A New/Old Golden Age?

Art, historically, is always at its best and most provocative when it can be in opposition to something – when the artist disagrees with the government she lives in. – Hanya Yanagihara, Editor in Chief, T Magazine

This week the New York Times published a special issue of its Style Magazine entitled — 1981-1983 New York: 36 Months that Changed the Culture.

Among the many articles, stories and sidebars is an accompanying 12-minute video of interviews at a photo shoot of 21 actors who had their breakthrough moments in the city as young artists at the time.

Click to watch the video!

There are lots of familiar names, many of them now stars, all of them respected at their craft not only onstage in New York but often in film and television.   Not to mention, one of them is now even running to be the next governor of New York.

Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick , Cynthia Nixon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Willem Dafoe, Nathan Lane, Harvey Fierstein, Ed Harris, Loretta Devine, Joan Allen, Elizabeth McGovern, Mercedes Ruehl, Victor Garber, Amanda Plummer, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Michael Cerveris, Mia Katigbak, Stephen Bogardus and John Kelly.

It was impossible to know at the time who in the above group would:

1- Create roles so indelible that they’d live on forever in the pop culture landscape.

2- Become rich and famous beyond their (and our) wildest dreams.

My face when I think about SJP’s wallet. Yes, we’re looking at you shoe lady!

3- Continue to be doing avant-garde, cutting edge work so many decades later.

4- Change your life with a single performance or film appearance or, perish the thought back then if you were a true artiste, weekly TV show.

And perhaps, most importantly (at least for them):

5- Survive long enough to attend or even be wanted at a photo shoot/class reunion in the year 2018 organized by the NY Times about the city’s once-in-a-era cultural scene.

It is easy to look back and write about an iconically fertile or low period in artistic and political history. But it is one mean feat of supernatural ESP to know that this is what’s going on in your particular time at the time and be absolutely right about it.

Amen, Andy Bernard. Amen.

The truth is, everyone thinks that both the time they’re living in and the work they’re doing is important, artistic, relevant and potentially world and/or life-changing. Either that or they assume there is nothing at all important about it – certainly nothing people would ever look back on decades later in wonderment or nostalgia.

Of course, both viewpoints are incorrect. No one really knows which times are or will be relevant to other generations and how or in what way. Sure, you’ve got gut feelings about stuff, especially in 1980s NY where people on the artistic scene slowly began dying around you from an unnamed plague. But in that moment, it isn’t easy to fully realize how time will remember it or if you and/or your generation’s work will live on or be forgotten. What is even more likely is that you won’t be right about it.

OK maybe we had a good idea about this guy #legend

Cases in point:

— I remember working with a 17 year old Cynthia Nixon on a little known Robert Altman film, OC & Stiggs, in the early eighties and thinking: She’s so sweet and smart, not to mention natural in front of the camera – I hope the biz of show doesn’t eat her alive. I never dreamed I’d see her on Broadway a year later seducing a major movie star onstage right before my eyes, go on to win two Tonys, then follow it all by becoming a female role model/TV star on Sex in the City.  And now a run for governor? Are you kidding???

Oh she’s the real thing alright!

— As the arts editor of my college radio station I got tickets to see this off-Broadway play called Vanities in the seventies where a very young and very unknown Kathy Bates played one of three friends whose lives we trace though high school, college and post graduation. She was fun AND sort of sad simultaneously, the kind of fantastic NY actress you knew would work forever but would probably never be a star because, well, the business…SUCKED!!

Which it didn’t because in the eighties she became a local Broadway legend playing a suicidal daughter in night, Mother and in the early nineties became an Oscar winning, axe-wielding movie star in Misery.

And then win an Emmy for playing a HEAD in American Horror Story

The latter was, by the way, five years after I had worked on the movie version of ‘night, Mother and was tasked to arrange a private pre-release screening for Ms. Bates so she could take in the work done by Sissy Spacek in the role SHE had originated. Again, I thought, this business…SUCKS! Which, of course, it didn’t once again and, in fact, only showed how wrong one (okay, I) can be – TWICE. And in two different decades.

— Then there was the time in early eighties NY where I saw Harvey Fierstein playing a gay, Jewish drag queen in his play Torch Song Trilogy and considered just how wrong I was a third time (ok, maybe that was #2) about what could and could not be accomplished in a business that, at the end of the day, actually might not at all always totally…SUCK.

Oh.. hello, Mother

This might be hard for younger people today to imagine but the idea of a gay guy from the boroughs playing a gay guy from the boroughs in a play he had himself, a gay guy from the boroughs, written about the relationship a gay guy from the boroughs has with an impossibly closeted gay guy he’s in love with and his own impossibly know-it-all Jewish mother seemed…well… impossible at the time. Until it wasn’t. And never would be again (Note: Especially for this gay guy from the boroughs) thanks to people like “Harvey,” who worked in cheap, roach infested, barely standing stages far away from the harsh glare of world-changing and international recognition.

You can never be great – in life or in art – if you’re forever thinking about being great or are sure you will never be great because the odds are against you and the times you live in just don’t allow it.

Also avoid self aggrandizing

All you can really do is put everything you have into your work and your life (both of those being art) in the best way you can, revel in each action and task with as much enthusiasm as you can and – hope for the best.

I still have to remind myself about living in the moment and enjoying each task at hand, unconcerned with result and I saw most of the above unlikely actor/stars in their iconic performances all those years ago in the early eighties.

I was killin’ it and didn’t even know it!

Of course these days it sometimes takes journalistic behemoths like the NY Times to remind us that the eighties – a decade many of my peers consider hideous beyond words because of its ethos of Greed is Good, big hair and the AIDS plague – did indeed have its moments in hindsight.

That is among many other things we depend on them to remind us of daily these days. Which is the subject of another story. Though the lesson is the same – stay focused and do the work as best you can – even if you think no one is listening and despite what you perceive your odds are for success.  Because the future – yours and all of ours – just might surprise you — and us – if you (nee We) just keep going.

Nina Hagen – New York New York (1983)

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To Jennifer, with love

How do you solve a problem like Jennifer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you??

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

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

That's showbiz, kid

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

Working on her EGOT

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

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