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[whitespace] Reclaiming a Life

Palo Alto filmmaker Bill Rose's Cinequest documentary 'The Loss of Nameless Things' honors a playwright whose life took a turn into oblivion

By Richard von Busack

Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make promising, wrote Cyril Connolly in his study of writers' ruins, Enemies of Promise. However, the strange journey of the mercurial--and promising--playwright Oakley Hall III is one for the books. Palo Altoan Bill Rose's beautiful and compelling documentary about Hall, The Loss of Nameless Things, is one of the highlights of this year's Cinequest.

Through interviews with Hall's friends and relations, Rose shows how the early, blessed career of a promising actor/playwright took a turn into oblivion at the Schoharne Creek bridge in upstate New York. Falling off the bridge in 1978 (unless he jumped, or was pushed) left this brutally good-looking performer with the equivalent of a lobotomy.

His big play Grinder's Stand, about the tragic end of the explorer Merriwether Lewis, was left unperformed. The writer/actor survived--maimed, deformed, a sometime bell ringer for the Salvation Army, with a face that, in some lights, suggested that other bell ringer, Quasimodo.

Rose uses this small bridge in the Catskills as the film's emblem. He shoots it in autumn, mostly. And he scatters red-orange leaves on the memorabilia of Hall's rising career with the Lexington Conservatory Theater, next to the bridge. Honest pathos fills these images--the silent crossing over a shallow, rocky creek; the photographs of young actors in their costumes; the falling-down ruins of their barn turned theater.

I've been devoted to movies because the evidence of greatness or mediocrity is there for the world to see years later. Just as you can't cross the same bridge twice, you can't really see the same movie twice. Time changes the context of every viewing, bringing out something different in the performances, the backgrounds, the implications of a line.

But the essential character of the performers or a director doesn't change with the years. Cary Grant is as easily debonair, Keaton is as bleakly funny, Greta Garbo is as ... Garboesque ... as she was in her prime. For the most part, we can get what it was that our great-grandparents saw in a beloved actor or a movie.

By contrast, the public memory of a great theatrical actor must die with the audience who saw him, and that reputation must survive only as rumor. And thus we have only memories of Oakley Hall III to trust in The Loss of Nameless Things.

His fellow actors remember Hall as they say he was, a man on the way up. We deduce what we can from still photos and reviews--and from praise by the noted critic Brooks Atkinson. And we can try to imagine how devastating Hall's "full bore pirate acting" (as one of his fellow actors puts it) was in 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore or Frankenstein or Alfred Jarry's jackass Macbeth, Ubu Roi, with its barbarian yet bourgeois king ("Much ado about doo-doo," commented one of Hall's relations).

Maybe time has burnished the memory of how frightening Hall was as Frankenstein's monster, how children fled the theater at the sight of him, how fine a coincidence it was that one of those bad Hudson Valley thunderstorms swept up over the theater right at the point where the doctor is about to hoist his lifeless creature into the tower to catch the lightning.

But mostly we take it on faith that Hall was a genius, because he had a life I think everyone would like to have--to live for a while in what one interviewee calls "a theatrical Illyria," to spend his summers as a starving actor in some splendid tree-lined valley.

Hall was the son of the novelist and teacher Oakley Hall (Downhill Racer). An only boy among sisters, he was marked for specialness. His mother, Barbara, confesses to feeding the child raw beef liver, in accordance with the instructions of some health-food crank of the early 1960s.

While he went to the straight-laced Andover prep school, young Oakley was also a '60s kid who starred as a nude Dionysius in an experimental movie. He eventually landed in upstate New York, where he catalyzed a troupe of actors (the most recognizable is Patrice Charbonneau) and set up the LCT.

The small company soon attracted heavy-hitting attention from the likes of Joseph Papp. William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin gave a public reading of one of Hall's plays.

After the accident, Hall's wandering life took him down a river of booze that rolled from a bad New York tenement to a stretch as a factory worker. Yet the movie ends up being honestly inspirational with a comeback. Hall has a new marriage and a life in Nevada City. Today, Hall still studies his beloved Jarry and remarks that for years he'd been living like Ubu. The movie concludes with his triumph at age 52, yet it's never a sweetened ending; we're left chilled by the way talent is given and then snatched away.

The Loss of Nameless Things (110 min.), directed by Bill Rose, plays March 7 at 2pm and March 8 at 5pm at SJSU's University Theater.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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