A couple of years ago, I was having a conversation with my then manager about what sort of position I held in the Hollywood pecking order. I was anxious. I’d recently learned that I was no longer in the running for this big deal writing job because the producer of the project had never heard of me. I was starting to worry that even after 12 years of working in Hollywood, nobody seemed to know who I was. My former manager quickly assured me that this was not the case. “Are you kidding?” he said, “You’re deeply respected.” I knew this remark was meant to cheer me up, but unfortunately it had the opposite effect. My heart sank into my shoes. I felt like I’d just been told my tumor was inoperable and that perhaps I should get my affairs in order. Clearly, the end was near.
Respect, in and of itself, sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? I mean who doesn’t want to be (or at least feel) respected. In the real world, it denotes a certain seniority. Somebody who’s been around the block and knows their shit. Someone smart and capable, wise and canny. A person you can trust and depend on. Unfortunately in Hollywood, it carries a slightly different connotation. Here being “respected” is the equivalent of asking someone out on a date and being told that although they like you and think you have a nice personality, they don’t really want to fuck you -- So what’s the point? It’s not that they hate you. Definitely not. Why, if at some point in the future, their clubfooted cousin should need a prom date, they’ll definitely be calling.
There does exist a good form of respect in the movie business, but it’s mostly reserved the likes of William Goldman, Meryl Streep and a small group of British character actors. Oddly, studio heads have no problem “giving props” to these folks in the form of large paychecks. People of this caliber are often called in to class-up a singularly unexciting or clumsy project. And who can blame these artists for cashing in. I’m hoping Dame Judi Dench at least got to remodel her kitchen after “The Chronicles of Riddick.” At other times, respected entities can serve as bait to lure fat bankable talent to the table, anxious for the opportunity to breathe the same air as their iconic idols.
Respect is a gnarly issue for me since I started out doing theatre. In that odd little world, everybody was respected. Even those of us who hadn’t done anything worth respecting were respected. Things like process and rehearsal were holy acts. A playwright’s text was sacrosanct. We were the artistic descendents of Hellman, Miller and Brando and as such, took ourselves very seriously indeed. It didn’t matter whether you were playing the Palace or working in some moldy basement, certain beliefs were strictly observed. No matter what, we always treated each other like artists. These days, many (well, actually most) of the people I knew from my theatre life are out here now, putting their well-honed skills to use on sitcoms and procedurals. Why? Because in addition to being artists, they wanted to buy a home and raise some kids. Unfortunately, there is preciously little money in being respected.
When I was a young guy I remember being out on the town one night with two of my cohorts. We had all met working in a little rat-hole of a theatre in the west 30’s. It was late and we’d had a lot to drink when someone put forth what, in those days, passed for a deep question: “What do you want to be in ten years?” The prettiest one of us piped up with a surprisingly detailed game plan for her professional life that she felt would soon deliver her a career as a noted actor-writer-director. Suddenly, all eyes were on me. I hesitated. I was twenty-two at the time and rarely thought past tomorrow. What did I want to be in ten years? “In demand,” I answered. It was the best and only answer I could think of. Sadly, my friend who had the beautifully worked-out plan for her life, died before she reached thirty; a victim of brain cancer. It was a sober reminder that the best laid plans are sometimes no match for the cards we are dealt.
Shortly after I learned about my “respected” status in Hollywood, I decided it was time for a major career renovation. I dug out my old Aretha Franklin CD and “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” quickly became my new theme song. Like Aretha, I realized I too needed to “find out what it means to me.” Now, after three years of saying “yes” to everything (especially things that scare me), I have to say my situation is definitely better. Having more than one skill set is proving to be a real positive and I can now see quite a few options that could work out for me. It’s a nice feeling. Let’s face it. In these uncertain times, no one can rest on their laurels (real or imagined). The industry is in metamorphosis and it would behoove all of us to think more inventively about what we might be able to bring to the party. Sure, I like the idea of being respected, but the answer I gave at age twenty-two still applies. I’d really rather be in demand. Popular, at least. I don’t want to be a total whore. We’ve all seen how unappealing that looks. But a classy, highly paid whore is another story. You know the kind I mean. Witty and sophisticated. The kind of whore Helen Mirren would play. That would be alright with me.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being cleverly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv