Saturday, December 27, 2008

So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodnight!

No doubt about it. 2008 was a tough one. The industry took some major hits. Some long held-alliances fractured. Our numbers went down. Writers took to the streets. Actors threatened to. TV panicked. Advertisers closed their wallets. Independent film lost its lease. New Media came to town like the James Gang; scaring the shit out of everybody. And then the economy collapsed. Still, there were a few bright spots.

It was great to see a terrific, critically acclaimed film like “The Dark Knight” almost topple “Titanic’s” box office record. Meanwhile, “Wall-E” pulled off the most amazing balancing act of art, storytelling and morality I’ve ever seen in piece of popular entertainment. On TV, “In Treatment” turned therapy into riveting drama and “Desperate Housewives” got good again. Even Britney managed to pull 2008 out of the crapper by producing a well-received album. The election provided fertilizer for the best crop of political comedy in 20 years. Letterman, Leno, SNL, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The Onion and especially Tina Fey gave us comic commentary that was as hilarious as it was smart. And, oh yeah, we in the media played no small part in electing the first African-American President of the United States. Go team.

Speaking for myself, this was sort of a crappy year as far as business was concerned. I pitched on a number of jobs that I didn’t get. My spec pilot went nowhere and I didn’t get many auditions. I also lost a friendship (which was a bummer) but met a ton of great new people. I dated. I became a better networker. I took a huge gamble (that paid off). I let go of a distant dream and replaced it something that was handily right in front of me. I reaffirmed my belief in the power of work. I joined a new church. I worked for democracy. I walked a picket line and marched for gay rights. I changed agents. I sold an option. I mentored some young writers. I created a blog about my life (You’re reading it right now). I dipped into my savings. I tightened my belt. I postponed my vacation. I found time to hang out with my 82 year-old neighbor so we could (as he likes to put it) “shoot the shit.” I decided to teach. I briefly regretted a few of my choices, but then decided that was a big, fat, stupid waste of time. And I wrote.

Goodbyes are hard. Although 2008 was not my favorite year, it's still been tricky to let go of. Conceding that certain things didn’t (or may never) happen can be a little rough. Fortunately, December 31st comes 'round each year to remind me that life is lived in chapters and the goal is to rack up as many as one can (in the hope that in the final tally, the good will outnumber the bad). Oddly, even in the years when I don’t make a lot of money, I still feel lucky. By choosing to create for a living, I became linked to an amazing, unwieldy (and sometimes tawdry) legacy of entertaining people. As new stars emerged this year, a few favorites faded into the mist. I decided to use my last entry of 2008 to share what I will always remember about them:

The first paperback I ever bought with my own money (at age twelve) was Michael Crichton's “Andromeda Strain.” Stud Terkel's “Working” is the story of America. I wonder if Harold Pinter ever enjoyed the fact that he had his own adjective ("Pinteresque"). "Kojak” (created by Oscar-winner Abby Mann) was Queen Elizabeth II's favorite TV show. Anthony Minghella actually made a decent movie out of “The English Patient.” David Foster Wallace's sadness overtook his brilliance. Tony Hillerman reinvented the literary Southwest. Evelyn Keyes wasn't much of a writer, but had great taste in ex-husbands. Aleksandr Solzhenenitzyn's work intimidated me. Sydney Pollack: My personal faves: “Tootsie” & “Out of Africa.” Stan Winston: Movie creatures will never the same. Michael Kidd's dances for “Hello, Dolly!” came back to life in “Wall-E.” Bernie Brillstein knew talent when he saw it.

Heath Ledger's “Ennis” was a revelation & his "Joker” was stunning. Yma Sumac was a “camp” legend. Brad Renfro just got lost. Richard Widmark was the classic tough guy. Eartha Kitt: The best “Catwoman” of them all. I think of Edie Adams every time I see a Muriel cigar. I think of Charlton Heston every time I read about someone being shot with a handgun. Cyd Charisse had legs, baby! I never knew what a "Bippie" was, but every time Dick Martin said it, I felt dirty. Ivan Dixon was the black guy on “Hogan’s Heroes." Paul Benedict was the white guy on “The Jeffersons." David Groh married "Rhoda.” I still remember Robert Prosky's stage work in New York. I can still remember Suzanne Pleshette lying on the steps of the schoolhouse with her eyes pecked-out in “The Birds." Bernie Mac once thought he wanted to do a movie I wrote. Nina Foch was always good. I always noticed her. Dodi Goodman was funny, without even trying. Isaac Hayes was "Shaft" before he was "Chef." My family loved Eddy Arnold almost as much as they loved Jerry Reed. Why did Richard Blackwell base his entire career on being catty? I bought one of Miriam Makeba's albums at a garage sale in '83. Paul Scofield should have had a bigger career. Gerald Schoenfeld loved Broadway. Jo Stafford had a really pretty voice. I play Odetta's Christmas CD every year. I loved it when Harvey Korman couldn't keep a straight face. Vampira: Proof that anybody can make it show business. Lois Nettleton glowed. Roy Scheider should never have had that facelift. Estelle Getty "made it" at age 60. My Uncle Merl once shook hands with Van Johnson after a dinner theatre show. He never forgot it.

