Endings and Beginnings

The one and only?

“When one door closes another opens.”  It’s taken me all of my life and then some (I’m counting the future) to accept the adage.  How does one take a disappointing or not hoped for outcome and not only accept it but actually revel in it because its very existence might be opening up a great opportunity yet to come?

On that note, how can you let go of a longtime dream, whether you’ve achieved it or not achieved it and make room for another (Remember — either outcome means you do have to go on).  How do you believe that CHANGE IS GOOD, or can be good –-because experience tells us that it is, or can be, if we make it so.

This is all essential in show business and in life (Side Note: Never, EVER, confuse the two).   I’ll resist saying anything about the latter because, well, I’m not that wise and certainly not old enough to philosophize.  But I do know something about surviving in show business because, well, I’m friends with a lot of people who have and, let’s face it, here I am still performing in our little/big/medium-sized three-ring circus (the size depends on your current standing in the biz).

The death of Amy Winehouse this week prompted all this reflection.  I was a rabid fan of the brilliant and troubled young singer and her demise felt to me like a door closing on one of the few contemporary musicians whose work I listen and relate to with any regularity.  There have been so many intelligent tributes, tweets, comments on this (and some not so smart) that I won’t go on about it.  You can read Russell Brand‘s or two writers at Salon (here and here) for some of my favorites.  There’s even a NY times article where iconoclastic (or at least he was) director John Waters talks about her style.

But best of all there’s the music. Listen to the “Back to Black” album and if for some reason it’s not your thing, it is likely you won’t deny the one-of-a-kindness of Winehouse’s talent.  Perhaps more interesting and less known was her pared down jazz/soul cover of the vintage Carole King song, “Will You Still Love me Tomorrow.” Watch it here. 

Why am I writing about this?  Because while part of Winehouse’s talent was just a grand gift from – not sure where, you decide – it was not just the inheritance of the “brilliant gene” that fostered her creativity.  She worked at it from a young age.  She grew up obsessed with Frank Sinatra, girl bands, played with her musician Dad and others for years on end as a kid on several instruments.  She listened incessantly to Billie Holiday, white British soul singer Mari Wilson, and American girl group icon Ronnie Spector for hundreds of hours on end.  Spector, a member of rock royalty whose classic “A Christmas Gift For You” album you hear in every mall across America in the holiday season (and yeah, she was married to THAT guy), knew Winehouse was inspired by her but the feeling was mutual.  So much so that at a concert six months ago, she sang a cover song of Winehouse’s signature song, “Back to Black.”  (Watch it here) while a shy Winehouse hid behind a man in the corner.  But Spector still spotted Winehouse’s signature beehive hairdo, the same hairdo she herself sported in the 60s.

The truism here is that like all great art, artists are not accidental and Amy Winehouse wasn’t.  It was a combination of study and hard work on the shoulders of those who came before her — Holiday, Spector, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, the Shirelles and every girl group of the sixties, Aretha Franklin, Carole King (I was surprised but shouldn’t have been that a Carole King song, “So Far Away,” was noted by her father as one of her favorite songs at her funeral), and Lauryn Hill (the latter apparently being someone she listened to incessantly).  That her demise into the “27 club” even happened is awful and represents an ending of sorts.  Yet as final as her death is as an end to her new music, we can be sure her creative history marks the beginning of someone else – perhaps in a few years – in 10 years – or maybe a generation later.  That person will listen to Winehouse incessantly, be influenced by her and the handful of brilliant artists of all kinds before her, and create something just as raw, fresh and frankly, amazing, as she did.  But in a different way.  And we can also be sure that person would not have existed without Winehouse ending specifically when she did.   That sucks, and we wish it didn’t happen but it did and that’s the way of the creative world.  Work is sparked by nuance, by obsession, by circumstances, by innocence and by tragedy – of all kinds. *

 *For those who say we pay too much attention to Winehouse’s death in comparison to the massacre last weekend in Norway, I say – “uh, since when do tragedies have to compete in the “best” category, like Oscars,  and why does attention to one negate the other.  And I point you to this refutation in one of the two prior Salon posts.

