“He may be a fool, but he's our fool” - Randy Newman's “Rednecks”
Most people out there either idolize William Shatner as the badass di tutti badass or think of him as a harmless, annoying dope. Few recognize that he is, in fact, a great actor.
I'm not going to bore you with his legit stage credentials. Yes, he got his start doing Shakespeare but, like, in Canada, so I think that basically cancels out. But let's face facts:
Captain Kirk's odd line delivery is an eyelash away from New York/LA jokes for bad standups, all anyone remembers from T.J. Hooker is him rolling around on car hoods and he only got the Denny Crane Boston Legal gig because, by then, he'd been clowning around on Priceline ads.
This campy label, however, really only got applied after the Star Trek rebirth was in full swing – when the shows were in rerun and there was a successful string of movies including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
I contend that we make decisions on an actor early on and these prejudices stay with us for the remainder of that person's career. I have no empirical data to back this up, but think about it – you first saw Brad Pitt as a hunk of beefcake and we're still someone surprised when he puts in an “out of character” performance like in Moneyball. We oftentimes find it impossible to accept a comedian in a dramatic role. I say, we were conditioned to think of Shatner as a “bad actor” and it stuck. But here's what no one in the world has figured out until now: we were supposed to think that and it was Shatner himself who set this wheel in motion.
What's the quintessential moment in Captain Kirk-dom? Ask anyone who isn't a Star Trek lunatic and they'll tell you: KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!
Ask a Star Trek lunatic and they'll begrudgingly say, “well, now that so many of the normals like to say 'KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!' that's probably it. . .but it shouldn't be.” (Note: these hardcore Trekkers have a point – when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan first came out, this moment was hardly the rallying cry it is today. But things change, and in Shatner's own words, Trekkers need to get a life.)
So let's examine KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!
Wow, look at him go! His eyes are bulging, his face is quaking in rage and he's so pissed off he can't think of anything clever to say except to yell the name of the guy who's trapped him miles deep on Regula I.
This geyser of hatred is just music to Khan's ears. When we cut back to him, he's leaning back in his seat as if his entire life is being given a lap dance. He then zooms away, Genesis Device in hand, off to a career in being a genetically enhanced, evil Renaissance man.
But here's the thing. Kirk knows he isn't being trapped. He and Spock have sent each other a coded message (boy howdy, Kirk & Spock love coded messages – google K/S some time) and he is well aware that the cavalry is coming in just a little while. The trick is that he has to convince Khan that Khan has him beat.
How best to do this? Well, he's got to go really over the top to ensure that Khan thinks he's won. So James T. Kirk, the starship captain (a military genius, but no trained thespian) has to go for broke. William Shatner, the trained thespian (Canadian Shakespeare, remember) now has to show us what a non-actor does when he has to pretend that he is truly overcome by a devastating defeat.
The result is one of cinema's greatest examples of overacting, one that has been mocked to death for years and has perpetuated the myth that William Shatner was an absurd scenery chewer most appropriate for offering deals for airline tickets.
Now we know the truth – this shout to the heavens is actually one of the most nuanced and well-planned moments in the history of film acting.
Years ago I interviewed Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer and brought up this very point. The conversation when like this.
Jordan Hoffman: [w]hen you see the movie for the first time you believe that Kirk really thinks he is trapped. When you see it the second time, you realize that he knows he has worked out a plan with Spock back on the Enterprise and they are working out a way to rescue him. Therefore, he has to perform, as it were, for Khan. He has to convince Khan that Khan has truly bested him, so he will leave, so Spock can then come back and save the day. Therefore the somewhat “over the top” line reading that has become so legendary is actually quite savvy, because Kirk has to get Khan to think, “yes, I’ve won.”
Did that level of thinking go into the line reading, or am I just babbling incoherently to you?
Nicholas Meyer: You are babbling incoherently to me.
Hours could seem like days, man. Hours could seem like days.