Sunday, April 26, 2009

Paging Hollywood

Last week, I was doing a little midday channel-surfing when I happened onto “The View,” and noticed that the show featured not one, but two celebrities plugging their new autobiographies. First was the ever-jaunty Tom Bergeron discussing his new book, “I’m Hosting As Fast As I Can.” In it, he apparently explains how his devotion to Zen meditation greatly increased his ability to be witty and spontaneous with the contestants on “Dancing With The Stars. Next up was “Pushing Daisies” star, Kristin Chenowyth (author of “A Little Bit Wicked”) who talked about her struggles with depression and being short. I was, needless to say, intrigued. Who among us hasn't wondered what that must be like?

Celebrity bios have long been a staple of the publishing business. These days, booksellers are well aware that it’s not easy to get shoppers to even pick up a book, much less actually buy one. Having a famous (and slightly air-brushed) face on the cover is sometimes just the motivation the customer needs to shell out $27.50 for a hardback. In fact, motivation seems to be a big component of celebrity memoirs. Most stars, when out on the promotional circuit, are quick to point out that they didn’t write this damn book for the money or to jump start a sagging career, but instead to inspire others by sharing their personal stories of hard scrabble beginnings, tough climbs to the top and the importance of having at least one sleazy affair with another well known individual.

Hollywood memoirs are generally written by mature entertainers who aren’t working quite as much as they used to; hence they finally have the time to reflect on their lives and careers. In the last couple of years, the reading public has been treated to reflections by the great and not-so-great including Robert Wagoner, Tony Curtis, Julie Andrews, Sidney Poitier, Mary Tyler Moore, George Hamilton, William Shatner, Diahann Carroll, Ernest Borgnine and at least six or seven new works by Suzanne Sommers, who seems to be able to turn virually any life experience into a book.

Younger stars are also in the game - like Tori Spelling’s with her cleverly titled new book, “sTori Telling.” Nowadays, you don’t have to actually be famous to get a book deal; just related to somebody famous. Witness Tori’s mom, Candy Spelling’s new tome, “Candyland: Confessions from Hollywood’s Most Famous Wife and Mother” or Chris Ciccone’s groundbreaker, “Life with My Sister Madonna” in which Chris rocked the literary world by revealing that apparently his sister can sometimes be something of a bitch.

Then there is the business of selling the book. Celebrities know better than anybody that, when granted a little media time, you want to make the most of it. Last month, I read an interview with Cloris Leachman, who was promoting her new bio (entitled “Cloris”). Having been a founding member of the Actors Studio, an Oscar winner for “The Last Picture Show” and earning a record-breaking eight Emmys for her comedic work on TV, I assumed she would offer a few stories about the many remarkable artists she’d work with over the years. Instead, Ms. Leachman oddly chose to recount what a great lay Gene Hackman was and threw in a story about being on a double date with Marlon Brando who farted in the car, then rolled up all the windows. Occasionally someone reveals something surprising or poignant. Marie Osmond while plugging her book, “Might As Well Laugh About It Now” recalled how when she and her brothers got home exhausted from taping their hugely successful TV show, their father forced them all do chores around the house, so their fame wouldn’t go to their heads.

Certain celebrity bios must have seemed like a good idea initially, but somewhere along the line ventured out into the land of being just strange. Last year, I caught a performance of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show based on her memoir of substance abuse called, “Wishful Drinking.” Although Ms. Fisher didn't seem exactly too sure what-happened-when, she definitely had a vague memory of it all being very funny. I have to confess that there are a few recent “celebritographies” that I do have a perverse interest in reading, including: “A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood” by that "Dad of all Dads," Alec Baldwin and “Just When I Thought I’d Dropped My Last Egg” by Kathy Lee Gifford.

