Shortly after seeing The Room, I saw The Disaster Artist, which is the story of the making of The Room.
It’s worth noting, though, that this is identified as “based on a true story,” meaning you really can’t trust that anything specific in it is accurate, just that it’s sort of like what happened in some respects. But I guess I’ll more or less ignore that here, and talk about this movie as if it were fully factual.
In a nutshell: Tommy Wiseau (who refuses to disclose his age, or much else about himself, but is probably middle-aged), and Greg Sestero (late teens, I believe) meet at an acting class in San Francisco. A friendship ensues, with Wiseau as mentor and Sestero as the impressionable lad who looks up to the worldly and wise Wiseau.
Sestero’s problem is that he is self-conscious and struggles to really open up and be vulnerable emotionally as an actor. Wiseau, on the other hand, regardless of how much or how little acting talent he happens to have, certainly doesn’t have that problem, as onstage he is audacious and histrionic to an eccentric degree.
They make a pact to always support and push each other in their dream to become actors. Soon they spontaneously relocate to Los Angeles, where Wiseau, who mysteriously seems to have access to unlimited money though he has no apparent job or other source of income, has an apartment where they can live together.
For a while, Sestero makes minimal progress and Wiseau even less in their efforts to break into show business. But then they get the idea of bypassing all the gatekeepers by simply making their own movie and casting themselves in it, which they can do since Wiseau is willing and able to sink millions of dollars into such a project.
Wiseau makes himself producer, director, scriptwriter, lead actor, and everything else of importance, while giving Sestero the second biggest (male) role. The egotistical Wiseau becomes increasingly unstable and difficult to deal with as it becomes clear he has little or no talent for any of the positions he has given himself, including managing the team of people he has assembled. Expenses pile up, everything takes longer than anticipated, he realizes they’re all judging him and laughing at him, on a personal level he feels betrayed when Sestero moves out in order to live with a new girlfriend, and perhaps he realizes at some level that his creation is destined to be truly awful, all of which leads to further deterioration in his behavior and more conflicts.
Somehow The Room (about Wiseau’s character Johnny being cheated on by his girlfriend) is ultimately completed, and at the screening everyone realizes that it’s even worse than their worst fears.
The Disaster Artist held my interest throughout. Parts of it are, not surprisingly, funny, but I also liked it as a psychological study of the peculiar Wiseau and his relationship with Sestero.
Was their relationship a homosexual one? There’s no denying the strong homoerotic overtones of their friendship, the way the age difference and Sestero’s youthful look (Wiseau calls him “Babyface”) fits the stereotype of a certain common kind of homosexual relationship; the fact that the two cities where Wiseau has apparently spent most of his life are New Orleans and San Francisco, probably two of the three U.S. cities (along with New York) with the most prominent gay communities; or that Wiseau very much responds the way a jealous lover would to Sestero’s exercising any independence from him and especially his getting a girlfriend.
But nowhere in the movie does it come right out and claim, or even clearly imply, that they were ever lovers.
Evidently the film is Sestero’s version of the making of The Room, based largely on a book by him, so it’s possible that Sestero simply chose to lie by omission about this aspect of their relationship, and the filmmakers went along with that. Or maybe Wiseau’s interest in Sestero was in part a homosexual one, but he never acted on it, and perhaps never admitted that aspect of his interest even to himself. Or maybe Wiseau and their relationship overlapped in various ways with what we would expect if he or they were gay (or bi), but that’s all coincidental and in fact they weren’t.
Beyond that, I would guess that a common reaction to the film would be that Wiseau proved himself to be the villain of the relationship, the way he insisted on dominating every aspect of The Room including Sestero’s part in it, the way he did not support and indeed sought to sabotage Sestero’s relationship with his girlfriend, the way he made everything about himself and interpreted anything from other people, including Sestero, that inconvenienced or disappointed him as a betrayal.
I think that’s partly accurate, but I didn’t see Wiseau completely in a bad light like that, and judging from the fact that evidently he and Sestero remain friends, neither did Sestero.
What I saw is a flawed person who is emotionally immature and lacks self-awareness but who is doing his best relative to his limitations. I don’t know that he’s capable of being truly close to someone, but he manifests friendship in the only ways he knows how.
He is, after all, the one who brought Sestero out of his shell and got him to believe in himself. He’s the one who hugely facilitated his pursuing his dream by pushing him to accompany him to Los Angeles, and keeping a roof over his head and supporting him financially while he tried to generate show business opportunities. He’s the one who insisted he have a major part in the film he was providing one hundred percent of the funding for.
