A consideration of Bart the Bear, from those whose lives he's touched

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1998

Poet ... Lover ... Omnivore ... Friend

A consideration of Bart the Bear, from those whose lives he's touched
By David Rakoff

He is the ur-ursus, our bear of necessity, providing an adoring moviegoing public with one Kodiak moment after another. He is, quite simply, Bart. Twice the size of the average grizzly, with a talent exponentially larger, Bart has made his mark in such enduring Tinseltown vehicles as Clan of the Cave Bear, White Fang, The Edge, and his masterwork, The Bear. He provided the sole moment of distinguished levity in last spring's Oscar ceremonies. Now the trade papers are abuzz with talk that he's the front-runner for the part that would present him with the biggest challenge of his career: Stanley Kubrick's upcoming Brechtian reinterpretation of Winnie the Pooh. And this September the Film Society of Lincoln Center will be honoring his achievements with a retrospective of his work — the first nonhuman actor to be so feted since Kim Novak.

So whither the Bart behind the image: under the ferocity, the eight-chickens-a-meal diet, the brilliant alchemical shape — changing that is the domain of the actor? Below, a variety of viewpoints, an oral history, the blind each weighing in with their impressions of this elephantine talent, that most fearsome of enigmas: Bart.

BURT (grizzly, Bart's second cousin): "Bart was always obsessional about 'research,' he called it. I suppose it made him a success, and I wish him all the happiness in the world, but growing up, it killed a lot of the spontaneity that's a large part of the upside of being a bear in the wild. One time, we were in the woods doing our usual thing: posturing, up on the hind legs, growling, paws outstretched, the whole bit. And I look over and Bart's devouring The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris, for tips on how to be threatening. 'Bart,' I said, 'we're not even primates!' You know, I don't actually find that Hannah Arendt really speaks to my experience, crazy as that sounds. But what do I know? I still shit in the woods."

PETER BISKIND (author, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls): "This is what, God, 10, 12 years ago? We were vacationing in Utah, camping out. One night, I heard some rustling outside the tent, so I peeked out. And there was this bear. I mean, a huge bear, nine feet tall, 1,600 pounds. And he was nosing through my Cahiers du Cinema by the light of the dying embers of our fire — we didn't put it out, I guess. Anyway, I stepped outside and introduced myself. And he's so hungry for knowledge, he's like a young Eisenstein, with this almost preverbal knack for visual language. We became pretty good friends for a while after that. We'd go see all these Ozu films together; he was mad for Ozu, crazy about Japanese cinema of any kind. You can see a lot of Mifune in his acting even today. My wife really liked him, too. We didn't even hold the thing with our dog against him, although our youngest was pretty upset for a while."

JANET WHITETAIL (caribou, former girlfriend): "The Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife Ranch is this kind of animal actor's retreat run by Doug and Lynne Seus, Bart's trainers. I was staying there for a while when I met Bart. I did not like him. I thought he was really arrogant. He had just done Clan of the Cave Bear and was all 'Daryl Hannah this' and 'Daryl Hannah that.' I mean, I had just had a part in Never Cry Wolf and you didn't see me dropping Brian Dennehy's name. And I could have — I mean, we got along really, really well. Anyway, a bunch of us were sitting around drinking, winding down, ribbing each other, y'know. Like someone would say something stupid and you'd go, 'Man, that is so Benji!' So Bart starts singling me out, picking on me, like, 'Hey, ruminant. How's Finland?' and shit like that. 'Hey, ruminant! Hey, Finland!' So I'm like, 'Hey, Ursus arctos horribilis!' and that's like ... psych! And he's all quiet and chastened and shit for a while, and then he picks up a guitar and sings this really sweet, quiet version of "Streets of London," basically my favorite song, and he's looking at me the entire time. We were together for two years from that night on. And for the record, we did not break up because he gnawed my mother's face off. Those things happen and, hey, it was her time."

JEAN-JACQUES ANNAUD (director): "The Bear was a very intense shoot from the first day; the weather was changing virtually every hour, so our continuity person was tearing her hair out, and we were having enormous problems with the salmon union and all the hours it was taking us to film this spawning scene. Bart was unbelievably professional throughout, which was a godsend, but more than merely being on time and rehearsed, Bart's choices were just so incredibly brave. He never begged the audience to love him — he just wanted to make it real. Rae Dawn Chong, whom I'd directed in Quest for Fire, was visiting the set and she said to me, 'You know, J. J., this is Oscar material.' And of course she was right."

