Sorkin Says

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.58.19 AM

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.

Advertisements

Now… It’s Over

Screen Shot 2015-08-02 at 11.37.09 AM

Some idiot at MSNBC cancelled Now with Alex Wagner and I’m pissed off. Can one be angry at an idiot who doesn’t know any better? Or is it more appropriate to be p.o.’d at an amorphous thing like a network that doesn’t have any feelings? How much of an effect will that have? Of course, I’ve met a lot of idiots who don’t have feelings so perhaps I’d be better off going with the individual just to make it all feel more personal to me. At least there is some satisfaction in that.

Yes, I realize most of you don’t know who Alex Wagner is or have anything invested in Now. Make of the last part of that last statement what you will. And know that I will explain more about both AW and Now in a bit.   For now, just be aware it’s a mid-afternoon news/talk/opinion show – one of a block of three such programs MSNBC has axed in order to mainstream itself with a CNN-type breaking news kind of strategery. Yes, strategery.

STRATEGERY, my friends

STRATEGERY, my friends

Apropos of that — back to the idiots.

I’ve read this monumentally stupid decision was the brainchild of new NBC News chairman Andrew Lack, who is anything but new. Or news. He actually presided over NBC in its news heyday of the nineties when he helped take its anchor Tom Brokaw from #3 to #1 in the nightly race for ratings among the three major broadcast networks’ Nightly News programs. But does anyone you know watch the Nightly News anymore? (Note: Jon Stewart doesn’t count and in another week he’ll be gone too – waaaaa). Certainly no one reading these words. Or writing them.

No love for Davey?

No love for Davey?

Someone should tell the 68-year-old Mr. Lack that his plan to insert recently deposed NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (Note: Yeah, the guy who was put on “leave” for fictionalizing portions of at least a few more than several news stories he reported on) into the slots occupied by the brilliant and effervescent Ms. Wagner (and others) is akin to me ordering my current film students to sit down in a room and watch Barbra Streisand movies from the 60s and 70s on a loop. Or replacing Jon Stewart with Bryant Gumbel. Well, now I fear I’ve really lost the under 25 crowd. My first instinct was to use the Olivia Newton John or Elton John or even Jimmy Stewart comparison but I doubt any of those would have fared any better.

... and good luck to the over 40 crowd in recognizing this guy

… and good luck to the over 40 crowd in recognizing this guy

I have an unhealthy addiction to what used to be MSNBC and Ms. Wagner in particular because like me they are smart, sarcastic and liberal yet also managed to be surprisingly fair and balanced. Again, make of that last statement what you will but, no, it is not an oxymoron in our current cable news landscape. Also, in Ms. Wagner’s case I suspect she’s a lot nicer than I am. Certainly, she’s more modest. As for MSNBC, up until now they have been one of the few news sources with commentators who are not constantly dumbing down the issues of the day for the “masses,” blanding it down to the point of snoredom or amping it up to the tenor of the Donald Trump parade hosted by Fox News. I was going to say Sarah Palin parade on Fox because I hate to give Trump any more ink at all. But then I realized that evoking Sarah Palin was as relevant as hiring Brian Williams to be the new face of change for a floundering cable outlet. Or giving zzz’s inducing Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd four more hours of daytime programming chores as your second new hosting face.  Kill me now.

Welp... it's about time for my mid morning nap  #snooze

Welp… it’s about time for my mid morning nap #snooze

What did/do I love about Alex Wagner? Well, for one thing she often referred to the 2012 Republican presidential nominee as Willard “Mitt” Romney (Note: His real name) and Donald Trump as the “Teflon Don” (Note: Too nice to be his real name). She could also speak as eloquently about Jay-Z as she could on Zero Based Budgeting, while on that very same show interview everyone from Ron Paul to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (Note: Imagine being fair with him???) to any bleeding heart liberal on the block with a combination of tough-minded accuracy and good-natured aplomb.

News goddess

News goddess

Oh, and did I mention she’s 37, of mixed race origin and is married to former Obama White House chef, close First Family friend, and now NBC’s newest Today show contributor Sam Kass? Not to be mercenary, but why would you want someone like that anchoring an afternoon chat show on your network in 2015? Instead, let’s contract with more straight, deep-voiced or doughy-looking white men because, god knows, they are the wave of the future. What’s an Obama Coalition, anyway?

I'll have what she's having

I’ll have what she’s having

One might surmise this is less about Ms. Wagner and MSNBC and more about the fact that… the Chair does not adapt to change very well. Hmm, that could be at least partially correct. One strategy to overcome one’s anger – aside from just letting it go – is to welcome change as an opportunity for something better. I mean, the chief message of Pres. Obama to the Obama Coalition was something like: We are the change we have been waiting for. Remember?

