Cracked Actor: Bill Gunn
Today, Bill Gunn is most celebrated for his prolific work as both a writer—namely of 29 plays, two novels, and several screenplays—and as a director of three ground-shattering experimental films: the unreleased marital drama Stop! (1970) and the gothic horror-romance Ganja and Hess (1973), both of which were written by Gunn, and the two-part soap opera Personal Problems (1980), penned by the poet Ishmael Reed.
His work is radical (you could say queer) in form and beyond—including, but not circumscribed by, his rigorous resistance of hyperbolized, stereotypical depictions of Black and queer life. Within the era of Black independent film and cultural production spanning the late 1960s to the early 1980s, his practice, with its immense focus on interiority and middle-class subjectivities, carries an exceptional geography and aesthetics. As scholars Nicholas Forster and Michele Prettyman have noted, Gunn’s work, much like that of his close collaborator Kathleen Collins, is invested in experimentalism, drawn from the personal, and staged between bucolic (Rockland County) and city spaces (New York City)—concerns and landscapes which mark him as distinct from the independent filmmakers associated with the then-concurrent L.A. Rebellion movement, and even from those within the New York scene.
But despite being best known for writing and directing, Billy, Bill or William Harrison Gunn the actor, is equally significant. Gunn’s acting career presents an aesthetic intensity that is formidable, elusive, impossible to ever fully capture beyond a fleeting snapshot, try as one might…
Reputedly born in 1934 in Philadelphia to parents who met as stage actors, the closer-to-true story goes that Gunn was actually born on the road in 1929—blazing a trail of myth-making proportions right out of the womb. He was the only child of local theatre director and beauty queen Louise Alexander Gunn and the poet and traveling blues musician-songwriter Bill Gunn, Sr; often surrounded by adults, Gunn spent most of his youth at the movies. Gunn was kicked out of high school, and—rejecting his mother’s insistent suggestion that he pursue the dramatic arts (later, he would cite her as his greatest influence)—joined the Navy, before he returned home and found work as a set painter, only to then, finally, begin to act in small roles on stage.
Bill Gunn, photographed by James Dean in 1954
In the 1950s, Gunn moved to New York to formally pursue acting, where his social sphere would come to include filmmakers like Collins; writers like Reed, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison; and actors including Sam Waymon, Montgomery Clift—and James Dean. It was as Dean’s understudy that Gunn made his notable debut on Broadway, in Augustus and Ruth Goetz’s play The Immoralist (1954). As Dennis Hopper recalled, the pair would routinely meet after their Method acting classes with Lee Strasberg to do sense memories under a gingko tree by the New York Library. The two assumed a fast friendship, expressing great mutual respect for one another (and perhaps more… there were rumors the pair were lovers and, supposedly, following Dean’s death in 1955, Gunn visited Dean’s apartment to disappear from prying eyes certain photographs and poems that he had written). Over the course of their burgeoning friendship, Dean repeatedly turned to Gunn as a subject, depicting him in at least one painting and several photographs.
In one unnamed black-and-white photograph, Gunn stands between strained ease and withdrawn form, wearing a blazer and slacks reportedly frozen stiff from the snow outside, with a fire iron mysteriously propped by his feet. His left knee bends slightly and his arms fall at his side, as he stares nearly through the camera, fixing it with a look of early-morning malaise. His gaze bathes light upon us watchers. Even in the stillness of a photo, a possession takes hold.
In another photo taken by Dean, “Billy Gunn with Stool” (1954), he leans back on the ground, one arm propping up his torso while the other idly fingers the severed leg of the chair. Gunn looks somewhere beyond the studio’s ground toward an existential nothingness, the loose melancholy of his presence proffering something more mature and complicated than just fresh-faced angst.
As a child, Gunn used a Kodak Brownie box camera to watch light filter through the window in all its gauzy glory, choosing moving images over the constraints of still photography. Despite their compelling rawness, this is what is missing in Dean’s staged images of Gunn: his agility, which is what captivates us in his most celebrated roles, his suave mob-boss-like figure in Personal Problems, and his egocentric artist husband to whom ecstasy comes easily in Collins’s Losing Ground (1982).
Personal Problems (1980)
Something resembling an account of the early years of Gunn’s acting career can be found in his 1964 semi-autobiographical novel All the Rest Have Died, in which a young man named Barney moves to New York to pursue acting. Many of Barney’s experiences reflect Gunn’s own—a Black man navigating an entertainment industry that was hostile to anything markedly outside of white heteronormativity, and determined to define and determine it by means of caricature and the abject.
But even when given limited and limiting roles on stage or screen, Gunn was already developing new forms, transfixing attention. His radical insistence against conformity was apparent. Reviewing the off-Broadway production Take the Giant Step for the New York Times in 1956, Brooks Atkinson gushed over Gunn’s fresh approach to a sentimentalized role made anew with his spontaneity and candor. (Gunn was, however, passed up for the part in the movie adaptation.)
