At first glance, the combination of director Alexandre O. Philippe and William Shatner does not seem like an inherently harmonious pairing of documentarian and subject.
Philippe is a master of inquisitive cinema essays, examining films like The Exorcist, Alien and Psycho through a lens that is playful, but in a coldly intellectual way. I’ve said he makes the most artful, analytical DVD bonus-feature documentaries ever, and meant it entirely as a compliment.
You Can Call Me Bill
The Bottom Line
A more somber and philosophical take on the gregarious star.
Shatner is Shatner. He’s a screen presence of undeniable magnetism, a tremendous raconteur and a master of self-parody — but not a person whose mien I would ever expect to mesh with a “coldly intellectual” approach.
Despite a fully generic title that falsely suggests a project broadly tailored around Shatner’s ingrained lack of formality, You Can Call Me Bill ends up feeling very much like a Philippe film. Dismissing self-parody in favor of self-reflection, the 91-year-old actor spends the entirety of the 96-minute documentary treating Philippe’s camera like a therapist, dissecting his career and his life with a clear eye toward his own mortality. It’s more inquisitive, earnest and emotional than whatever you’re expecting, though inevitably less dishy and fun. Calibrate expectations accordingly.
Philippe begins the documentary with the John Muir quote, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” which already offers a hint that this isn’t going to be a doc full of wacky Leonard Nimoy stories or nostalgic reminiscences of that time he starred in a CBS sitcom based on a Twitter feed. Shatner, like Muir, has a deep interest in trees, particularly the way their roots allow them to communicate and be part of the wilderness around them.
Assuming you take the William Shatner presented in You Can Call Me Bill as the real William Shatner, rather than one of his most convincing performances to date, Shatner is obsessed with loneliness and a desire for an arboreal connection. With candor and tears ever on the brink of emerging, he talks about his stern but loving father, his withholding mother and a Montreal youth in which he always felt like an outsider — a Jewish kid in non-Jewish spaces, a theater kid who yearned to be a jock and vice versa.
In a series of long conversations appropriately positioning Shatner alone in what looks to be a vast, dark and empty warehouse space, Philippe steers Shatner through his career, but almost never in the way that you might be expecting. Shatner treats the core mission of Star Trek as an existential mantra, contemplating deeply what it means not just to go through life, but to BOLDLY go. He uses unlikely sources — like the introduction of his character’s name on The Practice and Boston Legal — as a point of entry to talk about an acting process that he positions as halfway between the very different Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. He breaks down the thoughtfulness at the heart of the pauses and cadences that have been at the center of so many William Shatner impressions, effortlessly illustrating how wrong so many of those impressions are.
As Shatner muses, Phillipe connects his thoughts to clips from seven decades of film and television roles. There are plenty of collages dominated by the classics, from Star Trek to The Twilight Zone to T.J. Hooker, but there’s real pleasure to how Philippe gives equal time to projects like White Comanche, a forgotten Western that includes two of Shatner’s favorite things — the opportunity to play a dual role and horses. Without needing Shatner to directly articulate a similar claim, Philippe builds a plausible case that Shatner’s body of work is deeper, more considered and possibly just better than anything he’s given credit for.
Shatner has given great thought to his belief in a higher power and to what it means to be closer to the end of his life than to the beginning. His sense of his tiny place in a vast universe was perhaps cemented by his recent trip into space, an adventure that represents the documentary’s most extended anecdote. Philippe intercuts that story with Shatner’s parallel recounting of the same tale in his series of one-man shows. On one hand, you have the recognizable and theatrical Shatner, playing to the back row of an audience, giving them all the operatic — depending on how you feel about Shatner’s singing — and borderline campy excess that represents what he knows fans want from him. On the other hand, responding to the same life event, you have the erudite philosopher Shatner remembering how he eschewed having fun with weightlessness to look out the window of his spacecraft: “Our brains aren’t made to encompass the vastness of the things we’re talking about,” he observes.
Around halfway through the documentary, Philippe calls wrap and says “Bill, I hope you come back tomorrow.” It’s a line that really cracks Shatner up, and he replies with an enthusiastic and playful smile, “No, I’m gonna ride a horse tomorrow.” Spending so much time with a different Shatner makes you appreciate the glimpses of Shatner Classic.
It’s like the MTV Unplugged series. Some of the performances and albums that came out of that show were brilliant and changed the way I listened to the bands forever. Others were just worthy, somber detours or footnotes. Whether You Can Call Me Bill is more Nirvana Unplugged or Shakira Unplugged, Philippe has done Shatner a service.