Written by: Terry Johnson, adapted from his play of the same name
Directed by: Nicholas Roeg
Starring: Theresa Russell, Michael Emil, Tony Curtis and Gary Busey
Nicholas Roeg’s Insignificance is a film that’s not about very much, not specifically. Lazily, its about fame, but it never attempts to get very close to the bone. I’m not complaining, in fact I think it’s refreshing to see a film that’s not overwrought from heavy-handed screenwriters or directors.
On a very long Manhattan night, an Actress (Theresa Russell), a Professor (Michael Emil), a Ball Player (Gary Busey) and a Senator (Tony Curtis) all cross paths. The characters are never referred to by name, but there’s not an ounce of doubt that they’re Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio and Joe McCarthy and Insignificance is one of the most intriguing what ifs in film history.
What if Marilyn Monroe spent a night chatting with Albert Einstein? What if Joe DiMaggio thought Einstein was sleeping with his wife? Insignificance is based on a stageplay by Terry Johnson and like so many films based on plays, this one has a lot of dialogue and few set changes. Everything is in the performance, and the actors play their respective celebrities with just a hint of caricature, using it to their advantage to point towards a certain amount of sadness in each one.
If Insignificance is about anything, it’s about the connections between fame and appearances, and the value inherent in each one. The Actress appears at The Professor’s hotel room door, he doesn’t know who she is but he lets her come in. The Professor doesn’t recognize the most famous sex symbol in the world, her existence is of little importance when you’re the genius of the modern world. The Actress is supposed to be bubbly and dumb, she’s supposed to flash her legs and shut up, in fact that’s how she got where she is. She’s come straight from the shoot of The Seven Year Itch (1955) where she famously stood on sidewalk grate and had her dress blow up around her ears, she’s fed up with her drooling fans and seeks out someone she can talk honestly with. The exchange between The Actress and The Professor is fantastic, each drawing something secret out of the other. The Actress insists on explaining Special Theory of Relativity to The Professor, using childrens’ toys as props, and she does a fantastic job. She then insists that The Professor reveal his legs to her. It’s in this exchange that Insignificance is a success, as Roeg ignores what his leads are famous for an opens the stage for the person that lays hidden inside. Monroe was and is mainly famous for one thing: her beauty. She received some credit as the talented actress she sometimes was, but she was repeatedly typecast as a dumb blonde, there was little room for Monroe to reveal the intellectual she yearned to be. In this film she is given the floor and with absolute eloquence describes relativity to Einstein. Likewise, Albert Einstein may be one of the least sexualized figures in history and here the notion of him as a sexual creature is called into play, as Monroe all but begs him to sleep with her, even managing to get his trousers off.The DiMaggio and McCarthy characters are less present than the Monroe and Einstein characters, but they, too, are very interesting. Busey plays DiMaggio like his head is about to pop, and the scenes in which DiMaggio and Einstein interact are excellent.
All the characters are used as tools to suggest the fleeting insignificance of fame; each one has their own astronomical level of fame but neither one knows nor cares about the others. Fame is relative and even the most influential figures in history are ultimately insignificant.