William Goldman, the Oscar winning and once highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood (though he lived in New York) once famously said of the entertainment industry: “Nobody knows anything.” I never truly believed this, though I said I did. After all, it’s easy to be the most successful and highest paid anything and say that because a) you’ve already made it, b) you are one of the few of us who are so clever and talented that you don’t have to figure out the regular rules, or c) you are probably also the kind of person who is ALWAYS in the right place at the right time, something that never seems to happen to me.
Now that I’m mid-career (if I live to be, like, 110), I know that’s bullshit. You might not believe me because, well, why should you? Especially if you’re the age I was when I first heard William Goldman make his remarks in the 1970s. But trust me, it’s true.
Conventional wisdom tells us a lot of things but what it doesn’t tell us about are the EXCEPTIONS – and CHANCE – both of which have a lot more power than we think and shifts conventional wisdom on a dime. It also probably produces the best films, television, music and theatre, anyway. Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché but bares repeating – no one thought “Star Wars” would be the hit that it was; Francis Coppola wasn’t the first choice to direct “The Godfather; horror films were dead until “Halloween,” musicals were dead until “Chicago” and “Glee;” and John Travolta’s career was dead until a fan of his named Quentin Tarantino decided it would be a hoot and cast him in a little film called “Pulp Fiction.”
Further – you don’t make movies on issues such as anti-Semitism in the 1940s until a film like “Gentlemen’s Agreement” wins some Oscars and makes money; nor films about black and whites intermingling or marrying until “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; nor hire blacklisted writers until Kirk Douglas decides “that’s crap” and employs accused Commie Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus” because he knows he’s the best man for the job.
Or take a chance on anything particularly new and different in the post millennium world because the world economy is in collapse, everyone is risk adverse, the public IQ has been dumbed-down and we now live in a four quadrant world where any artistic property that has a hope of being made has to appeal to the broadest audience possible and have the potential to be an action figure, an app or a happy meal.
All it takes is guts, talent, perseverance and, yeah, a little bit of luck. But we all have luck at one time or another in our lives – both good and bad. If you believe you never had any good luck – well the fact that you’re still breathing does count. And if you still want to believe that isn’t true then you can take some solace in the fact that if there is only bad luck, someone’s lack of luck could certainly cause you to inadvertently prosper. Would that be considered your good luck? Well, I certainly think so.
I was amused at Lady Gaga’s recent HBO concert for many reasons, but none more so than when she imitated one of her doomsaying, know-it-all NYU professors regarding Gaga’s chance of making it – Teacher (in heavy New York accent): Well….you know….(gum chomping)…yaw’ll never be the STAHHHH (star). Ya maybe can play the ballsy best friend… But ya’ll NEVER…… etc, etc.
Now granted, I may not be the greatest college professor in the world, or even in the top 1000, but I can’t imagine ever telling that to a student, or anyone, because – how the hell do I know? Or anyone know? Hint: If they tell you they do, remember what William Goldman says – they don’t. And you can take his word for it because he’s made far more money and films than I have AND has also written numerous plays, books and musicals, too. Google or IMDB him. You’ll see.
If you still don’t want to believe either of us – consider this year’s Tony Awards and what I couldn’t help but feel was the emergence of everyone’s inner GAY. As in homosexual, same sex marriage, or the love that dare not speak its name as they used to say in the fifties (yeah, times are changing. The Tonys might help gay marriage pass in NY…but still…)
Having been born at a time when they still used to say the latter and now living in a time when I write about the former, I confess to a still continuing surprise when I watch the opening number of a primetime, family-oriented network (CBS) offering hosted by an openly gay host (Neil Patrick Harris) and star of a very high-rated (at least it was) and traditional sitcom (“How I Met Your Mother”), singing to, oh, 50 million people – that theatre “Is Not Just For Gays Anymore” without so much as a ripple of public disapproval or threatened network boycott. This was UNHEARD OF even just 20 years ago. (see this or this).
But that’s not the only thing. Yeah, we know the theatre’s always been more gay friendly than other entertainment mediums (is it something inherent about New York or because drama originated with the Greeks?), but the show then continues to become a tribute to an irreverent musical called “Book of Mormon” by the at one time controversial “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Remember when there was public outcry about their work and very existence? What changed? Was it CHANCE? Or were they the EXCEPTION? Or —
Did they just continue to do their work, good work, and the world somehow caught up with them? Maybe that’s why they’re the toast of Broadway. And not even gay. (As far as I know). Nah, I guess it’s just luck and chance.
Someone who is also the toast of Broadway and gay who I do know (of) is a man named Larry Kramer. For those of you who know him, you know how strange this sounds. Mr. Kramer was one of the first (if not the first) activists to speak out about AIDS in 1981 – offending much of the gay community by handing out leaflets in the gay Mecca Fire Island and begging people (fellow gays) to curb their sexual activities until more was found out about the disease and demand government action. He also offended much of the straight community, as he’d done his entire life, by simply being his unabashedly gay, mouthy, take no prisoners, self. Mr. Kramer continued to do so and wrote a play about his travails 30 years ago called “The Normal Heart” starring a mouthy hero patterned after himself which played off-Broadway and got mixed reviews for being TOO SPEECHY, TOO PREACHY and generally (I can say this now) ahead of its time. As those of us who were around then and have (somehow) lived to tell this tale now understand, Mr. Kramer was right and his artistic work on Sunday was lauded as if it were truly the Rapture (not the fake one predicted). And now, in one fell swoop, he got Tony Awards, a public platform for him to speak to a worldwide audience without leaflets, and tributes by just about every film, television and theatre star in attendance. (Mr. Kramer, by the way, has never been a stranger to controversy – his first novel – a roman a clef called “Faggots” – which took the gay community to task for its penchant for loveless sex – was a huge success in some circles in the 70s, yet also cost him dearly in the eyes of his own community).
The admittedly very long-winded point I’m making is – WHAT WILL YOU FIGHT FOR? WHAT IS YOUR ORIGINAL VOICE TELLING YOU IS IMPORTANT? Because if you’re interested in “making it” in the entertainment business – really making it – meaning having an impact – this seems as sure a way as any to do it. It’s a slow, unsteady climb, not a straight one (oops, didn’t mean to make that pun). Chances are events won’t EVER fall into place for your work of art the way it did for Larry Kramer, or even Trey Parker and Matt Stone. But chance is so-named because it’s unpredictable. Just when you feel sure it’s trending one way, it can easily turn around, sneak up behind you and say “boo.” Or much more than that. Ask Larry or Trey or Matt. Chance is strange that way.
Ellen Barkin, who won this year’s Tony Award for best supporting actress for “The Normal Heart” summed it up best in her thank you speech when she said her experience with the play taught her one very important lesson:
“One person can make a difference – one person can change the world.”
Kramer did it for gay liberation and the issue of AIDS. Trey Parker and Matt Stone did it for comedy, political correctness and, now – Broadway.
But isn’t it all the same thing? Take a chance.