This is the Pitts!

Mommie Dearest.

When Brad Pitt’s mother came out as virulently anti-Obama (that’s Barack HUSSEIN Obama, to use her exact words), anti-choice (“the killing of unborn babies,” as she puts it) and anti-gay marriage, (she cites “Christian conviction concerning homosexuality”) in a letter to Missouri’s Star-Ledger this week, all I could think about was:

  1. What is it like when Brad comes home for the holidays?
  2. What was it like when he came home with Angie for the first time (assuming he has)?
  3. And how can he be so liberal while his mother is so intransigent, nasty and, well, small-town ignorant???

Despite my better instincts, I’m still wondering about the first two. (OH, COME ON, I’M NOT ALONE!).  As for the third, well – I should know better than to categorize people I’ve not met as ignorant and am profusely embarrassed (well, at least slightly) for thinking it, much less writing it publicly.

I mean, for all I know, Jane Pitt has many wonderful qualities (well, at least one we can speak of) and might just be the kindest woman in town if we were to get off the subject of politics.  As for Brad, I know him as well as Jane, so despite the fact that I like a lot of his movies and the things he’s done to build houses in New Orleans as well as his fight for gay marriage ($100,000 to defeat CA’s Prop 8) he could be even more jerky than Mom if we get him on the right subject.

As could all of us.  Which is the point.

How did we get here?

These differences are what the United States is and always has been composed of and, up until recently, was one of the selling points of the country.  That like a big dysfunctional family — mine, yours or the Pitts — you could disagree and still be related.  You could also do or say or be as rude or politically incorrect or culturally diverse or short sighted, or communistic/tree hugging/eco-friendly and radically vegan-istic as you like and, at the end of the day, you had just as much a right to be here and act that way as anyone else.  Perhaps this is even still the case for those of us not overdosing on the red state/blue state thing after two or three decades of growing alienation from each other.

That’s why there are 64 colors in every box.

Was it the rise of the Christian right after the social revolution of the sixties that started it?  Or the wave of the let ‘em eat cake Reagan conservatism followed by a tidal wave of Clintonistic separation of politics and morality?  Or the post 9/11 Bush years of attack, invasion and collapse?   There are theories but we’ll never know for sure.  What we do know is that our chief attraction, and export across the world, depends on this not being quite so.  Because what we’re really best known for is the international production of “a dream.”   An American dream.  But if not fading, it does feel that this particular dream has gone a bit – well, awry.

A dream as American as apple pie.

The entertainment industry particularly depends on this export, this idea of who we are, whether it’s true or not.  Films, television, music, art – America’s chief image is of a country where anything is possible for anyone.  And just when the world begins to think it isn’t, we as a country seem to always do something to save the dream from the jaws of destruction.  Most recently it was electing our first African American president despite the odds against it, especially when you consider the man’s middle name is the same as the Middle East dictator whose country we had just invaded in order to….well, to do something – but that’s not the point.

Anyway, politics aside, if there were ever an American dream scenario played out publicly in the last two decades to counter the cynicism, President Obama’s biography would be it.  Lower middle class, son of divorced parents, raised in Hawaii and Kansas, a community organizer who until recently smoked cigarettes and admits that he even used to smoke marijuana.  Not to mention his like of arugula salads and other designer foods as well his upbringing in…Hawaii?  (yes, it’s a state even though it’s not on the mainland).  I mean, who would’ve thunk it?

Young Obama or Brooklyn Hipster?

As he likes to say — on paper, it doesn’t make sense that he’d become president anywhere else in the world.  And even highly unlikely he’d rise up here.  But there are lots of unlikely things that happen in the USA, and in life, everyday.

This same unlikeliness rings true with some of our biggest celebrities.  Certainly a motherless girl dancer from Michigan with a passable voice and the given name of Madonna was not a shoo-in for a three decade musical megastar who helped reinvent the recording industry with what used to be cutting edge videos and sex books.

Nor was a poor, unabashedly gay kid from the Depression era south with the ordinary name of Thomas Williams likely to be one of the great playwrights of the 20th century, writing under the new, and even more unlikely, first name of Tennessee.  Nor would it seem probable that two very young men who chose to make fun of religion in a short film called “Jesus vs Frosty” would go on to change animation and television AND now the Broadway musical with “South Park” and “The Book for Mormon” but that is exactly what Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done.  Not coincidentally, all three (four?) have done so by challenging, some might say attacking, what we consider to be our “traditional American values.”

True, some might cite these performers and their work as symptoms of our obvious moral decay.  I, however, look at it as necessary generational progress.  In fact, essential.

