New York City -- it's time to appreciate Alec Baldwin the actor, because he may not be around much longer. Baldwin, who's become as well known for his politics and powerful offscreen personality as for his acting, is considering retirement from movies.
When that happens, we will lose a great talent that's been taken for granted. Baldwin is a movie star, a hilarious talk-show guest, a left-wing activist -- he works with PETA, the Creative Coalition and People for the American Way, to name just a few groups -- and he's the eldest son in a macho acting family that's become a pop-culture joke. (We Canadians blew up the fictional Baldwin ranch in the South Park movie, for god's sake.)
It's easy to forget how good a performer he is. Maybe it's because he's made some forgettable films, but it's also because he makes acting look very easy.
Maybe too easy. Baldwin's come to the realization that acting doesn't interest him the way it once did.
"I thought I'd do this for a living for the rest of my life, and now I can't imagine doing this all my life," he says during a recent interview in New York City. When other actors talk about throwing in the towel, I think it's posturing. But I believe Baldwin -- he's so matter-of-fact about what acting does and doesn't give him.
"Emotionally, it's very weird, because for me acting is like sex. When I was young I would do it with anybody. The older I get, there's more of a connection and intimacy required. And I don't feel like acting all the time just for the money.
"People say, "Oh, just do this one thing,' and I feel like a performing seal. It's very painful for me. I don't like it any more, and I see myself doing other things."
He jumped from TV soap operas to the big screen in 1988 with appearances in five films -- Beetlejuice, Married To The Mob, Working Girl, Talk Radio and She's Having A Baby -- and instantly made an impact. What makes him so watchable is his combination of good looks, a voice that ranges from a throaty whisper to a low-level bellow and, most importantly, his canny intelligence.
Baldwin's screen characters -- The Hunt For Red October's Jack Ryan, Malice's Dr. Jed Hill, The Shadow's Lamont Cranston -- are almost always smart guys. Even when he plays less brainy men, he never dumbs them down.
Take his latest film, State And Main, which was written and directed by David Mamet. Baldwin portrays Bob Barrenger, a movie star with a predilection for underage girls who arrives with a film crew in a small Vermont town. Baldwin sucks the small part dry, delivering Mamet's concise dialogue with perfect timing and a wonderful sense of innocence that makes naughty Bob seem downright wholesome.
"I understand if people view Bob as shallow, but I tend to view him as uncomplicated," says Baldwin.
"Bob is a product of today's Hollywood. There are people who, if you met them a year before they hit stardom, you'd be hard pressed to say they were like movie stars. Today ordinary people become stars, which wasn't true 40 or 50 years ago. Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando -- those are very exotic and erotic men.
"So a lot of people are ill prepared for the kind of dizzy heights they climb, and they must have a way to deal with it. Bob makes a very clever decision by thinking, "I got here under these extraordinary circumstances. Who knows how long it's going to last, so I'm going to enjoy it.'"
Sitting beside Baldwin, you're struck by two things. His voice possesses a soothing quality that makes you bend closer to hear everything he says, and he's got a wonderfully thick head of hair (which, by the way, he dyes black).
He has movie-star appeal, and he knows it. But the difference between Baldwin and other big-time actors is that he wants to change the world not with his acting but by his actions.
He's an outspoken, arts-loving Democrat whose outbursts against President Bush -- both of them -- have made him a media target. It all began when he was misquoted 1992.
"When Bush Sr. ran against Clinton, someone said to me, "What would you do if Bush beat Clinton?' My exact words were, "It might be a good time to leave the country.' It was a very offhand comment and by no means the kind of unpatriotic pledge the Fox network wound up twisting it into.
"That's what happens with the solidification of a right-wing media. They look for things to diminish their political opposites as much as possible.
"When you think about it, why should I mind that Bush is president? I'm one of the people who make a lot of money, and we're all going to get these big tax breaks. Maybe if I work hard enough at it I can learn to live like a Republican for the next few years, say "I got mine' and screw everyone else."
Zing. It's these kinds of anti-Republican sentiments that fly out of his mouth with regularity that get him in trouble. During the Clinton impeachment trial, he said Clinton opposer Henry Hyde and his family should be "stoned to death." He apologized for that one, but he likes to swim in hot water, and he accepts the consequences.
"Sure, it affects my career in all the ways you'd imagine. People go to the multiplex and pick a movie to see. Some people, my political opposites, would say, "I'd rather see anything but the movie this guy's in.'"
There's been speculation that Baldwin would run for political office -- mayor of New York, or perhaps a seat in Congress.
"The idea of being able to effect social change is interesting to me, but politics is actually something I care very little about. I wouldn't get into politics. The world has changed as far as that goes. To hold political office now is such an uncomfortable proposition for me.
"I could see immersing myself in the arts or educational programs working with children. Having a child has changed my life. The lack of pretension that children possess has become oxygen for me. I need it to breathe."
STATE AND MAIN written and directed by David Mamet, produced by Sarah Green, with Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Rebecca Pidgeon and Sarah Jessica Parker. A Green-Renzi production. An Odeon Films release. 102 minutes. Opens Friday (December 22). Rating: NNNN
2000 State And Main
1999 Outside Providence
1997 The Edge
1996 The Juror
Ghosts Of Mississippi
1994 The Shadow The Getaway
1992 Prelude To A Kiss Glengarry Glen Ross
1990 Miami Blues The Hunt For Red October
1988 Married To The Mob