Oscars and The Best

I’ve dreamed of winning an Oscar.  There, I said it.  And I think if everyone in the film business were honest (HAH!), they’d all admit they’ve dreamed of winning one too.  The real question is – WHY?

There is no single answer to that.  Some things just are.  Death.  Taxes.  The tastiness of really good French Fries.  Those who say they haven’t craved Oscar or French fries will inevitably flunk a lie detector test.  Those that pass the test are lying and have figured out a way to get around the machine.  Which, in itself, could be Oscar worthy and one way to get one.

But I digress.

It’s not as if I wake up each day meticulously planning how I will bring the win about (uh, oh, perhaps I should).  I actually seldom think about it.  Except around Oscar time and all of those childhood dreams of being noticed, publicly recognized, cheered by a tuxedo’d/gowned audience (not to mention the billions watching on tv), acknowledged as being great by my peers, going down forever in history as being brilliantly talented by a majority of, well, some group, and becoming rich and famous enough to tell everyone else or even everyone else in that group who was ever mean to me to go jump in the lake, begin to surface.

Have I said too much?  Does any of this sound familiar? At ANY point in your life?  Think about it.  Come on.  Then think about it some more.  Go deeper.  And don’t lie to me.  Or yourself.

Because admitting you want something in a fantasy isn’t the same as being obsessed with it or making it your life goal.  I want to be 6’2” and look like a Winklevii for 15 minutes.  But that’s not going to happen.    It’s implausible because I’m 5’7” and human beings can’t be stretched 7 inches.  (And besides, the Winklevii are 6’5).  Where  you we I get into trouble is not thinking it is overwhelming fantasy or in taking it too seriously.  It’s when you don’t see it for what it really is – a “nice to have in the abstract” but not a requirement that means what we think it does.  This is actually the basis of fairy tales.  In Oscar’s case, being recognized and voted the “BEST” that year.  The BEST?  By whose standards and what measure?  Let’s discuss.

Was three time Oscar winner Walter Brennan a better actor than never won an Oscar Cary Grant?  Is “Rocky” a better film than “All the President’s Men” and “Network?”  Well, somebody (more than one) thought so on both counts.  Would you rather watch “Ghandhi” again (or for the first time) or rewatch “E.T.” or “Tootsie?” – the film that won best picture that year or the two nominated?  Finally, do you think it’s an oversight that for the last 25 years every critics poll didn’t vote Oscar winner “How Green Was My Valley” as the BEST film ever made but instead voted for “Citizen Kane,” the film that lost the Oscar that year?

You can objectively state that due to my height and lack of athletic ability I will never look like a Winklevii because it’s a scientific reality. But you can’t prove “How Green Was My Valley” is a better movie than “Citizen Kane.” Oh, and conversely,  you can’t prove “Citizen Kane” is better than “HGWMV” (well…okay).   It’s a matter of taste.  And – it’s subjective.

Years ago when I was one of three movie critics at Daily Variety I was assigned to review “Nine to Five” (1982; starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, – huge boxoffice hit).  I came back from the screening and one of my fellow critics, thinking my tastes in film were quite pedestrian up to that point, said “Well, you couldn’t have liked THAT!”  I, being who I am and easily annoyed by condescension (except for my own), replied “Actually, I thought it was really funny and very entertaining.”  Needless to say, he slammed his reporter’s notebook down and exited in a huff, thus causing the passive aggressive in me to write an even more favorable review than I would have.  And holding to my guns, that it is still one of the most brilliant, historic, perfect comedies to this day if he were to ask me.

I have the vague sense that more than a few Oscar ballots are cast that way.  Who will benefit from the award; who do I dislike who will be pissed off if I voted this way and that person/thing wins; what filmmaker never gets recognized and should; what indie movies are over praised and what commercial studio movies that have made too much money should be ignored.  But – THE BEST?  Sometimes, I suppose.  But as a quantifiable barometer of anything more than a fantasy fulfilled?  I don’t think so.

Some things are measurable.  Steven Spielberg’s films are the highest grossing combined in the history of Hollywood because all you have to do is add the numbers, even with ticket price inflation.  But he can’t rightly be called the BEST director any more than I can be called the best, well, anything.  That’s about personal feeling.