Not to get all post-Fourth of July, but what seems to allow the idea of the American dream to endure is the fact that we have always permitted ourselves to make fun of our sacred cows, ensuring that no one of us is particularly more precious than another on any given day or decade.  In fact, we’ve even reveled in it.  We can be in bad taste, politically incorrect, intolerably small-minded and even on occasion morally offensive to one group.  If we go too far, society will correct itself and eventually pass a law outlawing our action or create another one loosening up standards to accommodate a group shift in behavior.  There are real human costs for this – loss of lives, loss of livelihood, and worse – loss of ones sense of self and one’s humor in battle and in support of our own particular “cause.”

That seems to be what’s happening now in our current age of polarization. But I can only say “seems” because this is the argument everyone in history falls back on at different points in time when society is so “at odds.”  However, and speaking only for me, there does seem to be something about right now that feels different.  Something is off.  Something that’s not quite…well, for lack of a better word — right.

Sad, but true.

When I read Jane Pitt’s letter I initially dismissed it as a statement of someone who believes very differently than I do.  Someone who is at least a generation older who grew up in a different time and can’t or chooses not to understand societal shifts and changes that have occurred since she was young and was, perhaps, more malleable and open-minded.

After thinking about, though, I feel differently.  There is something ugly in it.  Disagreeing with a president is one thing but purposely using his middle name of “Hussein” to somehow paint him as some kind of “other” is viciously unacceptable.  As is calling people who believe in the right to choose “baby killers.”  As is suggesting that one group’s personal religious views against another particular group should be used to deny rights in a country who several centuries ago freed itself from its oppressor partly so all of its people would have the choice to worship, or NOT to worship, exactly as they all would so choose so long as it didn’t interfere with anyone else.

Fierce.

We live in a celebrity culture where, as Andy Warhol prophesized many decades ago, everyone will be (or at least can be) famous for about 15 minutes.  This means that although you don’t have to be related to one of the select few celebrity elite to be heard, it certainly adds to your marquee value – whether you like it or not.  Surely, Jane Pitt knew this quite well when she wrote her letter.  She and her views now have their 15 minutes of fame.  Or perhaps more.  She’s now in the uber argument.   Inevitably, there will be others, countless others.  But right here and now it is up to her and us what we choose to do with it.  We can ignore it and proceed as we have been.  We can also use it as yet another moment to pull us further apart.  Or we can engage in some way and employ it to draw us closer together and begin to reshape, just a tiny bit, something we used to call the American dream.

History – as well as “Extra,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “TMZ” and “The Huffington Post” – is watching.   For at least 15 minutes or so.

Something for Everyone?

William Goldman, the Oscar winning and once highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood (though he lived in New York) once famously said of the entertainment industry:  “Nobody knows anything.”  I never truly believed this, though I said I did.  After all, it’s easy to be the most successful and highest paid anything and say that because a) you’ve already made it, b) you are one of the few of us who are so clever and talented that you don’t have to figure out the regular rules, or c) you are probably also the kind of person who is ALWAYS in the right place at the right time, something that never seems to happen to me.

Now that I’m mid-career (if I live to be, like, 110), I know that’s bullshit.  You might not believe me because, well, why should you?  Especially if you’re the age I was when I first heard William Goldman make his remarks in the 1970s.  But trust me, it’s true.

Conventional wisdom tells us a lot of things but what it doesn’t tell us about are the EXCEPTIONS – and CHANCE – both of which have a lot more power than we think and shifts conventional wisdom on a dime.  It also probably produces the best films, television, music and theatre, anyway.  Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché but bares repeating – no one thought “Star Wars” would be the hit that it was; Francis Coppola wasn’t the first choice to direct “The Godfather; horror films were dead until “Halloween,” musicals were dead until “Chicago” and “Glee;” and John Travolta’s career was dead until a fan of his named Quentin Tarantino decided it would be a hoot and cast him in a little film called “Pulp Fiction.”

Further – you don’t make movies on issues such as anti-Semitism in the 1940s until a film like “Gentlemen’s Agreement” wins some Oscars and makes money; nor films about black and whites intermingling or marrying until “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”; nor hire blacklisted writers until Kirk Douglas decides “that’s crap” and employs accused Commie Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus” because he knows he’s the best man for the job.

Or take a chance on anything particularly new and different in the post millennium world because the world economy is in collapse, everyone is risk adverse, the public IQ has been dumbed-down and we now live in a four quadrant world where any artistic property that has a hope of being made has to appeal to the broadest audience possible and have the potential to be an action figure, an app or a happy meal.

Oh please.

All it takes is guts, talent, perseverance and, yeah, a little bit of luck.  But we all have luck at one time or another in our lives – both good and bad.  If you believe you never had any good luck – well the fact that you’re still breathing does count.  And if you still want to believe that isn’t true then you can take some solace in the fact that if there is only bad luck, someone’s lack of luck could certainly cause you to inadvertently prosper.  Would that be considered your good luck?  Well, I certainly think so.

