Win, Lose or Awe: Betting the Oscars

Screen shot 2014-02-23 at 3.54.08 PM

One of my best Academy Award predictions was in 2003 when I told my Dad to bet on Sofia Coppola in the best original screenplay category for Lost in Translation.  She not only got her Oscar but my father won several thousand dollars he happily split with me.

Of course, those were the days when websites still gave great odds on categories that almost anyone vaguely involved in the biz knew were pretty sure things.   (Note:  I think the early odds we got on Ms. Coppola were something like 13-1).

They were also the times when racist politicians could make bigoted remarks to local constituents and/or at fundraisers without fear of an international media blitz via Twitter, YouTube or Facebook.   Needless to say, that era has ended.

We now live in a world where even a professional football player can’t bully one of his teammates in a locker room or insult the player’s mother and/or sister without lawsuit and public retribution.  What’s next – everyone’s vote getting counted in a presidential election?  Well, I might be willing to sacrifice another Oscar betting windfall for that providing the name Hillary is listed as a nominee in one of those races.

Until then, those who want some quick cash at this time of year are left only with the measly remains of the local Oscar office pool or the generous rewards from one of the grand charity events you might be attending where predicting the outcome of the Academy Awards is even more popular than Olympic curling.  (Note:  You say you don’t care, didn’t watch or don’t even know what curling is?  Um, I beg to differ).

Oh, you know me.

Oh, you know me.

But back to what really matters here  – Oscarmania and how we can profit from it.

I’m not sure it’s terribly exciting to predict the Academy Awards anymore until I peruse virtually every magazine, newspaper or website within view of a Goggle Glass and see all evidence to the contrary.  Judging from what I’m reading, all of these sources have many more readers, advertisers and well-funded marketing surveyors proving to them that I am wrong and that we all secretly, outwardly or even perversely do care.  Whether you think of the Oscars as an apple pie tradition or something akin to watching the DVD of Showgirls, Valley of the Dolls, Battlefield Earth or Movie 43 (Note: This all depends on the year you were born), the odds are you will be watching, betting, watching some more or, at the very least, dishing about the Oscars.  So you might want to be armed with just a little more information and be a part of all the…fun?

But please, be forewarned – there is no scientific basis for any of following.  I have not meticulously done research weighing the statistical likelihood of who will win or what might happen based on the results of current guild award winners and anonymous marketing studies from expensive media consultants paid to unofficially check-in with (nee “lobby) Oscar voters.  This is just me – the winner of the Sofia Coppola sweepstakes eleven years ago and owner of a lifetime of show business disappointments and near exhilarations – telling you what is likely to happen.

THE SHOW

The Golden Gal?

The Golden Gal?

It will be too long.  Ellen DeGeneres will be a fun if not much safer host than last year’s Seth MacFarlane.  It will get boring at parts.  You will get tired.  And – there will be few surprises even though everyone says that each year there will be some.  Still, here’s some stuff we don’t know but might expect.

1. The producers have announced Bette Midler will be singing on this year’s show for the very first time.  What will she sing?  Hmmmm, let’s see.  The producers have also announced the theme of this year’s program will be movie heroes, Ms. Midler wasn’t featured on any of the nominated songs and we have to figure out how to fit her in the program so it will all make sense that she’s there in the first place.

Speaking of Bettes...

Speaking of Bettes…

Prediction #1:  Bette will sing Wind Beneath My Wings (…did you ever know that you’re my HERO…and everything I would like to be…) and it will probably be over the In Memoriam portion of the program.

2. Pink has been announced as a performer for a highly anticipated moment on this year’s show.  How do you not love Pink?  And how does any movie lover also not love The Wizard of Oz, which will receive a 75th anniversary celebration on this year’s Oscar show.  Well, Pink has a magical quality to her and often likes to sing upside down in a circus-like theme, so….

Prediction #2:  Pink will sing Over the Rainbow during the Oz tribute, evoking a sort of modern day, surviving version of an adult 2014 Judy Garland in movie business Oz.   Unless, they figure out a way to tie in Pink’s penchant for aerial acrobatics to best picture nominee Gravity, which I am so, so, so hoping they don’t do.  Or wait – maybe I’m hoping that they do do!!

Sorry stoners.. that was Pink.. not Pink Flloyd

Sorry stoners.. that was Pink.. not Pink Flloyd

3. Two of the most superb independent movies of 2013 – Short Term 12 and Fruitvale Station – received a total of zero Oscar nominations.  It’s difficult to understand why since often a very small film sneaks into at least a screenplay, if not best picture nomination (e.g. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Precious).  Some people will tell you the Academy chose the larger, racially historic themes of 12 Years A Slave instead of Fruitvale and the similarly small, character-based storytelling of Her, Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club in favor of Short Term 12. This may or may not be the case.

Prediction #3:  Short Term 12 and Fruitvale Station will receive no mention at all during this year’s Oscar show unless it’s in the introduction to ST’s much over-looked star Brie Larson, who has been announced as a presenter.  But even that is doubtful since they will probably refer to her as merely the co-star of the upcoming remake of The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg.  What a shame.

THE AWARDS

Best Original Screenplay:  Spike Jonze, Her

Betting Meter:  Sure Thing

the future is now

the future is now

Anyone you talk to in the business will tell you privately that Her was certainly the most original story of the year – even people who don’t think it’s the best movie of the year.  Forget that Spike Jonze has won most of the writing awards so far.  For my money, of the nine nominees Her was the best film of the year.  Count on this for the Sofia Coppola moment.  And wager the rent.

