James Lipton would already like to sleep with every single person who joins him on stage for Inside the Actors Studio, which is only one of the reasons that I think appearing on the show is probably a terribly complex feat of acting. You so have to try; and only signal the effort insofar as it makes us love you more. Or do the harder thing and become more fully yourself. (Tellingly, Robin Williams' 2001 appearance splits the partisans.)
This summer marks 20 years since Inside the Actors Studio debuted and so here are some of those appearances that both "won" and "lost" the show, those appearances which through the alchemical/semantic machinery of celebrity made their actors never less than or much too much.
(What's key here is the element of surprise: Meryl Streep has been omitted.)
WINNER: Paul Newman
We should begin at the beginning. (If we ignore Alec Baldwin's opening interview, the series really began with a Paul Newman sit-down on August 14 of 1994.) Newman was already in his late '60s when he appeared on the first season of Inside the Actors Studio, which at that time was less a taped broadcast than a T/Th lecture in that one classroom in the basement with bad air-conditioning. To say that Newman charms is too crude. He plays the piano.
LOSER: Russell Crowe
If you would like to watch Russell Crowe, at one time one of the English language's most startlingly crude and effective performers, talk about his craft well here you are! Although almost all of the nouns in that clause are a lie. Crowe immediately admits there is no craft, no talking, and no you.
WINNER: Bruce and Laura Dern
Do you, like me, often forget that the Derns, Bruce and Laura, are related? It will be impossible after this: The duo's December 2013, appearance is perhaps the equivalent of fitting an entire rubber band around your neck: First it's, Surprise, look at how stretchy this thing is; and then it's, Oh wow I can't breathe, I should remember to breathe; and then finally, Maybe I'm kind of into this?
LOSER: Amy Adams
The thing that I hate about moments like this is it's like, Amy you did the best work of your career in American Hustle and all you want to talk about are your costars. This is a lesson in the limits of humility, in liking someone less for their demonstrable inability to love themselves too much. Sparkle, Amy, SPARKLE.
WINNER: Jake Gyllenhaal
Like a very good piece of mahogany, Jake Gyllenhaal finally appeared on Inside the Actors Studio, in 2013, whole and polished and solid. What is the noun for when a handsome man is telling a good story and then he kind of flashes a smile at you in the middle, like an em-dash for the face?
WINNER: Roseanne Barr
I love that even facing down James Lipton and an adoring audience, Roseanne Barr couldn't give a shit. So Roseanne. That's really the thing here, that like a really fond sponge she just scrubs and scrubs at you and it's painful but not unpleasant. "I'm really proud of it," she says about her long-running and iconic sitcom. This whole fame thing, what a crock. Which is just another way of saying: Barr beats Seinfeld, every time.
LOSER: Sarah Jessica Parker
It's May 2008, and Sarah Jessica Parker is on top of the world: The first Sex and the City film is about to be released and about to make a lot of money and charm a lot of people. Our ongoing national nightmare will, for one summer night, be stilled. So there really is too much to say—a lot of moaning, a lot of kvetching—about her second appearance on the show. But the clip says it all, I think. Look at those neck muscles. That headband. Were we ever so young?
WINNER: Bette Midler
You learn a prodigious amount about Bette Midler during her 2004 appearance. By which I mean: You learn a prodigious amount about Bette Midler's ability to ride the waves of her own life like a mermaid. No work! For seven years! And then she got paid $2 to be in a picture with Nick Nolte.
BONUS: Kevin Spacey
There is no way 'round: Kevin Spacey is how shall we say high-spirited in this lightning round of celebrity impersonations. This is ur-Spacey: droll, removed, quick-fingered; as though he and the rest of the world are just meeting for the first time and he's been studying a different rule book than the rest of us; how does the white man do it? I cannot ever quite finish his Hepburn. It gives me paroxysms of joy.