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Big Kiss is a Wet One

David Finkle reviews HENRY ALFORD's Big Kiss: One Actor's Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top, or in Alford's case, the middle.

By New York City

Those thinking to pick up Henry Alford's Big Kiss: One Actor's Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top because they expect to read about one actor's desperate attempt to claw his way to the top may want to reconsider.

Alford, a self-declared WASP, is being ironic in the way those who've followed his humor writing in Spy, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine will recognize as his customary stance: "Life is wry." (Were he Jewish, he'd be saying, "Life is rye"--but he isn't Jewish.)

On the surface, Alford has shaped the exploits covered in this memoir to reflect his endeavors at grabbing himself an acting career, but his dedication to such an end registers almost instantly as vague, shaky. As the chapters unwind, he reports on a four-week course he took at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (no audition necessary), a brief stay at Paul Sills' improvisation camp on Lake Michigan, a few weeks of study with acting guru Robert Patterson (whom he mocks), 16 hours as a phone-sex contact, and a day or two spent as an extra on the Godzilla set. The impression he gives is not so much of someone revealing career difficulties as of someone gathering experiences for a book he's been commissioned to write.

Alford's attempts to represent what assignments he takes as part of his clawing-to-the-top efforts can be extremely flimsy, as indicated by this excerpt from a chapter about hawking fragrances at Saks Fifth Avenue:

"Now, I grant you, this was no Peer Gynt. Selling perfume is to acting as subscribing to the Fruit-of-the-Month Club is to farming. And yet, having now devoted a sizable chunk of my life developing my acting skills, I was overcome by a need to apply these skills in the workplace. Any workplace."

Since a portion of this aroma piece ran in Vogue, the question arises: Which came first, the job or the call from the editor? The answer seems to be that Alford's intentions are to acting as floating toothpicks in water glasses is to captaining ocean liners.

There is precious little in Big Kiss that suggests Alford is at all interested in being an actor. Although he writes about filling many of the jobs actors take to cover the rent (he never does wait tables), he doesn't seem able to note that he also indulged in activities eventually leading to a persuasive resume--reading plays in a search for audition monologues, practicing accents in front of the mirror, showing up for cattle calls, trying to get an agent. (The word "agent" may never appear in the book other than when linked to the word "literary.") Indeed, by his own description of himself as having little effect at his efforts and liking it like that, it doesn't sound as if Alford would be a very good actor.

There is, however, a rewarding way to read Big Kiss. It can easily be appreciated for abundant laughs dispensed by a guy who's found a convenient peg on which to hang a catchall book. There's no denying that Alford is droll--and more. Some of the situations he gets himself into--usually the result of his reputation for being a strong humor essayist--are thigh-slapping stuff. One hilarious sequence takes place when he's auditioning to become a second banana on Bobcat Goldthwait's Bobcat's Bigass Shows. During this daylong humiliation involving improvisations, Alford and another aspirant were given finger puppets called Peter and Dick and told to manipulate them through their open flies. Alford doesn't land the job, although he does nail a TV stint co-hosting VH1's Rock of Ages.

While Alford is clawing his way to the middle with rubber fingers, he's being supported by his boyfriend, Jess. Although the pair don't share digs during the first years of their relationship, they move in together when Jess is transferred to Hollywood and Alford follows. Alford presents their love affair as nothing out of the ordinary--which is just what it seems to be--and the comfort with which he does so is another point in his favor.

In short, Big Kiss is a wet one, a goof, and if there's any proof of Alford actually acting in it, it's Alford acting as if he is--or ever was--a committed thespian.


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