Best Adapted Screenplay:  John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave

Betting Meter:  Safe Bet

12-years-of-not-fancy-dining

Oscar eyes his competition

There’s a lot of diverse work in this category but it usually comes down to the overall impact of the film rather than the quality of the script.  The adaptation of the memoir of a free Black man who was kidnapped by two White men and brutally enslaved for 12 years in the Civil War era South is Oscar bait in that it takes an unusual, larger than life political story and tells it in a human manner (Note:  Last year’s winner in this category was Argo).  Truth be told I was underwhelmed by both 12 Years A Slave and Argo.  The latter felt diffuse and disjointed while 12 Years seemed repetitious and strangely undramatic in its constant use of inhumane, brutal beatings in order to make the same dramatic point twelve times.   Still, the Academy voters don’t give a whit (or is it shit?) what I think and the debate over what makes great film drama on the page is only one small factor in who wins a screenplay Oscar.  Which is why Mr. Ridley is a safe bet.

Best Supporting Actress:  Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave 

Betting Meter:  Slightly Favored

The best thing about 12 Years A Slave was this relative newcomer’s performance -heartbreaking, human, multi-layered and seemingly out of nowhere.  That’s what this category is all about when it’s not about a lifetime achievement award for the entire body of work of a perpetually ignored Hollywood veteran (e.g.  Remember Jack Palance’s acceptance speech pushups onstage when he won for 1991’s City Slickers? Anyone? Bueller?).

Girl, you know you got my vote

Girl, you know you got my vote

The buzz is that the universally beloved Jennifer Lawrence could sneak in for her charmingly frenetic seriocomic turn in American Hustle.  But I’d bet even JLaw voted for Lupita.  Though I wouldn’t bet for money –  it’d have to be more of a Jackass type wager.

Best Supporting Actor:  Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club

Betting Meter: Sure Thing

Bonus points for wearing this suit to the Oscar luncheon #werkJared

Bonus points for wearing this suit to the Oscar luncheon #werkJared

Bet the house.  I and many of my friends lived through the AIDs era of Dallas Buyer’s Club.  And while there is much to be debated about what the film left out, there is no debate over the accuracy and unexpected originality of the actor’s work here.  Straight men playing a gay, transgendered or cross-dressing character tend to evoke performance or caricature or just plain too much sass and/or nobility.  That wasn’t the case in this instance.  When a male actor can make you believe that the one time he is in opposite gender clothing is the one time you see him in a suit, tie and combed hair, then you know you’re watching a total transformation and not a carnival hat trick.  That and much, much more, was always the case every time Mr. Leto appeared onscreen.  Brava.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine 

Betting Meter:  Closer Than You Think

If you’re wagering, I’d resist tossing all the coin on this category.  Sure, everyone thinks Ms. Blanchett will win for portraying a sort of Blanche DuBois meets Ruth Madoff neurotic madwoman/scorned wife and she probably will since she’s picked up every other major award this season.  Plus, as an actress she has industry-wide admiration and has never won in this category.  Not to mention voters will enjoy resisting the whispered speculation that they will lead a backlash against Woody Allen due to his recently renewed molestation scandals and, in turn, deny the leading lady of his latest film an award.

Both fierce suits

Both fierce suits

But still – consider Gravity made a fortune and Sandra Bullock is the #1 box-office movie star of the year if you also count in The Heat (Note: And…you try acting next to mostly green screen nothingness!). And then consider that many voters greatly admire Amy Adams and her performance as the young con woman among con men in American Hustle since most people in the Academy have spent at least a moment or two of their lives referring to working in the industry as navigating one big con game run amok among similar types of con artists, most of them men.

Okay, consider it.  But if you want to play safe with the rent money, put it on Cate to win.

Best Actor:  Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Betting Meter: Safe Bet

All right, All right, All right

All right, All right, All right

It’s his year, plain and simple.  Especially after a scene-stealing scene opposite Leonardo DiCaprio at the beginning of Wolf of Wall Street and a vulnerable and charismatic supporting performance in the indie film Mud this past year.

Still, this does not take away from Mr. McConaughey’s great work portraying a mostly unlikeable, misogynistic, homophobic bigot who only begins to get a tad nicer when he’s diagnosed with full-blown, terminal AIDS in the 1980s. Yes, losing 45 lbs. and the drama of embodying a dying man is yet another example of irresistible Oscar bait if done well.  Which it was.  So deal with it.

The one potential upset in this category could come from a groundswell of support for Mr. DiCaprio in Wolf since he’s both well-respected, constantly sought after and has never actually won an Oscar. Add to the mix the fact that Academy voters of all ages admire the work of Bruce Dern in Nebraska and would enjoy finally rewarding him a career Oscar for a career-making lead actor performance.

But….it’s MM’s year and MM’s to lose.  Chances are he won’t.

Best Director:  Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Betting Meter: The Surest Thing – More sure than you getting up tomorrow morning.

The magic man

The magic man

No one thinks he won’t win and no one thinks he shouldn’t win – except perhaps Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, and a few of its loudest proponents.  But the award this year has nothing to do with who does the most and loudest Oscar campaigning and everything to do with technical directorial achievement that moved cinema forward.  The latter seldom happens in the space of a decade, much less in a single 12-month period.  For most in the industry, that was the power of Gravity, a film that actually took more than four years to make.

It also helps that Mr. Cuaron has a large and varied body of films that includes everything from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban to the indie hit Y Tu Mama Tambien.  Though even if he didn’t direct those and other well-respected movies, he’d still win.

Innovation in a repetitively endless world of technology,  a.k.a. #2001ASpaceOdyssey2014.

 Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave, though I want to say Gravity 

Betting Meter:  Do Not Bet Under Any Circumstances!!!

Can she snag it?

Can she snag it?

My father would call this pick ‘em, which is a bookmaker term that means the odds could go either way.  In this case the choices are 12 Years and Gravity with American Hustle close behind.  What makes this so close is that 2013 wasn’t a great year in movies, simply a good year.  Meaning all three of these are good films but each have their faults when you strip them down.