He can be a dick, and he’s like a spoiled little kid when he doesn’t get everything he wants from his relationship with Sestero, but in his own peculiar way I think he genuinely cares for Sestero and is trying to be a good friend.
I do admire the way they are so committed to their dream. There’s a difference, though.
Wiseau is far more able to do the thinking-outside-the-box grand gesture. He comes up with the idea to go to Los Angeles. He’s willing to go to the extraordinary effort and expense to make his own movie when he has no idea what he’s doing and has to make it all up as he goes along. He’s very forward about accosting a total stranger he recognizes as a famous movie producer and trying to sell him on using him in his next movie.
These aren’t the kinds of things that Sestero seems constitutionally able to do. But on the other hand, when it comes to the mundane, repetitious, unpleasant “paying your dues” stuff, I get the impression that Sestero was far more willing to do that than Wiseau.
Sestero is the one hitting the pavement and working the phone constantly—trying to get an agent, trying out for every part, etc. Wiseau does some of that—taking acting classes, for instance—but mostly he’s looking for some inventive, audacious shortcut to success.
I think they both recognize, especially Wiseau, that whatever their individual strengths and weaknesses in this quest, they need each other. Maybe for Sestero that was only temporary, and ultimately he is coming to realize he can make it on his own with no further assistance from Wiseau. But Wiseau is aware that he has become significantly emotionally dependent on Sestero, and hence reacts with panic to any indication Sestero is slipping away from him.
At one point Sestero asks him why, given his age and how long he apparently has wanted to break into show business, he didn’t make this move to Los Angeles long ago. “I didn’t have anyone to do it with,” he answers, which is a nice reminder that one of the most valuable things about a friendship is the way the connection and mutual support can tap into certain potential strengths—like the willingness to risk all and follow one’s dreams—that otherwise might lie dormant.
The film does a very good job recreating scenes from The Room. If you haven’t seen The Room you’ll probably assume a lot of Wiseau’s terrible acting and such is hyperbole, but really the scenes are nearly identical.
One thing I wanted to mention that I liked occurs late in the making of The Room. Remember, this whole operation has been a disaster from start to finish. Wiseau has angered people, humiliated people, and created a decidedly “hostile workplace.” On this day in particular, the woman who plays his girlfriend’s mother actually faints from the heat, as Wiseau insists on saving pennies (to offset the millions of dollars he’s cavalierly blowing) by refusing to pay for air conditioning or even bottles of water on the set. Yet when this elderly woman comes to, and is asked why in the world she’s willing to put up with all this bullshit, she responds as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world: “Because, the worst day on a movie set is better than the best day off one.” And you realize that every one of these people has their own story, their own show business dream, just as Wiseau and Sestero do.
I want to return to what was most on my mind after seeing The Room, and that is the question of whether there isn’t something unacceptably unkind and unseemly about laughing at someone for being a failure.
Certainly there are things about The Room that are comically awful, whether it be the pointless things in the script that are introduced for no apparent reason and never followed up on, the inconsistent or nonsensical behavior of some of the characters, or especially the atrocious overacting of Wiseau himself.
But watching him in The Disaster Artist in that initial screening of The Room, with tears in his eyes hearing all the people around him ridiculing and openly laughing at his film, I felt even more empathy for him, and even more reluctance to pile on than I did when I watched The Room. I can only imagine how I would feel if I put my whole heart and soul into something that I really believed in like that, and then I had to face the fact that people not only didn’t like it but thought I deserved to be ridiculed for it.
The Disaster Artist tries to put a positive spin on this, with Sestero convincing Wiseau at the screening that unintentionally creating something that people find hilariously funny like this is a success in itself. And there’s reason to believe that Wiseau did eventually make his peace with it in that way, as he has toured with the movie and cooperated with the marketing of it as a cult comedy (though I’m skeptical he converted to that view that very first night). But I still feel a real sadness at his story.
Not every story of an underdog who believed in himself, who ignored the naysayers, and who laid it all on the line and gave it his best shot, turns out to be Rocky. Virtually none do. Such people almost always get knocked out in the first round. But God love them anyway. I mean, should our regard for them really depend on the outcome? In the end, is it really only the fact that Rocky “went the distance” that makes him admirable?
I still feel the way I did after I saw The Room: No matter how spectacularly he fails, a guy who is willing to be that vulnerable and go all out in pursuing his dream has earned my respect.
Also, what a gloriously fucking weird guy Tommy Wiseau is.