It seems most movies tanked this summer. But why do movies about the film business do especially badly at the box office? I don’t mean films that use Hollywood as a backdrop, great films like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ or ‘Sunset Boulevard’.
I mean movies that present the film business as interesting in and of itself. You know, shows like ‘An Alan Smithee Film’, ‘Map to the Stars’, ‘The Player’ ‘Won Ton Ton…’ and others. Did you see any of them? Exactly my point. These films didn’t sell enough pop corn to pay the ushers.
Why audiences don’t ‘get’ Hollywood-centric stories is a question I’ve never heard answered. I think it has to do with Hollywood’s self-promotion as a land of limitless glamour and glimmering success. There must be conflict to successfully engage the audience. How can the audience identify with anyone from that fanciful place untouched by darkness?
Comedies about the film business fail because they are filled with self-aware ‘in’ jokes, funny to those in the movie and few others. Alternately, the character’s problems may seem contrived. Can I truly sympathize with Red when she actively solicits the attentions of the Big Bad Wolf?
A case in point is a TV series I recently endured. The premise of it is absurd and I don’t recommend it. A secondary character, a writer is complaining about his sorry lot as the lead writer of a hit show. He is so put upon by his producer boss, that he has to work during ‘hiatus week’ while everyone else is vacationing or sitting by the pool. Any working schmo can identify with that. Who wants to work while everyone else is out playing? Not me.
But when you consider how much this ‘poor’ guy gets paid to put words on paper (six figures easily, plus golden time, residuals, etc.), our sympathy starts to fade. Perhaps his kids will respect him when they learn their Harvard tuition is completely funded. Meanwhile, he kvetches about his horrible job while riding around in a bit-coin powered limo and attending exclusive parties to schmooze flavor-of-the-week glitterati. Poor guy.
Understand that writing in Hollywood is a difficult and often thankless job. Writers often don’t get the appreciation they deserve. That is not my point. But Joe Blough, working two jobs just to keep up, and mowing his own lawn has a hard time feeling this character’s pain.
I never met a Hollywood writer who complained about his job. Whatever his private life, Hollywood people know they are blessed by whatever gods they grovel to. They would never be tempted to bite that beast’s gracious hand.
But that is only part of the problem. You have actors whose job is to give a gloss of authenticity to what is an inherently artificial process. It is hard enough to succeed at playing a cop, a housewife, or a lawyer. But an actor portraying an ‘authentic actor’ is beyond the best skills of most talented thespians. How exactly does an actor act, in the wild, when he’s not acting? What are they ‘really’ like? Just like you and me? Really?
Also, creating sympathetic portrayals of producers, directors and others in the business can be a task fraught with many pitfalls. Some of us ‘civilians’ may have to deal with out-sized egos and immense pressures in our hum-drum lives, but in Hollywood? Recent headlines only hint at what some of these powerful people are about.
But there is something un-real about how Hollywood elite deal with even mundane tasks. I heard Frank Sinatra had toilet paper in his house bearing his own image. Is your guest bathroom stocked with toilet paper with your smiling face printed on each two-ply sheet?
Asking an actor (read: someone truly fake and insincere) to honestly portray someone who is fake and insincere, creates a feedback loop of artifice. When it fails, it just looks like bad acting. But it is an honest attempt (by an inherently dishonest person) to portray as genuine, someone they know is dishonest. And that last bit is the problem. They try to make them genuine.
Some actors just play themselves and really only play one role, regardless how many shows they are in. Others never play themselves and completely transform once that camera starts rolling. When is either genuine though?
Not to say ‘genuine’ is impossible to do. In the recent mini-series ‘Feud,’ the story of the legendary competition between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (played wonderfully by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lang) all the elements combine to form a veritable work of genius. Centered on their one movie together, ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ the series does everything right that most movies about movies fail miserably at. The characters are well known and bigger than life. The supporting roles are deliciously consistent with our expectations of who these people were. The writing is superb.
We see the characters on and off camera and they behave just as we expect they behaved, cat claws and all. Despite their bigger than life personas, the actors and writers succeeded in bringing out these character’s genuine humanity and the poignancy of their loneliness while embracing their prodigious flaws. They bring out their third dimension.
And the filmmakers never try to convince us these stars were normal or ‘just like us’. Hell, no! We don’t need to believe the ‘rich Hollywood actors, being paid millions of dollars to portray people just like you and me’ actually are just like you and me.
They succeed by highlighting our lives and allowing us to see things more clearly through their depiction on the big screen.
But they are not like us. And that is alright. I don’t want their flaws. I have my own. Watching them is entertaining. Watching me, not so much. (That is why they are known as ‘stars’!) If they were like me, I certainly wouldn’t be buying tickets to watch them.
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