Sorkin Says

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There was a time not so long ago when I thought being a teacher in the creative arts signified some sort of failing.

After all, as Woody Allen’s doppelgänger, Alvy Singer, once famously quipped in Annie Hall:

Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.

Many views, Woody, as it turns out, are not as clever as we once thought they were.

As it also turns out, the not so long ago I refer to in my own thought processes was the eighties. Which, given what’s going on in politics at the moment, feels like it was yesterday. To refresh all of our memories – it was a time when the homeless (nee poor) were vilified and money was viewed as the god and goddess of all things as exemplified by one of the most popular movie anti-heroes of the time, Wall Street’s financial baron, Gordon Gekko. In case you don’t remember, he once famously quipped Greed is good. Which pretty much sums up the callousness of thought through most of the decade for those who weren’t there. Or, as I prefer to think of it: the anti-Reagan reality.

At least the cell phones got better

At least the cell phones got better

In any case, this was all brought to mind by none other than Aaron Sorkin when he spoke this week at a panel of this year’s Writers Guild of America award-nominated screenwriters.

At one point towards the end of the evening the entire group of eleven nominees were asked by a young screenwriter, who was now attending UCLA on a military scholarship, how he could possibly proceed with the third act of an in-progress screenplay he clearly hoped to one day sell, that he felt required him to move his story into trans-racial characterizations he feared the world was not ready for.

He's listening

He’s listening

Clearly sensing the real pain and terror in this young man’s voice, it was the famous and most acclaimed of all the writers on the panel who eagerly jumped into the deafening silence and told him:

Don’t ever NOT write something because you think we’re not ready.

Hmmm. It seems that at least one who can do clearly CAN teach. Imagine that.

And Sorkin knows something about writing a character we’re not ready for #unicorns

Well, of course I’m leading with the best example of the evening. The world of mentorship is not a yellow brick road of rosy results and Emerald City glitz and glamour. Amid all the intellectual thought, encouragement and new potential roads of inspiration, there are too many others who are either ill equipped or whose methods are steeped in the art of the teardown and pretentious self-involvement. Every one of us has met at least one of them. The tough love gurus who secretly revel in telling you outwardly or implying to you all too unsubtly that your work sucks. This is usually done through a loop of lecturing where they relate a rating system of all the famous and/or commercially successful people in the field who are really lesser-than hacks you should be not only be absolutely unimpressed by but revile. That is if want your new god-like mentor to secretly continue to bestow upon you their pearls of wisdom.

ahem

ahem

This type of story was bestowed on said WGA audience by none other than panelist and current Oscar/WGA nominated screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. It seems as a younger person, Ms. Nagy became a protégé of Patricia Highsmith, on whose seminal novel, The Price of Salt, Ms. Nagy’s screenplay was based. Ms. Nagy, then a copy editor at the NY Times, recalled a 30-minute limousine ride she took with the quite prickly Ms. Highsmith at their first ever meeting in the 1970s during which the novelist spoke only once every ten minutes to ask her a mere three questions. 

The first question was: What do you think of Eugene O’Neill?

Ms. Nagy’s reply: Not much.

To which Ms. Highsmith gave a very encouraging nod of approval.

well aren't you fancy

well aren’t you fancy

Okay, stop right there I thought from the audience. Eugene O’Neill. Really? The guy who wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and well, you get the picture. I don’t care how damn talented or famous she was – really? What does that get you? Or anyone?

Yet it seemed this was exactly the right answer because here we are all these decades later where this once young writer has gotten all of this 2015-16 attention for adapting the older writer’s 1950s story she eventually received the rights to. Or perhaps it was Ms. Nagy’s answer to Ms. Highsmith’s second question:

What do you think of Tennessee Williams?

Because this time Ms. Nagy managed to give the seal of approval to Mr. Williams – an acknowledgement she claims Ms. Highsmith quite heartily endorsed at the time.

Phew.

Tell me again how great I am.

Tell me again how great I am.

I don’t know Ms. Nagy but one hopes this is not the kind of attitude that gets passed on from one generation to the next. Yet I know it frequently does – not necessarily in Ms. Nagy’s case (Note: As I said, I don’t know her) but to other non-famous or more famous instructors and artists of all kinds my students have told me about and I myself have encountered or read about through the years.

Well, like any experience in life, you take the good with the morally questionable and try to balance it all out with your own actions. This is not unlike writing your own stories or living out the actions of your own life. Call me corny or crazy, and I’ve certainly been justifiably referred to as both, but I much prefer the conversation and mentorship I had in the eighties with Bo Goldman – who I don’t consider so much a mentor but an off-the-cuff Sorkin-like teacher I was fortunate enough to encounter during the course of a day.

Mr. Nice Guy

Mr. Nice Guy

As a young writer I met Mr. Goldman, the two-time Oscar winning screenwriter of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Melvin and Howard who had yet to write big studio movies like The Perfect Storm and Scent of A Woman. His agent was a new friend of mine and generously told him I was a talented young writer (Note: Who had only written one semi well-received screenplay at the time) working on a new script. I will never forget Mr. Goldman probably seeing the forlorn terror in my eyes after he asked me about what I was working on and listening patiently as I tried to explain it. But more importantly, I will also always remember him smiling generously at me and saying: Don’t force it, don’t beat yourself up, it’ll come.

He then went on to share several stories of difficulties from his own life, always putting himself and me on equal status as writers.

The reason I can’t remember the stories is not that they weren’t memorable but that Mr. Goldman’s largesse to even include me in the same sentence with him when it came to the craft that he was so lauded for at the time was both shocking and humbling. But he didn’t see the world, as some in the commercial arts do, as a competitive playing field where one is trying to best the next person nipping at your heels behind you; or attempting to put down another more renowned and lauded than you.