That being said, the Academy usually errs on the most socially relevant and mainstream choice.  American Hustle has an odd zaniness but is seen as a comic parody of social mores.  Gravity doesn’t have social resonance but is what people in the biz are increasingly calling a movie movie – a film that harkens back to the kind of motion picture you have to see with other people on a large screen like they used to always do in the old days. (Note: That would be, uh, 10 years ago, right?).

12 Years fulfills both of these requirements.  It demands to be seen with other people around you in the quiet dark and is political, epic and socially relevant but not so much so that will alienate too many voters. (Note:  There is thankfully not a pro-slavery contingent in the Academy nor a substantial group of people who were offended enough by the excessive violence to withhold votes).

Last year’s surprise winner, Argo, had similar attributes.  Not that that means anything at all.

TIE-BREAKERS:

magic-8-ball

These are the ones that win and lose the pool.  Don’t bet on them individually because the Academy tends to reward these either as consolation prizes for films that won’t win in other categories or for showy work the broader membership likes to vote on as best but that is not necessarily the best.  Only sometimes do the winners emerge for the right reasons, mostly because no one knows that those really are.

Animated Feature:  Frozen.  No one thinks it’s necessarily the best but it’s good enough, has made millions and would, strangely enough, be the first Oscar winner in this category for Disney Animation Studios (Note:  The best animated feature Oscar originated in 2001 and though Disney has released numerous films that have won, the studio has never actually made one of the winners)

Documentary Feature:  20 Feet From Stardom.   No one in show business can resist stories about people who were wronged in show business, survived long enough to tell the tale – and are still working.   Plus, it’s good.

Cinematography: Gravity, Emmanuel Luberzki.  It’s technology and Gravity wins.

Costume Design:  American Hustle, Michael Wilkinson.  Sorry Great Gatsby it’s 1970s America.

Editing: Gravity, Alfronso Cuaron and Mark Sanger.  Technology wins.  Again.

Production Design: The Great Gatsby, Catherine Martin. The 1920s trumps the future in terms of looks and partying.

Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects: Didn’t you hear me, technophobes — G.R.A.V.I.T.Y!!!!!  (There are a ton of names here so I won’t list all the individuals for fear I’m beginning to bore you). 

Makeup and Hairstyling:  Dallas Buyers Club, Andruitha Lee and Robin Matthews.  I will paraphrase the words of another prognosticator and tell you this:

No one at the Academy is anxious to hear the words Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa come out of a presenter’s mouth as the winner in any category.

NO COMMENT COMPETITIONS: Do not think for a second I am going to be responsible for predicting the unpredictable, pool-losing categories of:

Guaranteed to lose your shirt

Guaranteed to lose your shirt

Foreign Language Film, Animated Short film, Documentary Short Film and Live-Action Short Film.

You should NOT bet on these.  Or even include them in a pool.  Or even think about doing either.  That is, unless you know someone who has seen them all, is an Academy member and is very good at predicting the whims of voters.  I know several such people and as soon as I can borrow their screeners and cross-examine them I’ll get back to you.  Maybe.

Excellent, Dude

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day 2

How do you achieve excellence?  There are certain markers like this week’s Olympics and the Oscars two weeks from now.  Within them are societal and cultural markers like medals, trophies, fame and money.  But without any one of these, does it mean that you are not excellent at the things you do?  Hmm, perhaps we should consult our trusty dictionary.

Excellence

  1. 
The quality of being outstanding or extremely good;
an outstanding feature or quality.

Notice that nowhere in this definition does it state THE best.  This is because the dictionary knows better than we that no one and nothing in the world can be judged THE best due to the fact that THE best changes on any given day.  The most you can hope for is excellence.  And that comes with its own set of rewards.

... or maybe you do think you are the best.

… or maybe you do think you are the best.

You can beat yourself up, tell yourself you have to get better and concoct an intricate system of deprivations for yourself when you don’t reach your perception of excellence.  I used to do this with my writing and it seemed to help for a while in allowing me to achieve more.  But it also took a heavy psychological toll that at some point began to cost me my excellence.  Kicking and screaming I backed off and realized – after any number of years of psychotherapy and crippling exhaustion from whipping myself into submission – that I had to accept I was no longer doing my best, or more importantly at my best, when using this particular strategy.  So after much practice at actually getting myself to believe that a new way was possible I got myself back on the excellent track by simply working hard and – odd concept though it may seem –once again ENJOYING the work at hand that I have chosen.

Marriage seems to me another sort of cultural benchmark these days –- one of love — especially for gays and lesbians.  Yet for some of us it can also be seen as more of a necessary legal arrangement rather than an arrangement to aspire to in the sweepstakes of the heart.  In either case, the institution itself has little to do with the excellence of a relationship and more to do with mainstreaming yourself into the world so as to be treated like everyone else who wants to publicly declare and legalize their love relationship. But what if you don’t want to be like everyone else?  What if you do not want to conform?  Does that mean you are any less excellent at love, or even relationships?  All societal markers to the contrary, the answer is: certainly not. (Note:  I confess to having spent more than my fair share of time battling this one and have decided that love is always excellent, no matter how simple or complicated we make it).

The bottom line is — you don’t have to be part of a race you don’t want to win.  Does that make you any less excellent in your chosen category of endeavor?  Certainly not, again.  There are lots of people who choose not to compete in many areas of life and are not interested in competition in general.  Some of this thinking harkens back to the old Eastern spiritual philosophy to not shine the light on yourself but on others.  But this does not mean these people are any less excellent at what they do.   It only means that you simply may not know about them because they are not in the commercial or competitive rings.

You go and get your award, Malibu!

You go and get your award, Malibu!

The broader question – and perhaps the only one to ask is:  how much do you want to push yourself to achieve personal excellence?  Do you aspire to be extremely good at what you do? (e.g. do you have to be THE best snowboarder in the world?) Or Is simply doing your thing your most excellent way to live and what excelling means to you?  Or – and here’s a thought – can’t you be and do both????

