Saturday, October 22, 2011

Falling Star

There's nothing I hate more than stupid/sensationalistic Yahoo News headlines.  There was one earlier this week with a headline that said something to the effect of "Stars Who Have Children While They're Young."  Underneath it was a photo of, of all people, Bristol Palin.  I immediately disregarded the subject matter of the article itself and thought to myself "Why the Hell is she considered a star?"

I realized how the definition of "star" seems to have become cheapened in recent years.  Used to be, the term applied to people who had reached the highest pinnacle of success in their careers, most notably movie or TV actors, or music performers, or professional and Olympic athletes.  Now it seems to apply to anyone who is notorious to the public, whether it's for appearing on reality shows, or through some sort of public scandal.  There have always been notorious famous people throughout history.  But, in the past, they were reserved for the pages of the sleaziest tabloids, not for the mainstream press.  These days, people like Bristol Palin or the Kardashians or that couple who crashed the White House party are profiled and legitimized by regular newspapers and magazines.  These are the sorts of "celebrities" who appear on shows like "Dancing with the Stars."

Decades ago, in the 1970s and 1980s, we had "Battle of the Network Stars," a series of TV specials where the actors from then-current TV shows representing all three networks faced off against each other in athletic competition.  But in the case of "Battle of the Network Stars," we watched people who were truly the top stars of television back then, not the "never weres" that we are subjected to now.  What's sad is that mainstream publications will devote paragraphs and pages upon people who haven't really done anything legitimate to earn our attention, while more deserving figures are ignored.

A couple of days ago, I was in a barber shop getting a haircut and I was flipping through Entertainment Weekly.  A letter to the editor was featured in the issue I was reading, chastising them for giving short shrift to the recent passing of Cliff Robertson, who won the Best Actor Oscar for "Charly" (1968).  Entertainment Weekly had mentioned Robertson's death in just two sentences, while they shamelessly devoted pages to people that no one will remember or care about 10 years from now.  It used to be that the term "starlet" was a denigrating term reserved for actresses who toiled in "B" movies or had generally second-rate careers.  But nowadays, "starlet" (if we apply that definition) sounds much better than "star" because at least the "B" actress has a career in movies or TV she can hang her hat on to explain why she might be well known to people. 

I don't know who is to blame here--the press or the public for paying just enough attention to these people to make the press think that the public wants to read about them.  I know I don't pay attention to them except when I casually spot their names on magazine covers at the barber shop or supermarket checkout counter and wonder "Who are they?!"  I know many people who are also sick of them and would prefer to read about people who have earned our interest.

What I also despise is how "reductionist" the press has become in describing the importance of particular people to the public.  Whenever I read obituaries of accomplished people, obituary writers seem to feel they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator by making an arcane reference to a minor footnote in their lives that the general public might remember them for, or draw a weak analogy to something current or hip because they expect the public wouldn't otherwise be able to relate to them, as opposed to highlighting their truly important accomplishments.

Take Lois Nettleton, for instance.  She was a talented actress who had numerous credits in film, television and theatre.  She had won 2 Emmys and was nominated for a Tony.  And what did most of her obituaries mention?  A "Seinfeld" episode where she caught George eating an eclair from a trash can.  I'm not dissing "Seinfeld" at all, just the fact that the obituary writers felt that they had to reference something as throw-away (no pun intended) as that in Nettleton's career in order to make the general public take interest in her.  It makes as much sense, for example, as having my retail job at JC Penny's during summer vacation from college turn out to be the thing I'm best remembered for when I pass away someday.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Norma Desmond be Damned!

I was at a dinner some months ago where a friend at the table was telling the other guests of my interest in interviewing actresses who worked in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s about their careers.  One of the guests at the table made the glib comment “I’m sure they were all eager to tell you all about their faded careers because they don’t have anything now to fill their time!”  I was surprised by the presumptuous comment.  I know we should all “consider the source” whenever snotty comments are made.  But I thought the comment deserved a response so I said “That’s not true.  A lot of them are busy with their families, their grandchildren.  Some of them are still active in the arts and pursuing acting roles.  Others are pursuing careers in other fields, or doing volunteer work that means a lot to them.  It’s not fair to make generalizations or presumptions about people you haven’t met.”

Nevertheless, his remark made me stop and think about how people easily assume that, if an actress is now over 50 and isn’t in the spotlight the same way they once were, their personal and professional lives are over and they are living in self-centered seclusion.  As much as I love Billy Wilder’s classic film “Sunset Blvd,” the Norma Desmond character he created has helped perpetuate this negative notion about mature actresses.  I’ve had the privilege of interviewing actresses of earlier generations and stayed in touch and developed friendships with some of them.  While they are glad to share anecdotes from their lives and careers with people who are interested, it’s not their raison d’etre.  They all live in the present day, enjoy what life currently has to offer, and remain contributing members of society.  If they share anecdotes about the past, it is no different than an experienced attorney that I know who now teaches law school and often shares his experiences with students about how he handled numerous cases in his career.  They are also no different than the retired Generals and Admirals I’ve known who share anecdotes about how they faced professional challenges in the course of their military careers.  What these people have in common is that they are simply sharing their personal histories so that they can impart the wisdom and knowledge they have acquired with others.  All of this has taught me that you cannot make presumptions about individuals based on the demographic they fit into. 