It should also be noted the ENDING of Winehouse’s music will somewhere spark the BEGINNING of someone else’s voice not only in music but in film, print, television and/or yes, perhaps the internet.  It’s part of the elusive cycle of art in this new world we live in.  No one does it alone, really.  Nor could they  (And who would want to?).  We don’t live in isolated caves anymore, no matter how much the reflection of our current events on cable news makes it seem.

If you want to create new work it helps to have a “gift.”  But more people than you might realize have the “gift.”  Ask anyone over 40 you know who is an actor, writer, musician or director to recite some of the more talented friends with sparks of brilliance much brighter than their own who were never heard from and I guarantee you will soon get a list a mile long.  The legacy of Amy Winehouse, aside from her music and her brilliance, was that she worked at it her whole life.  So much so that it will in turn give life to much more wonderful art than we can ever know.  Endings and beginnings, indeed.

***

On a more personal basis – today marks another exciting beginning of sorts for someone very special to the chair and to this blog.   My colleague Holly Van Buren, who fills in for my lack of tech savvy and is the best blog editor any guy (or gal) could ever have, is leaving Ithaca College Los Angeles and relocating to our home campus in Ithaca , NY where she will be teaching freshman film, among other life lessons. (Lucky them – and that’s not me being sarcastic!).

Holly’s exit from our offices is an ending – and is sad for us – but is such an exciting beginning for her that we can’t be sad unless we were the most selfish, egocentric, only obsessed with our own needs people in the entire world.  And I, for one, stopped being that last week because I didn’t want to make Holly feel any worse for abandoning/leaving me and the blog, (okay, not to mention the rest of the office) to our own devices.  She’s not, of course, because that’s not her way.  She’ll be editing it and posting cool videos for us from Ithaca.  It might not be different for you but it’s different for me.  She was the one who encouraged me to do this in the first place and laughs at my jokes, compliments my observations and tells me when I make absolutely no sense at all or am being as clear in print as a smoggy Los Angeles day (which happens more often than I like in my first draft).

Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Holly.  But our loss here, is Ithaca College’s gain.  Endings and beginnings.  Again.

Stay tuned for more.

Dream Team

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Recipes

I enjoy cooking and I’m good at it.  I’m not a great cook because that would entail inventing recipes from scratch out of thin air or improvising five star meals out of what’s in the kitchen cabinet.  What I love most about cooking (other than eating) is that if you exactly follow a great or even good recipe it’s impossible to make a mistake.  It will ALWAYS come out right.  When my sister, whom I adore, compliments my cooking and tells me she wishes she could be as good as I am at it, I roll my eyes (lovingly) and always have the same response:  “If you can read, you can cook.”

Not so in the entertainment business.  There is no recipe.  No formula.  This runs contrary to what you hear deep inside film and TV studios and from many, if not most, producers and agents.  They believe in the “recipe,” “the formula,” if only for self-preservation.  I mean, what if there were no sure fire way to do your job – you’d have to get creative.  Maybe even edgy or dangerous.

Note:  I’m making an overall point here.  I do know some creative studio executives, producers and agents.  Maybe even one or two who are edgy and dangerous.  And even if I didn’t (but I do) I would not admit it because I would like to get a film made again.  To reiterate, that’s “if” I didn’t.

The recipe you most hear about in film and television is

  1. Take a strong concept or story (robots attacking the earth.. ahem, “Transformers”) and…
  2. Marry it with a proven moneymaking director (Michael Bay: “Tranformers II.”  And “III.”  And…?).   Sometimes you can even…
  3. Put a big star in it (Shia LaBeouf?).  But, uh, okay, not necessarily.  Two of the three elements are often enough.

Another way to go is to:

  1. Take a money-making story from another medium that is so HUGELY popular (“Harry Potter”) that it can’t help but succeed financially, even without big box-office stars.  In that case, it helps to have…
  2. A proven, big moneymaking director (Chris Columbus)
  3. An experienced, literate screenwriter (Steve Kloves) and…
  4. A lot of very experienced producers – too many to mention but you can look it up here.

So okay – there IS a formula, you say?  Hasn’t this guy just disproven his point?  Not exactly.  Or at all.  Because aside from the various examples of other films that had those same type of elements but DID NOT succeed (my friends and I call them LUCY award winners, for reasons which I’ll explain in a minute), it seems that the aforementioned sure-fire formulas for film/TV success I just mentioned in 2011 no longer hold water for the studio powers-that-be.