I was amused at Lady Gaga’s recent HBO concert for many reasons, but none more so than when she imitated one of her doomsaying, know-it-all NYU professors regarding Gaga’s chance of making it – Teacher (in heavy New York accent):  Well….you know….(gum chomping)…yaw’ll never be the STAHHHH (star).  Ya maybe can play the ballsy best friend… But ya’ll NEVER…… etc, etc.

Now granted, I may not be the greatest college professor in the world, or even in the top 1000, but I can’t imagine ever telling that to a student, or anyone, because – how the hell do I know?  Or anyone know? Hint:  If they tell you they do, remember what William Goldman says – they don’t.  And you can take his word for it because he’s made far more money and films than I have AND has also written numerous plays, books and musicals, too.  Google or IMDB him.  You’ll see.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001279/bio

If you still don’t want to believe either of us – consider this year’s Tony Awards and what I couldn’t help but feel was the emergence of everyone’s inner GAY.  As in homosexual, same sex marriage, or the love that dare not speak its name as they used to say in the fifties (yeah, times are changing.  The Tonys might help gay marriage pass in NY…but still…)

Having been born at a time when they still used to say the latter and now living in a time when I write about the former, I confess to a still continuing surprise when I watch the opening number of a primetime, family-oriented network (CBS) offering hosted by an openly gay host (Neil Patrick Harris) and star of a very high-rated (at least it was) and traditional sitcom (“How I Met Your Mother”), singing to, oh, 50 million people – that theatre “Is Not Just For Gays Anymore” without so much as a ripple of public disapproval or threatened network boycott.  This was UNHEARD OF even just 20 years ago.  (see this or this).

But that’s not the only thing.  Yeah, we know the theatre’s always been more gay friendly than other entertainment mediums (is it something inherent about New York or because drama originated with the Greeks?), but the show then continues to become a tribute to an irreverent musical called “Book of Mormon” by the at one time controversial “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Remember when there was public outcry about their work and very existence?  What changed?  Was it CHANCE?  Or were they the EXCEPTION?  Or —

Did they just continue to do their work, good work, and the world somehow caught up with them?  Maybe that’s why they’re the toast of Broadway.  And not even gay.  (As far as I know).  Nah, I guess it’s just luck and chance.

Someone who is also the toast of Broadway and gay who I do know (of)  is a man named Larry Kramer.  For those of you who know him, you know how strange this sounds.  Mr. Kramer was one of the first (if not the first) activists to speak out about AIDS in 1981 – offending much of the gay community by handing out leaflets in the gay Mecca Fire Island and begging people (fellow gays) to curb their sexual activities until more was found out about the disease and demand government action.  He also offended much of the straight community, as he’d done his entire life, by simply being his unabashedly gay, mouthy, take no prisoners, self.  Mr. Kramer continued to do so and wrote a play about his travails 30 years ago called “The Normal Heart” starring a mouthy hero patterned after himself which played off-Broadway and got mixed reviews for being TOO SPEECHY, TOO PREACHY and generally (I can say this now) ahead of its time.  As those of us who were around then and have (somehow) lived to tell this tale now understand, Mr. Kramer was right and his artistic work on Sunday was lauded as if it were truly the Rapture (not the fake one predicted). And now, in one fell swoop, he got Tony Awards, a public platform for him to speak to a worldwide audience without leaflets, and tributes by just about every film, television and theatre star in attendance.    (Mr. Kramer, by the way, has never been a stranger to controversy – his first novel – a roman a clef called “Faggots” – which took the gay community to task for its penchant for loveless sex – was a huge success in some circles in the 70s, yet also cost him dearly in the eyes of his own community).

The admittedly very long-winded point I’m making is – WHAT WILL YOU FIGHT FOR?  WHAT IS YOUR ORIGINAL VOICE TELLING YOU IS IMPORTANT?  Because if you’re interested in “making it” in the entertainment business – really making it – meaning having an impact – this seems as sure a way as any to do it.  It’s a slow, unsteady climb, not a straight one (oops, didn’t mean to make that pun).  Chances are events won’t EVER fall into place for your work of art the way it did for Larry Kramer, or even Trey Parker and Matt Stone.   But chance is so-named because it’s unpredictable.  Just when you feel sure it’s trending one way, it can easily turn around, sneak up behind you and say “boo.”  Or much more than that.  Ask Larry or Trey or Matt.  Chance is strange that way.

Ellen Barkin, who won this year’s Tony Award for best supporting actress for “The Normal Heart” summed it up best in her thank you speech when she said her experience with the play taught her one very important lesson:

“One person can make a difference – one person can change the world.”

Kramer did it for gay liberation and the issue of AIDS.  Trey Parker and Matt Stone did it for comedy, political correctness and, now – Broadway.

But isn’t it all the same thing?  Take a chance.