Something that's always mystified me about movies is how the term "character actor" signifies a lower class of performer. You see I was always under the impression it is an actor's job to re-create the character that either the playwright or script writer had created. Silly me; people don't want to pay money to see Tom Cruise trying to be someone else, they want to see Tom Cruise fighting Martians War Of The Worlds or being a brave German army officer trying to kill Hitler Valkyrie. In fact, if the character's name isn't in the title of a film, I'd bet most audiences would only know his character as "the guy Tom Cruise played".
Nothing personal against Tom Cruise, you could replace his name in the previous paragraph with that of almost any other current or former movie star and it would be that same story. I say almost because there are some actors out there today who do create characters to play on screen, and aren't content to only play a variation of themselves. However, even when you do get someone creating a character for a movie, you often get more of a caricature than a real person. Most of the time what you'll see is a something along the lines of a few emotions passed off as a person: this is my character angry, sad, happy, and horny. Or even worse, what you see on screen is a mish-mash of stereotypes that identify a type but bear little or no relationship to a human being.
It's been years since I've seen any of Tracey Ullman's television work, so I had forgotten her skill at creating characters and bringing them to life. However, after watching the new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Tracey Takes On, her talent is indelibly etched into my brain. The release is a triple-disc DVD set of the third and fourth seasons of her HBO show of the same name, What makes her work so memorable is the fact her characters are multi-dimensional, and the more you see and get to know them, the more human they become.
Each segment of Tracey Takes On features Ullman's characters acting out what everything from "Obsession" to "Hollywood" means to them. Ullman introduces each collection of vignettes by citing an example or two of her own experiences and then we immediately segue to the first of her characters with something to say on the subject. Now I haven't seen any episodes from the first two seasons, but I have to assume that the collection of characters we meet over the course of these three DVDs have appeared throughout the history of the show, so some of you might already be familiar with names like Ruby Romaine the make-up artist; "Chic" Middle Eastern taxi driver; Trevor the gay airline steward; Sydney Cross the loud mouthed attorney; Chris and her lover Midge, a pro on the LPGA tour; Fern Rosenthal a Jewish retiree from Long Island living in Florida; Linda Granger ex star of the television show VIP Lounge; and the rest of Ullman's menagerie of characters.
While her characters cross all boundaries of sex, race, religion, and age not once do they come across like stereotypes. Of course in some people's minds Ullman wearing black face in order to play an African American airport security officer named Sheneesha Turner, or her portrayal of Mrs. Non Nang Ning, the ancient Asian donut shop owner, is probably horribly politically incorrect. However as she's not holding back from skewering anyone or anything, I think these characters have to be taken within the context they are presented, some of the best social satire you'll ever see on television.
It's not just the way in which she tackles each of the subjects being "taken on" in each segment, it's the fact that the opinions being expressed are by characters, who border on being stereotypes, make each scene's sharp edges even keener. For as we watch the characters over the course of the three discs we get to know them far better than we would normally know any character on television. Ullman tricks us on occasion by sliding in something that's not funny, or is very gentle in its humour, which creates a bond between the audience and the particular character by showing them to be more then we had previously thought them to be.
Of course there are some characters for whom you're not going to feel any affection like Birdie Godsen, who has annual book barbecues in her gated community for her fellow Devout Christians living on Dan Quail Drive, or Erin McColl the earthy folk singer who you end up wanting to plant under six feet of earth for being so annoying. However, for the most part something of what can only be described as the characters' humanity shines through, allowing us to identify with their situation. It also turns the tables on us as it changes them from being objects of ridicule whom we've been laughing at into people whose feelings we can identify with, leaving you feeling just a little wrong-footed.
It would have been nice if there had been some liner notes with the package, breaking down who appears in which episode alongside Tracy Ullman, or something supplying a little bit more information about the show aside from the blurb on the back cover. True, there is a link to the show's web site where you can find detailed information about each episode, but that's not the same thing as having something you can refer to while watching the show. The special features on the other hand are great as they feature in-depth looks at two Ullman characters we met in this package and one we didn't meet at all. While one skit is a repeat, the rest is all new material and as funny and pointed as anything else in the collection.
It's rare for film and television actors these days who are willing to subordinate themselves to the character they're playing and even rarer to find one capable of creating a character with more depth than a cartoon cut out. Not only has Tracey Ullman created a very pointed, and sometimes poignant, look at modern life with her series Tracey Ullman Takes On, she does so by creating characters who are both funny and very real. As this was a cable television show originally, it comes with the requisite warnings about drug use, nudity, and some language. However it fails to give you two very important warnings that you'd be wise to heed before watching any of the material on this three disc set: Do not attempt to drink while watching this show because of the danger of choking and spitting, and ensure that you have emptied your bladder in advance in order to minimize the risks of pissing yourself laughing.