I’ve been going through all of Tim Burton’s films—including the ones I have seen before and the ones I haven’t—and so I have been looking forward to seeing Big Fish again, as it is one of my personal favorites in Burton’s filmography. It is less typically “Burtonesque” than, say, Sleepy Hollow, probably because this was one of the few times he made a film to which he was not attached as director from an early point. The script was actually written for Steven Spielberg, who obviously would have made a very different film, with more a feel-good vibe and less of the Southern gothic feel that Burton pins down surprisingly well. At first it seems a bit weird that two different British actors—Albert Finney and Ewan MacGregor—are playing a character from Alabama, but it is easy to forget about this as they nail the accent better than an American actor from one of the coasts.
The atmosphere, color, characters, various genres of storytelling from Burton all work. And Albert Finney is wonderful. But as I was watching Big Fish for the fourth or fifth time, I was really thinking about Spalding Gray. The monologist and occasional actor is not in this film, and didn’t have anything to do with its production. It is just that I read that this was the last film that Gray saw the day before he went missing. Later his body was found and his death was ruled a suicide. Gray made a very unique and singular career as a monologist, telling stories about his life as a stage actor, later as a screen actor, and later still as a monologist. He told stories about his life so often, the life and the stories became mixed, and it was hard to tell which was which. Gray also struggled with depression and, after a car crash while on tour, severe injuries. The film ends with the line: “a man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.” This could very well be a line from one of Gray’s monologues. His widow later said “you know, Spalding cried after he saw that movie. I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die.”
Big Fish is story about stories, but it is also about loss, and accepting loss. Thinking of it in relation to Spalding Gray, it makes me thankful of his stories, but also makes our loss of him seem slightly less difficult.