When I saw Paul Newman in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” I knew I was gay. I actually got to meet and talk with George Carlin about two weeks before his death. Bettie Page: In a word… “Hot!” Yves Saint Laurent changed fashion. Bo Diddley: One of the founding fathers of Rock & Roll. William F. Buckley always seemed like an alien. Arthur C. Clarke's stories scared me. Sen. Jesse Helms scared me even more. Forrest J. Ackerman invented the term “Sci-Fi”. Alexander Courage wrote the original music for “Star Trek”. Majel Barrett Roddenberry was the only actor to be involved in every incarnation of “Star Trek” from 1965 through 2009 (proving that it never hurts to marry the boss). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi inspired me to secretly take TM classes when I was 16. Albert Hofmann created LSD (Good Work, Al!) And Sir Edmund Hillary scaled Everest in '53 (before it became a tourist attraction).

These people (each in their own way) inspired the imaginations of a world-wide audience. It's a great legacy that now rests in our hands. Yeah, I know it's a little confusing out there right now, but once, about a hundred years ago, a few intrepid souls trekked out to California, bought a barn and called it a "studio." They didn't know what they were doing either. It's a New Year, Hollywood. Let's do something with it.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
http://www.partsandlabor.tv/

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunny and the Rent Bush

Having lived the first 32 years of my life in cold climates, Christmas in Los Angeles has always seemed strange to me. Every year when I start receiving holiday cards from fellow Angelinos featuring icicles and snowmen, the whole thing seems sort of silly. L.A. certainly “gets” Christmas. After all, this is the city where “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “White Christmas” were all filmed (on sound stages, I grant you). We might not have the weather to get the Christmas spirit rolling, but we certainly have the sets and costumes.

Contrary to popular belief, L.A. is not without its holiday traditions; many of them as special (and odd) as the city itself. The first major event is the strangely-named “Hollywood Santa Parade” which takes place about thirty minutes after Thanksgiving. Each year, D-List celebrities and high school bands march proudly down Hollywood Boulevard past Frederick's of Hollywood, spreading holiday cheer, road rage and a light sprinkling of garbage. For those seeking a more spiritual experience, there's the Crystal Cathedral’s “Glory of Christmas” in nearby Orange County. It’s a little hard to describe, but basically if Jesus, Mary and Joseph ever played Caesar’s Palace, it would probably look something like this. Complete with live camels, fog machines and flying angels, the show includes lots of classy original music sung loudly into body mikes (similar to those originally used in Bethlehem).

At Universal City Walk, you can kiss your sweetheart under a giant piece of Mistletoe being held overhead by King Kong. If you’re feeling a little depressed about the holidays, a trip to Forest Lawn Cemetery’s stained glass festival should definitely cheer you up. And don’t forget to take the kids to visit “Scientology Santa” at the “L. Ron Hubbard Winter Wonderland” near Hollywood and Las Palmas. While there, you can also take a personality test which I can guarantee you, you will fail.

It’s weird, but there’s something in the popular culture lately that seems to have it out for Christmas. Most of the holiday movies are now about how awful and embarrassing everyone's family is and what a drag it is to have to visit them. I recently went on Pandora.com (a great music site) and dialed up a mix of contemporary holiday music. I was psyched when up popped a roster of cool artists like Aimee Mann, Dave Mathews, Sting and Sarah McLachlan. Then it started playing. It was the most depressing mix I’d ever heard in my life. Nothing but bleak revisionist versions of old favorites. It really bugged me.

