When you read Impostor: or Whatever Happened to Richard Beymer? (an unauthorized autobiography), the one thing you should not attempt to do is try to discern the autobiographical from the fantastical. The questions would drive you as crazy as he — or at least his literary representation — appears to be, in the book.
Did he or his mother spend time in a mental institution? Did he really have a brief dalliance as a young man that resulted in very eyebrow-raising results later in his life? Did he really rent that New York apartment, with its sinister connections to the apartment next door?
Did he really die by gunshot? Or on an operating table?
Is he really from another planet??
See what I mean?
The book takes the form of a movie script that attempts to chronicle the life of George (Beymer’s alter ego) from his early teen years till the present. But the bizarre disconnects begin when we realize that George himself is actually writing and filming the script as it goes along. He is both a character inside the film and the observer who chronicles all the events, watching himself live (and die?). Add to this the time shifts, replaying of events with different characters and outcomes, and Spaceman George’s desperate attempts to escape this planet once and for all, and the book is both confusing and exhilarating from beginning to end.
The format of a movie script is logical, given Beymer’s line of work, but it might take some time getting used to, for those more accustomed to reading a linear narrative in prose form. But once the reader has made the mental shift from “prose” to “script,” the story thrusts itself forward, with all its convolutions.
The premise of the book is that all Beymer’s life has been an act, which is symbolized by George’s obsession with filming absolutely everything that happens to him and the people around him. The inside cover of his book reads: “Who am I when not being who I think I am?” This encapsulates George’s search for what is essentially an escape from Ego. And yet, even while he tries to escape from himself, he himself appears never to have fully participated in his own life. After all, he was supposedly filming it rather than experiencing it directly. The constant refrain in the book, especially from female characters, is that he never puts down the camera; he is always fretting about his life while not actually living it. So there is a contradiction in his own quest: he seeks to know who the “real George” is when all the acting stops, yet he also fights to escape from the “I.”
The implications of the book, especially when it’s assumed to contain some genuinely autobiographical elements, are disturbing. One senses that the dislocation Beymer suggests, between his actor persona and who he really is, is genuine. What is being chronicled here seems to be a very long struggle to discover his real identity, coupled with sadness that what began as a very promising career seemed to fizzle and never quite fulfill that promise. When one begins with a triumph like West Side Story, where does one go from there?
When you read the blurb on the back of the book, the impression of sadness is strengthened. “Richard Beymer is somewhat famous for acting in certain films and television shows bla bla bla…” The book itself is described as “a totally nonsensical contrivance that most likely will never get published.” The blurb concludes, “In spite of evidence to the contrary, Beymer continues to think he exists…and so on and so forth bla bla bla…”
This resembles nothing so much as a tactic we all use at times, when trying to shrug something off as unimportant even though it would have been very important if only it had gone further, gotten noticed, been a success, etc. We play something down in this self-deprecating way because it really matters to us, and not because it doesn’t. This blurb is humourous, but when you combine it with the contents of the story — the search for self, for success, for release — it comes across more wistful than amusing.
If you want to learn the straight, linear facts about Richard Beymer’s life story, this is probably not the book you’re looking for. But if you want an account of how things looked and felt from the inside — through the sex, drugs, failures and successes, all the seeking, and even the possible answers to Beymer’s lifetime quest — then this crazy, careening, heart-wrenching movie script is exactly what you’re looking for.