In the 1954 TV series The Stranger, in which Robert Carroll plays a guardian angel figure of few words who assists people in distress, Gunn starred for one episode as a promising but compromised boxer in need of spiritual counsel. When his character’s estranged father shows up, ready to make amends, he becomes conflicted over a staged fight that he is meant to throw. As he avoids talking to his elderly father, Gunn carries anger in his shoulders, instead kneading it out into his arms while he practices in the ring, before coaxing the viewer into an agile undoing as he fights the opponent he’s been told not to injure. Such thrilling experiences of watching Gunn perform—felt in the pit of the stomach, a somatic familiarity that is willfully, imploringly, submitted to—complicate silly television scripts reckless with their swaddled endings.
In the Canadian production Crossroads (1957), an early cinematic representation of interracial relationships that played as part of the nationally broadcast “Perspective” series, Gunn plays a Toronto mail clerk, Roy, betrothed to Judy (Patricia Moffatt), a white woman—Gunn’s naturalistic performance contrasting against her melodramatic style.
With just a slight adjustment of his eyebrows, Gunn cuts through Judy’s shallow perspective, which the camera and script foregrounds. A distinct, complex poetic aporia is expressed in movement, even something as simple as a to and fro of Gunn’s dimples. In one key scene, Roy continually shifts his position, clasping one hand in the other, only to look down at a hand now outstretched. While listening to Judy, her mother and friends, Roy adjusts his hands, demonstrating the ways in which one must compose oneself during self- and world-shattering moments of racialization. Gunn delivers introspection without words. Such nuances are not played up and overly dramatized, but, rather, performed as quiet gestures that one has grown accustomed to. It is as if Roy’s hands carry the heat of the racialized encounter, callused and dulled from daily injury, but still felt.
And yet, throughout Crossroads, Gunn acts against such encounters inscribed upon the body. His boyish, striking smile traces a deep set path from his cheeks to his eyes, each flash simultaneously indulging and destroying the demands of the white gaze.
Ganja and Hess (1973)
This subtlety of movement and gestures can be found in all of Gunn’s performances, grounded in a probing of existence that is specific, and yet which affectingly transcends what we often call the “universal.” The best examples are in his later work, but especially his role as Meda in Ganja and Hess. In fact, Ganja and Hess can be seen to be the culmination of Gunn’s early career as an explicit performance of his struggles in show business—a play on doubled (and performed) selves, and on blood- and soul-draining, while expressing an ultimate hope for the future.
Gunn plays George Meda, an assistant in crisis to Duane Jones’s Dr. Hess Green, an anthropologist living in a swanky Gothic mansion in the Hudson Valley who is studying an ancient Black civilization of blood drinkers. Though the non-linear, avant-garde film shuffles events and continuously cuts to reveal the ancient civilization Hess is studying, as well as dream-like shots of a masked Meda in smoke, long after he is dead, Gunn’s big scene in the film takes place on the night of his death.
The atmosphere is heavy, appears sticky to the touch. Hess goes looking for Meda and finds him shirtless and drunk, sitting on a tree branch outside his house, from which hangs a rope tied into a noose. The scene cuts to Hess’s sitting room, where the two are now seated, and Meda seems to have, at least for the moment, given up his latest suicide attempt. As he speaks, Meda’s eyes shift in acknowledgment of his cagey restlessness, overwhelmed as the balmy night air seems to swell, charged, clouds of static amidst utter stillness: he talks without emotion of being both a victim and murderer, a neurotic and schizophrenic.
The sitting room is then shown empty, and Hess in bed. The swelling stagnates. A burst, a terrible flash, and Meda—as if overcome by something beyond himself—attacks the sleeping Hess. They violently tumble from the bed to the floor, keeping us clenching our breath, before an ancient pearl dagger penetrates Hess’s flesh. Meda collapses, seemingly distressed, while shortly after, Hess is only satiated by blood (a transformation that continues through Meda’s widow Ganja, played by the sleek Marlene Clark, who eventually comes looking for her missing husband, but ends up marrying Hess).
After a bath that resembles more of a baptism, in the presence of mirrors and a rose crucifix, Meda shoots himself dead. No rain falls, nothing alleviates the thick air that is Meda’s presence, one of suffocation, even in his ultimate self-release by pistol.
This is how it so often ends with Gunn: a refusal to offer neat conclusions or closure. Instead, a growing unease hangs in the air, disturbing the surrounding environment, the construction of the film’s world and its characters, its poetics, its beauty. Watching Gunn is moving in a sense that is felt viscerally and that stays imprinted on the mind, long after the credits roll. Meda’s body’s final convulsions mark us watching as compromised witnesses.
Perwana Nazif is a writer based in Los Angeles. She is the Art Director at the Los Angeles Review of Books.