To prove my point, I cite and credit the following bit of information to Nikke Finke’s Deadline Hollywood, which broke the following story earlier this week:

“Universal recently passed on green lighting At The Mountains of Madness, which Guillermo del Toro was to direct with Tom Cruise starring, based on HP Lovecraft horror tale.”

And what about this one?

 “…The Dark Tower, the ultra-ambitious adaptation of the Stephen King 7-novel series that was going to encompass a trilogy of feature films and two limited run TV series. The studio has said, No Thanks. Universal has passed on going forward with the project, dealing a huge blow in the plan for Ron Howard to direct Akiva Goldsman’s script, with Brian Grazer, Goldsman and the author producing and Javier Bardem starring as gunslinger Roland Deschain.

How does this NOT work?

Don’t these fit in the formula?  Uh, not any longer because, as you see, the recipe has changed.   And will change again.  And then again.  Or maybe there was never any sure-fire recipes for film and TV success to begin with (Just as I told you!).

Because if, according to those proven “recipes,” Tom Cruise (still one of our biggest international moneymaking actors) starring in a genre (they never lose money) film directed by a now HOT, money-making and even artistic director like Guillermo Del Toro who understands, has made money and even gotten good reviews in genre filmmaking (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Blade 2,” “Hellboy”) can’t get a film project going, something’s up.  Yeah, Deadline Hollywood tells us “the studio balked at funding a $150 million film that gave del Toro the latitude to deliver his cut with an R-rating.”  But is that it?  Or have economic times called for a seismic shift in new ingredients?

Ron Howard’s films have grossed upwards of $1.8 billion (that’s BILLION, with a “B”) domestically.   So if anyone could do a “Lord of the Rings” type trilogy for his home studio of Universal you’d think it would be a veteran yet still young (ish – for directors) Oscar winner, producing with his longtime mega moneymaking partner from a script by his Oscar-winning long-time writer.  Also, incidentally,  starring arguably one of the hottest international stars both critically and financially in movies today.  But again, no go.

Stop the boiling water, Virginia —  your film package may not have seemed half-baked but is now officially only half-cooked.

The recent economic meltdown of the past two years and the financial disappointments or stale reviews for some much-touted films has changed things.  Nothing is a sure thing, if it ever was.  The recipes for success that are no guarantees of anything have been changed by the people who claim publicly to not have any.  Or maybe, where creative work is concerned, there is no, nor has there ever been, any sure fire recipe to begin with.

Consider:

  1. “Nine” – From the director of the Oscar-winning movie musical megahit “Chicago,” (Rob Marshall) starring the Academy Award-winning actor of pretty much every other acclaimed movie (a slight exaggeration?) in the last 15 years (Daniel Day-Lewis)
  2. “Lovely Bones” – An adaptation of one the world’s most recent best selling single volume books from one of the most sought after directors Peter Jackson of multi-part films (“Lord of the Rings”) the world has ever known.
  3. “Burlesque” – Cher and Christina Aguilera in a movie musical.   It bridges music young and old.  Plus there’s A LOT of skin.  How can it lose?  Or at least not be interesting.  And infinitely watchable?

Help!

My friend Barry (who suggested I cite  him  the films) and I would modestly categorize these last three films as “Lucy” award winners.  Meaning they are films that on paper look like they’re sure successes or of high interest either creatively, financially or for huge entertainment value.  Yet, all three, with fairly sure-fire ingredients in their recipes failed to deliver.

(Note:  This award was named years ago in honor of my favorite all-time TV actor – Lucille Ball, who still makes me guffaw in reruns of “I Love Lucy” just about every time I tune in.  However, she unwittingly created the “Lucy” award when she starred in the ill-fated movie version of “Mame,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical that, on paper at least, looked like a viable recipe for success).

It wasn’t.

What is the takeaway here?  That recipes are for cooking, not for movie or TV making.  And just to prove it, I will close with one of my favorites of the former – Ina Garten’s (“The Barefoot Contessa”) formula for GREAT GUACOMOLE.  Over the years I’ve made it at least 100 times and it ALWAYS, ALWAYS comes out perfect.