Trust me, I know there will never be peace on Earth. I get that “Goodwill toward men” is a distant and doubtful goal, but I do appreciate the sentiment. It’s at least worth thinking about once a year. Plus, it bugs me how people tend to become so self-consumed at the holidays; choosing this particular time to drudge up all their disappointments and doubts. It’s easy to forget this is supposed to be the season of giving. I was reminded of this last year when my dry cleaner and I became players in an odd little drama.

I’m not a guy who owns a lot of clothing so when the holiday party season arrives, my dry cleaner and I see a lot of each other. Pretty much every week, I manage to spill or smear something on one of the two decent outfits I own. Fortunately, my dry cleaner (a cheerful Korean lady, appropriately-enough named “Sunny”) manages to keep me looking presentable. Although Sunny always seems to understand everything I say to her, I don’t always fully grasp what she is saying in return. Usually this isn’t such a big deal since we are primarily discussing the location of stains. However, last year as I was dropping off my navy blue blazer, she casually asked if I had gotten my “rent bush” yet. Since I had no idea what a “rent bush” was, I pretended like I hadn’t heard the question and drew Sunny’s attention back to the artichoke dip on my lapel. A week later, she again peered over her glasses and cheerfully inquired, “You no want rent bush?” In my mind, I pictured some kind of miniature Korean Christmas shrub. “No,” I said, smiling awkwardly. “Not this year.” On Christmas Eve, when I stopped in to pick up my grey wool pants, she again asked about the mysterious “rent bush.” But this time her tone seemed shy and a bit sad. Overcome with guilt, I decided to fess up. “I’m sorry, Sunny,” I said. “I don’t know what a ‘rent bush’ is.” Suddenly, her face lit up. Giggling like a schoolgirl, she quickly reached under the counter and retrieved a small inexpensive lint brush with a red bow tied around the handle. “May Krees-mahs!" she shouted as she proudly placed it in my hand. "For all my special customer!” I’m sure I probably got several very nice gifts for Christmas last year, but the only one I remember is my “rent bush.” I used it all year.

Given how uncertain everything is looking these days, this seems like a good time to point out that the holidays weren’t created to stress us out or make us feel like shit. They are not on the calendar to remind us that we are still single or make us wish we got along better with our families. The goal isn’t really to run from store to store trying to find that perfect gift for each of our loved ones; that special something that might make them “happy” (at least for a little while). Lately, I've been thinking that the best thing we can give each other is our attention, even if it’s just for a moment. All any of us really wants or needs is to be acknowledged by the other; to be singled out; to know that we show up on the radar; that we are someone’s “special customer.” In my experience, feeling “happy” rarely lasts more than a few days, while feeling “appreciated” can sometimes last until Spring.

So my dear readers (and friends), although I’m unable to send you each your very own “rent bush,” I don’t want this holiday to slip by without expressing how much your friendship, loyalty and enthusiasm have meant to me over this past year. Your comments and email have been an invaluable source of inspiration; both personally and professionally. I hope you have a very Happy Holiday season and please accept my best wishes for a bountiful New Year filled with recognizable love, useful lessons and a truckload of good old fashioned luck. ‘Til next time.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
www.daviddeanbottrell.com

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at
www.partsandlabor.tv

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Welcome to the Hotel California

I can still remember the first time I visited Los Angeles. I was a young (and far too serious) New York stage actor. Having just booked a prestigeous theatre job, I had a few weeks to kill before rehearsals started. My former roommate had recently moved to L.A. (and instantly disappeared). It took some doing, but when I finally tracked her down, she enthusiastically invited me out for a visit. On a bleak, freezing winter day, I hopped a west-bound flight and five hours later touched down in L.A. My ex-roomie was there to pick me up, looking gorgeous in a denim mini-skirt and driving a slightly battered, black ’66 Fiat convertible. We sped out of the airport with the top down and the radio blasting. For the first time in my life, I breathed in the balmy California night air. I could barely believe it. As I peeled off my Army-green, wool turtleneck, I looked up at the palm trees and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Oh my God! This is paradise!”

