Perhaps the central problem inherent in adapting a theatrical production to film is overcoming the limitations of the stage and opening it up for the big screen. This would be problem enough with the normal stage production; how much worse when dealing with a single actor seated at a table with a glass of water spouting a 90-minute monologue. So when an award-winning director like Steven Soderbergh commits to taking on a property like Spalding Gray’s Gray’s Anatomy, the first thing he has to think about is how to translate the monologue’s static claustrophobia into something that will play on the screen.
In a short commentary included as part of the bonus material in the new Criterion Collection of Soderbergh’s film, he explains some of his thinking. First of all, concerned with distinguishing his production from other films of Gray monologues like Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia, he decided to eliminate the audience. Since a large part of Gray’s appeal is his ability to play off the audience, this would seem to be the equivalent of a fighter tying one hand behind his back. That Soderbergh is able to get away with it, and for many viewers he is able to get away with it, is testimony to his talent as a filmmaker.
Instead of the audience, he has Gray play to the camera, and he uses the camera as a dynamic force. The actor may be seated at his table, but the camera moves actively—different angles, changing heights and distances. He can even move the actor in his chair to create action. Soderbergh talks about linking the visual environment to the content. He does this with backdrops; he does it with creative use of lighting. In the end he comes up with a visually impressive adaptation.
His inclusion of interviews with a number of men and women who had suffered from a variety of eye injuries from an embedded wire to a spray of oven cleaner was, as he explains, necessitated by the fact that the material he had filmed with Gray after the original monologue had been cut down was too short. Of course, the fact that the interviews both opened up the film a bit and added other voices, to say nothing of their dramatic nature simply demonstrate that necessity may also be the mother of serendipity.
The monologue tells the story of Gray’s struggle with a vision problem which is eventually diagnosed as macular pucker. He talks about his fears when he learns about the surgery necessary to correct the condition, his experiences with alternative medicine, and expands consideration of his own illness to a meditation on illness and the human condition. Whether he is describing a Native American sweat lodge, a Christian Scientist healer, or a Philippine psychic surgeon, he looks at his attempts to deal with his problem with a sardonic eye. Even without an audience, Gray manages to project the power of his personality. It takes a special talent to hold the screen for seventy minutes and Gray has it—both as a writer and as an actor.
Besides the film and the Soderbergh interview, the first disc of the two-disc set includes an interview with co-writer and ex-wife Renée Shafransky, 16 minutes of silent footage from Gray’s actual eye operation called “Swimming to the Macula,” and the film’s trailer. The second disc contains a 95-minute video of Gray’s monologue, “A Personal History of the American Theater,” produced by the Wooster Group in 1982. Shot before an audience with none of the production values of the Soderbergh film, it makes an interesting comparison with what the director has accomplished. Although “A Personal History of the American Theater,” which chronicles the various stage productions Gray took part in over his career to that point, is entertaining and witty, it does lack the depth of his later monologues. Nonetheless it is a welcome bonus. There is also an informative essay on Gray and his work by film critic Amy Taubin.