Ingredients

4 ripe Haas avocados

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)

8 dashes hot pepper sauce

1/2 cup small-diced red onion (1 small onion)

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 medium tomato, seeded, and small-diced

Directions

Cut the avocados in 1/2, remove the pits, and scoop the flesh out of their shells into a large bowl. (I use my hands.) Immediately add the lemon juice, hot pepper sauce, onion, garlic, salt, and pepper and toss well. Using a sharp knife, slice through the avocados in the bowl until they are finely diced. Add the tomatoes. Mix well and taste for salt and pepper.

You can thank me later.

To Jennifer, with love

How do you solve a problem like Jennifer?

Here’s the punch line to an old show business joke:   “…Because I needed a new bathroom.” Many of today’s movie stars, whether they know it or not, are now the unwitting deliverers of that sadly funny but telling line.  The first part of the joke is: “What would have ever possessed you to take that role.” (For writers or directors you can substitute, film, script or assignment for the word “role”).

I don’t mean to pick on movie stars specifically but to make the argument you have to cite some group and, well, movie stars are as good an example as any of those who choose to sell out their ample talent to the highest (or just high) bidder.  And frankly — they’re rich, famous, privileged, and awfully good looking (most of them) so I feel they can take it.

Actors talk all the time about there not being enough good parts (for movie studios substitute good enough scripts, for directors substitute cool or meaty projects).  But here’s the truth – really desirable parts get created from directors, writers and yes, producers and studio executives, who are trying, working hard, going out on a limb, and exploring new and dangerous territory.  Or just being clever and true to themselves in a way that hasn’t been quite been done before because they’re tapping into something that’s uniquely them.

To whit:  Jennifer Anniston CAN act – quite well – and even in something more than light comedy — watch Mike White’s “The Good Girl.”  She’s also lovely in many of her rom coms.  She has enough friends (and that also includes her work on “Friends,” the great TV show that still holds up) and money to finance any movie she wants ENTIRELY for, let’s say, under $5 million and not get too hurt.  Hell, she just sold her house in Beverly Hills for $42,000,000 (well, that was the asking price) and made a tidy profit for quite a bit more than that.   But she doesn’t choose to.  Nor do most others. (For further examples of others, substitute the name of, oh, Johnny Depp).

I like Ms. Aniston professionally and several friends of mine who have spent time with her personally like her quite a bit too.  She’s nice.  She’s down to earth.  She’s a lot of fun, they say.  So why do she and handfuls of other film stars not choose to take matters into their own hands and make/finance lower budget movies on their own at a price.  And do the schlock only when they really need a new bathroom? (But really, how many bathrooms does one realistically need anyway?).

George Clooney does this to some extent and Ms. Aniston did do this to some extent when she had a company with ex-husband Brad Pitt, which he now has and which enables him to still do it, to some extent.  But that isn’t the norm these days.  Well, maybe she doesn’t have the time or interest? It does take some effort.  But so does walking across the room to change the channel if your remote isn’t handy.  (And that’s assuming you don’t have someone in your house or an employee that can get up for you, which I’m thinking she may have).  Yet if she and others don’t do something (because money is power right now) the upshot for actors (or writers, directors, etc) and their audiences, at least, is going from meaningless film to meaningless film, polluting the waters for anything slightly better than what comes along.  Yes, I’m talking to you “Horrible Bosses,” “Green Lantern,” and “Hangover II” (if you don’t like these choices you can substitute – well, I’m sure you can think of two or three).

United Artists (the film company founded in the twenties by disgruntled film artists Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplain and DW Griffith)   – –  Even First Artists (the film company founded in the 1970s by Barbra Streisand, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen)  — Save us!  We’re dying creatively out here.  Television is thriving creatively mostly because of cable programming and its influence on the networks to push the envelope (though for every “Mad Men” there are 10 “Kardashians,” but I digress). It’s also serialized.  For those of us who love our stories in one larger sitting, is there no hope at all? I don’t get it.  Have the modes of entertainment changed that much.  Or is it only about getting rich in the shortest possible manner?

Where are you??

If the rich and successful ARE the job creators (duh), uh, Hollywood’s wealthy – where are you?  Are you only interested in creating crappy jobs?  Does that hold for every industry across the country?  Is that why we’re in the pickle we’re in?  Did all the good jobs (and movie projects?) go overseas?  Are we outsourcing ourselves, literally, into creative irrelevance, at least movie wise? (Duh and double duh).