My major complaint with most celebrity bios is that they tend to be not so well written. God knows, nobody can beat entertainers when it comes to telling a funny story or their willingness to air some dirty laundry. But often, the prose gets a little lumpy and makes me feel bad for the many talented writers out there who would kill for a book deal. Speaking as a part-time actor myself, I know how easy it is to allow a personal story to become a little too “personal.” Without a certain amount of objectivity, one can give the false impression that nobody else was involved; that the celebrity somehow soldiered heroically on without any assistance whatsoever from anybody. But writing (even not-so-great writing) always has a way of revealing a bit about the author and their priorities. Years ago, I remember a reviewer commenting about Ginger Rodgers’ bio that “Although Ms. Rodgers is often sketchy about the details of certain events; she always seems to remember what she was wearing.”

Not that all celebrity bios are bad. I still remember Alec Guinness’s memoir as one of the most elegantly written and moving stories I’ve ever read. I’ve also heard great stuff about Michael J. Fox’s book, “Always Looking Up.” Mr. Fox (who, along with the late, great Christopher Reeve) has taken a truly tragic turn of events and fashioned a new purpose for his life; offering hope and guidance for others struggling through some of life’s toughest situations.

One of my favorite celebrity reads ever was when a friend slipped me a battered copy of Elizabeth Ashley’s tell-all memoir, “Actress.” It remains one of those “so bad, it’s brilliant” kind of books. I still remember Ms. Ashley (a lady who seems to have denied herself very little in this life) recounting how, in the mid-1970’s, with her Hollywood career in the toilet, she was offered the lead in a Broadway revival of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” After a few weeks of previews, it was finally opening night. As Ms. Ashley sat anxiously in her dressing room waiting for “places” to be called, she realized that the future of her acting career probably rested on the critics’ response to this performance. She recounts turning to her dresser and saying, “Alice, I can be good tonight or I can be awful, but the one thing I cannot be is nervous. So the question is – Should I or should I not smoke this Thai stick?” To which her dresser supposedly replied, “I don’t see why tonight should be any different than any other night.”

Not wanting to be left out of the fray, I have chosen today to announce that I too have written my very own show business memoir, entitled “A Chunk of My Heart.” Although self-published, I think it’s going to be a big seller! It’s the moving, courageous story of how I clawed my way to the middle, despite a debilitating addiction to carbohydrates and talk shows. For the first time, I open up about my life-long struggle with my sinuses (which nearly ended my career) and share a few hard truths about life in Hollywood including my heartbreaking, 15-year search for free parking. As Kirkus Reviews recently said, “Light up a Thai stick and enjoy! You’ll need it.”

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

Monday, April 20, 2009

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

About six weeks ago, I went to a wonderful dinner party that a friend of mine was hosting in a restaurant in Hollywood. I arrived a little late and wound up seated at the far end of the table. At the opposite end was an actress I hugely admired. There aren’t many famous people who make me nervous any more, but she is one of them. Shortly after we’d all placed our orders, I noticed that my favorite actress was waving at our end of the table. She mimed that she was going outside for a smoke and wanted to know if any of us wanted to go with her. I shot up out of my seat like my ass was on fire! Although, I’d actually quit smoking about eight years ago, the possibility of hanging out with her “one-on-one” was too good to miss. We scurried out of the door like two bad children.

After finding a secluded spot alongside the restaurant, we lit up. She was just as hilariously funny as I expected and was also wonderfully, surprisingly regular. Sort of like the kind of gal you’d meet in a bowling alley. I loved her. As we chatted, I did my best to look like I was enjoying the cigarette she’d loaned me. In truth, I was fighting off huge waves of nausea. With each drag I felt like I was licking the bottom of somebody’s shoe, but I was determined to finish the damn thing so that I wouldn’t come off as (a) impolite and (b) like a pussy who couldn’t handle a single Marlboro Light.