It was most wisely put in “The Wizard of Oz” when at the end of the film the Wizard gives the Tin Man a great big red heart. The Tin Man’s sweet demeanor and consideration of others would cause even all of the members of the Academy to vote him as having the biggest heart of all (or certainly at MGM).  The irony is the Tin Man thinks he doesn’t have one.  But as the Wizard acknowledges the only thing the Tin Man doesn’t have is a testimonial, he hands him an actual replica of the heart, the physical embodiment of all he desires.  It’s nice but it doesn’t cause him to cry when Dorothy leaves. It’s just a physical reminder of what’s inside.  So this Sunday, when you pull up a chair at your friend’s house to view the Oscars, know you’re watching the best fantasy in the world played out on a star-studded night. And remember what I once heard the late Oscar-nominated producer Dan Melnick say, “In Hollywood, when there’s smoke, there’s usually a smoke machine.”

Fear, Guilt and Speaking Your Mind: What the citizens coup in Egypt, Lady Gaga and my fight with my Landlord have in common

When I try to imagine myself on the streets of Egypt I am loath to admit I am a 2011 coward.  Not that I didn’t Act Up and fight AIDS or as a teenager attend anti-war rallies to stop the Vietnam War.  But that was prior to the age of suicide bombers, fatwas against Salman Rushdie, domestic anthrax attacks and Tom Cruise movies where a practically microscopic mechanical gadget could kill you quicker than you could say Scientology (speaking of which – 34 years, Oscar winner Paul Haggis?  Really?).

Which leads me to Lady Gaga getting all kinds of crap for having a bunch of dancers carry her into the Grammys tucked inside a translucent human sized Lucite egg and emerging from it after a reported 72 hour off and on stay only to sing her new single, “Born This Way.”

Being a left wing, Jewish homosexual, a closet provocateur despite my overriding personal cowardice, and a fan of overachieving ethnic girls from New York City who had trouble fitting in during high school, I’m willing to cut Gaga some slack.  (Some might say given those characteristics it is not at all surprising I’d feel this way.  Especially since I was  born this…well, never mind).

Actually, I’m going to cut her more than slack.  I’m going to take a 2011 courageous stand and say  — if you thought what she was doing was a bit much –  why do you think that?  Oh, It’s embarrassing?  Gratuitously attention getting?  Tacky?  A spectacle?  Of course it is.  On the red carpet on a televised music awards show – the kind of place where Jennifer Lopez wore the naked dress (2000 Grammys); Kanye West grabbed the microphone from a 17 year old singer accepting an award because he thought she shouldn’t have won (2009 VMAs); Mary J Blige showed up wasted with oversized sunglasses and a large white hood over her head (Grammys  – I don’t remember which year but trust me, it happened); and Diana Ross played with Lil Kim’s breast (VMA’s1999). In that company, I found the egg spectacle tame and sort of fun  – or as I unabashedly posted on Fadebook re Gaga’s emerging from the egg to sing her anthem – “she was the only one in on the yolk.”  That line now falls flat but did sort of seem amusing genius amusing at the time.

With a googol (the number, not the search engine) media outlets these days, you have to at least try to be inventive to sell your wares and get the word out.  If you’re a girl you can’t out Kim Kardashian, Kim Kardashian (and why would you?).  If you’re a guy, you can’t ever try to be as good-looking as Brad Pitt or as smart as  Stephen Hawkings or as rich and smart as Bill Gates.  You have to be as ________ as you can possibly be at __________ , using all of the _____________  you have at your disposal.  Or as Judy Garland is once credited as saying:  “Be a first rate version of yourself, rather than a second rate version of someone else.”  It’s just the 2011 version of Barbra Streisand’s screen version of Fanny Brice being ordered by Florenz Ziegfeld to dress like a beautiful,  bride-like showgirl and, deciding not to compete, stuffing a pillow under her dress and pretending she was pregnant, causing the audience to laugh uproariously at the spectacle rather than laughing uproariously at her in the number  she was ordered to sing – “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.”  (Times have actually changed in some respects.  Divas requirements these days are not being told what to do and certainly not listening).

