Julie Christie may well earn a bookend Oscar for her performance as a woman in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease in Away From Her,but it’s the veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent, playing Christie’s stoically heartbroken husband, who anchors the picture. As well he should: Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” upon which the film is based, offers an exquisitely melancholy scenario — the loss of one partner’s memories inflaming the reminiscences of the other. The inequity of that inversion becomes etched on Pinsent’s already well-lined face; his close-ups prove loquacious even in the absence of dialogue.
“I chose to stand back as if I was a total stranger to the illness,” says the 78-year-old actor — and playwright, author, and member of the Order of Canada — during an interview at his apartment in downtown Toronto. (Pinsent is also an artist, and most of the pieces adorning the walls are his own, including a series of wry self-portraits.) “I didn’t have to do as much work as everyone else,” he continues. “I didn’t have to do any research.”
It would be amusing to suggest that this willful naiveté accounts for Pinsent’s pitch-perfect befuddlement in the part, but his understanding of the role — for which director Sarah Polley has said she’d always had the actor in mind — is impressively precise. “Grant is an academic who proves to be entirely uneducated,” Pinsent says of his character. “I don’t think he’s a man who reached out to the world that much.” And that reticence becomes manifest onscreen in Pinsent’s impacted posture; this story of psychic slippage is affecting mainly because of the gravity he brings to its key fixed point.
One of the year’s more successful art-house releases, Away From Her may prove to be the role of Pinsent’s life, but it hardly gives you the measure of his career. That story of a raw East Coast youth (born in Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland) who headed west to bluff his way into the Winnipeg theatre community (“I said I didn’t know how to do small roles, and so I got the lead”) and wound up on stages and screens of all sizes is familiar — to Canadians, at least — thanks to Pinsent’s well-regarded 1992 memoir, By the Way.
For the uninitiated, however, he’s happy to recount key episodes. “I was a boy who simply liked to see movies, living in a small town,” he says. “I had no idea at all that I would ever fly out of there. I wasn’t very useful to a family trying to put food on the table, and I don’t know how I might have looked to others, because mine was a useless dream to have in such a place. I would put on my own little plays in the woodshed — and in a larger sense, that woodshed was it for me.”
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Pinsent left home at 17 and did odd jobs (dance instruction being the most refined) before breaking into radio and then television. By the late 1960s, following a four-year stint in the Canadian army and a successful run on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series The Forest Rangers, he made it to Los Angeles. “I was doing guest shots on television series — generally villains, because the heroes were already cast,” he recalls. “I didn’t get the variety of parts I would have liked. I thought, ‘How do I stretch?’ So I began to write.”
The result of Pinsent’s labors was a rollicking screenplay called The Rowdyman, about a carpe diem drunk flailing about in rural Newfoundland. “It’s the story of a man who might have become this if he had stayed,” says Pinsent, copping to the semiautobiographical nature of the script. It was produced in 1972 with its author in the lead and — largely on the basis of Pinsent’s charming, outsized performance — remains a classic of Canadian independent cinema.
Over the next four decades, Pinsent amassed dozens of credits on popular Canadian television programs, often in the small roles he had so brashly declared himself unfit for. He’s grateful to Away From Her director Polley, whom he has known since her days as a child star, for casting him in Away From Her,and gracious about the attention (and attendant end-of-year accolades) being heaped upon his more famous co-star. When I suggest that his own work might just be too subtle for award voters trolling for thespian pyrotechnics, Pinsent (who says he plans to attend the Oscars regardless of a potential nomination) laughs.
“Early in my career, I figured out how to ‘hit notes’ — you know, to color them properly, to play the right chords,” he says. “And I hit them pretty well, you know. But now I know precisely what to do with them. I can bring them down, down, down. And I can still be true to the rendition when I do it.” The musical metaphor rings true: His performance in Away From Her is major work in a minor key.