Watching the winning trifecta of young male U.S.  Olympic slope style skiers pose in what will surely become their iconic silvery polar jackets from Nike (Note: Printed on the jacket’s inside linings are the words: This is your moment) – their gold, silver and bronze medals around their necks fresh from the winners podium – one couldn’t help but smile.  C’mon, these guys are DUDES– it’s all good rad crispy that they won.  But what made it better was that if you met them on the street and knew nothing of their backgrounds you’d be hard pressed to know that they were anything but happy-go-lucky bros who were only special because of how good a mood they seemed to be in in contrast to everyone else.  Oh, with the exception of silver medalist Gus Kenworthy – a lifelong dog lover who made it his mission in Sochi to save a wandering brood of pups he saw on the street and either take them home to the US or find them proper homes in Russia.  In either case, that makes him exceptionally exceptional and his deeds outside of the Olympics the most, MOST excellent.

Stand-ins for One Direction?

Stand-ins for One Direction?

What I’ve also observed this Olympics is how excellently talented people act when they don’t “win.”  In particular, I was impressed with 19-year-old ice skater Jason Brown (our main image for today), who ultimately came in ninth place in his event but gave interviews with the excitement of someone who came in first.  This was in sharp contrast to many other wonderful athletes who to varying degrees felt shamefully disappointed that they didn’t medal or did not win the gold.  Of course, this was not entirely their fault.  I watched in a sort of strange angry horror at how two time gold medal Olympian snowboarder Shaun White, who finished fourth this year in his event, was branded in the media as the big “loser” all week and cross-examined about how disappointed he must be to be deemed only the fourth best in the world in his sport on that given day.

Maybe it was the hair?

Maybe it was the hair?

For years people in Hollywood have joked that it’s an honor just to be nominated for an Academy Award with the unsaid truism being you’re ultimately a loser if you don’t win.  What this is saying more than anything else is that it doesn’t count at all unless you win.  Wait, so then… being an Oscar nominee means you’re…a loser?  That’s what one actor I once worked with told me it felt like after losing in the big category.  This person recounted leaving the whole thing totally depressed as someone who had disappointed everyone.  In fact, to this day that actor looks back at the experience with extreme sadness.  This would seem either hard to imagine or simply neurotic behavior to me if it weren’t for the fact that more than one Oscar loser I have met over the years has told me exactly the same thing.  That’s how far this way of thinking has all gotten.

Of course, any kind of ongoing excellence comes with some sacrifice.  But that should not be in how you’re looked at or categorized by others (or even yourself) –and more in accepting the idea that you can’t be excellent at everything in every moment.  No one can do it all and be everywhere at once so no one – not even you (or me) can excel at everything IN the world.

Uh... ya think?

Uh… ya think?

For all the hours you spend practicing your snowboarding there will simply be less hours you can devote to  –  dating?  making love?  movies?  visiting museums?  watching TV?  family time?  friends?  writing?  Something has to give.  Oh, you can try to incorporate some of those into your routines and multi-task. (Note:  Just the images this brings to mind makes it all worth trying). But multi-tasking takes away from the singular focus you need to excel, at least that’s what the research says.  You see where I’m going here.  You have to make some choices and narrow it down.  You can’t do it all even if you decide to think you can.

A lot of writers face this problem when they structure a script and try to tell the story of every character.  Here too you must make choices.  This is especially challenging for my neophyte writing students who, in their enthusiasm, won’t sell any of their people short.  I see this as generosity, admire the kindness of their intentions and hate to be the Scrooge McDuck who has to tell them that part of being excellent at their craft means making the hard decisions and sometimes being the “bad guy.”  That guy (or gal) who sacrifices something – or someone –  for the greater good of what they are all doing.

Oh you mean I can't have this many characters?

Oh you mean I can’t have this many characters?

Perhaps a nicer way to put this is – compromise.  Not comprising your values but modifying rigid ways of thinking.  Rigidity should not be confused with discipline, which is always necessary to be excellent.  Rigidity is about not listening, about a harshness of spirit with yourself and what you are trying to achieve that does not allow you to see the forest from the trees.  If you are going to be your best – i.e. some version of excellent – the first step is to admit you do not know it all and to learn from the best.  You can be stubborn here– making the choices you see fit and sticking to your guns when you feel deep down in your core of cores you are correct.  But you also cannot set yourself up as a deity that is all knowing and needs to be worshipped (Note: even if the rest of the world is treating you that way) and be your most excellent self.

What is fascinating about Hillary Clinton, among so many things, is not only her overwhelming work ethic – some her a workaholic – but the fact that she always seems willing to compromise (or even accept defeat),  listen, sit back, be a team player, and then regroup.  This just might win her the U.S. presidency.  A person who lost the election of her life then joins the man who beat her up on the political battlefield and helps him have a better presidency by traveling the world as his Secretary of State? Whatever bitterness there might have been did not last and by most accounts Mrs. Clinton and Pres. Obama became quite friendly, if not friends and treasured professional colleagues.  Imagine if she had just thought she knew better, licked her wounds and went away, dragging her faux fur behind her?   Who knows where either one of them would be?  But this is a pattern of excellent behavior on her part that has allowed her to go from being a potential First Lady in the nineties who once snapped I’m not some Tammy Wynette, standing by my man baking cookies, to being a successful First Lady who nevertheless failed miserably at her task of passing health care in the 90s…. and then still go on to be someone branded as sad and foolish for staying with a husband who kind of had sex with a 22 year old intern in his Oval Office, and then still on to being an inexperienced U.S. senator who eventually became a top colleague who won the respect of senators on both ends of the aisle for her intellect and effectiveness… only to emerge again as a leading yet failed presidential candidate who then became U.S. secretary of state and worldwide opinion maker, and now seems likely, at 66 years old, to run again for the White House and thus make history by becoming the first female president of the United States.