Because I’ve never been particularly good at learning my lesson, I went out with her for a second smoke later during the dinner. This time, it was a little less disgusting, but I did find myself wondering how the hell I kept this ridiculous habit up for so many years. Then a few days later, I was sitting outdoors at a Starbucks, when I noticed that right next door, they sold what used to be my favorite brand of cigarettes. I suddenly remembered how much I used to enjoy a smoke with a cup of strong coffee. And that, my friends, is when the dirt crumbled beneath my feet and I slid into the abyss. Within a couple of weeks, I was smoking daily. One became two. Two became three. Three became eight. I had fallen for the biggest joke addicts ever play on themselves: That somehow, they can have “just one.”

As you might have noticed, addiction is rather a big problem here in Hollywood. It seems like every other week, somebody is getting arrested or being carted off to rehab. Given how many addicts are in my family, I've (so far) been lucky to have never developed a problem with alcohol or hard drugs. I started smoking when I was fifteen simply because I’d fallen for a gorgeous “bad” girl who smoked like a chimney and it seemed like the easiest way to be near her. Plus, I (the geekiest of the geeks) had never really done anything “wrong” before. Now, I was breaking the rules and hanging out with kids who cut classes, didn’t do their homework and refused to live up to their potential. I liked my new friends. I dug it when the principal expressed shock at my behavior. I liked pissing-off and disappointing my parents. I felt powerful and free.

Unfortunately, smoking didn’t end in high school. It reappeared in college and stayed with me as I became a young man. Soon, I wasn’t so young anymore (and still smoking). I spent ten years living with an alcoholic boyfriend and although I harbored an extremely low opinion of his addiction, I never paid any attention whatsoever to mine. After all, smokers didn’t run their cars off the road. Smokers didn’t slur their words and do embarrassing shit at parties. My behavior was a model of restraint compared to his.

I finally began taking the problem seriously about ten years ago when I started having anxiety attacks. Oddly, they only happened when I was in my car and only when I was smoking. Shortly after I lit up, my chest would tighten and I would be overcome with a desire to abandon my car – just leaving it sitting there in traffic -- and run. When I described this sequence of events to my therapist, she asked me what I was “doing” when I lit up. I was initially confused by her question, but she kept pressing it. Finally, I was able to articulate that when I lit a cigarette, it was because I was thinking or feeling something that I didn’t particularly like. Smoking was literally an attempt to suck that unpleasant feeling down inside myself; so I could perhaps feel it at a more convenient time. My therapist looked at me sort of seriously and said. “Well, I don’t think you can suck anything else down there. Apparently you’re full.” It was an awful moment, because I knew she was right. I started trying to quit. It took twelve attempts, but finally, I did it.

Addiction can strike anybody. If you don’t already have a reason to feel sorry for yourself, addiction will happily provide you with one. That’s its job. Show business is a life filled with rejections, large and small. And they never stop coming. The business expects you to keep a stiff upper lip, a smile on your face and a song in your heart. These weekly body slams are not supposed to get to you. You’re just supposed to accept all the vagaries of this career; to remain philosophical and easy going about the emotional (and financial) rollercoaster you’re on.

Most of the truly talented people I know invest a huge part of themselves into their work. I can still remember the first really big laugh I ever got. I was instantly hooked. From that second on, I was willing to do almost anything to repeat that experience. The geek was, in that moment, a hero. All the things I’d secretly longed for (popularity, power) were in my grasp. All I had to do was hang onto them. What I didn’t (and couldn’t) have known in that moment was that I’d also opened up an emotional wound in myself that would never quite heal. Smoking was always a nice intermission from all that grief. The problem developed when eventually there were so many intermissions that there was really no show anymore.

