Elizabeth Taylor, “Battle: L.A.” and our Topsy Turvy World

The death of Elizabeth Taylor this week marks the passing of an era in the world for many reasons.  One of the many for me is that my mother looked like her.  Not exactly.   But enough that I can recall every few months of my childhood, and then periodically over the years, being somewhere with my mother to hear those words:  “Anyone ever tell you you look a lot like…” “You know, you’re a dead ringer for…”  My mother used to smile demurely at such adulation, and then, as time went on, was simply amused by it, only wishing she’d had some of Elizabeth’s money, a few pieces of her jewelry, and probably just one or two of her lovers, if I might be so bold.  But such is life that my Mom didn’t live like a movie star queen, just simply thought of herself as one.   A classy pedigree can do that to a person.  But that’s off topic and you don’t need a glimpse into my therapy.

Ms. Taylor represented the best of an era – obscene looks, talent, money, passionate love affairs, marriages, children, public scandals and bouts with death, only to rise out of it like a phoenix and go through the drill of each all over again.  It’s the stuff of great drama – the kind that are seldom made anymore on film, television or the stage.  And in addition to her life, Elizabeth Taylor lived and played in all three venues.

For those under 30, think Angelina Jolie and multiply it seven fold for each of her husbands or eight fold for each of her marriages (she married Richard Burton twice).  Like Ms. Taylor, at the age of 36, Ms. Jolie has to her credit lots of kids, money, lovers, movies, and a sole best supporting actress Oscar and is about to remake “Cleopatra.”  By that time in her life, Ms. Taylor had all of the above plus she had already completed “Cleopatra” got paid the most money of any actress in the history of the business for it and helped sink Twentieth-Century Fox AND earned TWO best actress Oscars.    (Is this comparison a faulty one? Probably not).

Ms. Taylor and Ms. Jolie would probably rightly tell us that the Oscars are clearly the least important achievement on the list, though if the economy keeps tanking they might be worth much more than their present value in gold.   And a case could be argued that it would be the best thing in the business right now if one of the remaining studio conglomerates does sink for overspending on a big, bloated overproduced movie – no kibosh on the new “Cleopatra” intended for producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, because I might want to get one more big original screenplay of my own produced one day and certainly don’t want to burn any bridges the way things are.  But if one examines the two Oscars won by Ms. Taylor for best actress and the sole statuette won for Ms. Jolie for best supporting actress, and the films each have made to date as among the biggest dramatic movie actress in the business, it gives a little peak into what’s going in movies today and a look at why Elizabeth Taylor’s death is totally and truly, once and for all, really clearly the passing of an era.  Especially in the entertainment business.

Taylor won her second best actress Oscar for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” made at age 35 and was roundly criticized as too young for it. (An enduring, culturally iconic film, it won a lot of Oscars and is the first film by now legendary film director Mike Nichols). Jolie, 35 this year until June, made/released  “Salt” and Johnny Depp’s  “The Tourist.”  Jolie is the most bankable (female) star and thus gets offered EVERY VIABLE PROJECT IN THE WORLD. Trust me, even probably before Meryl Streep if she’s age appropriate.  (Or even if she’s not.  Could she have played Julia Child?  Well, the studio might have liked it).  So did Ms. Taylor.  That’s how she got to do “Virginia Wolff” when most people thought she was hopelessly too young and miscast in her thirties and a “movie star”.  So it’s not a question of turning down.  As someone wisely once told me when I didn’t like the seemingly bad choices a star actress was making, “what are the films being made that you think she should be doing that are being made.”  Years later questioning my career, he once again told me – “what are the open assignments you really want to be doing from what’s out there???”

Here’s a list of some of Ms. Taylor’s great films from ages 18-35 – “A Place In the Sun,” “Giant,” “Raintree Country,” “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” “The Sand Piper” and “Taming of the Shrew.”  For blockbusters, let’s add  “Cleopatra” and for star vehicles she elevated let’s include “Butterfield 8,” which did win her the first Oscar.  (Though so did her near death experience that year and an emergency tracheotomy). During that time she also managed to have five marriages, several children and almost die, while losing a husband, stealing the husband of her friend, bankrupting a studio and becoming Hollywood’s highest paid actress.  Aside from her Oscar winning supporting role in “Girl Interrupted,” Ms. Jolie also did most of the above, though with less marriages and not being a friend of her present “husband”’s former wife.  Yet Ms. Jolie’s films include:  “The Bone Collector, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” Beyond Borders” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Original Sin,” “”Salt, “Wanted” and “The Tourist.”  For blockbusters, throw in, well, “Alexander?” For star power elevation of material throw in  “”The Changeling” and  “A Mighty Heart.”

What are the studio films being made today where Ms. Jolie acts in that would raise her film oeuvre to the level of Ms Taylor’s?  Any in development?  How about what’s being made out of books or Broadway plays?

I’m waiting.

Still waiting.


Okay, think some more.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller??

Okay, then let’s watch a scene from “Virginia Woolf?”