Well, that’s a nice thought but in this case it would seem to indicate that the answer to all of this would be for me to start my own network, find another program or, as a last resort, try to figure out a way to hang out with Ms. Wagner on my own. I’m not entirely sure which one is the most doable. Though certainly I could guarantee the one of the three that would be the most fun.

Oh, do not start your own network, honey.

Oh, do not start your own network, honey.

That is, I suspect, the real issue. There is not a heck of a lot of fun in media these days. Or – there is too much of it. It’s entertaining when it’s supposed to be serious/serious when it’s supposed to be entertaining. Is Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly or even Fox News itself meant to be taken seriously? Have you ever tried to watch Fox and Friends? Every so often I tune in to the latter, one of several bizarre series on the top-rated cable network. Last week, when speaking of the surfer who got attacked and nearly eaten by a shark during a competition, one of the geniuses on that show wondered out loud why the surfing area wasn’t automatically cleared of sharks when there was a sporting event going on.

#Dowager4ever

#Dowager4ever

Yet on Ms. Wagner’s final program the Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart got it exactly right when asked about Thursday’s first Republican nominee presidential debate and the emergence of Donald Trump as its inevitable centerpiece. Mr. Capehart offered that the ratings would be high not because of a resurgence in political interest or a worry about the direction of the country. No, he said, it was mainly because it was a great potential entertainment event where you could sit in front of TV with a bowl of popcorn, a group of friends and play the drinking game of your choice as you watched Donald Trump eviscerate a stage full of – well, take your choice on what you want to call them, no partisanship here.

#srsly

#srsly

It is this kind of truth-telling that one seems to only get on shows like Ms. Wagner’s that I will miss. And yeah, I know I might be able to get it elsewhere. And it may even be better. Or it might not and I might be inspired to spend less time nodding my head at the television to people that I already know agree with me and being more productive in my life as a writer, teacher, husband and general citizen of the world.

As Gandhi once famously said – and perhaps this is where Pres. Obama got it from – Be the change that you wish to see in the world. In other words, don’t fight it.

#preach

#preach

Well, that’s a nice thought. But I’m still pissed off at MSNBC, Lack and the whole cabal for their misguided corporate stupidity. As such, in this situation I quite prefer the prose of Dorothy Parker, who many, many decades ago once wrote:

In my youth, it was a way I had,

To do my best to please.

And change, with every passing lad

To suit his theories.

 But now I know the things I know

And do the things I do,

And if you do not like me so,

To hell, my love, with you.

Or, in 2015 vernacular: Bite me, MSNBC.

Oscar Redux

Behind the scenes with the Chair

Nothing I’ve done in my life since my bar-mitzvah has ever evoked in people such excitement, admiration and curiosity as my recent trip to the Oscars last week.  I’m not sure if that says more about me or more about the ceremony itself (or perhaps more about who I hang out with).  But I’m not lying when I tell you that since that evening I’ve been inundated with pleas to tell almost everyone I know or people I barely know who know I went “what it was like.”  When I ask them exactly what they want to know the usual response is a blank stare and then the same question: Well, what were they like???? (Hint:  I added the “well”).

It took me a while but I get it.  The Oscars are iconic, symbolic and larger than you and I (me?).    They’re celebrity times googol (as oppose to the Google, which is a celebrity within itself and one day might arrive at iconic Oscar status). They’re really not about movies, or what is best, or what is being left out, or what falls short, or even about whether Billy Crystal was too old to host (Hint #2:  It’s not about age.  How much would you love to see Jack Nicholson as emcee – and he’s a lot older than Billy).

The truth is – the Oscars are about —  Well, they’re about magic.  They’re about an idea.  They’re about some weird sort of childhood fantasy come to life.  Forget that on some level they’re really about money, marketing, popularity, taste (or lack of it), fashion, movies and an extreme version of your high school prom whether or not you attended or whether or not you claim you cared about attending.  Like those who say they have no interest in ever attending an Oscar ceremony, you prom naysayers are lying.

We all want to be asked to the party and see what all the fuss is about.  Or perhaps being asked makes us feel special, which is a dangerous way to think about your value if you’re a person who works in the industry or a teenager looking for a date.  As the Dali Lama or your local self-help book or your inner voice will tell you, you are already special – and yes, I did say that and most days (because I’m only human) I actually do believe it.   And not because I’ve been trained to do so from years of therapy (maybe partially) but because it’s the only way to survive in the entertainment industry and in life.