During the last few weeks, (as I hid out behind my house, puffing away) I began to suspect that this little adventure needed to come to an end (before I wound up with my old pack-a-day habit again). Then the penny dropped in a big way on Wednesday, when that lovely girl I was so in love with in high school passed away without warning. Her death wasn’t smoking related, but it was another one of those cruel reminders of how unpredictable (and short) life can be. Yesterday, I tossed my American Spirits into the garbage and began the crappy experience of getting back to the business of living. This is day two. There have been a couple of times when I wanted to stab out my eyes, but having been down this road before, I feel relatively sure that in a day or two, I’ll feel fine. It feels stupid to say that I miss smoking, but it did feel like an old friend -- Granted, a friend who was secretly plotting to kill me -- but a friend none-the-less. I’ve even felt a little weepy and nostalgic about it. I guess it’s true -- Like the song goes: “When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes.”

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, April 12, 2009

The History of Drama (Part Seven): School Daze

One afternoon, during my senior year of high school, I spread out the collection of college brochures I’d recently received on my bed and looked them over. Although the "official story" was I was planning on a teaching career, all I really wanted to do was act. I’d become sort of obsessed with the idea and over the past four years had gradually checked out every volume of “Theatre World” available from the local library. Tucked in bed at night, I would pour over the names and cast lists of shows that had played in New York over the past 50 years. The idea of someday seeing my name in a copy of “Theatre World” seemed unbelievably glamorous. But everybody had to start somewhere.

At the time, my family was living in a factory town whose motto should have been “Abandon All Hope.” With my eighteenth birthday just a few months away, I could almost taste my approaching freedom. Since I didn’t have much money for application fees, I decided to narrow down my choices to the three schools that would catapult me as far away from this shithole as possible. I applied to one in New York. One in San Francisco. And one in Texas. As I dropped the envelopes in the mailbox, I resolved to attend the first college that would take me. Two weeks later, I received my acceptance letter from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. I was thrilled.

The drama department at St. Ed’s had been founded by a guy who’d been instrumental in creating the famed Arena Stage in Washington, DC (and he remained well-connected in New York theatre circles). The evidence of this was that the school hired prestigious “guest artists” who came and performed in the plays alongside the students. Their brochure featured photos of Tony-winning actors like Eileen Heckart and George Grizzard appearing in plays by Chekhov and Ibsen, so you got the sense it was a classy place. Unfortunately by the time I arrived, the original guy had been demoted and replaced by a fellow whose primary experience had been running dinner theaters in Oklahoma. Rumor had it that the school’s administration (who were shelling out some serious bucks for this program) wanted to see less artsy fare (and a few more paying customers in the seats). By the time my plane landed in Austin, the “Guest Artist” program was still in place, but the quality of the “Artists” had taken a bit of a dive.

Although freshmen were generally never cast in main stage shows, I managed to weasel my way into the first play of the season. They needed a kid who could sing 1st tenor and in those days I could get up to an high A without breaking a sweat. The show starred an actor from a soap opera my mom had once watched and I was nervous to even speak to him, much less appear on the same stage. Our second show featured a minor 60’s TV star, who (we discovered shortly after his arrival) had never actually been in a play before. As opposed to the students learning from him, he was the one asking us questions like what did “stage right” mean? Next was an older character actor who had won an Oscar in the 1940’s, but was now a hopeless alcoholic who arrived drunk to the theatre for every performance. One night he fell down on stage and couldn’t get up. The show was a comedy, but somehow seeing this 70 year-old lush do a half gainer over a footstool wasn’t quite as funny as it sounds. To a lot of these actors, doing a play with a bunch of college kids must have represented the end of the line. Like many of my fellow students, I got used to hanging out in bars with these folks and soon, it didn’t even seem weird to get hit-on at 4:30 in the morning when you tried to pour them out of your car. Although the theatre program at St. Ed’s didn’t teach us much about acting, it certainly taught us a lot about show business. By nineteen, I already felt jaded about my career choice.