Just as Gaga decided she wanted to be inside an egg and –- hatch (a shameful self-promotion for a single called “Born (Hatch) This Way” – get it??), most of the great commercially successful people in the world have figured out a construct to be a larger version of who they are inside – Madonna was a naughty Catholic school girl who borrowed heavily from, well, many people.  Scorsese and Spielberg admit to appropriating/recreating shots from John Ford and others and why wouldn’t they?  (So did all your other favorite directors at some point from those who came before them).  People in Egypt who want freedom and democracy have certainly been influenced by imperfect Western culture/democracy.    But their brand of it will be yet another permutation that in some ways might look like ours, but isn’t ours.  Nor should it be.  Especially when lives still hang in the balance and our own economy still teeters on the brink of collapse (or at least elongated bending).

Which brings me to my landlord – who is remodeling our duplex and the two apartments above the garage and NEVER lets us know in advance if workmen will arrive at 7:30am with jackhammers and drills, tearing apart the upstairs, bulldozing our backyard, cancelling the gardener or ripping out our backyard fence, which is the only safety net standing between our frolicking dog and the cars rushing down the streets.  After the sixth phone call about all this, his “assistant” phoned and said “he told me he called you back and left a message.”  I abruptly replied, “he’s lying,” only to find out the next day that he left  a quick message on my partner’s voicemail.  I immediately felt guilty for my outburst, feared I’d lose my apartment, and  thought I should apologize.  Until I thought, what about the five others that weren’t returned prior?  Shouldn’t I be standing up for myself in some form?  It’s not Cairo but isn’t the principal the same?   Even though I’m now regretting the nerve to compare the two and even though you roll your eyes, just laughing at me for doing it, doesn’t it all start from the same place on some academic level?  Standing up for yourself?  Not being cowed?  Not being conned?  Being who you are?

Which finally brings me to what I heard from a sort of idol of mine I recently got to meet at friend’s birthday party – Jane Fonda.  No, we don’t hang together (are you kidding?)  But my friend does and he knew how I admired her politics, her boldness and acting talent, so he sat me next to her at this big party (yes, she looked fabulous, I mean, it’s Jane!).  After bending her ear about everything I could while making sure I actually let her speak to others, I casually mentioned how far the world now was from the values and idealism of the sixties and how, if it frustrated me, it must drive her crazy.  She considered this, looked me square in the eye and said (paraphrasing) “Some people are born with a global platform, some have a national or local platform, and some have one in the action of their day-to-day lives.  And you never know how change happens and which will be the most important. But change will happen eventually.  I might not be around to see it, but you might.  That’s why it’s so important to take a stand in your everyday life and see what happens.”

It kind of makes you want to go outside, find a red carpet somewhere, put on your favorite outfit and crack an egg.  Or, if you’re just not in the mood, cheer on someone else who is doing it.

Writers

My favorite quote about writing is from Lawrence Kasdan and I read it in the eighties in an old issue of a now defunct magazine called American Film: “Being a writer is like having homework the rest of your life.”

Several years after I read the quote I actually found myself working for Lawrence Kasdan on a movie and I was very excited to relate this to him until I did and he gave me a blank stare and said he couldn’t remember saying it or never said it.  I fear our relationship went downhill from there.  But that’s another story and perhaps we both have mellowed.  I know I have.

Nevertheless, whoever said it or made it up captured my feelings at the time exactly and knowing many others (well, at least one fictional person) felt that way was hugely encouraging and partially responsible for me continuing to write screenplays and eventually becoming a screenwriter.  You take support and inspiration wherever you get it, I’ve learned, or as someone close to me once said, “go where the love is.”  I am now spending my life with that person but that’s the subject of still another story.

Today I also spend many days giving my writing students unconditional love not because I’m humoring them but because I’ve learned over the years that every idea has something in it, some kernel, to love if you look closely and unearth it.  The trick is not to dismiss it.  Leave that to studio executives or people who claim they didn’t say quotes that you need to believe (and maybe still do believe) that in their heart of hearts they really said.  Of course the latter doesn’t matter because I’m sure we’ve both moved on.  Well, at the very least, I’m sure he has.

