Saturday, March 10, 2012

From the Hollywood to Bangkok: Julia Roberts Vs. Ellen Burstyn, and The Sweetest (and Occasionally, Most Annoying) Thing About Thai People

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to someone about Ellen Burstyn's performance in Requiem for a Dream, a 12-year-old movie that, for no apparent reason, keeps popping up in my conversations these days.

The second time it happened, the other person, a notable Australian actor, screenwriter and film director, was raving about Burstyn, who was fresh in his mind because he had just seen her at a speaking engagement in Melbourne. She was fresh in my mind because a few nights earlier, I'd watched The Last Picture Show, the 1971 film for which she received the first of her six Oscar nominations, on TV. (She won Best Actress for 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the film that later spawned the TV series Alice.)

Burstyn, not Julia Roberts, the filmmaker insisted, deserved to win the 2001 Oscar for Best Actress. I concurred (also agreeing that Central Station's Fernanda Montenegro, not Shakespeare in Love's Gwyneth Paltrow, should have won two years earlier), with one adjustment: It should have been a tie, because Julia Roberts deserved that prize for Erin Brockovich just as much as Burstyn did. Yes, Burstyn's was the showier performance, but that doesn't necessarily make it better.

Thus began our debate over the merits and demerits of Roberts' performance. I was particularly moved by Roberts in the driving scene during which Erin was talking to her boyfriend on the phone, listening to him tell her about her daughter's first steps or first words or something monumental that she had missed, and Erin began to silently weep. In the recent Newsweek actress round table, Charlize Theron talked about how hard it is to emote during driving scenes, which as I think back on that deceptively simple Erin Brockovich sequence, makes it even more remarkable.

The Australian filmmaker was unimpressed.

"It must be an American thing," he concluded. "They seem to be the only ones who like that performance." Typical Australian, I thought to myself, taking any opportunity to disparage Americans. If Roberts' performance was such an "American thing," then why was she named Best Actress by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. I scolded him for his typically Aussie attitude -- My tastes are mine, not America's -- not even realizing that I was making a similar sweeping generalization about Australians and their anti-American fervor.

The sort-of-ugly truth is that for anyone who travels, particularly a journalist with sharp powers of observation and a need to organize everything, it's hard not to make generalizations about the people and cultures you encounter on the road. The secret is to be open-minded enough to look past them and not lazily fall back on them every time you see or hear something you don't like, particularly for journalists and filmmakers, who should be as unfettered by preconceptions and misconceptions as possible.

I've made a few blanket statements of my own about Australians, several of which my friend and former colleague Traceye shot down when she was visiting Melbourne a few weeks ago, while making generalizations of her own. For the most part, she found Australians to be somewhat cold and hard to get to know.

The hard to get to know part I understood, having spent months trying to break down their walls before losing interest and giving up completely. They're not touchy-feely the way Argentines are. Unlike in Buenos Aires, you can leave a room in Australia without having to kiss every stranger in it on the cheek.

But on a superficial level -- offering directions, chatting you up from a bar stool -- I always found them to be friendly and charming. Customer service workers, though, with the exception of unfailingly friendly supermarket cashiers, were hit and miss. For every one who offered service with a smile, there seemed to be several, particularly bartenders (a profession, which, in most countries demands a somewhat personal touch, but not there), who could barely be bothered to serve up more than the basic requirements.

Which is completely the opposite of the experience I've had in Bangkok, where people are so friendly I often worry that I'm not being nice enough. The only exception is on the road. Taxi drivers are as obnoxious here as they are in any large city, and pedestrians never have the right of way with impatient automobile drivers. (Again, the opposite of my experience in Australia, where cars always stopped to allow me to pass, even when I didn't want them to.)

But elsewhere, Thai people, especially the employees in my hotel/apartment complex, can make me feel like the most important person in the world for all of five seconds. I can't walk through the lobby of the Anantara Bangkok Sathorn without encountering half a dozen smiling personnel, assuming the pray position with their hands and bowing, which means that I have to do the same.

Sometimes I simply smile and wave, but I've begun to wonder if they understand the meaning of the "wave." Maybe they think I'm brushing them off. Today, the man I bought grilled chicken from on the street, smiled enthusiastically and actually squeezed my bicep as he handed me my change.

I know some people like that kind of attentiveness, and usually, as with the bicep-squeezing grilled-chicken guy, I go along with it. But there are days when I just don't want to turn my frown upside down. I can fake it, because I've had a lot of practice, most of it reluctantly gained. Over the course of 11 years living in doormen buildings in New York City, I'd come to despise having to muster up a smile and a "hello" upon entering and leaving when sometimes all I wanted was to walk in and out unnoticed.

Even the guy at the entrance to the driveway of the Anantara seems more devoted to smiling and bowing at guests passing by than directing traffic. He bows at me when I leave to go the supermarket, and he repeats the gesture when I return five minutes later. Once when I tried to look away, he actually stepped in front of me so that I wouldn't miss his welcome.

I can't decide whether this guy -- who can't possibly be so sweet off the clock, but then, he seems to work 24/7 -- is sincerely super-friendly, or if he's making fun of me, or if he thinks I must be some black American celebrity whom he just doesn't recognize. I pick one depending on my mood that day. And on the days when I just don't feel like bowing or being bowed to, I exit through a side entrance and leave the property from the other side of the building, where there are no smiling, bowing employees, just the smell of trash and a deserted alley.

It's not exactly five-star splendor, but on those days when service with a smile -- and a bow -- are the last things on my wish list, it's the perfect escape route.
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