Friday, February 20, 2009

Hollywood is paralyzed, inspiration is not

It's push-pull time in Hollywood pitting the effects of the national economic turmoil against the glitter of the Oscar season. We gain perspective from our friend who is a long-time veteran of the industry. He demonstrates inspiration is where you find it.

Where For Art Thou

By Lars Beckerman

These are strange and certainly uncertain times in Hollywood. The most accurate word I’ve come up with to sum up my industry is paralyzed.

Film production is down significantly, the networks are hesitant to green light new pilot concepts into production, and advertisers are understandably hesitant to launch their usual quota of new campaigns and subsequent media buys.

So, rather than stew and ponder and worry and whine, I do what I always do when things flat line: I search for inspiration. Fortunately, for whatever reason, I’m adept at finding it in film, television, literature and music.

FILM: We actors are known for struggling to appreciate the work of our peers, choosing often to go the other way and shrug ‘Not how I would have done it.’ Look no further than the standard “How many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb?” challenge. Answer: 12. One to screw it in and 11 more to stand by and say they could have done it better.

The four performances in Doubt are spectacular. No surprise, considering the cast of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. I’ve heard from many that Cherry Jones’ turn as Sister Aloysius in John Patrick Shanley’s Broadway run of the play was pitch perfect. Streep even commented upon being hired “Is Cherry Jones not available?” She wasn’t. She’d been cast in the tv series 24.

Frank Langella’s performance as Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s Frost-Nixon is mesmerizing and should not be missed.

But the performance I saw recently that inspired me most was Penelope Cruz in Woody Allen’s love triangle comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Nobody owns the territory of dysfunctional domestic arrangements more than Allen, but not since Judy Davis’ hysterical performance in Husbands and Wives, has an actor owned his conflicts, contradictions and complexities as richly as the stunningly photogenic Cruz does in this film. Her characterization beautifully illustrates how impossible it is for some ‘artistic types’ to simply shack up and play house. She doesn’t show up onscreen until mid way through the film, but once she does she steals the film; a radiant and unpredictable tornado of sexual energy and artistic expression. Cruz is definitely more than just another pretty face.

TELEVISION: An actor friend handed me a box set of a television series I was not familiar with. He said ‘trust me.’ So I did. Man, am I grateful. The show is called Slings & Arrows, a Canadian series that ran three short seasons (six episodes per) earlier this decade on the Sundance Channel. The show is about a Shakespearean Theatre Company known for its annual festival. The cast and acting are stellar across the board. Probably the most likeable group I’ve sat down to enjoy since Joss Whedon’s short lived Firefly. Yes, it’s a lot of insider acting and theatre humor, but if you’ve ever been curious why all the fuss over William Shakespeare, this show is both enlightening and very touching. Each of the three seasons is centered on one of the Bard’s great works; the first being Hamlet, the second being Macbeth (with a B storyline that celebrates Romeo and Juliet), and the third being King Lear. You could easily watch all over a long weekend. Trust me, you’ll be sorry when they’re through.

LITERATURE: I’ve read some truly excellent, inspired fiction over the past twelve months. Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (I know it is already old news!), and the haunting We Need to Talk About Kevin by Canadian writer Lionel Shriver. But I’m currently half way through Joyce Maynard’s memoir, At Home in the World, and finding in it the same unexpected bliss I found in Penelope Cruz and Slings & Arrows. The profound and delicate virtue of integrity found in the soul of an artist. Maynard’s early claim to fame was having an article published in The New York Times Magazine titled “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” The boldness and intellect of the writing attracted the attention of none other than the legendary recluse J.D. Salinger who contacted the young co-ed to praise her. Long story told short, Maynard moved in with the author and spent a turbulent year in seclusion with the man who gave us The Catcher in the Rye, Franny & Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, and too many brilliant shorts stories to go into here. Salinger, in many ways, is the poster boy for anti-commercialism, anti-celebrity culture integrity. It is a very honest and engaging read, putting Maynard’s own artistic integrity on full display. She currently hosts regular writing retreats in Guatemala and northern California. Might just have to consider following up on this particular inspiration and take a trip.

MUSIC: I’ve discovered recently that, while I still enjoy rocking out to a Springsteen anthem or an Eagles jam in the car, because I do, at times, live life in the fast lane, I prefer jazz as the soundtrack for my life. It seems more fitting, less predictable. Political talk radio has become more agitator than educator, so getting lost in John Coltrane, Duke Ellington or Max Roach has served as drive time inspiration while trying to make sense of the present bumps and stalls in show biz. A long Lester Young tenor sax solo can get me half way home some days.

Smooth sailing. I refuse to be paralyzed.

Now for a few Oscar predictions. Three certainties for this Sunday’s show: Heath Ledger, Slumdog Millionaire, and Wall-E. Near certainties: Bruce Springsteen for Original Song, The Wrestler, and Danny Boyle for Best Director, Slumdog Millionaire. After that, it’s a very difficult field to handicap. Look for Viola Davis to probably win Best Supporting Actress for Doubt, although wouldn’t it be a treat for the eyes (and ears, she has a great accent!) if Penelope Cruz won. It made total sense to me that Mickey Rourke would win the Golden Globe because the voters consist of the Hollywood Foreign Press and they’ve always had thing for him, and it also made sense that actors would vote for Sean Penn and he would win the SAG trophy, he is the quintessential actor’s actor. All the more sense, though, that Academy voters will see clearly and select Frank Langella for Frost-Nixon. Fingers crossed. Kate Winslet is supposed to win this year because she is due, whatever that even means. Even though it is likely The Reader did not come to a theatre near you, cast your vote for Winslet if you’re in a pool. But don’t be surprised if Meryl Streep wins her third for Doubt. It would be well-deserved.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. I enjoyed that.

Max Fischer said...

Lars is always full of ripe observations. Thanks, George, for keeping him as a frequent mainstay.

George Phenix said...

Jazz. iTunes now has 123 streams of jazz from all over the world. But for me the best fun beams from Jazz 88, the public school supported station in Minneapolis. High school DJs come from a pool of young black voices eager to make their mark. Combine that with hot or cool jazz and you get fireworks.

Anonymous said...

Won't watch the Oscars this year. Gran Torino was dissed and I'm outraged. If Slings and Arrows is as good as Firefly, then I'm out tomorrow to get me the set. I just had a stint of forced health relaxation, in which I read 7 of 13 new and old Martin Cruz Smith novels, not as significant as Lars' list but oh, so very satisfying. As for music, I roam around the house lately humming "Crow Jane Lady" by Crazy Horse -- anybody else? My point is, connections are made in the strangest ways, inspiration comes when we open ourselves to it. Lars says it well. I like that.

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