When actors get together, they do extended impersonations of Christopher Walken. They praise the directors who let them improvise. They smoke. They criticize the press for publishing lies.
This much and more can be inferred from Jon Favreau's addictive documentary series Dinner for Five (IFC, Monday, 8 p.m. ET), on which Favreau and four slightly bigger stars meet in expensive restaurants in New York and Los Angeles and talk about show business. Favreau, who has drawn unfair comparisons to everyone's favorite acting-world sycophant, Bravo's James Lipton, no doubt launched his televised-dinner-party business in part to increase his visibility as a player. But Favreau (who wrote and starred in Swingers) is also, unmistakably, fascinated by actors and acting—and his curiosity is contagious.
The crowd on Dinner for Five, which changes every episode, is frequently composed of three white men (including Favreau), one woman, and one black man. Sometimes there are two women. This rote lineup is so plainly the result of good old fake cross-section casting that it's almost charming. In fact, Dinner for Five helped me realize that our descendants may know our times by the white-white-white-woman-black sequencing. What future generations will see is that filmmakers like Favreau, and channels like the IFC, are earnestly trying to get something right, politically and aesthetically—in the manner of a young actor, early to the set, deferential to the director, his lines impeccably memorized. I hope our great-grandchildren will be touched.
I am. Dinner for Five represents acting as a twisted art that—together with its current promise of stardom and world dominion—still carries the clause that one must dress up and pretend to be someone else; for this reason, it requires a flexible sense of personal dignity. More than half of the actors' stories on Dinner for Five concern humiliation: the time that Jennifer Garner was given Kate Beckinsale's photo to autograph; the time Liev Schreiber thought he'd been flipped off by a Yeshiva student; the time Jackie Mason seized the stage from a flailing Richard Lewis; the time Colin Farrell was "so nervous that I was going to scatall over the audition room." (Scat?)
In compensation, other stories end in victory. Peter Falk—gremlinish, red-faced, his otherworldly voice intact—remembers the director John Cassavetes giving him garbled instructions, with the express idea that he would get confused; that confusion threw him, and inspired his famous off-balance performance in A Woman Under the Influence (1974). The late Rod Steiger, a weird hairless mini-Brando in gold chains and a droopy red pocket square, recounts how selflessly he gave the real Brando everything he needed—words, prompts, gestures—so that he could do his great "contender" speech in On the Waterfront (1954). Vincent Pastore describes himself as an idol to mobsters; his rendition of Big Pussy on The Sopranos is apparently so keen that former wise guys can't bear to watch it lest they go bad again.
Then there is Favreau, whose stories are neither self-deprecating nor triumphalist. They merely reveal at every turn his childishly grand sense of his accomplishments. Rotund, self-conscious, he discusses, without diffidence, the lessons and high-points of his semi-successes, pacing his guests through "the different periods in my career." Swingers (1996), Love and Sex (2000), Deep Impact(1998), Rocky Marciano (1999): Each gets due reverence. At 35, Favreau is fast styling himself as a Hollywood eminence looking back on a long moving-picture career. And when, cigar in hand, he begins a sentence with the ruminative "When I made Made …," he really does suggest that the viewer might gain much from reconsidering the minor comedy from 2001, now rich in its historical context.
Favreau's pomp pays off. He's so ingenuous that no one wants to violate his exalted self-concept, and therefore to his John Barrymore they reflexively play a range of grandees. Puffy Combs rants about the British tabloids. Martha Plimpton barks like a '40s Broadway ham. Famke Janssen chills her tablemates with hauteur. And, Richard Lewis, breaking the frame, chastises Peter Falk for missing Curb Your Enthusiasm on cable: "I'll try to get you an antenna! How many times can I watch A Woman Under the Influence? You can watch one goddamn thing I'm on!"
Dinner for Five is a very good party. No show in recent memory has so successfully made the peculiarities of acting its central theme, while elegantly sidelining the much more familiar dramas of celebrity. With so many actors Favreau's age still playing up-and-coming, it's clever that he, for whatever reason, has chosen to cast himself as a has-been. With Dinner for Five, Favreau has had the greatest triumph of his career.