But I’ve spent my entire adult life earning my keep as a writer in some form or another encouraged by the very fact that years ago someone showed me all writers are more alike than different and if I too felt this way I was not weird or untalented but perhaps just one of them.  (That and years of psychiatry too, helped).  Every so often that recognition gets reinforced – like this past week when I took a group of students to hear WGA award nominated screenwriters speak on a panel at the Writers Guild of America.

There were certainly many smart, funny, meandering, clever, slightly unsatisfying, honest and generally entertaining interesting remarks said by the writers of ”Social Network,” “The Fighter,”  “Please Give,”  “Black Swan,” “The Kids Are All Right” and “I Love You, Phillip Morris.” But the one that stayed with me was when moderator John August, a screenwriter himself (“Go,” “Big Fish”), asked about how they get through the writing process, specifically writer’s block.

Both Aaron Sorkin (“Social Network”) and Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give”) replied separately and identically:  “On days that it’s going well I feel great, and on days that it isn’t I feel pretty awful.”  The others who didn’t say that, pretty much nodded in agreement.

What?  You mean…..them too?  Holofcener who gets to write and direct very small, very personal movies with relative creative freedom, and Sorkin who shyly (yes, shyly) admitted he took a year to write “Social Network” and that David Fincher signed on the next day and filmed his first draft pretty much word for word?

Huh?

A mental health professional might posit that self-doubt and self-flagellation like this is not the optimum way to live.  And it’s likely not every writer or creative person feels their value is attached to the work, or that those who do often have learned to balance whatever rocky waters they navigate on a given day with meaningful endeavors.  But that doesn’t matter because an audience full of screenwriters and aspiring writers nodded in reaction to those sentiments.

Speaking for all of us there (because why wouldn’t I at this point), we found it incredibly encouraging to know that we weren’t the only ones who alternately rewarded ourselves (probably with food, sex or something more dangerous – yes, we know Aaron Sorkin’s history) when it went well.  Or took those very things and turned them on ourselves and overindulged when things were going badly.  Or found new ways for self-persecution (too numerous to mention and, truthfully, why would I need to give anyone reading this many more creative ideas on how to do this thing we do)  Aaron Sorkin did publicly suggest one antidote for when it’s going badly – take a ride in your car.  I might try it, if only to see if it allows me to come up with a brilliant nine page opening scene of primarily dialogue for my next script.  Yes, I know it’s been done, but still…

Am I saying misery loves company?  Not exactly.  Or that writers and probably many other creative people are more neurotic than others since much of their art depends on self-examination in some form, wreaking unknowable psychic unravellings on their being?  God, I hope not.  I’m merely pointing out that support and community are out there in the most unlikely of places.  And that regardless of what you perceive as your level of success in the pecking order we are part of the same tribe and even the most anointed of us have down moments and suffer.  This can be strangely encouraging if you’re not where you want to be professionally yet seem oddly unfair if you’ve paid your dues and are now at the top of your profession.  Which I suppose has a certain justice in itself, especially to those of us not there.

Oh – postscript to my story.  Five years after my dreaded “homework” encounter I found myself in a car in downtown Los Angeles reading lines off-camera in a scene to Joe Mantegna in a screenplay I had written while at the same time a car carrying Kevin Kline drove by us on the way back to the set of “Grand Canyon,” a movie none other than Lawrence Kasdan had co-written and was directing.  While Joe and Kevin (yeah, that’s right – I mean – I was the writer now, after all) chatted and reminisced about life in New York, I looked around for Larry (Kasdan), partly in appreciation for saying (or not saying) something way back when that kept me going and partly to prove to him that I wasn’t a crazy sycophant who made up quotes from A-list writers about writing and that I had done MY homework.    But I looked around (A LOT) and he was nowhere to be found.  It didn’t matter because what he did or never said, in that moment I heard it, made me feel less alone and gave me the confidence to go on with my craft just a little longer.  Most of us need this.  Some are superhuman and don’t.  Whenever it happens take in.  And then – somewhere along the line – pass it on.