Did ya get all that?

Did ya get all that?

Yes, Hillary Clinton is connected, political and extremely intelligent – but there are a lot of political, connected and extremely intelligent people in the world.  She is excellent because she listens, learns, practices, fails, starts over, makes mistakes, practices some more, withstands the missteps, makes more mistakes and then gets up and does it all over again.  She also tries new things and isn’t intimated by new opportunities.  Well, maybe she is intimidated– probably she is in her private moments – but who among us isn’t?  And how many of us go ahead and continue on to do the hard or even hardest thing anyway?

Don’t mistake this for a Hillary Clinton puff paragraph (or two or three).  In truth, it was the famous playwright Samuel Beckett who once wrote “Try again.  Fail Again.  Fail Better.”  This was in an obscure series of short novels published in his later years under the umbrella title Westward Ho and the words were written in an entirely different, much more obtuse context.

Still, it is the nature of writing that sometimes a mere tossed off phrase that you meant one way becomes a mantra in another.  Or in this case, a recipe for success for everyone from a Silicon Valley billionaire to a graduate school student to a middle-aged blogger like myself.  That doesn’t make Beckett a failure any more than winning the Pulitzer Prize makes him a success.  What was most excellent about him, and so many others, was the combination of both his talent AND his work and the dedication and determination he brought to both.

Decades ago I worked on the crew of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, the sequel to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  Truth be told, it wasn’t a great movie nor was it one of my penultimate professional experiences over the years. I remember thinking at the time that these movies were so dumb that I could not believe they got made at all AND earned boat loads of money, nor that I was being so well paid to do a job on something so insignificant.  Yet here I am, 30 years later, voluntarily using the phrase most excellent – a phrase that was first brought into the international lexicon by the writers of those films – to make an intellectual, or at least common sense point about excellence.

Go figure, dude.

Comic Con

Screen shot 2014-02-09 at 11.39.38 AM

I have a confession to make.  I’ve always hated comic books.  Actually, that’s not true.  What I really never liked were superhero comic books.  I do love a good Peanuts or Archie.  To all the young people I know and have taught:  Please don’t hate me for telling the truth.

This would put me at a horrible disadvantage if the sole way I still supported myself these days was as a screenwriter.  As I tried to explain to a student recently, at one time the majority of projects in the biz that people really wanted to work on ranked this way:

  1. Movie dramas with characters
  2. Subtle and broad movie comedies.
  3. Television
  4. Geek-related ventures on either of the above that involved explosions, computers, cartoon people or anything from Marvel, DC or that ilk.

If you were in the last group you had peers and an audience but not much street cred (Note:  Walt Disney accepted, though somehow it was he rather than any of his employees that got credit for anything Disneyesque.  Plus, he never did superheroes.  He was the superhero).

What do you mean.. was?

What do you mean.. was?

Well, what a difference a handful of decades make.  Comics have taken over the industry – if not the world – and not the kind you see at the Laugh Factory or on a cheap cable special.   Which seems sort of apt since more and more we’re living a comic book existence.  This is apparent every time you turn on your television or surf the web and see the surgically altered faces on almost all of your favorite actors.

Though here in Los Angeles it’s obvious every time you step into a store that isn’t located in a shopping mall in Sunland.

This is not meant to be a putdown of comics or superheroes or even cartoons but merely an observation of where we are.  This week it was announced that the Emmy award-winning Mad Men writing team of Andre and Maria Jacquemetton would next be tackling the DC Comic book series DMZ for the Syfy Channel.

Dynamic Duo (far right)

Dynamic Duo (far right)

It doesn’t get more prestigious for most writers than Mad Men, though it is certainly more financially lucrative to be on any number of television series and movies.  So it certainly says something about us and them that after all of the choices open to this dynamic duo after six years of riding the MM crest that they have decided to devote themselves to a pulp tale centered on a young man in the near future, Matty Roth, who lives in the demilitarized zone of Manhattan after a second American Civil War.  He might not dress like a superhero but certainly, in post apocalyptic red and blue state America, he will at some point have to emerge as one.

If you think I am pushing the metaphor or overreacting in even the slightest we can look at all of this another way.  Here are the top 10 grossing movies worldwide in 2013:

  1. Iron Man: 3
  2. Despicable Me 2
  3. Frozen
  4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  6. Fast & Furious 6
  7. Monsters University
  8. Gravity
  9. Man of Steel
  10. Thor: The Dark World

If we were to look at this list for the U.S. and Canada only the rankings might shift around one or two places but the films themselves would remain exactly the same.  Oh wait, there would be one change – Oz the Great and Powerful would replace Thor, which would drop down two notches to #12. Do you see where I’m going now?

What are you trying to say Chairy??

What are you trying to say Chairy??

Okay, fine, I’ll be a little bit more blunt.

Anyone arguing that Fast and Furious, Hunger Games and even Gravity aren’t super hero movies in a cartoon world, well…uh….I suggest you watch some footage of Russia’s President Putin at this week’s Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Sochi and tell me whether you believe the flesh and blood star of a current worldwide spectacle isn’t simply our 2014 version of The Terminator.

No, I’m not going to say I told you so.  But like Matty Roth in post apocalyptic Manhattan, we’d all better get on board with this kind of thinking in order to survive the inevitable global warming-over meltdown of everything we’ve ever known.  To this end, I propose some new lenses and labels for how we look at and categorize all current and future newsmakers in the world and the events that surround them.  (Note:  This will also save a lot of creative time if any of the above rights are purchased or even thought of as the subject of a new Hollywood movie).