At the end of my freshman year, I got cast in a local summer stock musical and decided not to return to St. Ed’s in the fall. It was an easy decision to make. I sort of hated most of the people I went to school with and hated the touchy-feely classes even more. After kicking around in Texas for another year, I finally applied to NYU and after a harrowing audition, was accepted into their “professional actors training program.” Although I didn’t technically have to be in New York until the fall, I opted to sell everything I owned and move to the city early. I was there by March. Although my initial landing was a little rough, I soon loved it. Every day brought some sort of adventure. I was now surrounded by real-life “characters” of every shape, size, age and ethnicity. The streets teemed with stories, many of them unfolding right in front of me. By the time September rolled around I no longer wanted to attend NYU (or any other college). After just a few months of living in New York, the idea of being in school again felt like an airless bell jar to me. Realizing I needed to pick some course of action, I talked my way into acting guru William Esper’s class and knuckled down for the long haul.

Somewhere along the line, between my experience at St. Edward’s and the two years of sweating my balls off in Bill Esper’s class, it occurred to me that you never really “get” it. Every situation is unique and there are no templates that will consistently save your ass. But I also knew I finally had a “toolbox” of skills I could now apply to any role I was lucky enough to get. Like all novices, I probably worked a little harder than I should have at first, but eventually I relaxed and learned to enjoy the opportunities when they came up. Although Bill taught me how to act, St. Edward’s taught me something equally important: that I didn’t want to end up as an old lush trying to get my hand down the pants of a college student (while tripping over an ottoman). So far, so good.

My favorite guest artist we ever had at St. Ed's was an actress named Jan Sterling. Not many people remember her now, but she’d once been a sexy Hollywood bombshell who’d been nominated for an Oscar in 1955 for “The High and The Mighty.” Now a character actress, she’d arrived on campus at the last minute (a discombobulated mess) to take on the emotionally complex role of “Amanda” in “The Glass Menagerie.” Initially, nobody believed she could pull it off, but on opening night, she blossomed. Her performance was hilarious, poignant and (with the exception of a few flubbed lines) came off as quite accomplished. I only chatted with her a couple of times, but she always seemed happy and genuinely interested in the current events of her life; as opposed to the previous “guest artists” who always seemed a bit stuck in the past. A couple of weeks into the run, she met with all the drama students to share her wisdom about the acting profession. Delivered with complete candor (and a winning smile) I still remember what she said. “Let me put it to you like this: In 1955, I was nominated for an Oscar and now I’m working here for $2,000.00 a week. And that, kids, is show business.”

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, April 5, 2009

Whatever Happened to Getting Paid?

A few months ago, a producer sent me a short story she'd acquired the rights to. I was excited since this producer (well-respected and with a little money in the bank) had recently optioned a script of mine for a generous (and professionally accurate) fee. The short story definitely had some cool cinematic elements, but was a tough nut to crack since it jumped around in time and didn’t have a particularly strong through-line. After a couple of weeks of busting my hump, I submitted a pretty polished treatment and was soon on a conference call with the producer and her development person. They were duly impressed, but had a few questions (which I expected). By the end of the conversation, I had jotted down their concerns for future reference, but also felt genuinely optimistic that soon we’d all be in business together. That’s when the producer cheerfully suggested that I work on her list of suggestions and call them back in a week or so with a new pitch. In the meantime, they would be talking to other writers.

I was a little surprised. In the good old days of screenwriting (which, as I recall, were just a few short years ago) if the producer and studio, liked your take, they “bought” it and then you were “hired” to solve the problems. This was known as “development” -- or in some cases, “development hell.” What made development hell sort of tolerable was although your project was in creative limbo, you were at least being paid for the time it took to gradually fuck it up. Apparently those wonderful days are (for now) over.

In the last twelve months I’ve talked to more and more well-established creative people who are being asked to work for free. Working for free when you’re starting out sort of goes with the territory. Quite a few folks I know did under-the-table rewrites or a little ghost writing for big timers too busy to handle the landslide of work coming their way. It was just considered part of paying your dues. These days, the collapsing economy, combined with the hardball tactics being employed by the AMPTP against all the unions, have changed the rules of the game.

