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November 05, 2011

Starz Denver Film Festival 2011 - The Presence of Joseph Chaikin

joseph chaikin.jpg
Joseph Chaikin

Troy Word - 2011
Digital Presentation (shown by the filmmaker)

Unless you are an actor, or someone very familiar with American theater, the name Joseph Chaikin might not mean anything to you. The various people who talk about Chakin all talk about the impression that he made on them, both as an actor, director and person. And for someone knowing nothing about Chaikin, that may seem like the usual praise given in a biographical documentary. What I can tell attest to is that I met Chaikin about fifty years ago, when I was no more than 10 years old, and I still have a memory of that evening when I thought he was the coolest person I had ever encountered in person.

So how was it that a kid from Teaneck, New Jersey got to meet the up and coming young actor? My father, Gerhard Nellhaus, translated several plays by Bertolt Brecht that were staged by the Living Theater. There were, as unbelievable as it might seem, two rival productions of the play, Man is Man, that were performed at the same time. A short mention of this is to be found at Playbill.com. After an exchange of emails with Troy Word regarding to dueling productions, it also should be noted that the soundtrack uses a Folkways recording from 1963, adapted by Bentley, with John Heffernan in the role that Chakin performed in the Living Theater version.

The film is a combination of talking heads, home movies and documentations of performances, plus a couple of dramatic reenactments. Not totally in chronological order is the story of a boy born in Brooklyn in 1935. Rheumatic fever at age 6 leaves him with a weakened heart. Aspirations for a more traditional acting career and stardom give way when Chaikin joins the Living Theater, which in turn inspires him to explore other forms of theatrical expression with his own Open Theater. Chaikin wrote a book, The Presence of an Actor, and his life could be said to be about making his own presence meaningful to both himself and others.

Personal aspects of his life revealed include what was a close relationship with Susan Sontag that ended when Sontag was unable to deal with Chaikin's aphasia that followed a major stroke, making it difficult for someone whose life depended to a large degree on verbal expression from speaking coherently. Sam Shepard comes across as a true life hero for continuing to work with Chaikin on a collaborative piece, living with him during the first difficult months, and assisting in Chaikin's rehabilitation. Chaikin is also filmed reading from a poem written expressly for him by Samuel Beckett.

Regarding his stage work, the most intriguing episode is about a production in Israel, already controversial because of the plan to have both Israeli and Palestinian actors working together. The production is nearly undone by the war with Lebanon in 1982, and several of the men in the cast drafted by the Israeli army. The play evolves so that it is in part about the absence of the actors, and about war that affects the cast, crew and audience. A touching moment it when Palestinian actor performs an Israeli song he sang on stage almost thirty years ago, giving the lyrics new meaning.

The film begins, fittingly with a quote from Brecht, "Do not fear death, but rather the inadequate life.".

And a bit of coincidence here that made me smile: both my father and Joseph Chaikin were born on September 16.

(Viewed as a DVD screener)

Posted by peter at November 5, 2011 08:45 AM


Thanks very much for writing about THE PRESENCE OF JOSEPH CHAIKIN. I just became aware that this film is part of the Denver Film Festival, and can't believe I missed it. Do you know if there will be any other showings in the Denver area?

Posted by: Paula at November 6, 2011 10:05 PM

Sorry, Paula. I did speak to Troy Word on Saturday afternoon. His plan is to continue to show the film at festivals where possible. There is no commercial plan in place at this time, but Word is hoping that there will be a DVD with extras.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at November 6, 2011 11:30 PM