Which brings me to Sony’s new blockbuster,  “Escape from L.A.” “Battle: L.A.” Do we have to?  Oh yeah.

For $100 million and who knows how many tens of millions of advertising, it’s not that the film reaches the depths of badness of, let’s say, “Battlefield Earth.”  It’s not that entertaining.  It’s just dreadfully mediocre and well below average.  Boring bus and truck John Wayne/Green Beret stuff by way of nauseating hand held camera, generic alien villains, earnest subplot characters whose arcs are thoroughly confusing, and spoon fed information from talking heads on TV screens that violate every rule of screenwriting by mostly telling us verbally what’s going on rather than by allowing plot to unfold amid the action.  But it’s escapist, you’re making too much of it, you say?  Perhaps.

Do you want me to start comparing its star Aaron Eckhart, who tries valiantly to survive and sometimes manages to elevate the material – with the movie star he looks most like – Robert Redford (check it out, they have the SAME thick blonde HAIR I can only dream of possessing and cleft in the chin, sculptured face).  I won’t go through their films but go to IMDB and check their ages and the comparable credits thus far.  Poor Mr. Eckhart doesn’t have much of a shot at Redford stardom.  Not because he’s not a movie star and not because he’s not good enough.  But because they are simply not making them like they used to anymore on the silver screen.  Plain and simple.

What’s going on now is the classic “B” movie – the programmer of years gone by – the low budget war movie with the hackneyed plot – or the cheesy science fiction tale with the “B” stars – has become the “A” movie price wise and attention wise for all the major movie studios.  And the “A” movies, which you’d include most of the Oscar winners, are now the “B” films – lower budget, acquired by other companies, featuring big stars and memorable (sometimes) plots, adapted from classy material.

Is it topsy turvy?  Or is this simply the end of Planet of the Apes (spoiler alert), where Charlton Heston realizes that the planet he has crashed landed on where apes can talk is not some bizarre far off doppelganger for Earth but actually Earth itself, transformed by decades of time and lack of attention to its species.  That could be a melodramatic description but so was Planet of the Apes, written by the great master storyteller Rod Serling, who luckily didn’t live to see the remake of his tale being turned into yet another pulp studio blockbuster some four decades later.

At a director friend’s birthday/dinner party this weekend, I was chatting with two screenwriters more well-known and more produced than I – talking about the change in eras and sensibilities in the industry.  It was agreed one becomes irrelevant if one complains too much about the way things are because, well, they are what they are.  And that this generation deserves to have their kind of music and movies, just like we did.  Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, wonderful so they are, felt like a million years ago to us, when our parents talked about and played them.  That must be how the movies of the 60s and 70s seem, and rightly, to young people and the industry today.  But will Angelina Jolie movies or Elizabeth Taylor’s movies stand the test of time?  They both share a lot of qualities, top of the list being their stunning beauty and abilities as an actress.  But Ms. Jolie has been born into a different dimension of space and time.  Where you need aliens, guns, 3-D or an end of the world problem to get anyone’s (studio’s?) attention.  So she does the best she can.

We, meaning anyone in the industry, especially those of whom are young and thus have a longer shelf life than the rest of us at this moment in time, might want to help her.  At the age of 60, Elizabeth Taylor was able to use her stardom to help turn the tide on a worldwide pandemic. She showed us that anything was possible and reinvented herself as a great humanitarian.  For those who love movies and make them, her passing might be the time to take note of what’s out there and, like she advised, try to do just a little bit better. even though the deck seems stacked against us.  It’s not as important as fighting AIDS or world hunger (Ms. Jolie’s charity), but aren’t the movies at least worth trying to save?

In closing, two Elizabeth Taylor quotes come to mind.

“So much to do, so little done, such things to be.”  And, finally –- my fave — “Big girls need big diamonds.”

The Arts of Natural Disaster

When one watches images from Japan it’s hard not to think one is watching a scene from a cheesy, bad or even good television movie or film.  For me, it’s “The China Syndrome” and “Silkwood” and the sounds of the “mehhhhhhh, mehhhhhhhhh, mehhhhhhh,” of the nuclear reactor alarms.  For my parents, it’s probably “On The Beach,” where to the tune of “Waltzing Matilda,” the last people on earth succumb to the fatal nuclear holocaust in Australia.

For younger people, I’m not sure.  My students generally tend to want to lose themselves in films like “The Dark Knight,” or “There Will Be Blood” where there are themes and sometimes clear lines of good and evil.  Or indulge in the post-modern irony presented in  “Community.” “Archer,” and “South Park.” And who could blame them given the events of the last 15 years and the fact that few of them will likely make more money than the Kardashian girls or Paris Hilton in their lifetimes.