Three years later, I came back for pilot season. It was the worst six months of my life. I swore I’d never return. Two years later, I was back for what I thought would be a three-month writing gig. Sixteen years later, I’m still here. I have a car, a large circle of friends, a career, a charming 1920’s townhouse and a garage full of junk. You’d think, having lived a substantial chunk of my life here, I’d now think of myself as a Californian, but strangely I don’t. I still feel like a tourist. I know some people get off the plane and instantly feel at home. Not me.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate it here. I’m not one of those crabby people who go around bashing Los Angeles. Aside from the traffic and air pollution, there’s very little to complain about. It’s a huge, vibrant place. You can find anything you want in L.A. provided you’re willing to drive for an hour or two to get it. I'm certainly not sorry I came. The industry has been very kind to me. God knows, I’ve made ten times the money working in film and television that I would’ve ever made as a non-profit theatre artist. My time in L.A. has mostly been fun. I never disliked my adopted home. It just took me a while to come to terms with it. Quite a long while.

If you’re into the ocean, the desert or mountains, this is definitely the place to be. Nature rules in L.A. And occasionally, she likes to remind the nine million residents of Los Angeles County who’s the boss. We, her tenants, are surprisingly accepting of these seasonal disasters. They’ve become so much a part of our lives we barely notice them anymore. During the recent wild fires, I went out to my car and found it covered in a fine layer of ash. As I brushed it off my windshield, I remember wondering if this particular ash had once been a tree, a McMansion or someone’s recently incinerated trailer. During the rainy season, there’s nothing we here in L.A. enjoy more than news footage of an eight-million dollar house sliding off a Malibu hillside. We can watch that over and over again. And then there are the mighty earthquakes that are the only true equalizers in a city strictly divided by race and class. I was relatively new here when I was shaken out of bed by the ‘94 Northridge quake. For the next few days, Los Angeles was a different city. Every hand was extended. People drove slowly and even used their turn signals. Nobody complained about anything. The most common question I heard strangers ask each other was “Are you alright? Do you need anything?” It was amazing.

Although I know there are native Angelinos, I don’t run into many of them. Almost everyone I know arrived on these sunny shores from somewhere else. Although the city was established over 200 years ago, it has not retained a strong sense of its past. Los Angeles is a city interested in today and tomorrow. Not yesterday. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you’re a plaque-reading, history-loving geek like me, it can leave you feeling a little lonely. For a couple of hundred years now, people have been moving to California to redefine themselves. This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest problems with dating in L.A. Sure, you may have been a piece of ignorant white trash back in Ohio, but here you’re a self-declared potential movie star. And why not? Stranger things have happened, right? However, after you’ve been dating somebody for a few months, your new love interest might notice that you occasionally wipe your mouth on your sleeve. The truth is starting to surface. Suddenly, they are seeing the real you (as opposed to the person you’d like to be). This usually means the party’s over. It’s time to buy some new clothes, find a new hottie and start the whole process over again.

Every time I read the statistics that say there's a 97% chance that a devastating 8.5 earthquake will hit southern California in the next 20-30 years, I can’t help but wonder what the fuck we’re all doing here. Shouldn’t we be packing? Like...Now! That said, there is something about this place that defuses even the best logic. The Pacific Ocean is magnificent. There’s a moment around dusk when the light here is breathtaking; capable of splashing extraordinary drama across the most common stucco and giving an ordinary color like violet an almost ethereal glow. As I sit here typing... in my back yard… in my undershirt… in December… it’s hard not to acknowledge how lucky we are. This place is home to a vast creative community whose innovative work entertains and influences a global audience. L.A. keeps alive the last myth of the west: That there is always something slightly better just over the horizon.

Yes, it’s also a giant suburban sprawl. Yes, the primary architectural style could best be described as “Early Strip Mall.” Yes, rugged individualism has largely eroded into silly self-involvement. Yet, there is something very special about this place that defies characterization. L.A. doesn’t possess that stuffy sense of self-importance that other major cities have. It’s has space. It has patience. Times passes almost imperceptibly here. In a sense, not much happens, but when it does, it’s massive. It’s Biblical. It might rain in your town, but here in L.A. it’s “Storm Watch.” You might not pay much attention when you hear a fire engine, but here it’s a signal to grab the cat, the family photos and run for your life. To me, L.A. is like a crazy relative. Dependably outrageous. Always the same, but never dull. You can’t quite explain why you love them. You just do.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv

Monday, December 8, 2008

Have You Seen Her Lately?

Every once in a while you find yourself saying things you never thought you'd say. This happened to me last year when I was sitting in a meeting about a project I’d written. The casting director, the producers and I were discussing a list of actresses we were considering going out to. The project in question would be my directorial debut and in the world of independent film, a celebrity attachment can mean the difference between life and death. Since the film was based on a memoir, we needed an actress who could “stretch” (playing the character at several different ages). Plus, she had to be bankable, accessible and (God willing) actually able to act. It was a lot to hope for.

