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‘My Old School’. book review

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Scottish actor Alan Cumming launched to prominence with the 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret. Having first played the role at London’s Donmar Warehouse, the Sam Mendes-directed production shifted Cumming from working actor to star. He returned to his award-winning role in the 2014 revival. In the course of a three-decade career, he has amassed a huge list of acting credits: onstage (everything from Noel Coward’s Design for Living to a one-person MacBeth), screen (Titus, GoldenEye, Spy Kids), and television (The Good Wife). 

In addition, Cumming is a director, an LGBTQ+ activist, and a gifted writer. Unlike many celebrities who have found their way onto the printed page via “as told to” or ghosted autobiographies, Cumming’s first work was the novel Tommy’s Tale (2002). The book was a darkly comic and highly revealing roman a clef. He followed this with a fascinating and complicated look at his relationship with his abusive father, Not My Father’s Son (2014), directly resulting from his appearance on the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? 

His next work, You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Story and Pictures (2016), presented a mediation on his life through his personal cache of photos. The book served as almost a sketch for his powerful memoir Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life (2021). 

In all his works, he is forthcoming about his struggles, triumphs, doubts, and desires. Baggage is a clear-eyed, sometimes outrageous but always honest account of a career with many highs but also an equal number of challenges. He is forthcoming about his substance use, his relationships, and his struggles. 

Unflinching accounts of partying are juxtaposed with revelations about his family and those closest to him. Whenever possible, he praises his artistic collaborators. He reserves overwhelming gratitude for friends who have stood by him in dark times. He shares his joy and appreciation for meeting his husband, Grant Shaffer. (Cumming discusses the difficulties of his first marriage to actor Hilary Lyon, with whom he planned on having children.) 

Throughout the book, his wit shines through, often in gallows humor when describing particularly difficult outings (such as his work as Nightcrawler in X2). The details in his stage and screen work beautifully portray a performer’s life, recounting and dissecting everything from  auditions to closings. He offers insight into film shoots, red carpets, and press junkets. 

Cumming balances self-deprecation with a sense of accomplishment. He reveals a strong survival streak in a man who has grappled with and overcome his demons. Even his meditation and views on the term “making love” are revelatory. “The more my life has changed, the closer I have come to a place of authenticity. Although I began this book by refuting the notion of having triumphed, I do see great victory in becoming yourself.”

Cumming will appear at the Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington on Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m. The sold-out event will include a screen of the documentary My Old School. 

A scene from ‘My Old School’

The 2022 documentary deals with the Brandon Lee scandal. In 1995, authorities discovered the supposedly seventeen year-old Bearsden Academy student, Brandon Lee, was actually a thirty-year-old former student, Brian MacKinnon. The film explores the bizarre story with a combination of present-day interviews with MacKinnon’s fellow students and teachers, animated recreations, and archival footage. While MacKinnon agreed to be interviewed, he declined to appear. Instead, Alan Cumming stands in for him, lip syncing the audio of the interviews. The film premiered virtually at the 2022 Sundance Festival. 

Following the film and a discussion, Cumming will sign copies of his book, Baggage, at a reception that includes a live jazz performance by guitarist Mike Soloway and drummer Mike Leuci.

For more information, call 631-423-7610.