Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
The Performer: Radha Blank
The Film: The Forty-Year-Old Version
To say The Forty-Year-Old Version is about any one thing would be unfairly misleading. Sure, it’s about an almost 40-year-old woman (Radha Blank) who comically reinvents herself as a rapper. It’s also about lost potential, creative compromise, black storytelling and what happens when an artist discovers her true voice, later in life, due to a mix of unforeseen circumstances.
That’s the crux of this inspired black-and-white, autobiographical film written, directed and starred in by Blank, who to date has been primarily a playwright and TV writer/producer. Never mind that Blank has exactly three acting credits to her name. Or that this is her directorial debut.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is Blank’s breakout in every way – worth mentioning because this intelligent film feels remarkably like the product of a seasoned auteur, not the work of a novice.
In one of the film’s first scenes, Radha is teaching acting to a bunch of high schooler kids who are well versed in her failures. To say she’s uninspired by the pursuit – with all her promise as a “Top 30 Under 30” playwright squandered years ago – is an understatement. That’s when one of her students does an impromptu rap performance in class one day and it seemingly lights a freestyle fire under Radha. Then the prose begins to flow – rhymes on all sorts of topics from AARP mail to bad knees to a white male she sees in the city with an excessively wide backside.
To figure out how to best channel her new energy, Radha meets up with her agent/best friend Archie (Peter Kim), to float an idea.
Radha: Think about me doin’ hip hop.
Archie: Doing what to it?
Radha: I want to make a mix tape.
Archie: About a white man’s ass?
Radha: About the 40-year-old woman’s point of view.
Eventually Radha lands in a studio (apartment, really) of a beat-dropping DJ she finds on Instagram named D (Oswin Benjamin) to bring life to lyrics she describes as a commentary on the “white gaze’s eroticism of black pain.” That’s when we get to see what Radha’s made of.
After reluctantly stepping behind the mic, Radha unleashes RadhaMUSPrime (the character name she creates on a whim) and “Poverty Porn,” which showcases her true talent for the craft, winning over not just the previously skeptical D, but likely everyone watching this film.
It’s a cathartic moment for the character – and no doubt the actress – who’s been laboring over this project for years, never once veering from wanting to play the lead – because, well, it’s her.
It’s a fun ride, maybe a few minutes longer than it should be, but one that contemplates everything from Radha’s self-discovery to an age-old question that’s haunted writers since the first “note” was born: How much vision can an artist compromise before they’re a sell out?
Proud to report that as writer, director and especially, the film’s star, Blank balances all three remarkably well – all while delivering a performance that is raw, real and worthy of praise.
When you think of the story of how Radha Blank came to become the triple threat behind in The Forty-Year-Old Version (FYOV), other passionate New York-based auteurs who thrived outside the traditional “Hollywood system” come to mind a la Spike Lee, Woody Allen and Ed Burns.
As a proud native New Yorker, Blank’s unconventional career path to post-40-year-old success started as a playwright where her resume is anything but blank. Amongst these plays are the solo show HappyFlowerNail, Casket Sharp, nannyland and SEED, which won her a Helen Merrill Playwriting Award (amongst others) and much needed heat for her TV writing/producing career.
Eventually, this led to gigs on shows such as She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix (2017-2019), The Get Down (2016) and an episode of Fox’s Empire (2015). But it wasn’t until she was accepted into the 2017 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs in her 40s thanks to her original (FYOV) screenplay, when she had “the chance to really experiment in the filmmaking space.”
Blank’s hard work culminated when she won the 2020 Sundance Institute Vanguard Award and Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Directing Award, before ultimately earning a slew of strong critic reviews, Certified Fresh status on Rotten Tomatoes and a release date on Netflix.
And side note: If you had any doubt of the biographical elements of the film, know that Radha Blank performs as emcee RadhaMUSPrime where she’s brought her brand of hip-hop to sold-out shows worldwide. So, if you liked the movie, maybe you can catch a live performance in person.
When people start doing that again.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.