The casting director suggested we brainstorm a list of actresses ranging in age from their late 20’s to their mid-40’s. But whenever a mature actress’ name was mentioned, the producer would grouse “I can’t get anything for her.” I understood what he meant, but it felt sort of harsh and creepy (as if the actress was an old cow at a livestock auction). I could sense the tide turning. I’d entered into the project excited about the possibility of creating an opportunity for a 40ish actress, but now the pressure was on. Maybe the producer was right. Maybe younger was better. Younger was easier. Younger meant more money. More media attention. Then the casting director mentioned the name of a truly fabulous actress; a woman with phenomenal credits, blessed with an ageless face and spirit; the sort of artist any first-time director would be blessed to have onboard. But it was too late. An evil, boorish instinct had already taken root in me. I raised an eyebrow and in a bemused, dismissive sort of way said, “Have you seen her lately?” The actress was 45 years old. It was not my finest hour.

Ageism in Hollywood isn’t exactly new and no one is immune. Actors, writers, directors, producers, executives, cinematographers and all manner of below the line talent are affected by it. I’ve noticed that on Facebook (my latest obsession) the Hollywood contingent is all too happy to tell you the month and day they were born (but rarely the actual year) Only people born after 1983 tend to display that critical piece of information. I don’t know about you, but in 1983, I was dancing to “Beat It” on a linoleum dance floor in Diane Duff’s Little Club in Buffalo, New York. At the time, I could never have imagined walking into a pitch meeting and having a polite young executive extend his hand and say “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Bottrell. Did you have any trouble finding us, sir?”

Actresses obviously bear the brunt of Hollywood’s phobia about aging. A couple of years ago, Demi Moore actually listed all the cosmetic procedures she’d had done including liposuction, implants and even one to make her knees look younger. And still no jobs! Every year there’s yet another outcry – Where are the roles for older actresses! I understand that they want to work, but my question is this: Do they want to play older characters? If so, why all the surgeries, diets and trainers? Why allow your stylist to continue attaching massive hair extensions to your head? Why not ease up, let nature takes its course and give Kathy Bates a run for her money?

I hate saying this, but the studios can’t really be blamed since they are simply responding to a chaotic marketplace. These days, young men and teenage boys are pretty much the only people left who can be dependably lured out of their homes. Young men are not a complicated bunch. Give them a few explosions and some big boobs and your film is a hit. A couple of years ago I was in a theater and right before the previews began, we were treated to an ad for some of kind of moisturizing soap. In the spot, we saw all these people; each of them “beautiful” in their own way. “Beauty,” by the way, meant looking great while wearing nothing but a bath towel. The last image was of a woman in her late 50’s blessed with a gorgeous face and a killer body. She was amazing looking. Her beauty brought a smile to my face until the kid behind me (who was maybe 19 years old) groaned… “Oh man…Gross,” as if some rotting cadaver had just appeared on screen. Youth is cruel.

The truth is, when it comes to entertainment, neither the young nor the old particularly like it when things get too real. Audiences depend on Hollywood to give them a version of events that’s as fabulous as it is ridiculous. I ask you…How many people do you know who look like Brad Pitt? How many people come home to Angelina Jolie or Halle Barry? Hollywood is not about the lives we are living. It’s about the lives we wish we were living. Lives where people live in huge apartments, wear beautiful clothes and have mattress-slamming sex seven nights a week. In the movies, we fight bullies and corruption, say witty things in the face of death and have gun fights in crowded train stations (without ever killing a single innocent person). We are forever brave. Forever smart. Forever young.

Last weekend I went to a screening of “Gran Torino” and I couldn’t help but be awed by Clint Eastwood. Here’s an actor-producer-director who passed 40 quite a long time ago and only now seems to have hit his stride. Who else puts out (on average) two movies a year? And substantive Oscar-worthy movies to boot. In “Gran Torino,” he gives a terrifically entertaining performance as a crusty, hard-ass retiree trying to redeem his sins with what little time he has left. Clint has unapologetically allowed age do what it does best – etch his remarkable face into an intricate map of human experience. I know, I know. We’re not supposed to look forward to growing older, but watching Clint, it didn’t look so bad. Maybe that’s what movie stars are really here to do. Make us not afraid of things. Including that new set of lines forming under my eyes.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
http://www.daviddeanbottrell.com/

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv