The Sheen of Illusion

Hollywood was long ago nicknamed the dream factory but with an Oscar hangover that somehow allowed me to think that James Franco co-hosted part of the Academy Awards in Marilyn Monroe drag, I don’t entirely trust my perspective.  This same fever dream then starred Charlie Sheen, star of a show I never watch, “Two and A Half Men” appearing to me on every television channel I flipped my remote to, proclaiming he lived with two women he called “the goddesses,” was filled with “tiger blood,” and uttering such memorable quotes as, “I don’t sleep.  I wait.” My medications obviously need to be adjusted.    Or maybe it could be my writer subconscious begging me to be that much bolder in my work.  More likely, it’s both.

Some years ago a friend of mine commented on some such event like Suzanne Somers bringing her one woman show to Broadway (he now contends it was some other event but I prefer to think of it this way) that “it’s the end of civilization.”  I have been meaning to call him to ask what stage he now considers us to be in.  A culture drunk bender that will require a century of rehab?  Post Armageddon?  Perhaps it’s the finale chapter of “Newhart” where he wakes up next to the wife of his previous successful television series, Suzanne Pleshette, in the finale of his second successful television series, and when he tells her the details of his new sitcom life of the last five years, she looks at him and deadpans, “Go back to sleep.”

We might all need a long sleep.  But how long?  A century?  A decade?  Or two or three?  Maybe we’re sleeping already and we don’t know it.  Is that the real message of “Inception?”  Have I finally figured it out and can now once again be considered culturally literate?  Or is that my fantasy, too?

A certain amount of both illusion and truth is needed to succeed in the entertainment business, and I suspect in any creative enterprise.  But how much of each?  That’s the trick.  Keeping it in the proper balance.  For yourself.  Because everyone needs a different dosage to not only succeed but to survive in today’s world.

It should be noted I’m appropriating Edward Albee’s famous line from his masterwork “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  Albee, by the way, didn’t win the Oscar for the movie version of Edward Albee’s “WAOVW” – that was  Ernest Lehman (“North by Northwest”), who admitted he tried to open up the story, only to go back to many of the lines and moments in the play.  But he still got the credit and Oscar for the words on the page, which yes, he did edit and reorder, but most of which were written by Albee.  Perhaps that’s the screenwriter’s job and he deserved it.  Or is it an illusion that he wrote the movie version.  I don’t know and it’s up to others less dreamy to decide.  (Note:  A friend just called to tell me Lehman didn’t win but was nominated, which is an honor in itself where you get a nice certificate and a free luncheon, something Albee still might have been rightfully entitled to.  Now picking up where we left off — )

What I do know is that when starting in any creative profession one must have a notion or vision or illusion of one’s success despite the odds.  Some call that goals.  Motivational guru Tony Robbins talks about finding a mentor and visualization and thirty years ago got a lot of attention for demonstrating this by walking across a bed of coals barefoot – willing himself not to feel the heat.

It’s a clever metaphor – not feeling the heat when you’re attempting to do something new and different.  Arianna Huffington was warned by most of her friends that she’d fail miserably when she started Huffington Post and now has become one of the most influential media moguls in the world.  Columbia put “E.T.” into turnaround in 1981, thinking who’d want to see some story about a little kid and an alien directed by the guy who’d just done the overblown box office disappointment, “1941?”  One of the producers of this year’s Oscar show came up with the excuse that “we had to try something – even if nothing worked, we can fix it.  But at least we did it.”  As disappointing as the Oscars might have been to many, he has a point.  Success has many parents but failure is an orphan (no, I didn’t make that up).  You need to dream and dream big (nor that either).  Be fearless.  Knowing success is not a straight line but a circuitous graph that is more nuanced and jagged than Bernie Madoff’s financial books and probably more treacherous to navigate than Charlie Sheen’s brain patterns.  (that’s mine, I think).

Some people say to be bold – Think Different.  At least that’s what those Apple ads told us – from Einstein to Bono – so it must be true.  But then once you do, everyone tells you your ideas suck and you’re crazy.  Until you prove them wrong.  Or implode.  Or explode.

One of the cool and troubling things about society is there is room for everyone or no one.  You have to self-monitor and yet not self censor.  One person’s truth is society’s illusion or vice-versa.   One of the things a writing mentor of mine, Oscar nominated screenwriter Anna Hamilton-Phelan (“Gorillas in the Mist”) said years ago stayed with me. She invited me into her writer’s group and at one point, reading a very personal, independent screenplay I was writing, she noted that one of the greatest things about not having had a movie made is that you don’t know how many things will have to change and what can go wrong.  You can write unencumbered because you don’t know enough yet to censor yourself.  In the last 25 years I’ve heard that sentiment shared by Callie Khouri, Shane Black and just about every screenwriter I’ve ever met.  What I think they’re saying is you need a certain amount of illusion to get by in a world crazy enough to have phones stand in for musical instruments…

…and politicians and governments ignoring the true will of its people (fill in your own links because I’m not getting political right now).  It’s up to us to dream and dream big.  If it works out and it gets the message across then you are a genius and as rich and famous as Madonna or (fill in political figure of your choice). Do it wrong and you’ve Charlie Sheened yourself across the airwaves.  None are particularly real but all are an attempt at something.  In today’s culture, it’s your choice to decide which illusion you want to present as your, or our, truth. If you’re creative and lucky enough, the former can just as easily become the latter.  Of course, that could just be my illusion and the way I survive.  Which is also totally fine.  Despite what anyone else thinks.  Because I believe it’s so.

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4 thoughts on “The Sheen of Illusion

  1. Steven-
    I truly look forward to your notes from a chair. They have become my weekly addiction along with the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section, and my Williams Sonoma cooking classes.

  2. I liked this column, which could have been called “hope.”
    Rose-colored glasses are essential to any creative endeavor. Last night I saw THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, which is — depending on where you stand — either a great antidote to INCEPTION, or a slight romantic romp. That movie does raise one potent philosophical uppercut to the jaw (POW!) the idea that while humans do have the luxury of free will, most of us choose not to use it. Or, worse, use it badly. Which takes us to Charlie Sheen. Free will incarnate.
    “Dying is for fools, amateurs.”
    Somebody tell Jesus.

    • I agree — perhaps there is something to be said for a rule or two in life. Though Ill deny ever saying it when someone tries to curtail MY free will. You are the third person that recommended “Ajustment Bureau” so I am there!

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