This is certainly not limited to mainstream Hollywood.  Two feature length independent films I saw last weekend at Outfest, the LA gay and lesbian film festival, are not any not better, and in one instance much worse, than any of the movies previously mentioned.  That one in question was, in fact, so hideous, so absolutely without any wit or substance that it was actually embarrassing to watch.  Not so for the director, who proudly hawked DVD’s of his previous films prior to this screening, much to the delight of a packed crowd at 10pm on a Sat night (which, it should be noted, is really the shank of the evening in gay time).  Maybe that’s what it takes nowadays – absolute nerve and hype that whatever product you’re pedaling is the coolest thing in the world.  Perhaps in this case, indie and mainstream moviemaking are more alike and have always been more alike than I want to believe.  I might take a moment to sob just about now.

That's showbiz, kid

But just as I’m ready to give up I read that Glenn Close has a movie being released at the end of the year called “Albert Nobbs,” where she plays a woman who poses as a male butler in 1890s Ireland that is said to likely be one of this year’s top Oscar picks.  I also read that Ms Close has been pushing to get it made as a film since she played it off-Broadway nearly 30 years ago.  Kudos to her.  But thirty years???  Well, okay.

Working on her EGOT

And then there was the really interesting independent movie “Weekend” that I saw last night at Outfest by young British filmmaker Andrew Haigh that very much evoked the imaginative rawly emotional work of the young John Cassavettes.  That was really promising and very bold and daring.  So there is that.  Not to mention the idea for a new script I thought of on my own a few nights ago that I’m just starting to take notes on and will continue researching and outlining this weekend.  I’m starting to get excited to explore this new world and see what I can get down on paper.  Perhaps I’ll even manage a little self-discovery in the process.

Hmm., who needs new bathrooms when we have all of that?

Throwing The Chair

This will be an intermittent mid-week feature follow-up to the previous blog post addressing issues that compel the chair to be thrown – both figuratively and literally.

I give up

“Hangover II,” “Bridesmaids” and “Horrible Bosses.”  Talk about taste free.  Does it matter which ones you liked and which ones you hated?

The movie industry is b

ecoming as lazy as the people put in charge of changing things in Washington.  Unless this IS the change we

’ve waited for.  God, I hope not.  They say people get the governments they deserve, does it also mean we get the entertainment we deserve?

The entertainment business these days is really about glory and not story.  Glory meaning the ultimate goal is attention, results and bottom line at pretty much any cost except a personal one.  How else to explain A list actors Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell (okay, A – list) willingness to grab onto the R-rated gravy train with the quite taste free “Horrible Bosses.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m in for a good raunchy romp fest where I can sit back and enjoy and not think too much.  But not thinking too much is not the same as not thinking at all.  Raunchy romping is not the same as witless characters doing stuff  impossible to believe even in the most stoned out story meeting.  But if the latter were possible in the year 2011 (because one wishes some of the ideas posited in these meetings actually came from people who were stoned, that would at least be an excuse) it’d have to be a little bit better than this.

I kind of liked “Bridesmaids” and parts made me laugh.  “Hangover II” was a thin retread of the first with only a few decent laughs.  “Horrible Bosses” lived up to half its title.  This is, of course, a

matter of opinion and perhaps you disagree.  But even those who enjoy the film (how could you????) admit it doesn’t make much sense.  Even in movie reality.  Here’s the obligation of the writer – create a dramatic/comedic situation and world grounded in certain rules and once that’s established go crazy within that world.  (That’s how the “South Park” guys do it). But don’t get lazy and just say, “well, it’s a comedy, we can do anything.” That shortchanges the filmmakers and the audience.  In this case, it must have been all those impromptu yuks on the set combined with numerous studio notes mixed in with various director and test marketing cuts that winnowed this film into incredulity.  Doesn’t matter it made $23,000,000 this weekend.  Or that it has 74% on Rotten Tomatoes.  It’s not something we should aspire to.  And we all can do better.

