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You Can Call Me Bill

“I’m afraid of being alone,” intones William Shatner in the opening minutes of “You Can Call Me Bill.” It’s a sentiment that, as he tells it, has pervaded every moment of his life both on and off camera. As Captain Kirk, he barrels out into the universe to satisfy his curiosity about what’s out there. In real life, he battles loneliness and the ever-encroaching specter of oblivion here on Earth. And in front of Alexandre O. Phillippe, cinema’s most dogged chronicler of eccentric movie minds (“Lynch/Oz,” “Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist”), he lays bare all these anxieties with all the self-effacing charm of his on-screen persona.

Playing like a stream-of-consciousness monologue, “You Can Call Me Bill” is content largely to just plop a camera down in front of the “Star Trek” icon and just let him riff. And riff he does, musing on everything from his childhood relationship to animals and nature to his pragmatic approach to acting. The results are magnetic, if a little fluffy, as his musings grow more and more introspective and lyrical.

Like so much of the man’s career, stretches of “You Can Call Me Bill” play out like parodies of Shatner’s decades-long relationship with fame and notoriety. He notes that his two earliest acting role models were Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando, which tracks for the two modes the stammering, pausing thespian has balanced all his life: Shakespearean silliness and Method sincerity. Phillippe illustrates this pull between the grand and the goofy with smartly laden clips of Shatner’s body of work, from early ‘50s Westerns (and an Alexander biopic, where he first cultivated his love of horseback riding) to self-parodying Priceline commercials and autotuned State Farm ads. 

Smack dab in the middle, of course, is Captain James T. Kirk, a mythic pop cultural figure whose association to himself Shatner once reviled (“Get a life!” he once assailed Trekkies) but has now accepted. He admires the phrase “Go boldly”; most of us live our lives, he says, as if sitting in a waiting room when we should be giving all of ourselves to our dreams. Even when recounting his now-famous trip to space at the tender age of 90 via Jeff Bezos’ phallic Blue Origin rocket, he talks himself out of taking the chance to back out before liftoff. He can’t do that. He’s Captain Kirk.

Really, it’s hard to tell where James T. Kirk ends and William Shatner begins, and the material Phillippe ekes out of ol’ Shat bears out the two men’s similarities. “Every human being is limited by who they are,” Shatner says of his talents; an eminently practical Canadian actor, he admits to never taking his work home with him. In this respect, Shatner has only ever been who he is, which makes Kirk the closest thing to an avatar the man could imagine. (This bears out in his execrable-but-interesting “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” a shaggy-dog story about Shatner/Kirk reconciling life’s accumulated pain as a fundamental part of one’s self.)

Circular and repetitive at times, Shatner nonetheless expresses himself with all the self-effacing honesty of a troubadour. Sure, his ramblings wander aimlessly in moments, particularly when musing on spirituality and philosophy. He’ll lope from reflections on his childhood, a youth marred with deceased pets and an emotionally unavailable mother, to quoting Chekov’s “The Seagull” when musing on mourning for one’s life. His love of nature allows him to float through thoughts on horses, seals, lizards, and redwood trees—all small miracles he sees mankind squandering through pollution and our own short-sightedness.

But he delivers it all with such zealous, quiet conviction, in that signature staccato cadence (which he insists he doesn’t hear, especially in pop culture’s many impressions of him), that it remains innately compelling. Shatner himself may not be able to define “Shatnerian,” but it’s all laid bare in front of Phillippe’s cameras, so effortlessly that it might as well be invisible. 

At the ripe age of ninety, Shatner remains as alive as ever—his eyes wild with curiosity and humor, his honeyed voice barely worn down by years of voiceover and soliloquy. But he remains deeply aware of his own numbered days, which makes “You Can Call Me Bill” feel like something of a self-administered cinematic eulogy. He’s clearly grappling with the finality and impermanence of it all, whether here or in live events that see him entertaining audiences with poetic thoughts on the end of his life or the vastness of the universe. He talks about his highest of highs (reaching outer space) and his lowest of lows (being so broke after “Star Trek” was canceled that he couldn’t cash a check, even as men walked on the moon of the back of his show’s cultivation of interstellar curiosity). 

Philippe, as he often does, just sits back and lets his subject have the room. His only interjection comes halfway through, when he tells Bill, “I hope you’ll come back tomorrow.” Indeed, “You Can Call Me Bill” makes a strong case for keeping our Captain Kirk around for a long time.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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Film Credits

You Can Call Me Bill movie poster

You Can Call Me Bill (2024)

96 minutes

Cast

William Shatner as Self

Alexandre O. Philippe as Self - Interviewer (voice)

Director

Writer

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