Documentary about the Canadian actor captures much of his impish charm, but it leaves many questions unanswered about what really makes him tick
The River of My Dreams
Featuring: Gordon Pinsent, Norman Jewison, Christopher Plummer
Directed by: Brigitte Berman
Running time: 104 minutes
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
OTTAWA — At the National Arts Centre the other night, the actor (and writer and artist and raconteur and, it turns out, furniture-maker) Gordon Pinsent was standing in the lobby, waiting for a special screening to begin. The movie was The River of My Dreams, a documentary about his life, a quintessentially Canadian tale of a boy who was born in Newfoundland, emigrated to Canada — he arrived in 1948, a year before the province joined Confederation — and made something of himself in movies and TV shows and, it turns out, furniture.
He was waiting with Brigitte Berman, who directed the documentary, when a tall figure suddenly appeared before him. The actor R.H. Thomson dropped to one knee, reached up into Pinsent’s jacket pocket for a handkerchief, wiped his brow, and put it back. While his hand was up there, he rubbed the Order of Canada pin in Pinsent’s lapel.
“No, I’m not blessing you again,” Pinsent said.
It wasn’t exactly an idle joke. Thomson is one of the artists — who include actor Christopher Plummer and director Normal Jewison — who speak about Pinsent in the documentary. Plummer’s story is typically edgy: the two men met at the Stratford festival in 1962, when Pinsent was an extra (he played a tree in The Tempest) and Plummer was starring in Macbeth. Pinsent tried to make conversation and Plummer told him to “f— off.” It was the beginning of a beautiful acquaintance; the movie is vague on their subsequent friendship.
Thomson, though, has deeper thoughts. “Artists have an enormous role in how the country’s cloth is woven and the suit is made,” he says. “Gordon Pinsent is in that shuttle that’s pulled that thread back and forth as Canada’s loom has made this cloth of who we are. . .”
Perhaps. Pinsent himself is modest about such matters; after the screening, he began a question-and-answer session by saying, “I had a paper bag to put over my head, but I forgot it.” The River of My Dreams (the title refers to a river in Grand Falls, Nfld., his hometown, where he would sit and imagine future glories) is more workmanlike than inspired, and a series of motion-capture animation scenes that illustrate his memories are awkward and ill-fitting, but it is at its best when it allows Pinsent to tell his story.
He was one of eight children, although two died in infancy, in a town dominated by the paper mill. He worked there for a time, but he was a boy of artistic bent who drew pictures — Pinsent remains an excellent artist — and imagined film scenes. He recalls the day that Bob Hope came to town to visit; Pinsent ran down the street to see him and the comedian ruffled his hair and said, “Go wash your face, kid.” Later, Pinsent allows that this might have happened to someone else; memory is an elusive thing at the age of 86.
Pinsent wound up in Winnipeg, where he talked his way into a job as an instructor at the Arthur Murray dance studio, even though he couldn’t dance, and later as an actor in the local theatre company, even though he had no experience on stage. He turned out to be good at it; later he moved to Toronto and his career took off. He has lived in Toronto ever since.
He is a natural storyteller and some of his tales — like the time he forgot his lines in a live CBC broadcast of a play — are wonderfully low-key war stories from the trenches of early television. He went to Los Angeles for a time and got roles in films with such titles as Blacula. His career there was so modest that he had time to build a piece of wooden furniture, complete with carved scenes on its doors, between auditions. More intriguing is his memory of going on a hike with actors Wally Cox and Marlon Brando, both of whom Pinsent does fine imitations.
He returned to Canada for a series of triumphs, including writing and starring in the Newfoundland drama The Rowdyman — a roustabout character who shares many of Pinsent’s secret rogue characteristics — the TV series Quentin Durgens MP, and his magnificently quiet turn as the husband in the Sarah Polley film Away From Her, opposite Julie Christie. Needless to say, Pinsent has anecdotes about all of them.
However, The River of My Dreams never finds the true heart of its subject; it wanders, much like his career, from script to script with only faint allusions to whatever lies behind his impish charm. He had an early marriage that ended in a bitter divorce but produced two children, Barry and Beverly, with whom he reconnected in later life. In Toronto in 1961, while playing in the production of The Madwoman of Chaillot, he met Charmion King, an actress who became his soul mate and wife until her death. Their daughter, Leah — recorded in a strangely hollow-sounding interview — hints at hidden troubles. “It wasn’t the women,” Leah says. “He likes the attention.” The film goes no further in explaining this; we’re left to draw our own conclusions about a man who seems, in fact, to withdraw from some kinds of attention.
Nevertheless, R.H. Thomson is right. When you see the full story, you realize how much a part of the Canadian fabric Pinsent has occupied for so long. A few years ago, I visited the set of the movie The Grand Seduction, which was being filmed in Newfoundland. There was a dinner for the cast and crew and visiting press at a restaurant in Trinity, and other diners were watching this large group with interest. The cast was fairly well-known — the movie starred the Canadian heartthrob Taylor Kitsch — but when Pinsent entered the restaurant, everyone burst into spontaneous applause. It was more than the fact that the local boy had come home again. It was that, in many ways, he had never left.
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