Saturday, April 14, 2012

Take Off Your Shirt and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences by Nancy Balbirer

Title: Take off Your Shirt and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences
Author: Nancy Balbirer
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Release Date: April 14, 2009
Pages: 256 pages
How I Got the Book: Bought it
Purchase: Amazon; Barnes & Noble; Book Depository

One woman’s laugh-out-loud account of the oddities, indignities, and outright absurdities of a life in show business.

In this strikingly candid memoir, Nancy Balbirer distills two decades of drama school, auditions, bit parts, cameos, and off-Broadway plays into an account by turns hilarious and horrifying . From studying theater in college under the searing purism of David Mamet ("Being a woman in [show] business, you'll be asked to do only two things in every fucking role you ever play: take your shirt off and cry. That's it. Take your shirt off and cry.") to weathering advice from her brazenly insensitive L.A. agent ("I didn’t think it was possible. But you managed to bore Luke Perry") to scoring a Saturday Night Live audition based on a drunken Debra Winger impersonation, Balbirer’s adventures are sometimes bizarre, sometimes painful, and always unforgettable.

Between run-ins with an eccentric cast of all-too-real characters, including an infatuated acting teacher who introduces Nancy to the joys of firearms, a former sex symbol desperately seeking a toilet, and a jazz musician who fancies himself a reincarnated Jack Kerouac, Balbirer wrestles with her own ambitions and disappointments, struggling to determine what she really wants and who she really is. She may not be destined for Hollywood stardom, but as Take Your Shirt Off and Cry makes clear, she is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent.


Nonfiction? Me? Yep! Even I need a break from YA every once in a while, and my choice of a memoir written by a former actor about her struggles in Hollywood and New York seemed like a good bet. It was fun, I want to say. Emphasis on want to say because I can't quite do so. Balbirer earned some laughter for her funny anecdotes, but her stories were weak, muddled, and could have been much stronger with a little more organization.

The first third is easily the strongest. Balbirer's tales of studying with David Mamet at school, trying to figure out who she is in the New York scene, and are simultaneously touching and funny. Mamet's character really got me; the one and only quote I liked enough to comment had to do with a speech he gave his students: "For our first class, David Mamet delivered a lecture the premise of which was that Bill Cosby was a whore."

It's toward the fourth chapter, detailing how her Debra Winger impression got her close to getting a job on Saturday Night Live, that things start to taper off and it began to lose hold of my attention. Do all memoirs read like a series of anecdotes that can't motivate you to move on to the next chapter? If I was supposed to become invested in Balbirer's struggles and be motivated to keep reading that way, it didn't work. How the narrative bounces back between three main time periods (when she's in school in New York, post-school New York, and post-school Los Angeles) between chapters breaks up the order and makes the novel harder to follow.

Balbirer's despair and personal struggles with her identity at certain points in her life are evident, but they are swept over or a comedic tone is used to talk about them. What could have been a great opportunity to bring in some depth and pull in readers whose attention spans are at their ends is lost. With such a large cast of characters, some of them mentioned only once when they are apparently important figures in the author's life, I found myself forgetting who was who and why they mattered very often, especially between sittings.

Would I read this book again? Maybe, but I would be sticking to the early chapters. For all the praise the younger Nancy Balbirer garnered from Mamet and critics for her work, I still think it could be stronger.

And so there was my nonfiction requirement for 2012. More YA, please!

3 stars!

What am I reading next?: Ditched by Robin Mellom