'Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy': Film Review

Courtesy of Rauzar Alexander
From left: Moni Yakim and Alex Sharp in 'Creating a Character'
An incomplete picture of a compelling subject.

Rauzar Alexander's doc is a reverential tribute to the only remaining original faculty member of the Juilliard Drama Division, whose students have included Viola Davis, Adam Driver and Patti LuPone.

The Drama Division at New York's Juilliard School is considered the best in the world, and Moni Yakim is its sole inaugural faculty member still active. Feared and revered, he is generally held back from first-year students, and to hear Oscar Isaac tell it, their delayed introduction to his demanding classes comes with a mix of excitement and dread: "Oh my gosh, get ready, 'cause Moni's gonna kill you!" Rauzar Alexander's celebratory portrait, Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy, does a fine job of tracing the formation of this staunch proponent of physical communication in acting. But the doc neglects to explore how that discipline interlocks with other aspects of the craft.

In that sense, the title is slightly misleading, unless the character in question is Yakim himself. Still, there's considerable insight here into the rigors of training at the prestigious academy, and admiring reflections from a number of the subject's famous former students, including Jessica Chastain, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney and Michael Stuhlbarg. That alone will make this First Run Features release a must-see for anyone interested in acting and the theater.

Yakim is a legendary figure; having been there since the inception, he's the one teacher that pretty much every actor who has passed through Juilliard since 1968 has in common. That in itself is a remarkable achievement in longevity. He still brings passionate vitality to the job, as seen in extensive footage of the tall, straight-backed, elegant instructor marching around studio spaces on the Lincoln Center campus flooded with sunlight, training his needling gaze on students as they sweat through sessions that sometimes seem as much like modern dance classes as acting exercises.

Together with his wife Mina Yakin (Moni's surname was misspelled as Yakim on the bill for an early U.S. performance, and it stuck), he teaches a style of physical acting that evolved out of his training in French mime schools. "The face and hands are the whores of the body, because they sell cheap," says Yakim, quoting a mentor from those days. The couple came to America under the patronage of Stella Adler, who gave Yakim a job teaching movement to actors at her studio.

One thing Alexander's doc does very well is rehabilitate mime as a legitimate performance discipline and not just a kitschy joke practiced by annoying buskers in parks and shopping plazas. This is achieved through archival footage and discussion — Yakim encapsulates his first spellbound exposure at 17 in Jerusalem with eloquent appreciation for a performer who "created everything from nothing" — and also through lovely interludes in which Moni, sometimes together with Mina, conjures scenes on a bare stage using only lights and, in one scene, masks. These arresting, beautifully shot sequences are directed by Alma Har'el (Honey Boy).

Hardcore actors will get off on the attention paid to Yakim's method of neutralizing the conventional tools, removing language and even erasing identity to use the body alone as an interpretive instrument. His process is about circumventing the externals to build a character that emanates from within. Stuhlbarg describes him pushing his students to extremes to confront every aspect of who they are — their fears, drives and ambitions. Linney calls it "physical metamorphosis," saying every performance she's ever given is connected to what she learned in his classes.

While the film lurches around with the chronology, the sonorous-voiced Yakim makes an engaging guide through his early life, growing up in Israel under the British Mandate and feeling like a second-class citizen due to his Arabic background (his mother was an Egyptian Jew, his father from Aleppo). Recollections of his altercation with a sergeant while doing military service (which landed him in prison for a year) are sharply intercut by editor James Codoyannis with a Juilliard movement class; the doc could have used a little more of this kind of creative collocation.

Alexander spends time on Yakim's hit 1968 staging of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which ran five-and-a-half years in New York, sparked multiple international productions and made a convert of the initially skeptical chansonnier it celebrated. Despite that success, Yakim states that he had no interest in a commercial theater directing career. (The doc skips over his work shaping the title character's movement in the Robocop screen franchise.)

Where Creating a Character underwhelms, paradoxically, is in its sketchy detailing of the establishing Juilliard years. It's almost an hour into the brief 76-minute run time before Drama Division founder John Houseman is mentioned. We learn that the two men clashed, with the patrician Houseman dubbing Yakim "the erratic Israeli." But aside from vague talk of Moni being accustomed to absolute authority over his own troupe, The New York Pantomime Company, the nature of the friction and any ways he was forced to work around it are left untouched.

A structural imbalance creeps in, too, with the inordinate amount of time spent on Alex Sharp, the British student who won a best actor Tony Award for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time just a year after he graduated Juilliard in 2014. At certain points you start to wonder whose story this is. There's a tantalizing hint of warring egos between the gifted, rebellious young actor and his teacher, particularly when Yakim declines to direct Sharp's adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, deeming it too dark. Sharp ends up directing it himself as an independent, interdepartmental project, with Yakim delivering the faint praise: "I felt it was brave, I felt it could have been braver."

The repeated protestations by Sharp that there's no ego behind his teacher's criticisms feels disingenuous. And while Moni and Mena seem sincere in their admiration for his Tony-winning Curious Incident performance — in a hyper-kinetic production that seemed the optimum playground for foundational skills he acquired in Yakim's classes — there's a whiff of tension in the air when they visit Sharp backstage.

Whether or not there was actual conflict or just the awkward detachment process of a student outgrowing his mentor, the film seems to dance around a potentially meaty area ripe for exploration. (Being produced by Moni and Mena's son, director Boaz Yakin, and the latter's wife Har'el, perhaps the somewhat safe, "authorized" feel is unsurprising.) It likewise seems conspicuous that no reference is made to fellow inaugural Drama Division faculty members Marian Seldes and Elizabeth Smith, nor how their respective areas of expertise fit together with Yakim's to shape such an impressive roster of talent over the decades.

There's plenty of fascinating material here on a deserving subject, but the gaps make it seem just a smidge insubstantial.

Production companies: IMG Films, Hominid Films
Distributor: First Run Features
With: Jessica Chastain, Charles E. Gerber, Oscar Isaac, Peter Jacobson, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alex Sharp, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Urie, Moni Yakim, Mina Yakin
Director: Rauzar Alexander
Producers: Alma Har'el, Boaz Yakin, Kali Wilder
Executive producers: Jessica Chastain, Anthony Mackie, Will Staeger, Michael Antinoro
Director of photography: Rauzar Alexander
Music: Ryan "Bullet" Shields
Editor: James Codoyannis

76 minutes