Anyway, in my case I didn’t get officially asked by the Academy, so don’t fret, I’m still sort of on the outside like most everyone else.  I was invited by friends.  It’s not quite the same as being courted by Oscar himself to attend the ball (and who knows if that would be better, he asks hundreds of people but only chooses a select few to go home with him, when it comes down to it), but it’ll do for now.  Yes, it’s fun.  And yes, it is odd.  And when the subject comes up, it’s guaranteed to be a conversation starter in some circles or perhaps get you a bit more attention or perhaps even a date in others.

For that, and for many other reasons, I thought I’d pull back the curtain a beat more than last week’s tweets would allow and give you an inside look.   In no particular order, here they are:

OSCAR REDUX

1. ACTORS ARE HUMAN — Anyone who doesn’t think Angelina Jolie wasn’t in on the joke when she stuck her leg out of her Versace gown at the Oscars and struck a pose either doesn’t know anything about actors, movies or Hollywood in general.  I mean, you don’t really believe that someone who has achieved superstardom and stayed there for any length of time has done it by accident, do you?  Or solely on talent   Or by being totally clueless?   There is now a twitter feed, website and countless photo shopped images of Angie’s leg on fictional and non-fictional characters.  My favorite is the one of the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey” – or as she is affectionately known to those of us over 40 – Dame Maggie (also an Oscar winner, by the way).

There are no words...

Now, I’m not saying Angie knew her wide stance would evoke such reaction, but it’s not as if she didn’t know it would evoke some reaction.  And here’s something you might not know.  When adapted screenplay winner Jim Rash (“The Descendents”) imitated the Angieleg pose upon accepting his award, the real Angie and her leg were laughing quite visibly.  Unfortunately, it was off-camera and no one saw.  But now you know.   She was in on the joke.

2. EVERYONE LOOKS GOOD IN A TUXEDO, BUT… – How else to account for a record 300 plus likes of a picture of me and my significant other in tuxedos on Facebook.   Perhaps it was the OSCAR in the background???  (Though I do think we cleaned up quite nicely.  Still, I’m not fooling myself).

The Chair and the Good Doctor

3. THINK BEFORE YOU DISH – The first celebrity I saw when I got there was Michelle Williams.  Yes, she got good reviews for her gown but as good as she looked on the TV carpet, she was 1000% more stunning in person.  As was every actress there, even the misses.  They’re wearing expensive stuff and are styled and coiffed beyond belief.  And – if you were a movie star and had all those people working on you – you would look THAT good.  Okay, maybe not with bare leg, but no one is twisting your arm (or leg) on that.

4. THE DRAPES MATCH THE CARPET – The Hollywood Highland Complex, which houses Oscar’s home in the Kodak Theatre, is an expensive shopping mall with hundreds of storefronts, in case you don’t know.  But after you walk on hundreds of yards of red velvet carpet, you glide up stairs and escalators only to be surrounded by more walls of beautiful red carpet all around you.  I didn’t realize until half an hour later, “oh, there used to be stores there.”  Actually, there still are.  They’re behind all the red velvet wall hangings that cover Banana Republic, et al.   This is how movies can convince you you’re vacationing in Maui with the perfect golden tan (or golden person) in the best shape of your life when you’re really sweltering in Spanx or a man girdle on a Valley back lot.  Next to an extra.

5.  NO AUTOGRAPHS, PLEASE – Tons of waiters give you free champagne in the various lobbies before the ceremony.  You see famous people but you don’t ask for pictures or autographs because you pretend you’re one of them tonight.  And you ignore the loudspeaker voice that tells you to take your seat because you know it’s a TV taping and these things never start early.  Besides, everyone knows when the Oscars really start, please.  Note:  Most of the nominees enter from an orchestra stage entrance moments before the show so you are more likely to run into celebs like Virginia Madsen and Nate Berkus where you are.  But I did spot writer-director Alexander Payne, who was happily talking with lots of friends and co-workers and being very welcoming and relaxed.  That’s how you want to do it.  Of course, it probably helped that he already won once. (And he has now officially won a second time, which will exponentially help at all future Oscar ceremonies at which he is in attendance).

6.  EAT BEFOREHAND!!!  It’s a long show.  At least three hours.  And you arrive an hour or two before.  One power bar in your tuxedo pants pocket or special purse won’t cut it.  And don’t count on the hors d’oeuvre beforehand.  They are literally the size of a mini-pea.  (For the record: the free popcorn didn’t arrive in my mezzanine seat until the last half hour of the show and was the best popcorn I EVER had.   The people in the two balconies were either fed after me or fainted.  Needless to say, the orchestra-seated nominees were all well fed.  Well, I guess this is their night).

all that remains...