If you’re in the mood for great comedy watch:  “Tootsie,” “Monty Python’s Holy Grail,” “Some Like It Hot,” “His Girl Friday,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “Forty Year Old Virgin,” “Duck Soup,” “Young Frankenstein” “What’s Up Doc?” “The Producers,” Philadelphia Story” “Groundhog’s Day,” or “This Is Spinal Tap.”  Or you have my blessing to rent or download or pay per view ANY film on AFI’s top 100 comedy list. http://www.funnycomedymovies.com/a_f_i__top_100_funniest_movies.htm

Or (better yet) – spend the time writing, directing , acting in or creating a new one on your own.  Anything but proclaiming to people how cool and funny “Horrible Bosses” is to your friends.  You, and we, and all of us (including the people who made it) can do better.  But only if we aspire to it.

Taste Free

After a hiatus from performing in the seventies, Bette Midler was asked by a reporter whether her new live act would contain her usual tasteless material. “Actually, no,” quipped the diva, “The new show will be taste free.”

I’ve thought of this comment periodically over the years, especially when family, friends or the general public tell me they find one of my jokes or comments “tasteless.”  What the heck is tasteless, anyway?  And I’m not talking offensive, as in disparaging a specific ethnicity.  I’m talking tasteless as in….well, you decide.

The argument surfaced this week all over the blogosphere when Casey Anthony was found not guilty for killing her two year old daughter Caylee (Oh, you haven’t heard about it?  Lucky you, who lives under a rock like the caveman in the Geico commercial).  Anyway, I casually glance on Facebook and Twitter later that day and am immediately bombarded with witticisms like: “Casey Anthony, meet Dexter Morgan.” “Don’t worry, Dexter will take care of her.”  “Dexter’s headed to Orlando with knives sharpened,” etc. etc.  (For those who don’t know Dexter, he’s our larger than life TV serial killer hero who only kills particularly heinous killers who have managed to avoid justice).  Lately (meaning today), the comments have gotten even more taste challenged — “Is Casey Anthony available for birthday parties now,” “Would that jury let Casey babysit for them?” and my favorite from the Borowitz Report: “Casey Anthony got off light – the Judge had considered sentencing her to one hour with Nancy Grace.”

I cop to laughing, to varying degrees, at all of these.   Are they in bad taste? Well, they don’t tar any particular group of people.  But they do rag on a person who has been in jail for three years and was just found NOT guilty by a jury of her peers and is now INNOCENT under our justice system.   HASN’T SHE SUFFERED ENOUGH?

Do you find this last statement tasteless despite the fact that this woman has been declared innocent under our justice system?  Hmm.  Now we’re getting into murky waters.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t know what else to do but laugh or crack my own joke when faced with an awful subject or uncomfortable situation over which I feel as if I have no say or power.  And the more outrageous the joke or reaction from the audience, the bigger the release seems to be.   George Carlin first said it best for me when I was in high school with his classic comedy routine about the seven dirty words you can’t say on television.

This was, of course, before cable television – which regularly features any of those words nightly on a given series, movie or special event program.  My, how times have changed.

Carlin was greatly inspired by comedians before him such as Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, who dared to venture into uncharted territory of language and race.  There were also a whole slew of female Jewish comedians, often performing in Florida or the Borscht Belt, who made people laugh with “taste free” jokes.  Goggle names like Rusty Warren (hint: one of her record albums was called “Knockers Up!” – yes, those knockers!) and Belle Barth, who used to sing to packed houses in Miami Beach, “I lined 100 men up against the wall, and bet $100 I could…“ well, you listen and you’ll see what inspired some of Bette Midler’s seventies antics.

None of those acts are particularly shocking today, though some are still probably considered tasteless.  But are they funny? Hell yes!  Are there people who don’t find them funny and find it/me tasteless? Hell yes again!  Do I want to be friends with those people? Hell, no!!!  Many times!!!

Consider this – there was some degree of hoopla when the fabulously terrific late actress Jill Clayburgh, Oscar-nominated for her performance in Paul Mazursky’s “An Unmarried Woman,” visibly upchucked onscreen when her husband of many years blurted out he was in love with another woman.  I think at the time more people were disgusted by having to look at vomit than the sexual politics of the moment.  Imagine if they were around now (some of them still could be!) and had to look at the tour de force food poisoning scene of the four gals in “Bridesmaids?”