Whatever poison (a really bad term for this, I know) one picks to quell fears or at least preoccupy oneself to the point of social inadequacy, it’s usually about movies, television, music, theatre, books or photography.  It doesn’t matter whether you buy it, download it illegally (it can’t possibly be illegal when almost everyone under 22 that I know does it, can it?) –- art (a pretentious term, I still know, but indulge me) has a key place in world culture.  It helps us cope.  It dulls the pain.  It makes us laugh.  It even gives us something to make fun of so we don’t feel bad about ourselves, our work or our lives.  Occasionally, very occasionally, it can also inspire us or give us reason to hope – that our life will be okay if someone else got through this.  Or hope for our careers because we know that we absolutely, positively and without a doubt can write, film, act etc, better than the no talent morons responsible for that piece of crap we’ve just seen. (Don’t underestimate the latter as a motivating factor.  It’s actually caused me to produce some of my best work).

That’s why I’m completely puzzled by the idea that what is most necessary is weaning ourselves off of oil in favor of nuclear power and tightening our economic belts by cutting most of the arts programs in schools across the country.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather pay at least $8 a gallon for gas if I was 100% guaranteed I wouldn’t be told by the government to duct tape myself into my house because it was probably the best way to avoid all of the radiation leakage in the atmosphere.  It’s not as if I can afford to or want to pay that much, but life is about choices.  When my aunt used to babysit for me on Sunday nights she insisted on watching “Bonanza’ and, bored to death,  I chose to go into the living room and turn on “The Judy Garland Show.”  This taught me early on that every problem had a solution and that solution often involved a singer.  And that one person’s great art (“Bonanza) is another person’s (young boy/Judy fan’s) torture.

(Note:  Those under 40 can substitute “CSI” for “Bonanza” or any episode of “VHI’s Divas Live”for Judy).

You might not be a Christopher Nolan fan but aside from Steven Spielberg and James Cameron he’s probably the most commercially successful filmmaker now working.  So it might interest you to know he used his advertising copywriter Dad’s super 8 camera to make his first movie and went to University College in London as an American Literature major and made his first film short among the school’s film society.  That short, “Doodlebug,” might give you an indication of what was to come.

Not everyone has a father with a movie camera (my Dad had a great facility for sports trivia and not singing divas, though I did find his and my mother’s “Judy Live At Carnegie Hall” album one long, dark night, but that’s another story) or a college film society.  In fact, many don’t.  I meet them every semester teaching film and TV writing at a private college that is expensive but also offers a lot of scholarship money.  The fact that I, myself can teach here, is because I first got my B.A. from a city college in New York where my tuition each semester was – wait for it — $69.25.  Yes, really.  It was called “free” tuition and it educated lots of lots and lots of talented people in the arts that are responsible for your favorite films and tv programs.  I’m not name dropping when I tell you one of the people in my class was Jerry Seinfeld and my friend Deb directed him in a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckcoo’s Nest” at Queens College.  The reason I’m not name-dropping is because we didn’t know each other in college and even when I went to a rehearsal for the play and was told he was funny and performing in comedy clubs I chose to instead go home and listen to show tunes.  Though I did get the chance through a college professor to get tickets to the original production of “A Chorus Line.” So it’s not entirely regrettable.

I’m not saying “Seinfeld” wouldn’t have happened without tuition-free Queens College but as we learned in “Back to the Future” films you never know what can happen when you take away opportunities and rearrange the events of history.  I’m not saying that any of my scholarship students are going to be the next Chrstopher Nolan but I do know you can’t prove that one of them won’t be – or be even better.  And who wants to take the chance of losing that?  What is known is that there are at least four full or partial nuclear meltdowns going on in Japan; our economy still teeters on the brink of its own disaster ; and enough natural and unnatural meltdowns of all kinds have occurred in the last few decades to last us the next few centuries.  And that the arts have an all-important place in the world to help us get through it.  Not high art or low ART,  but art.  That’s sitcoms, porn,  and Michael Bay movies.  (That’s mean, I know, but sometimes you do just have to go there to make a point).

What will get you through and what happens when it’s not there,20, 30, 40 or 50 years from now and you’re old and scared that the world will revolt because there’s nothing to assuage their frustration?  One shudders to think

Here’s what’s helping my friend Tom Diggs, writer and producer of the upcoming web series called “The Perks of Writing A Musical.”  Watching the horror unfold in Japan he remembered that the first year he lived there, in 1985, he had read Basho’s ‘Narrow Road to the Deep North” and decided to travel the path this great poet traveled and wrote about with such marvel.  He writes it was up around Sendai and in that all too familiar coast are the beautiful islands of Matsushima.  Basho’s simple words upon seeing that untouched majesty of the coastline: “Matsushima ah!, A-ah, Matsushima, ah!, Matsushima, ah!”

Of course, that coast is now earthquake and tsunami ravaged and in peril of being radiated away from all eternity.

That brings to mind for me the end of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,”and what is said by young Emily, when she is allowed to go back and observe the people in her town one last day after she has died.  “They don’t understand, do they?”

Watching a scene from “Transformers 2”or 3, or 7 (god forbid) to get away from it all is equally valid.  What’s important is that we continue to have a choice.