The Incredible Sinking Man

hc-under-the-water-under-the-bridge-20140121-001

In a live, near two-hour television press conference, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) announced that he fired some of his top staff people for causing the largest four-day traffic jam in the history of the world.  This was due to their choice several months ago to close down multiple lanes in Fort Lee, New Jersey leading into the George Washington Bridge (Note: the world’s busiest bridge) behind his back.  However, now the governor’s former people are seeking plea deals through high-priced lawyers while he and his present people are countering this disloyalty by calling them idiots and releasing accounts of their misdeeds as 16 year old high school students.  All of this while Gov. Christie, previously the most popularly touted choice among Republicans to run for president in 2016, couldn’t even get Texas Gov. Rick (“oops”) Perry to pose for a photo op with him on a recent trip to the Longhorn state.  How much lower will he go?  If anyone thinks they can predict, well, I have a bridge I can sell you…..

Puff The Magic Drag, Man

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When I was 20 years old I was too afraid of getting less than an A minus in college in any one subject.  So I can’t imagine how I’d be if I had the adulation of half of the young people my age around the world, were loathed by the other half and possessed $130 million to both play with and use to ease the pain.  I do know that I would be thrilled that I could make my living as a singer – a talent that not all the marijuana in the world could convince me to believe I had.  Still, you can’t smoke up foot long doobies on a private plane with your soul-patched father or allow friends to egg the mansion next door to your mansion without getting some sort of….blow back (Note:  See what I did there?).

Dude, Where’s Our Woodstock?

A future action comedy about a group of baby boomers who hold the twenty-something owners of a string of pot dispensaries hostage because they are sick of all the legalized marijuana/nee commercial appropriation of their drug of choice for the masses.  Soundtrack by: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, The New Riders of the Purple Sage and anyone who’s left alive from the original Grateful Dead.

Captain Douchebag

It's all going according to plan....

It’s all going according to plan….

There is no other name for Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly.  Yes, he’s a foot taller than me, has a million times more money and certainly can sue – but I don’t care.  This moment of writing it publicly just made it all worth it.  You can’t have the child of a man who died during 9-11 on your TV show, yell and berate him for his anti-war views and top it all off by saying “your Dad would be ashamed of you if he were alive” and then get off without periodic bitch slapping for the rest of your national (or unnatural?)  lifetime.  At least not by me.  I’m nothing if not Captain IDontForgetAnAHole.

Queen of the Hills

hilary v rand 3

Hillary Clinton’s moniker might have to one day be retitled The Bionic President because we all know that in order to have survived this long she must have some special sort of armor that the rest of us mere humans were born without.   We also know the latter title will probably be the one to last because eventually Mrs. Clinton pretty much gets everything she sets her mind to.  Unless she’s simply content with where she is now – writing the best tweets and texts the world has ever known.  I know the latter would be my choice.  But then again, I’m not that kind of queen.

The Salacious Sex Six

Woody Allen & Mia Farrow & Dylan Farrow & Moses Farrow & Ronan Farrow & Soon-Yi Previn.  It’s horrible.  All of it.  From every side.  Which means that someone will make it into a film at some point.  Or a web series.  Or a comic something or other in the second new millennium.  What is Alan Alda’s line about funny in WA’s Crimes and Misdemeanors  — Comedy is tragedy plus time?  This is why everything in this paragraph will eventually be deemed offensive, inoffensive, moot or in need of a rewrite.  Which one is it now?  That’s not for me, or you, to decide.

The Inhuman Thing

The new name for Oscar if movies keep going down the too narrowing road they are now on.

The Straight Arrow

Will it be a strike?

Will it be a strike?

What everyone fears will be Jimmy Fallon’s upcoming super hero tag once he starts steering the ship of The Tonight Show in the next few weeks.  Though perhaps he will surprise us all and be The Not So Straight Arrow.  No, we don’t mean it THAT way.  Although in a comic book world, unlike television, anything is possible.

The Fifth Ring

Ruh-Roh

Ruh-Roh

This will be Hollywood’s take on the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.  It all started when that snowflake stayed intact and didn’t light up as the fifth ring. Question:  Doesn’t Putin know that there is ALWAYS a gay on the light board???  #Homohubris.

Some of you might not agree with our take on the inevitable comic book/cartoon world of the movies and in life. This is your prerogative.  So for all of you doubters I have just one last thing to say:  The #1 film this weekend – by a lot – with an estimated $69.1 million at the box-office in just three days – is:

THE LEGO MOVIE

Your future has arrived.  And it is our present.  Though not necessarily the one we all asked for.  Or,  is it?

It Can Happen To Anyone

press2

This is our rare Stop the Presses post.  For those times when even the Chair feels compelled to speak mid-week.

The national zeitgeist exploded this weekend with three huge stories – well, actually two huge stories and a third that promised to be.  They were:

Screen Shot 2014-02-04 at 12.29.23 PM

  1. The Super Bowl
  2. The untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman
  3. The first extended public accusation from a now adult Dylan Farrow that the filmmaker and then “adopted” father Woody Allen sexually molested her when she was 7 years old.

In case you were wondering, the Super Bowl emerged as the one unexciting non-story of the three even though it turned out to be the most watched program in television history with 115.2 million viewers.

But there was little excitement watching the Seattle Seahawks trounce the Denver Broncos 43-8.  How could there be when the winner of a contest is never in doubt?  It made even the commercials feel dull and expected.

Not so with a lifeless Mr. Hoffman, found slumped over in the bathroom of his NYC apartment with a needle in his arm and up to fifty baggies of heroine on the premises.  Nor was it the case with Ms. Farrow’s riveting written outcries and accusations against Mr. Allen and the litany of beloved movie stars who still choose to work with him, as posted  on Nicholas Kristof’s NY Times blog.

We don’t like dull and expected, at least in this country.   But we do love a good celebrity anything.  Which is the primary reason why the zeitgeist is still reeling, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, from Mr. Hoffman’s demise and Ms. Farrow’s grizzly tale of personal family drama.

