50 Shades of a Blockbuster

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 2.34.56 PM

There’s a new film blockbuster in the works and it doesn’t center on a comic book and it most certainly won’t feature a superhero.  Oh, wait a minute – it kind of does and it absolutely will.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a trilogy of books about the S & M relationship between a sexy, billionaire businessman possessing gray/grey eyes (get it?), who’s into sexual domination, and aptly named Christian Grey, and his perfect submissive match, Anastasia/Ana Steele – a young college student who arrives in his office one day to interview him in advance of him giving the big keynote speech at her graduation. (Note:  Apologies to all former and current students who feel slighted at my school’s total failure to produce anything even vaguely comparable to CG in the past or, for that matter, in any part of our foreseeable futures.  And no, it is not lost on me that his initials are, indeed, CG).

We're more black and white.. than grey

We’re more black and white.. than grey

In any event, Mr. Grey, or Christian as Ana is quickly urged to call him, instantly became a sort of pop superhero phenomenon some time ago to many mega millions across the comic book world we now live in, though admittedly in a more adult, fantasy setting.  To be exact, the FSoG trilogy has sold in excess of 100 million copies since the first in its series began as a self-published E-BOOK three years ago.  Not to mention, by the time its rights and subsequent sequels were acquired and massively distributed worldwide, its writer, E.L. James, had vaulted to the #1 spot on Forbes 2013 list of top earning authors with an estimated $95 million of revenue in the till for all of her hard work.

EL James' house

EL James at home

Not that any of us do this for the money.

Understandably, there is great fascination as to how the novelistic fantasies of Christian and Ana will play out on the big screen, so much so that the potential of their celluloid (well, okay, digital) coupling is already beginning to build into a worldwide Twilight-like frenzy.  (Note: Interesting, enough, author James’ initial stories for these novels were first posted as Twilight fan fiction until sales soared, she chose new names for her characters and went about expanding the narrative).

It's like us... with whips!

It’s like us… with whips!

But back to FSoG:  The Movie.  The trailer was launched this week and, international fan bases being what they are, it quickly went viral.  The entertainment website The Wrap reported that in less than one day it had been viewed almost 7 million times on YouTube and it is nearing double that total (probably more) in less than a week.  Not to mention how many tens of millions more have watched it elsewhere in various iterations, myself included.

None of this is surprising in light of the phenomenon that is FSoG but is certainly not hurt by the fact that none other than Beyoncé has reworked a slower, more slutty sultry version of her megahit “Crazy In Love” as the theme song to all of the quick cutting, visual and/or implied sexual steaminess FSoG seeks to emit.  And yes, we must use the qualifier seeks because one person’s steaminess is someone else’s camp classic or moral offense.  Truth be told, I’d take any one of the three after a Saturday night spent watching this weekend’s number one film at the box-office, Lucy.  But judge for yourself right here and right now.

Whichever you prefer — steaminess, morality, campiness– the inevitable fact is this film will make a great deal of money – lots and lots and lots and lots of it.  So much so that one can only hope that those working on it have the greatest of deals established upfront with a guarantee to be involved in the next inevitable two or three more FSoG films in all of our pop culture futures.  Given the latter is most certainly the case whether we choose it or not, what is worth noting are several overall factors in how we view what is being touted as the new, hot (not to necessarily be confused with HOT!) film of the day.

1. The Blockbuster and potential Tentpole – Rather than argue about it, any observer of movies (which includes almost everyone you and I know) should recognize what truly makes the modern blockbuster and how many different facets of the industry contribute to it. It is rare, almost unheard of, for an original screenplay to bounce onto the scene – as say ET or Stars Wars or Home Alone did in past decades – and become an international phenomenon anymore.  One needs to be a sequel, a comic book or – the film embodiment of a best selling series of something written or conceived to great financial success in another medium.

Like me!

Like me!

This is not bad news or good news (depending on whether you’re a producer/studio head or creative talent) but simply reality.  That is, until some poor schnook is able to break through the morass and defy the odds.  Which is also inevitable given another reality – that the only sure thing in the world, aside from death and taxes, is change.  Perhaps you are that poor schnook (Note: author E.L. James was not poor before writing FsoG – she was, in fact, a British television executive).  If so, more power to you.  Still, all that being said – and as my gambler Dad tried to warn me – one should always understand the odds before taking the bet.  Not that it ever stopped he or I from making the leap at the things we both really wanted.  Which is probably the best piece of advice to follow but only if you want to wind up as either of us.

2. Women – As a gay guy I particularly LOVE women. Seriously.  No, this does not mean that I ever wanted to be a woman (well, aside from maybe Barbra Streisand when I was 13, but who didn’t?).  Women were always among my bestest friends as a boy and are among my favorite people as adults.  I had mothers and I have sisters – in all forms of the word.  This is why I am somewhat bothered yet openly recognize that big budget movies today deal mostly in archetypes – male and female – though the latter particularly seem to be getting the raw end of the stick.