It’s not only writers who are feeling the pressure. A friend of mine who is a publicist was recently asked by a major agency to do three months of free work for one of their clients, just to see if she was “the right person for the job.” Across the board, producers, designers, casting directors, etc. are now being asked not just to “audition” for their jobs, but to do substantial amounts of time-consuming, expensive work in the hope that perhaps (maybe) there might be a paycheck at the end of the process. When I’m approached by young writers about how to get a foothold in the industry, I’ve lately been a little stumped about what to tell them. When I was starting out, there was a standard template and the big challenge was how to break into the well-established pecking order.

After the writers strike of ’07, all anybody could talk about was “New Media.” It was apparently a gold mine just waiting to be tapped! I was deluged with calls. “Let’s get a bunch of friends together and create a webisode show!” As fun as many of the ideas were, from a financial standpoint, it was the equivalent of saying “My uncle’s got a barn. Let’s put on a show!” The hope being that maybe some big producer would see the results and whisk us away to network Heaven. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer in showcasing your talents and I think entrepreneurial thinking is a great thing. Although there have been a few success stories here and there, the problem with new media lies with where does the money come from and how do you make it back? For every webisode that manages to “monetize” itself, there are quite a few that wind up on somebody’s VISA card ; left to be paid off in installments for the next ten years. Plus there is the bigger problem of a young audience who don’t much want to pay for anything they view on the net. An executive friend of mine warned me to expect more of this kind of “free” thinking because the gargantuan success of on-line forums like Facebook. He warned that most major entertainment conglomerates are now looking for entertainment concepts where all the content is free. Yes, free.

According to an article from the all-knowing, all seeing Nikki Fink’s column, Marvel Comics is about to launch a particularly heinous “New Writer’s Program.” She quotes one source as saying that under the terms of the program before the writers are even allowed to come in and meet, they must sign a non-disclosure agreement and a 70-page, non-negotiable contract. Among other things, the contract gives Marvel ownership over “everything the writers create during the one year term of the deal, plus a first look and last refusal to any and all projects the writers have previously written or will write for 24 months in the future." I’d like to think that this is a joke, but given the ginormous popularity of comic book heroes as movie fodder, I suspect there are probably young scribes lined up out the door to take this crappy deal.

In the end, I suspect the folks at Marvel will wind up having to pay a few seasoned professionals a tidy sum to come in and clean up the mess. You can’t beat young writers for their enthusiasm and originality, but unfortunately screenwriting requires a great many skills; the most important one being the ability to create characters that an audience will embrace over the length of a two-hour movie. That task is a bit more complex than it looks at first glance. Qualities like courage, perseverance, sacrifice, regret, humility and redemption are tough to write about unless you have actually lived some version of them. Having kids, alimony payments, a bad back, a big mortgage and a less than satisfactory retirement account will definitely give you a certain perspective on how a character actually “lives” through life-threatening dangers and eventually emerges triumphantly.

These days, working in Hollywood is becoming more and more like the Wild West. Who the hell knows who’ll next be riding into town with guns blazing? I’m personally hoping for a few minor miracles. The first would be that the internet (like the film festival circuit) will be recognized as a training ground for new creatives and not their ultimate destination. Next, I hope that the studios will come to their senses regarding capping “star” salaries. Stars (in every field) deserve to make more than the rest of us, but the mega paydays of yesteryear need to be reconsidered if the rest of us are going to survive the current economic bronco ride. Finally, I hope that the corporate conglomerates who now own most of the major studios will finally tire of trying to churn out nothing but tent pole hits and sell off their entertainment divisions to the showmen (and women) who invented this business to begin with. I realize that the times (and economics) have changed, but if we could somehow turn this back into the “family business" it once was, then maybe things like “residuals” could again be thought of as a reasonable, humane way of maintaining the talent pool that sustains and refreshes this industry year after year. I might be kidding myself, but this is a business fueled by dreamers. Who knows? Maybe this one could come true some day -- soon!

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