I don’t mean to sound heartless or unmoved by these two tragedies.  They’re awful, and tragic and worth any series of emotional, physical or verbal reactions people are throwing out onto social media or in person to friends and family.  And I count myself as one among those people.

But still –

They. Happen. To. Everyone.

Tragedy knows no prejudice.

Tragedy knows no prejudice.

Drugs?  Sexual abuse?  This horrible stuff is in the news daily.   Plus, we already knew that Mr. Hoffman has had severe drug problems in the past and as recently as six months ago did a stint in rehab.   We were also aware for years Ms. Farrow and her family believed Mr. Allen sexually abused her and that in the last three months both her mother Mia Farrow and her brother Ronan Farrow have publicly taken to Twitter and Vanity Fair in order to advance Dylan’s accusations back onto the national stage against the seemingly constantly lauded Mr. Allen.

The only real connection to the public zeitgeist here – and it is not shocking at all – is that both of these stories involve celebrity.

We all have a very screwed up idea of what it means to be famous, privileged, wealthy and/or talented in this country.  And it’s only getting worse.  But here are some truisms I try to remember after many decades working among them in the business called, not coincidentally, show.

  1. You might feel like you know a famous person by their work or reputation but in reality you know very little about the real them.  In some cases, they may know very little about the real them.  Or they may know a lot but they are choosing not to share it with you.  That emotional connection you feel through their art is wonderful – but it is the art you’re connected to, not the person.  And art can’t overdose.
  2. Being privileged and wealthy is a double-edged sword.  So is celebrity. Nothing at all comes without a downside.  It is certainly more comfortable to grow up in a sumptuous Manhattan apartment or a mansion in Beverly Hills but it is not always an environment more enviable than your parents’ ranch home in the dull suburbs or the cramped two bedroom/one bathroom you shared with them and a sibling.  Though it is possible that it might be a more desirable environment.  Once again, the fact is that you never will know for sure.
  3.  Think about the worst photo of yourself ever taken and consider whether you’d want to see it blown up several feet bigger at a bad angle for all the world to see and comment about on every social media platform known to man.  (Note: Yes, you might already duplicate and post larger than life versions of yourself publicly in varying degrees of duress or undress… or your friends might) but the world is not terribly interested.
  4. Okay, now that you’ve done that think of the worst thing that has ever happened to you and consider doing the same thing with it – at least metaphorically. (Note: That is, if you can even think of a metaphor.  If not, just use the actual moments of the event and treat it like an endless, tawdry stream of pictures and posts and gossip and news stories on Facebook, Twitter, Entertainment Tonight, The New York Times and The Nightly News that will never quite disappear).

The L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan on Monday published an appreciation of the many brilliant and diverse roles the mega-talented Mr. Hoffman played in the movies and onstage in his 46 short years.  The headline of the story read: He Could Be Anyone.

PSH poses for a tintype portrait during the recent 2014 Sundance Film Festival

PSH poses for a tintype portrait during the recent 2014 Sundance Film Festival

This did much more than address Mr. Hoffman’s talents for transformation as an actor.  It commented on his death, Ms. Farrow’s past traumas (change the pronoun to “she”), and on any number of public scandals we’ve become fascinated by in each passing year.  Just like the story of what happened to your friend, relative, or casual acquaintance from the neighborhood or office, there is no simple answer as to why.  Nor is there a truly satisfying explanation for any of it

Food for thought.

This Art is My Art

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Here’s a thought:

Art is a lie that reveals the truth  

–  Pablo Picasso

I googled the above quote when I came across it last week, un-credited and at the center of someone’s Twitter page, because those words sounded too profound for any person on social media in 2014 to have come up with on their own.  #sorrynotsorry.

Well, it turns out I was right and that tweet did not come from that twit.  Not only that but said twit did not gain me as a follower for failing to give Picasso credit.   That might sound harsh but I was even harder on myself for not knowing Picasso said this very famous phrase that I pretty much had never heard of until I came across it in my quest for more information on a political story.  I mean, how old am I and where do I get my news???

Like everyone else these days – I get my news from everywhere.  Except it isn’t always news.  Sometimes it’s a lie, sometimes it’s a version of the truth and very, very, very seldom, it is actually the truth.

OK.. maybe mostly lies

OK.. maybe mostly lies

Of course, the truth is sort of overrated.  Long ago I realized not to press the person who was dumping me for the absolute unbridled facts of what went wrong (Note:  You don’t necessarily want lies, just a slightly softer version of their reality).  I also gave up on getting unvarnished feedback from everyone and their mother on everything that I write.  As any veteran writer will tell you, the latter will only lead to disaster.  Much better to seek the opinions of a few trusted friends who will give you a Picasso-esque version of a critique – which in the end is no less valid than the brutal beating you could receive from a studio executive, editor or nameless critic in your own field.   Plus, it’s usually worth a lot more.

It is not that any of us should advocate for lies or deception or existence in a dream world.  But sometimes what is true, beneath all the buzz and talk and data, is not what you are plain staring at.  Sometimes the absolute truth is an interpretation from someone with a better take than yourself – someone who has waded through all the options and the facts and the sides of something, and has come up with an alternative look at it that feels much more right than a thousand page document or photo album that simply presents the facts.

This is why we need artists (and art) and why I believe, as many before me have believed, that we all have an obligation to produce it in our own individual ways.

It is not a waste of time – nor a road to economic destruction any more than stubbornly sticking to your version of only what you see before you without input from anyone else.  Part of being a human – an advantage, actually – is the ability to process and reason information for yourself and those around you and to consistently put it out into the world as you live your everyday life.

Sometimes this system can go awry.

Sometimes this system can go awry.