Take the two Ann(e)s for instance—Ann Rutherford and Anne Jeffreys.  I’ve had the privilege of getting to know both of them in the last year.  They are both vibrant, energetic people who have an incredibly positive attitude and enjoy life.  Rutherford is always busy raising money for organizations she cares about, such as the Young Musicians Foundation, or for Kent State University.  Jeffreys filmed an Italian movie earlier this year with Danny Glover and Val Kilmer called “Vespro d’un Rinnegato” (a.k.a. “Espiation”).  During the past year, Jeffreys also visited her hometown of Goldsboro, N.C. to see her relatives, went on a cruise, and attended the wedding of one of her granddaughters in Oregon.  Both Ann(e)s are often seen around Los Angeles together attending arts-related events, such as the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival, glamorously dressed in elegant gowns designed by David Hayes.  They remain close with their families and have strong relationships with dozens of friends.  When a friend was recovering from surgery, Ann Rutherford made arrangements for someone to take care of him until he was well on the road to recovery.  Both Ann(e)s are justifiably proud of their careers, but it is not the only thing that matters to them.  Whenever I mention to each of them that I just saw one of their films from the 1930s or 1940s on TCM or YouTube, they each laugh and exclaim “I can’t believe you wasted your time today doing that!” and then proceed to ask what is happening with me.  Rutherford, in particular, has taken a mentoring interest in my life and career, always offering a sympathetic ear and advice about how best to handle any situation.  Whenever I tell them I will be in Los Angeles, Ann Rutherford always exclaims “We’ll go dancing in the streets together!”  They have more joie de vivre than people half their age and are always thinking about helping others. 

Another good example is the Chinese American actress Lisa Lu, who is a longtime family friend.  Lisa was recently in Washington, DC as a guest of honor at the Smithsonian Museum’s Sackler Gallery for the opening of an exhibit of artwork depicting the life of the Empress Dowager Cixi of China.  Because Lisa played her in two lavish Shaw Brothers productions in Hong Kong “The Empress Dowager” (1975) and “The Last Tempest” (1976), she attended the opening night reception of the exhibit as guest of honor.  I was able to spend time with her that evening at the reception and at dinner afterwards and we caught up with each other’s lives.  I hadn’t seen her since the mid-1990s.  The next day, she was on a plane to Shanghai to start filming a Chinese language version of “Dangerous Liaisons” starring Zhang Ziyi, and would be appearing in a Chinese opera in Hong Kong this month.  In the last few years, she appeared in the disaster epic “2012” and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” and garnered praise at the Berlin Film Festival for her lead role in the Chinese language film “Apart Together.”  She already made another movie in Mongolia earlier this year.  I was just amazed at her sustained energy and enthusiasm for her craft, more than 50 years after she started her career.  I could tell how grateful she is about her continued success, and her kindness was inspiring.  She made a point that evening to share with me extremely positive insights about my father and mother, both of whom she admired greatly, that helped me to look at my parents from a fresh perspective.  As we were leaving after dinner, Lisa went back into the restaurant to thank the representative from the Sackler Gallery who was hosting the dinner.  She wanted to express her gratitude for all that the Sackler personnel had done on her behalf.  It demonstrated how good manners and genuine kindness still counts for a lot at a time when too many people rely on post-modern glibness or irony to express themselves. 

Yet another example is the talented Bridget Hanley, known to TV viewers as Candy Pruitt on the “Here Come the Brides” series or as Barbara Eden’s nemesis on her 1980s sitcom “Harper Valley PTA.”  Bridget is very active with Theatre West, the oldest continually running theatre company in the Los Angeles area.  I have seen her in several plays there that provide strong evidence that her enjoyable television roles only tapped into a portion of the talents and range Bridget is capable of.  In recent years, she performed in a production of “The Lion in Winter” at Theatre West that won her great acclaim from the city’s theatre critics.  Through it all, Bridget is constantly “out and about” spending time with her two daughters and her new grandson, as well as actively participating in the lives of her nieces and nephews, stepchildren and step-grandchildren, and other extended family members and friends.  She has lost none of her enthusiasm for acting and continues to enjoy the process of exploring the nuances of characters.  Bridget and her good friend Lee Meriwether often attend theatre productions in Los Angeles together, eager to sample and explore what their peers are working on.  They both have active, well-rounded lives and are too busy to just stay at home resting on their laurels. 

These are just some examples of mature actresses who defy the Norma Desmond stereotype.  I'm not implying that every actress who is over 50 is as kind or well-rounded as the women I mentioned here.  I am sure that there are people who fit the negative stereotype, but they should not be the standard with which to judge all the rest.  The ultimate point I am making is not merely about actresses, or about women in general.  All around us, in different industries and communities, we are surrounded by mature men and women who are, as Ann Rutherford likes to say, “turning their golden years into platinum.”  They are vibrant members of society with a lot to offer all of us with their wisdom, maturity and experience.  We just have to be smart enough to listen.