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Owen Wilson: A Sunbeam in the Abyss

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Owen Wilson: A Sunbeam in the Abyss

The three words that spring to mind when I think of Owen Wilson are “generosity of spirit”—a phrase that’s being returned in kind by strangers as Wilson recovers from what has been described as a suicide attempt.

Wilson and I are the same age, 38. We’re both from Dallas, and although we didn’t cross paths until our mid-20s, we glancingly share enough geographical flashpoints that I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. Wilson and his friend and filmmaking partner, Wes Anderson, shot part of a black-and-white short film prototype for their first feature, Bottle Rocket, in Greenway Parks, a five minute walk from my house. We both frequented the Inwood Theater, the clubs in Deep Ellum, and the Cosmic Cup, a coffee shop and arts hangout owned by Indian-born actor, magician and juggler Kumar Pallana, who had small roles in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.

In the mid-’90s, I interviewed the duo twice—first for a feature about the process of taking the short version of “Bottle Rocket” to the Sundance Film Festival, and then for a cover story that followed the making of the feature from principal photography through editing and marketing. After Wilson and Anderson became sought-after and busy, they continued to talk to me for stories that had nothing to do with their own projects. I interviewed them twice on the subject of Charles Schulz, first for a 1995 Star-Ledger feature about the 30th anniversary broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas—a recurring touchstone in Anderson’s movies—and then again in 2000 when I was gathering quotes for a story about Schulz’s retirement.

Thinking back over that time span—pre- and post-Hollywood—what strikes me is the consistency of Wilson’s temperament. Of all the people I’d ever interviewed who seemed to have the potential for stardom, he was the person who seemed best equipped to handle it, because he seemed capable of getting along with pretty much anyone, and had what might be described as a sporting curiosity about fame. When he talked about the movie industry—his knowledge based, at that point, mainly on secondhand reports from older filmmakers and the same faux-insider film monthlies that everyone else read—he sounded like a kid excitedly summarizing the research he’d done for a paper on deep-sea diving or petrified wood. In 1995, after he’d moved to Los Angeles and started going on auditions and meeting with powerful people, he still seemed more or less the same guy—observant, bemused, inquisitive and entertained by the unpredictability of life. When I did some follow-up interviews in late 1995 for my Bottle Rocket cover story—which turned out to be my last Dallas Observer piece—Wilson told me about a recent family reunion at which a young cousin asked his opinion of the budget overruns on Waterworld. “He asked, ’What do you think about the cost?’” Wilson said. “He sounded like a Los Angeles agent. I thought, ’What an odd question for an eight-year-old to be asking!’ I told him, ’I don’t know. It’s not really my position to think about the cost.’ Then his dad came up. He said, ’Oh, you’re just protecting the industry. You’re just a home-teamer.’ That seemed kind of unfair to me, because I saw Waterworld, and I kind of liked it.”

I lost touch with him about six years ago, but I saw him in a lot of movies, and enjoyed him even in ones that weren’t good. I was pleased to see that he’d made a point of building an acting persona that was true to his personality. You could see bits and pieces of the performers who influenced him—mainly Bill Murray, who perfected the art of being committed to a movie while still remaining amusingly and somewhat mysteriously outside of it. But he was never an imitator. From the moment he busted out that nasal drawl in Bottle Rocket, he was his own man—a Zen clown, warm and laid-back but with a goofy streak. Although he has played roles with a hard edge (the downed flyer in Behind Enemy Lines) or a dark heart (playing an intriguing killer in Hampton Fancher’s The Minus Man), his specialty is feather-light comedy spiked with unselfconscious yearning. He’s at once knowing and sincere—an almost impossible trick. To paraphrase Pauline Kael’s review of E.T., he clears the bad thoughts out of your head. When I saw Meet the Parents in a lower Manhattan movie theater on opening weekend, I didn’t know that Wilson had a small part in it, and I was surprised and glad to see him up there, unbalancing his soon-to-be inseparable screen partner, Ben Stiller, by casually referring to Jesus Christ as “J.C.” I was even more gratified when the audience applauded his first appearance, then clapped again when he showed up presiding over the wedding ceremony. The character’s hippie cleric robes seemed appropriate. Wilson’s a good-time shaman; when he appears, you smile, because know you’re about to have fun. He makes good films better and bad films tolerable. Onscreen, he’s a human sunbeam.

Offscreen, who knows? I don’t—and frankly, to borrow Wilson’s response to his Waterworld-obsessed cousin, it’s not my position to speculate on what demons he might have been wrestling with when this horrible incident occurred. But I will say that when I read news stories expressing incredulity that a well-liked comedic actor might be depressed enough to try to end it all, I wonder what planet these writers are from, and if they’ve ever spent time among the humans that populate this one. Tempting as it may be to seize on cheap ironic contrasts between an artist’s life and work—and comb his career and personal life for harbingers of suicidal intent—the process is usually reductive and sometimes insulting. Of course that hasn’t stopped the media from trying. “Meanwhile, his fans and colleagues were left to wonder how the perennially good-natured comedic actor, nicknamed ’The Butterscotch Stallion’ for his womanizing ways, could be struggling,” wrote Marcus Baram, in an ABCNews.com story titled, “Tears of a Clown.” “Wilson has been romantically linked to numerous women, from Demi Moore to Sheryl Crow, and reportedly has a healthy appetite for the night life. But since breaking up with actress Kate Hudson just before Memorial Day weekend, he’s been much quieter…Numerous comedians, from Jim Carrey to Sarah Silverman, have epitomized the cliche of the sad clown, struggling with depression.”

What rot. Wilson might have been sad as hell about any number of things, but comic actors aren’t inherently more depressive than dramatic actors, novelists, police officers, schoolteachers or bus drivers. People are people, and each one is unique.

As for the talk of warning signs, yes, Wilson co-wrote Tenenbaums, which contains a scene where ex-tennis pro Richie Tenenbaum (played by Owen’s brother Luke) slashes his wrists over a woman, and yes, Wilson (and Anderson) could not have written it persuasively unless they had experienced despair. But what person hasn’t experienced despair? All that scene tells me is that Wilson is a funny, honest writer who has had dark thoughts and isn’t afraid to write them down. That scene is not his Rosebud, any more than the Elliott Smith song that serves as its soundtrack, “Needle in the Hay,” inevitably foretold Smith’s death by his own hand. Smith wrote a lot of songs that sound in retrospect like obvious cries for help, but Neil Young and Lou Reed wrote dozens more, and they’re both in their sixties and still prolific. Art is always informed by life, but one doesn’t automatically predict the other. Depression is a implacably private thing, a fog comprised of biography, present-tense experience and body chemistry. It’s as unpredictable as the elements and as unknowable as God. It’s an abyss that you fall into, and you either die there or climb out.

I wish Owen Wilson good luck in his ascent from the abyss, which I am sure will be willful and permanent. I look forward to seeing another five decades’ worth of performances, and listening to his droll speech when he accepts his best original screenplay Oscar, and hearing secondhand reports of how he dotes on his grandchildren.