We all do this with every decision we make, the work we do, the people we love, the friendships we make, and the conversations we have.  But we sometimes get hamstrung by what we perceive as the facts rather than to stand back and use simpler logic or artistic interpretation in order to shed light on the truth of an event or problem or simple everyday occurrence.

In my googling, I came across an article in Psychology Today that discussed Pablo Picasso’s dilemma more than a century ago in 1906 when he wanted to push the boundaries of what made a great portrait.  One of his early subjects was the renowned writer Gertrude Stein and after reworking his painting of her one too many times he was not happy (NOTE:  Uh, that’s right, Picasso was no different than the rest of us in that regard).

Anyway, eventually he came back to what he was painting and decided rather than to get as close as possible to the absolute objective truth of what we see when looking at Ms. Stein, he would give us his more extreme interpretation. This mask-like, more flattened portrait became very famous and an early signature of Picasso’s Cubist period.  It was also a favorite of Ms. Stein’s (the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me, she said) even as it was rejected in many other circles at the time as an indulgence that didn’t look enough like her.

When challenged about his Stein portrait, Picasso famously answered his critics this way:

Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will.

Picasso's lady

Picasso’s lady

I suppose it’s up to us to decide whether Picasso’s tart retort refers to what Ms. Stein will indeed look like one day when she gets to be, say, my age – or whether the will he refers to is his own determination to so commit to the truth of what he sees when he paints that one day his image will overtake what the rest of us see when we look at, or even think of, Ms. Stein.  Or perhaps, it’s simply a little of both.

The great thing about art – whether you’re the maker or the audience – is that when it’s operating at its highest level it captures a version of the truth that can resonate the essence of what is real, what you see before you, better than what is actually right before your eyes.  It needn’t cover everything but must cover an essence of the artist’s chosen everything.

In a society of rational thought and laws and everyday reality, this is too often seen as a kind of flighty indulgence that doesn’t have any real meaning unless you’re talking about a Picasso (Note:  And even then…) But certainly that is no longer accurate by any stretch of even the most unimaginative when we rationally examine our present day lives.

Does anybody truly believe Reality TV is real?  Or that Fox News is fair and balanced?  (Note:  I’ll bet if you got Bill O’Reilly soused he’d even accede to my way of thinking).  And to be fair — I love reading the New York Times but its iconic motto of All The News That’s Fit To Print certainly begs the question of why some stories are fit and others are not and who decides which is which.  There are times when a particularly witty tweet from Andy Borowitz or a very astute Facebook post from one of the many friends I have who are smarter than myself, has given me a truer assessment of a contemporary issue than anything I read on the subject in the paper of record or any conclusion a so-called expert committee comes to after examining the so-called hard data.

You just can't argue with gems like these...

You just can’t argue with gems like these…

Pete Seeger, the famed folksinger-songwriter, died this week at the age of 94 in the home he built himself in upstate New York.  I was fortunate enough to see Mr. Seeger play at a small anti-Vietnam War demonstration at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens when I was in high school, and I thought he was old then. (Note: This was after his censored appearance on CBS’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour singing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – a metaphorical song he wrote about Pres. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War). I also wondered why someone so well known would take the time to be at this somewhat tiny demonstration when people like Jane Fonda were making international headlines with their own Vietnam War protests.  My logical thinking, forged by the American educational rewards system of bigger is better, at least audience wise, was that if he were really famous and important he wouldn’t be spending his time singing to me and a bunch of others in, of all places, Flushing – the uninspiring town where I lived.

We'll miss ya, Petey.

We’ll miss ya, Petey.

Faulty as this reasoning was, no doubt some people (many?) still think this way.  Consider we are still paying the most attention to:  who sells the most records, tapes CDs downloads (whatever!), who makes the most news; and who is voted the best of anything in our worlds.

Yet the very essence of Mr. Seeger was his ability to travel to all kinds of places much more obscure than Flushing and use his words to express the plight of the people.  And, quite simply, he never stopped doing it.  You might not have heard of him but you have certainly heard of several iconic songs he wrote and/or made famous, such as If I Had A Hammer, and We Shall Overcome.  The truth of those songs came from decades of seeking out the truth in hundreds of small towns and talking to thousands of working class individuals through which or whom he could employ his art to tell their truths.  Or at least THE truth in the way that he saw it.

One could argue lines like “If I Had A Hammer’s…It’s the hammer of justice, It’s the bell of freedom, It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters, All over this land…” have spoken an equal or perhaps much more effective political truth than a library full of factual reports on the economic analysis of inequality.   Or that they rank far superior to the many multi-million dollar opinions from some of the most respected think tanks in the world on why, during many of the decades in which Mr. Seeger lived, we needed or didn’t need to go to war.

By the way, this is not pie-in-the-sky hippie talk.  Consider what usually stops and starts wars (Vietnam – Iraq – WWII).  It is general public outcry or too many deaths among the masses of survivors willing to risk everything that finally wins the day (Note: usually it’s a lot of both) after too many years or decades or even centuries of fighting.

Artistic expression is an indispensible fuel to this change.  Just as it can also be used selfishly to whine, piss people off and/or generally just entertain.  Like this little ditty starring Nathan Lane and the cast of Jersey Boys directed towards Fox News’ Sean Hannity after he floated the idea of leaving his home state of New York in order to relocate to more right-leaning states like Texas or Florida.

Click the picture for the full (brilliant!) video

Click the picture for the full (brilliant!) video

Okay so maybe this video – or your essay, painting or photograph or play or movie – is a little whiney.  And you’re absolutely positive it will never bring peace on the battlefield, end global warming or even make you a dime. (Note:  I’ll bet Mr. Lane would have done that for free if union rules had allowed him).  You still must try to do whatever you can to contribute to your own version of truth telling.  And that is because even the very best of any of the above in their fields don’t do this alone.  They are merely one element contributing to an overall collective truth at any given moment in time – one in which, like it or not – we are all some kind of part of.