I'd lay off the Brazilian food, ladies

One of my proudest moments as a screenwriter and taste-free, soap box standing liberal was when I was late for a meeting at Disney in the nineties, got lost in the animation building and ran smack into a tall man carrying an attaché case and wearing a plain suit.  I profusely and hurriedly apologized and as I looked into his eyes and rushed away I realized, “Holy sh-t, That’s John Waters!”  Who could have imagined when I clandestinely watched that bootleg copy of “Pink Flamingos” with my friends (where drag queen star Divine ate dog excrement), that one day its director would be rubbing shoulders with Mickey Mouse.   How subversively taste free of all of us!!!

I’d like to also add to this that several years after watching “Pink Flamingos,” when I was still in college, the student film society SPONSORED a midnight showing ON CAMPUS, of the popular X-rated porn film, “The Devil in Miss Jones.”  I went to see it, my first exposure to big screen movie porn, and I’ve managed to live a relatively moral life (depending on your morals) since.  How many college campuses across the country do you think would allow that now?

There’s no sense arguing for a mass acceptance of porn (unless it would increase tax revenues and solve the debt crisis, which it might, so we could) but I will go out on the line for 85 year-old Mel Brooks.  (Note:  I saw him six months ago at LA Chinese restaurant Mandarette and he was still sharp and hilarious).  He mainstreamed tastelessness in 1974’s “Blazing Saddles” and it’s famous bean eating scene.   Was that crass, stupid and tasteless?  You bet your sweet derriere it was/is!

It should be noted that Mr. Brooks hasn’t stopped.  His Broadway juggernaut musical of his movie from the sixties, “The Producers,” featured a homosexual Adolph Hitler sitting at the footlights of a New York theatre eight performances and six nights a week imitating Judy Garland.  I mean, if that’s not taste free, I don’t know what is.

I’m going to try to remember all of this the next time I blanch (not Blanche as in DuBois, but as in repelled by) when someone tries to get me to watch one of the “Hostel” movies all the way through or tells me I have to rewatch the original “Last House on the Left,” one of the only movies that has ever given me nightmares.   I might even try to remember it when I’m watching Sarah Bachman or Michelle Palin (oops!) giving a speech, though for me that will be a lot tougher. It is then you can come to my door (or blog) and shout me down with the inimitable words Oscar nominated and Emmy, Grammy and special Tony winner Bette Midler has shouted numerous times from stages all across the world,   “F—k ‘em, if they can’t take a joke!”

Don’t Judge Me

Everything these days feels like it is a competitive race – presidential politics, entertainment industry awards, and year-end best lists.  This is reflected on reality television – which we know isn’t real (don’t we?) but still…

Bravo has created half a network around “Top Chef;” “Project Runway” (when it was on Bravo)” “Top Hair/”Shear Genius” but somehow failed with “Top Design” (was it Jonathan Adler’s signature admonishment “See you later, decorator.” We’ll never know).  The Food Network then jumped on the bandwagon with “The Next Food Network Star.”  But “Survivor” was really there first on CBS, awarding now convicted felon Richard Hatch with its original million-dollar prize.  CBS then upped the ante (in prestige, not ratings) with the perennially Emmy winning  competition, “The Amazing Race.”  But of course those were all surpassed by “American Idol,” the juggernaut of all television reality competition shows, with or without Simon Cowell.

Except maybe not for long because we now have “The Voice” – the unexpected breakout hit on NBC that seems to have managed a much more improved, kinder and gentler format with actual pop singer/mentors who both perform and guide rather than harshly “judge.”  Mr. Cowell himself might prove this all wrong in the fall when his new program “The X Factor” premieres and shows us once again that “mean” brings home the “green” – meaning it makes money and, as LB Mayer or some studio mogul once said, “puts asses in the seats.”

Experience tells us “asses in the seats” is really the bottom line in the entertainment industry.  But that’s a cynical view and only partially true because that statement doesn’t address the myriad of ways – both good and bad – you can get those derrieres on their cushions.

As a teacher and mentor, I try not to stress the “asses” reality though I do lament about it more often than I like to admit with my fellow writer friends. I mean, it’s tricky enough to write a good version of anything if you have to worry about the vagaries of the industry and audience when you’re trying to create something real, funny, dramatic or relatable on the page.  Not that we create in a bubble.  But worrying about writing a really popular script and selling it when you’re writing it is like stressing over what your marriage ceremony is going to be with the person with whom you’ve had only one really good date.  You might want it to head that way, and so might he or she – but you’re skipping the best part – the development of the thing.