I feel pretty?  From Jezebel

I feel pretty? From Jezebel

In terms of FSoG, the feminist website Jezebel referenced this as well as anyone else in one of its recent stories with the headline – Put A Cardigan On It:  How to Make a Beautiful Actress Less Beautiful.  The piece then went on to show a somewhat shameless array of mouse to swan images of young screen heroines from the past 40 years starting out in bad sweaters only to be transformed into sunnier versions of themselves in much better and skimpier outfits, not to mention hairstyles and cleavage.  Needless to say, this transformation was mostly due to their hot relationship with a hot guy – the big exception being Devil Wears Prada.  Well, with those as the only choices (Miranda Priestly vs. Christian Grey?) I guess most straight women I know would take the hot guy anytime.  Certainly I would.

This all begs the question of whether cardigans are the new eyeglasses. I for one can remember a time not that long ago in the movies when all it took was for a plain Jane to whip off her spectacles and – BOOM – you had a Bond girl.  Literally.  Which was a lot more efficient than making her shed a variety of badly colored, scratchy, ill-fitting outerwear.

QTers

On that note, I don’t know what to make of Woody Allen’s new Magic in the Moonlight, which seems to want us to root for a romance between a twenty-something young psychic who may or may not possess those powers, played by pert, pretty and perfectly dressed (sans cardigan) Emma Stone and a bitter, curmudgeonly fifty-something magician portrayed by Colin Firth.

However one feels about Mr. Allen’s real life involvements with women, the near thirty-year age difference is so creepy and unacknowledged, especially in the majority of reviews, that one wonders what exactly is the new normal out there in film land.  Sure, Eastwood, Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas have played movie heroes who often romanced women a decade or two younger than themselves.  But is…three now the new one or two?  And what will the standard be in another 20 or 30 years?  It makes the upcoming submissiveness of a young college girl to the desires of a billionaire who was at least born within the same decade feel like a relief.  Or a 1970s after-school special.  Which it might yet be in another 30 years.

Keep working on it!

Keep working on it!

3. Actors – There are movie star films and then there are movies that rise to the top without performers who are household names.  Young adult films and steamy love stories that enjoyed great success in other mediums tend to do the latter.  Twilight had no stars at the time of its launch.  Endless Love, based on the best selling steamy novel from the eighties, was cast with a known but very young model (Brooke Shields) who had limited acting experience and a totally unknown young actor, Martin Hewitt, who is, once again, unknown today. (Note: And please, can we just forget the more recent remake earlier this year? Please?). 9 1/2 Weeks, perhaps the best example of a big studio kinky sex film, starred Mickey Rourke and Kim Bassinger – experienced movie actor quantities but by no means Brad, Angie, Tom, Sandy, Julia or even Shailene.

The new "it" couple

The new “it” couple

This makes the casting of Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson as CG and AS in FSoG certainly in keeping with past choices.  Ms. Johnson has been in a few films and is the daughter and granddaughter of movie stars who know a thing or two about this sort of sexy screen area.  Mom Melanie Griffith first drew controversy for appearing naked at the age of 17 as a promiscuous teen runaway in the 1975 drama, Night Moves and I, for one, remember her father Don Johnson parading around in all his natural glory in 1973’s The Harrad Experiment to great effect – at least on my end.  We won’t even get into her maternal grandmother Tippi Hedren, not naked per se but best known as perhaps one of the most famous of all the Hitchcock blondes.  Which at the very least qualifies you as an expert in steam.  And certainly much more.

A different kind of masochism

A different kind of masochism

As for Mr. Dornan, he’s appeared in a few movies and starred in the recent British TV series The Fall. But like Ms. Shields he also got his start as a model, becoming famous enough to be nicknamed The Golden Torso.  Interesting Side Note: In most of his former work he had a beard (uh, I mean facial hair – don’t be bitchy).  Yet he will appear totally clean-shaven as CG – evoking a physical image slightly akin to that of another Christian – Bale – in American Psycho.

Dornan vs. Hunnam... everybody wins!

Dornan vs. Hunnam… everybody wins!

Of course, this was not the filmmakers’ original conception.  They had first cast Charlie Hunnam, who stars as a rugged, muscly biker in the hit cable series Sons of Anarchy.  But when Mr. Hunnam had to bow out due to scheduling they presumably decided to go in a different direction, as they say.   By the way, the word presumably is a proper one in this case because Mr. Hunnam initially gained acting notoriety as the lithe, blonde underage boy deflowered by one of the handsome leading men in the 1999 British miniseries Queer As Folk.  At least that’s how I first experienced him.  And from memory I can tell you that aside from his experience making steamy naked love onscreen early in his career, he would have cleaned up quite nicely if the FSoG filmmakers had desired it.  As for what images I am suddenly choosing to recall onscreen, #NoThereIsNotAPatternHere.