The Three Faces of Truth

I don’t know about you but my brain hurts when I try to figure out what’s real and not real these days.  Or at least true.  But I force myself to soldier on because somehow it feels important not to put my head in the sand and live an uninformed life.  Except when I’m on vacation or watching “Dexter,” the latter because I know that somewhere there is a benevolent serial killer stalking and murdering all the horrible people ready to murder my family and yours and not feel guilty about it.  So there is that.

This all came to mind late one night last weekend when I turned on the television and there were three Mark Zuckerbergs on my TV  screen.  Which one was the real thing as I know him?  I have no idea.

Jesse Eisenberg, who stars as Mark Zuckerberg in “Social Network,” doing his host “Saturday Night Live” monologue was confronted by Andy Samberg/SNL’’s fake Mark Zuckerberg  and both seemed reasonable facsimiles of the recent megabillionaire when the real Mark Zuckerberg showed up unannounced onstage and bantered awkwardly with prepared lines that made him seem less like Mark Zuckerberg than the other two.  Are you with me?  Unless, of course, this is what Mark Zuckerberg is like, but somehow I doubt that the real personality of someone who founded Facebook would be so obedient, essentially reading bad dialogue that a cue card told him to read.  Even if that cue card was planned and he was in on it, did it represent him?

Well, maybe so, you say.  He’s not comfortable in front of people.  Away from his computer.  He’s certainly not a performer.  He’s a nerd, a brilliant one at that, but still, deep in his soul, a nerd.

That’s what I think, too.  But then it occurred to me – how do we KNOW that?  We don’t.  And that’s just about a guy who’s worth $60 billion.  What about stuff in Washington, DC, Egypt and Afghanistan or the rest of the Middle East?  Oy.  My head hurts again.

We have information we read and see and make an intellectual assumption or empirical conclusion.  But how reliable is that information?  What are the sources?  How much research do we have to do to get to the truth?  How many sources? Do we do any research at all?

Once upon a time when I was coming of age in the seventies there was this law called “The Fairness Doctrine.”  In essence, it required the public airwaves to present the opposing point of view for any current events story.  Actually, any story.  These days we have a lot more information, tons of it, but I’m stumped and my synapses start to explode when I try to figure out what is real and what isn’t because the people who write and speak these darn things are, to varying degrees, so freakin’ crafty. Often I give up and give in to irony – which is very popular, “in” and au courant right now.  You know the drill.  It all sucks, it’s all phony, spoon-fed, so let’s make fun of it.  Right?  Wrong.  I love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert but they are playing characters.  But aren’t Brian Williams and Katie Couric characters, too?  Sort of.  I mean, I’ve never met them in real life so they could be.   Why should I take them any more seriously than Stewart and Colbert – or Glenn Beck, for that matter – who has a funny blackboard.  Or Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter, who sell millions of books that many people think are scathingly funny.  Because it sounds right, damn it, and I agree with him/her/them (pick your choice).

The real irony is with so much information out there, we are now farther from the truth than we’ve ever been.  Okay, news and politics are one thing – but can’t I just go to the movies and have fun, you ask?

Sure.

But when I see “Social Network” my mind thinks I’m getting the real story of Facebook.  I was positive “The King’s Speech” was an inspirational story of a royal who overcame his stutter to become a great leader until I read Chistopher Hitchens piece pointing out countless historical inaccuracies in the portrayals in the movie.  I wrote a film years ago about my compulsive gambler Dad who stole his screen son’s bar-mitzvah money out of its hiding place in the freezer and when my real Dad appeared on the movie set everyone looked at him with awe and disdain for having done such a thing.  Of course, he didn’t do it in real life.  But no one really believed me.  Not only does my brain hurt but now I feel incredibly guilty for what I should have seen was an emerging trend back then.

The truth is we all must actively now more than ever seek out what’s real and true, if for no other reason than the fact that “Dexter” can’t go it alone.  There are bad guys (and gals) out there.  And as my Aunt Nan once told me, “When you assume, you make an a—out of you and me.”