Unless, of course, money and recognition (fame) is your thing.  If so, then you’re in big trouble.   Both professionally and romantically.

The whole world is watching...

I don’t know A LOT but one thing I do know is that too many people enter and stay in the industry just to be noticed or to make money.  Is this bad, you ask?  Well no, not really.  It’s motivating.  But noticed for what?  And by whom?  And for how much?  The people (or family member?) who ignore you growing up?  The talent you don’t really care about or don’t really enjoy doing?  The money you are more likely to make on a thousand different other things?  Let’s hope not.

Andre Agassi, tennis “Zen master,” (according to Barbra Streisand, and who am I to argue with her) admitted in his autobiography that despite his success at one point he hated tennis and it was only with some reflection later in life that he grew to love it again.  He began to hate the very thing he was blessed with a talent for because of all the financial pressures and peer/public expectations.  It was no longer fun.  Where’s the fun for you?  If you can’t have that in your work then what’s the point?  If it was never fun and just a means to an end (fame, fortune) then it can really be torture. Not fun?  Uh, oh.  Fun all the time?  Haha!! (said in a sarcastic tone).   Nothing is, not even eating pizza.  Engagement.  Emotionality. Satisfaction.   That’s the best and the most you can hope for.

Dorothy Parker once wrote it wasn’t the writing she liked – it was “having written.”  Take that how you will.  I prefer to think of it as Mrs. Parker liked the result of what she came up with – not the adulation or money that surrounded it.  Because truth be told she never made the equivalent of huge Spielberg/Michael Bay money, if that’s what you were thinking.  But she was known as the greatest wit of her day, especially among the gang of America’s top wits (the Algonquin Round Table) she hung out with.  And there is a lot of satisfaction in that – especially because it forced her to do good work while ENSURING she got the glory and recognition of others at the same time for her talent.  She came up with pithy phrases because she could and liked doing it, not because she dreamed one day it could make her famous (who could even dream such a thing?)

And if you think fame lasts: Consider when Barbra Streisand’s name comes up most of my current college students sort of roll their eyes and think about their parents.  Or grandparents.  Or some funny supporting character actress in “Meet the Fockers!”  I know it’s hard to believe but so is Michele Bachmann’s presidential candidacy to some people.

Would that we could all have the perseverance of 19th century French painter George Seurat, a  pioneer in creativity who never sold a painting in his life because his style was so new and different and unusual.

Just another Saturday with ol' George

Most of us need encouragement to nourish the ego and our talent.  But that’s not all we need.  We also need to work at our talent.  That’s part of the reason “The Voice” is so popular right now.  Real talent being nurtured, rather than knocked down.  Artists onstage dedicated to their craft, all of who seem to be doing it for the right reasons.  The winners being mentored by fellow famous artists, all of who seem to be doing it for the right reasons.  Yes, the prize is $100,000 and a record deal, but the odds of making that money in a career of music are much, much slimmer and way, way less likely than, say, becoming a plumber or….100,000 other professions.  It would seem the reason a 33-year-old father of two  and  a 41-year old bald headed lesbian (two of the four “Voice” finalists) sang professionally all of their adult lives and continue to sing — the work.  Not for all the money they’ve not made so far or the international fame they will now undoubtedly achieve.

Up until a few months ago, none of the four finalists were particularly well-known or even making a particularly great living at what they’re doing.  That’s how they landed on a reality show to begin with.  But they were still singing because they wanted to.  Enjoyed doing it.  Maybe even needed to.  And it showed through in their work.

The happy byproduct of the last six months for them is that they have made some money and have become a bit famous.  But working at their talent, fortified by their love and dedication to it, was what got them there.  The same can be said of almost (yeah, there are exceptions, but very few) every successful performer and artist in show business contrary to what you might observe in a lot of “reality” TV.  Take a look at the duet between the legendary Stevie Nicks, still making it happen in all her “witchy-ness” at the age of…well, post midlife, and “Voice” winner Javier Colon.  Watch how he sings her classic song , “Landslide.”  Watch how she guides him through it.  Listen to how their voices blend.  That doesn’t just happen.  It takes hard work, talent AND dedication.  Not to fame and money.  But at something they both clearly love to do and feel most alive doing.  Their art.