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Plus, this is the only living creature I prefer to have nipping at my heels

Instead it was important for him to hear my story and reach out a hand of reassurance, as no doubt someone had done for him – or not done for him – confident that in doing so he was risking nothing of his own status and perhaps enhancing it. After all, what artist doesn’t want to spend a moment or two sharing the pain and/or difficulty of the journey, hoping in some way it dissipates its affect on the psyche. Of course, on the other hand, he could have just been being nice. I suspect it was both.

This is what teaching is about and what true mentorship is. It’s also what being a human being is about. And it feels equally good to both receive and give it – no matter what anyone writes or says about it.

Needless to say, Mr. Goldman was a welcome exception to the eighties. But it’s often the exceptional we remember – no matter where we are or regardless of the times.

Oscars So…

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There was a time not so long ago when journalists got up at the crack of dawn to go to the Motion Picture Academy where, at its Samuel Goldwyn movie theatre on Wilshire Blvd., if you were one of them, you’d be among the first non-Academy associated humans to get a white typewritten paper list of Oscar nominees that you’d either phone into your publication or rush back to the office to write about for tomorrow’s edition. There wasn’t a lot for TV reporters to film, except perhaps a bunch of p.r. representatives lingering from the side aisles waiting to pounce on anyone within earshot in all sorts of nefarious ways.

Oh, maybe there was also the dull Academy president announcing the major nominees in front of a red velvet curtain and a larger than life backdrop of a fake Oscar but I wouldn’t swear to it. What I do remember is when I first got here and started covering it, even the presidents lingered, and often nefariously. In Hollywood, everyone lingers – sometimes nefariously and sometimes not – but almost always for too long. It’s one of the many pitfalls of the business.

Anyway, back to the bygone era of the very early eighties that I refer to. It was a time very early in my career when I was an actual show business journalist. Clearly, I’m not as good as I thought because I can’t remember if there was even an actor standing next to the Academy president announcing said nominees or if the prez even or always read them.

Ok.. I'm not THAT old.

Ok.. I’m not THAT old.

What I do remember is that I was very young and very excited to be there. Though more exciting than that was the list the Academy compiled for you stapled to the back pages of the nominees. It totaled up the list of nominees by studio, individual credits and according to how many times, if any, the person(s) had been nominated and/or won before. Why was that exciting? Because there was a time not so long before that when not even this detailed list was provided and a reporter had to navigate the perilous waters of going back to the office and inevitably getting some minute detail of the past or present wrong.

What do you mean fill in name of current nominee never got nominated? How dare you forget that short film they produced when they were 32 that no one ever heard of! I will never read you again! Or –

We fill in name of studio got six nominations this year and not seven – clearly you’re in the tank for fill in name of chief competing studio. We’re pulling all of our ads! Though my favorite was –

You know, fill in name of nominee was NOT the youngest (or oldest) nominee for best sound. In 1938, fill in name of nominee was co-nominated for best documentary and they were 22 (102). That’s a full eight months younger! How dare you! Don’t you know ANYTHING????

Amen, Lady Mary.

Amen, Lady Mary.

Ahh, how times have changed. Or have they?

There will inevitably always be something to complain about when award nominees and recipients are concerned. Especially with the granddaddy (mommy?) of all – the Academy Awards. It’s not that this year’s Oscars are not so white. It’s that, well, they are never fair. Or even-handed. Or even…much of anything except iconic.

Ok... when you see this it does seem pretty white, but I digress

Ok… when you see this it does seem pretty white, but I digress

What you discover as you get older is that this is the case for far too many or our icons. Oh, don’t go thinking I’m on a downer and you don’t want me passing it over to you. Nothing iconic is quite what it seems to be. The Statue of Liberty is older than it looks up close, the Mona Lisa is smaller and most Las Vegas curtains are tacky and made of Mylar. Not to mention…well, you get the picture.

This is not to make excuses for the silly omissions on this year’s list or to say that this and many other show business, in fact all business, organizations, need to be more inclusive – nee color blind, gender blind, age blind and…well, you get the picture. Again. Of course, they do.

But accepting all this to be true or not true and simply dealing with the facts, explain on a macro level:

  1. How can The Martian land seven nominations including best picture, actor and screenplay, and yet its director Ridley Scott is completely ignored?
  2. How is it that Carol gets six nominations, including, best actress, supporting actress and screenplay, and for best picture it receives nary a mention?
  3. How can I, as a lover of all kinds of movies, watch both of the above films and not understand why they were nominated for much of anything because both generally bored the hell out of me???

Therein lies your answer.

#noshame

#noshame

This is all a strange conglomeration of opinion, circumstance, institutional prejudice and chance. And, as Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman so famously posited many decades ago in his seminal book Adventures in the Screen Trade, when it comes to the motion picture field: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.

And yet…we all want a piece of the pie, don’t we? We all want to be recognized, and counted, or at the very least, to feel included.

I’ve often read the not so subtle putdowns of the millennial generation and how they need an award for everything. Often this is attributed to mis-parenting and a vaguely sort of overly permissive, socially liberal baby boomer culture.

I bet that cake was delicious

I bet that cake was delicious

Well, perhaps. But I don’t think so. Like all the rest of us, they just want to feel included in the inside game and valued in some way.

Awards and nominations are one way to feel this. But there are others. Lots of them.

Which is not to say I won’t be watching, dishing and live tweeting the Oscars when they air, Sunday. Feb. 28 right here at notesfromthechair.com.

And give up show business?? Oh, I don’ t think so.