SMOKEY (bear, activist): "I hope one day my friend Bart — and he is a friend; I'm not saying anything here that I haven't told him to his face — I hope one day my friend Bart realizes that these pedestrian entertainments in which he participates are nothing more than insidious pablum aimed at keeping a narcotized public numb in the face of the horror of the rampant fires and clear-cutting that continue unabated in this nation's old-growth forests. Acclaim is fine, but it's a means, not an end. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked ... Put down the bottled water, Bart, my brother! Come out of your trailer and join us!"

FRANCINE MAISLER (casting director): "I was casting The People vs. Larry Flynt for Milos Forman, and he said to me, 'I want you to meet this new performer.' So we called him in. Bart was ... electric, there's no other word for it. In the end, we went with Courtney Love for the part, but it was very, very close. A little while later, I was doing Old Friends for Jimmy Brooks — which later became As Good as It Gets — and Bart came in again: this scene where his character has been really badly gay-bashed, a really tough bit of acting that demands a lot of nuance and shading. There wasn't a dry eye in the office. Greg Kinnear ended up being more what we were looking for physically, but Bart is a great talent."

ANTHONY HOPKINS (actor): "We've been talking since Legends of the Fall about doing an adaptation of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men together, with me as Lenny and Bart as George. People assume it would be the other way around, but Bart is an almost entirely untapped resource as an artist. He has this intelligence. He can do comedy — his Emma Thompson face is completely spot-on and terribly wicked. He scratched these exceedingly beautiful landscapes on bits of birch bark and gave them to everyone in the cast on the last day of shooting. He's a polymath, he really is."

DAN "Grizzly Adams" HAGGERTY (actor): "Really? A retrospective ... of his work? He's a big damn bear now, is he? Well, isn't that fabulous. And which work would that be? His Machiavellian climb over the backs of other actors without whom there would be no Bart? Or maybe...no no no...maybe it's his genius knack at forgetting the people who gave him his first leg up. Oh, wait, I know. It's a retrospective of his near-chemical incapacity to return phone calls! That always impressed me! Oh, no? How about his tax shelters? Now there's creativity! Well, tell him congratu-fucking-lations from me. Better yet, gimme his number and I'll tell him my — hey, where are you going? I'm not finished!"

IRENE (grizzly, mother): "It was so exciting being with Bart in New York City for the premiere of White Fang. He took us to Serendipity for 'frozen hot chocolate.' I still can't wrap my mind around that one ... it was awful good, though. Lee Radziwill came up to our table, and she was just as pretty and nice as she could be! And we saw a lovely one-woman show all about Diana Vreeland, and the hotel was just delightful, and the bellhop was delicious!"

ELLE MACPHERSON (model/actress): "We were doing a promotional junket for The Edge at the Fashion Cafe in New York City. Tony Hopkins and Alec and Kim and I are at a table, and typical Bart, he comes in 45 minutes late; he's a dreamer, that one. He just had to go to the Lucian Freud show up at the Met. He's walking across the restaurant to our table, when this teenage girl stops him and asks for his autograph, and he's completely jazzed from the show, how painterly Freud's work is, so he takes this playful swipe at her, just joshing, and he completely rips her throat open! Well, she was killed instantly and her head is just hanging by this bloody ganglion. We almost died! Kim Basinger was laughing so hard I thought she'd choke on her fajita. We were covered in viscera, the girl's family was frantic, it was a mob scene. Well, the publicists fixed everything right up, and we all just went on with our visiting. You know, that's why you work in film. For those moments, that camaraderie."

NAN KEMPNER (socialite): "Do you want to know the very last thing I do, when I give a dinner party, after I've dressed and put on my perfume, and the guests are in the living room with their drinks? I steal away into the dining room and I put a small porcelain figure at each place setting and I make the guests sit according to which figure they most identify with. It's potentially very telling and terribly amusing. I've painted my bathroom pink, and I can't tell you how my moods ... I'm sorry, what was the question?"

David Rakoff is a frequent contributor to Outside.

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