7. OSCAR NEEDS TO COMBINE THE OLD AND NEW.  Calling:  Jack Nicholson; Robert DeNiro; Al Pacino; Diane Keaton; Warren Beatty; Shirley MacLaine; Annette Bening; Barbra Stresiand (well, she was there for a moment in a filmed interview); Pedro Almodovar; someone who has worked with Woody Allen because he’s not coming a second time; Goldie Hawn; Denzel Washington; Samuel L. Jackson.

Then how about dangling a few more carrots at some not young but not old stars like Will Smith; Julia Roberts (okay, they’re middle-aged); Johnny Depp; and Jennifer Aniston.  Do I care what Edward Norton thinks about the moviegoing experience in a taped TV interview?  If you want to include Ed, then how about a great film clip of him in  “American History X” or his Oscar turn in “Primal Fear?”

8. OSCARS NEED TO INCLUDE MOVIES – Not people talking about movies; not comedians doing bits that are non sequiturs; not lines about how rich and out of touch those who live in Beverly Hills are with the way most people live (I can attest they still do go to the bathroom because I saw more than a few in there) or futuristically strange acrobats swinging over you without a net.  Movie moments???  Not unless you get Meryl on a high wire, which I have no doubt she could (and probably will) master at some later date.

9. TOO MANY FAMOUS NEWCASTERS – Every freakazoid entertainment show host or correspondent you have ever seen anywhere on every channel is in attendance.  You don’t know all of their names but recognize their faces or their dimples or their fake boobs, or hair transplants or Botox or Restalyne injections.  They, too, are looking their best.  Or some version of what they perceive as the latter.  No, I didn’t see Sasha Baron Cohen dump the ashes on Ryan Seacrest.  I can’t be everywhere!!!

10.  PIZZA WON’T BE YOUR GO-TO FOOD IF YOU EAT IT EVERY NIGHT – Perhaps the Oscars are not as exciting on TV anymore because the stars are accessible and everywhere.  Elizabeth Taylor never used to give interviews.  And by the way, she was THE last movie star.  Which reminds me, couldn’t they give her a separate moment alone after two best actress Oscars, a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and a lifetime of moviedom memories for all of us through all of eternity?  Closing out the somber “In Memoriam” segment didn’t seem to quite fit the good time gal who donated an oil painting of herself to the place where, in her later years, she most liked to hang out in – the West Hollywood gay bar, The Abbey.

The patron saint of the Abbey

11.  OSCAR GOLD — The statuettes are still the coolest looking of them all up close. They’re pretty.  They’re shiny.  Oh, and side note — It used to be that winners had to bring their Oscar to the Academy where they were sent off to be engraved with your name (well, not YOUR name, the winner’s name) and returned a month later.  Now, right after the ceremony, the actual winner (that means you, Jean) have to go to a table at the Governor’s Ball, where a small plaque is soldered on to your statue by an expert technician and you are quickly sent on your way.    (PS – The statues are heavier than you think.  I’ve held them several times.  Though not that night, alas).

12. THE AUDIENCE IS ON ITS OWN – Billy doesn’t talk to you during commercial breaks.  But there is a man who periodically brings out the largest broom/Swiffer you’ve ever seen across the stage to make sure it stays shiny.  And some of the best action is off-camera between the presenters.  J-Lo and Cameron giggling and pointing; Emma Stone reassuring Ben Stiller that she wasn’t seriously insulting him (why not??); and standing O’s for Octavia and Meryl (but you should’ve seen those, along with Angie and her leg laughing).

13.  ALL DOGS GO TO OSCAR — You can’t go wrong with a movie that has a dog, especially a Jack Russell terrier.  Check out “The Artist” and “The Beginners” and tell me who really deserved Oscar in those films.  And yes, I have a Jack Russell Terrier.  Her name is Rosie.  And she is not going to have a career in the movies.  I don’t want her to turn out like Lindsay Lohan’s dog.

The Artist's REAL star

14.  FANCY MEETING YOU HERE – One of my favorite moments was when a very attractive young woman in a pretty pink gown and a cool diamond stud in her nose called my name.  I stopped and finally realized it was one of my former students from not too long ago – a working director who was at the ceremony with a friend.  I fully expect her to be in the front orchestra one day, getting her popcorn first and being seated moments before the show.  Yes, it can happen to you.  And any of us.   But only if you get to work.  Right now.  Don’t worry about what you’ll say or what they’ll say about you much later.  People like to talk.  And — as far as what you’ll wear to this most iconic of events where you’ll be watched by, like, oh, a billion people – don’t worry, it’s gonna be free.  And most of all — it’s gonna be faaabulous.

Future Oscar winner, Rachael

Til Oscar’s next glitzy night…