Made a rare weekday excursion into the city to catch the new documentary “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay”. Jay is one of the more interesting hybrid entertainers (magician/actor/author) of the last few decades so I welcomed the opportunity to get a peek “inside the box”.
The film is aptly titled, as you do get a fascinating look at the influences on Jay. Their names alone (Cardini, Slydini, Al Flosso – The Coney Island Fakir) give you some of idea of the characters that Jay surrounded himself with early in his career. Lots of archival footage of these masters at work, along with Jay’s early television appearances (including a REALLY early live TV appearance in 1953 performing magic) provide much of the back story as to how Jay got to where he is today.
The greatest influence on Jay may have been his grandfather, Max Katz, an amateur magician who introduced his grandson to the art and some of its great practitioners. His passing, and apparently some significant rift in his familial relationships, lead Jay to strike out on his own and go from “Ricky Potash” to “Ricky Jay.” This rift is unexplored in the film and may be one of the “mysteries” the film’s title references. Also left relatively unexplored is Jay’s career as a character actor, though David Mamet is one of several folks interviewed. Mamet has directed several of Jay’s one-man shows, but I would have liked to hear more about Jay’s film work.
The directors were present at the screening, and I asked them if Jay’s personal life was off-limits to discussion. They responded that while he didn’t specifically forbid the subject, he didn’t make it easy on them either. I also asked if there was a story behind his surname change (from Potash to Jay), and whether it had anything to do with the family rift hinted at by the film. Their somewhat weak response was that was “something that performers often do” and I got the feeling it never occurred to them to research the change or its circumstances. A quick internet search indicates Jay is his middle name. Did they not know that?
As a record of some of the history of magic and its early performers, the film succeeds. As an examination of Jay as something more than a magician, the film leaves us in the dark. That may be just what Jay wanted.