4. Audiences/The WorldNobody knows anything as William Goldman once famously said about people in the motion picture business predicting hits.   All of it is ultimately second-guessing.  But if one believes in the basics of science – which could be considered a controversial stance in many places in the US these days yet hopefully is not yet one here – there is certainly a cause and effect to everything.

FSoG, like the Twilight series of books, has been dubbed as Mommy Porn in more than some circles.   Confused?  Well, luckily we have a web dictionary handy.

mommy porn

A genre of mainstream erotic literature that primarily appeals to the sensibilities of mothers and housewives

Beware the power of the mom

Beware the power of the mom

Now certainly I am not here to besmirch those sensibilities or to even begin to define what they are because generally I subscribe to what Woody Allen once wrote/said in Manhattan re orgasms:  My worst one was right on the money.

Nevertheless, as stated above the world is not random.   Even musician/singer John Mayer wrote/sang about being nice, kind and honest to young women in Daughters, one of his most famous hit songs, despite his very well publicized and occasionally tawdry womanizing adventures during the last two decades.

Writes/Sings Mr. Mayer:

…On behalf of every man

Looking out for every girl

You are the god and the weight of her world.

So fathers be good to your daughters…

If you want John Mayer, who I don’t know but seems like a nice guy to hang out with, to date your daughter, well he comes off like the gold standard given his song but his actions seem otherwise. Of course, I don’t know because, as I said, I’ve never experienced him personally.  Or any of the women he dates, including any of your daughters.   As for the movies, apply similar logic.  Maybe creating and frequenting future blockbusters like Ffity Shades of Grey won’t come back to haunt us decades later in some odd shape or form.  Or maybe it will.  Like a date with Mr. Mayer, and most certainly Mr. Grey himself, there is room for fantasy on either side.  The only real fantasy is writing off what we do as a random choice – one that will have no effect on any of us or our world at all.

Final Note and full disclaimer: I’ll be seeing FSoG opening weekend – which is – wait for it — Valentine’s Day, 2015.  Like everyone else, I’m nothing if not curious. Whether that’s good, bad or just simply steamy, if for you to decide.

Advertisements

Starting Over

Thirty years ago I attended the Grammy Awards when John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy” won album of the year and I  watched as Lennon’s widow and sometime collaborator, Ono, walked across the stage to accept the honor.  The irony of the moment was not lost on us attendees or the many millions of people watching worldwide.  The monster hit single being played from the recording as she made her way to the podium was Lennon’s “Starting Over” and its message of new beginnings was especially poignant.   Lennon had been murdered a year before at point blank range in front of his NYC apartment building right after the initial release of “Double Fantasy” and his death required that not only his wife but his legion of worldwide fans would somehow have to heed the advice of the song and begin to finally and fully absorb the shock of living in a world where one of the most iconic artists of that time – or pretty much any time – was gone.

Click for full video

As the very petite and very soft-spoken Ms. Ono stood at a clear podium that seemed to engulf her very presence amid thunderous applause that definitely engulfed the very room, I remember thinking three things  – a. “how is she doing it?”  b. “she’s so much smaller than I imagined” and c. “it’s sad that this is what it takes for people in this business to forgive you for some large perceived misdeed (in her case it was  the lingering unjust accusation that she had caused the break up of the Beatles).

As for part b. —  well, most very famous people are not as “larger than life” as they appear to be – both physically or in any other way – and in terms of part c. – human beings are often much more comfortable if we can blame a person or an institution for something we didn’t want to happen instead of blaming ourselves, life or the fickle finger of fate more commonly known as bad luck.

But as for part a. —  I’m still trying to figure that out, though I’m much closer to the answer than I was in 1982 – a time when I was sure I’d be spending the rest of my life with the music industry person I was dating whose personal history did not include one long term (or even short term) happy relationship. What was I thinking?   Hell if I know.  (Though if you really think about it you probably can guess).

But what John Lennon knew at that time and probably before most of the rest of us did, is that starting over is a way of life – a state of being – something indigenous to the human condition, and often to the sometimes inhuman condition, known as show business.

This week a student who was about to graduate college and venture out into the world for the first time without the safety net of academia came to me fairly terrified and only a little excited about the prospects that lie ahead.

“I feel like it’s going to be like starting college all over again, only different and scarier,” said the student while trying not to fidget.

“It is,” I answered, all smiley and knowledgeable, “except instead of paying with money you’ll pay in a lot other ways.”

