For July 1, the most Canadian thing I can imagine would be to experience an Indigenous Sunrise Ceremony in honour of the First Peoples who’ve lived here for millennia. Second, perhaps, would be to watch River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent.
“Gordon” is obviously a Canadian name of central significance (Tapp, Sinclair, Lightfoot, Howe, Downie). More specifically, the 86-year-old Mr. Pinsent’s career spans more than a half-century of the Canadian entertainment business, from CBC’s Quentin Durgens, M.P. to Away from Her, with stops at The Rowdyman, The Thomas Crown Affair and guest spots on almost every well-known series, from The Beachcombers to Republic of Doyle, produced in this country.
Brigitte Berman’s documentary, River of My Dreams: A Portrait of Gordon Pinsent, which has its world premiere on CBC’s documentary channel this Saturday, opens with Pinsent painting a landscape from memory while his voice-over recites John Keats’ sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be…” That seems a little morbid, but what a voice!
As well as a melodious talker, Pinsent is an artful story-teller. A poor kid from Newfoundland’s Grand Falls, from a large family (two of whom died), Pinsent left school in grade eight, after establishing his talent for drawing and sneaking into the movies.
He came to Canada a year before Newfoundland joined the Confederation. His stories have a consistent theme in their nature: How charm and deception allowed him to get away with stuff, from convincing a custom’s guard to let him in the country, to landing a job as a dance instructor, and later as a lead actor, by fibbing about his experience.
Berman is director of previous documentaries on jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, bandleader Artie Shaw (for which she won an 1985 Oscar) and Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner. This particular film’s presentation is not great.
Part of that is formal reasons. During some sequences, Berman employs sepia, computer-generated motion-captured re-enactments which simply look weird. Another problem is that the film can’t decide whether it wants to be a luvvy tribute reel or an actual intimate portrait, so it wavers between the two. Pinsent’s always interesting anecdotes and observations are supplemented with Isaccolades from various friends including Norman Jewison, Christopher Plummer, Richard Ouzounian, Mary Walsh, and R.H. Thomson (who compares Pinsent to both an anchor to the ship of Canadian culture and a thread in its loom).
Not that it’s all positive. On the more negative side, we learn that the ambitious young Pinsent left his first wife and two children, a young son and daughter, when acting in Winnipeg in the 1950s failed to provide a living. He later reconciled with the adult Barry and Beverly, both of whom speak affectionately of him.
There are many testimonies about the deep bond between Pinsent and Charmion King, his spouse of 44 years until her death in 2007, though that too was sometimes rocky. Interspersed with clips with Mary Walsh merrily chatting about Pinsent as an all-ages “babe magnet,” his daughter, actress Leah Pinsent, drops a quiet bombshell that her parents had repeated separations and her mother “took to the bottle and the smokes to deal with it. So dad was gone and I was a teenager and Mom was locked in the bedroom.”
In one of her other comments, Leah suggests her father’s charm was a compensation for his life-long insecurity, always feeling like a school drop-out who was afraid of failing a test. If there’s one profession that rewards someone with the pretender syndrome, acting would be it.
In the end, it’s not the ordinarily fallible man but his extraordinary story-telling gift that’s of most interest to an audience. I would have preferred if the camera had just stuck to letting Pinsent talk: His tales of forgetting his lines during an early CBC live telecast. Or going climbing in the Hollywood Hills with Wally Cox and Marlon Brando. Or, co-starring in William Crain’s 1972 horror film, Blacula. Whether exactly true or not, the important thing is he tells these stories so well.
Directed by Brigitte Berman Written by Brigitte Berman Cast: Gordon Pinsent, Norman Jewison, Christopher Plummer, R.H. Thomson, Leah Pinsent, Mary Wash and others. River of My Dreams shows at 8 p.m. July 1 on CBC’s Documentary Channel, on CBC on July 2 at 1 p.m. and again that night at 9 p.m. on Documentary.
Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather