow.com’s Kirk Your Enthusiasm series. 

Today is the birthday of Canadian actor William Shatner (b. 1931). And we take you immediately now to what might be called a “Shatner Moment”:

Star Trek episode #52 The Omega Glory climaxes with a quintessential Shatner/ Kirk moment. Caught in the middle of a battle between two primitive tribes called the Kohms and the Yangs, Kirk and cohorts Spock and McCoy deduce that the planet they are on (Omega IV) is actually a parallel version of earth. The Asiatic Kohms are the descendants of Communists; the Nordic Yangs, of Yankees, or Americans. Kirk’s intuition is proved right when their Yang captors produce an ancient American flag and recite a garbled version of the Constitution. Unfortunately the flag and the “holy words” they keep in a locked box appear to have lost all meaning for the people who are fighting and dying on their behalf. Kirk proceeds to excavate that meaning. “We…the PEOPLE,” he begins…I’m assuming you know the rest.

Shatner’s delivery of the speech is much mocked (often by amateurs and otherwise insecure actors, far inferior in ability to Shatner himself) as evidence of his “bad” acting. Far from being an example of his supposed incompetence, I’ve always considered it the epitome of his very rightness, both as an actor in general, and as the lead actor on this particular television series.

Star Trek is not The Waltons, however much the succeeding five Star Trek series tried to steer in that direction. As originally conceived by Gene Rodenberry, the show was a space opera modeled on the Horatio Hornblower series of seafaring adventure novels. It is a stone’s throw from Flash Gordon. The milieu merits an acting style as big as its set pieces; if you don’t act big, you are going to be upstaged by the white gorilla with the rhinoceros horn. This is the stuff of melodrama and there’s no indignity in that. Our ancestors thrived on melodrama and its stylized acting conventions for over a century. It is a STYLE, an artistic choice. It has gone out of fashion, but it is neither bad, nor wrong, nor, most importantly, ineffective. In the case of playing James T. Kirk, it is what the job REQUIRES.

For several years at the beginning of his career, Shatner was the fair-haired boy of Tyrone Guthrie at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He had played Henry V and gone to Broadway in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. He knew how to make a speech land, to invest it with music, and to make an audience listen. His task in The Omega Glory was not only to make the Yangs hear the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution for the first time, but to make us hear them. This was at the height of the Cold War. The words meant something, an alternative to a life behind barbed wire. They needed to be delivered with force and weight. So Shatner invested it with a little of the old St. Crispin’s.

It was Shatner’s grave misfortune to excel at an ancient art form that had died decades earlier. By the 1970s, the time when people started making fun of Shatner, the majority of Americans had never seen a play in a theatre. Ignorance was transformed into conventional wisdom, and a potentially terrific actor became a shameless clown. But take it from me. Shatner may have been below par in some of his later work (after he’d gotten the wind knocked out of him) but on the original Star Trek series he was the right man for the job.

Please know I mean this without irony. When I say this, people tend to get back to me with the uncomprehending response, “Yeah, right, bad acting is just what you need for this kind of show!”. That is NOT what I mean at all. Melodramatic acting is NOT bad, it is a different stylistic convention, closer to music and dance than the modern aesthetic derived from Stanislawski’s Method. I contend that it is good, and I say it without an ounce of irony. I’m sure someone will still misinterpret me.

This is not to say that Shatner has never been bad. Shatner has of course been epically bad, unfathomably bad — just not in Star Trek or early work like his Twilight Zone episodes. I feel like when he came off the ego high of his own series and had to scramble to find work, and then had to take it, that is, had to take any work, he did all sorts of stuff he was unsuited for, and was terrible at. In a rational world, he might have gone back to the classics or costume epics or something. But that’s not how “the business” works. He was only offered stuff that made him seem ridiculous. His role in 1974’s Big Bad Mama. His famous recitations of pop songs. The title role on the preposterous Aaron Spelling series T.J. Hooker (1982-1986). But in the Star Trek films he began to get his mojo back. And I think he was absolutely terrific on Boston Legal (2004-2008), finally escaping the tv prison of over-identification with a single character, creating someone completely new, who was funny, mean, obnoxious, vain, and probably very close to home. After all, Shatner is God. How can you fault him for knowing it?

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2 Responses to “The Hall of Hams #29: William Shatner”

  1. I’ve got no complaints about Shatner’s acting, particularly on the original Star Trek. Most of the moments people like to hold up as Bad Acting tend to be ones where the character’s fighting for control against alien forces or the like; the ones that aren’t, like you say, tend to be ones where Shatner’s acting so clearly for effect it’s hard to see why people don’t understand it.

    Shatner impersonations bother me too, as they’ve reached that Elvis plateau where they’re impersonations of one another with only a sketchy connection to the actual source.

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