Okay, I didn’t say that last part because I’m not that cynical and I try to be encouraging in the same way I like to think John Lennon would be.  But part of taking on any new project; stretching yourself to try or be anything you never were before; or even reinventing that which is already there, means a change in strategy.  It means looking at it with fresh eyes.  It means pulling out a blank slate and pretending you’re brand new at it.  Or – if you’ve never, ever done it before – it’s asking yourself the basic questions that all aspiring people, especially creative ones, need to ask.  What is my goal (nee objective) and what is the best, though not necessarily fastest, way to get there?

the evidence of hard work

This question is at the core of teaching in the arts.  As a screenwriting teacher it often comes down to what does your hero want; what are the obstacles in his or her way; and in the end, does he or she get it or don’t they get it?  Really good actors know that they’re reading a really good part in a play, movie or TV show if their character is actually DOING something about GETTING something, rather than just thinking about it, and that even though this thing they’re after might be difficult or near impossible to get, what the audience will be mesmerized by is the journey that this actor will personify.  They know, as do writers, that what’s really interesting is not so much the ending but the struggle to get there.  If something is too easy to get then it’s not worth watching.  If the goal is not worth pursuing or not particularly mesmerizing (which doesn’t mean it has to be lofty), then why are we wasting our time anyway?  And what all writers and all actors need in order to make the goal, the obstacles and the ending convincing is -– drum roll –  you guessed it – a beginning.

give yourself the green ight

The actor and writer always need to start somewhere in order to do their jobs.  It’s the question every creative person must take on and forge through in the fictional world of the “story.”  And just as each new story starts at some point so do the many and various cycles of our lives.

Certainly, this territory has been covered before in numerous:

  • a  Self-help books
  • b. Oprah episodes
  • c. Places of worship and
  • d. Psychiatrist’s couches across the country.

But for some reason it’s easy to forget this simplest of facts when dealing in our real lives.  It’s normal to be uneasy when you’ve never done it or lived there before but it also has the potential to be more exciting than anything you’ve ever experienced.  (Note:  I believe this applies to every situation except death and bungee jumping).

  • Start a new job?  Oh God, what if it sucks?  Or worse yet, if I suck?
  • Begin a new relationship?  I’m getting nauseous at the idea of letting one more person in my inner circle who is going to screw me over unless, well…they really know how to scr…I mean, fit into my inner circle.
  • I can’t move to a new _______, begin a new __________, or even venture into another ________    _________ without some kind of assurance that I won’t be met with failure, hurt or disappointment once again.

Well, as Samuel Beckett once advised, “Fail.  Fail better.”  Or as an acting teacher once proclaimed to me, “do you know what FAMOUS MALE MOVIE STAR and FAMOUS FEMALE MOVIE STAR had in common?  They BOTH loved to audition.”  On this last point, I didn’t believe it about the movie stars either but I have since had it confirmed by several sources so I’m fairly confident that it’s true.

Long before he co-created “The Simpsons” but long after he created the seminal 1970s TV situation comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” James L. Brooks wrote the screenplay for a film called — wait for it —  “Starting Over.”  It was a sort of comedy/drama about a divorced man who falls in love but somehow can’t get over his ex-wife.  Candace Bergen, who up to that point was consistently cast as the beautiful but not terribly three-dimension female heroine in various films, played the unforgettable, somewhat twisted ex-wife and it was with one specific moment of reinvention that she redefined herself as a comic actress, the kind she will forever be known for, like in the hit series “Murphy Brown.” But before “Murphy Brown” there was —

No one had ever seen Bergen like this – foolish, off tune, and, when it came down to it, real and funny because she was bold enough to play a crazed ex-wife as…well… kind of crazy.  By all accounts it could have been pretty crazy career-wise…

As crazy as it probably seemed to many a decade later for someone with the pedigree of James L. Brooks (who had since become a double Oscar winner for writing and directing a little film called “Terms of Endearment”) to spend his time co-creating a TV cartoon series that started as a sort of throw away segment on an early half hour Fox comedy series called “The Tracy Ullman Show.”  Something three generations of college kids (and counting) have grown up on called – “The Simpsons.”

And he’s got a sense of humor to boot…

That’s high class starting over but in no way imagine that on some level it wasn’t the same blank page or screen or new life chapter we all face many times over.  When you begin you don’t know what your “Simpsons-like” ending will be – or if you’ll even come close to having one.  All you know is the blankness of the beginning and that you’re scared shitless.

To put it another way – and as crazy as it might seem — sometimes the secrets of life can be simplified to a half century old voiceover from an old 1960’s TV show like “Star Trek.”

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I’m no Trekkie but those are, I think, our marching orders.  Over and over again.  However, if you do run into any tribbles, it’s probably best to not say hello and just keep walking.