Sunday, June 28, 2009

Kings and Angels

Since last week’s entry was about Hollywood memorial services, I was hesitant to write another column about celebrity deaths, but last week's news about Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett left me without much choice. When icons of that stature pass away it does leave a mark and I’m of a generation that remembers the trajectory of both of those entertainers vividly.

I was nine years old when I first saw Michael Jackson and his brothers on "The Flip Wilson Show." My family had just moved from Kentucky to a small factory town in Southern Ohio. I’d gone from a school with just one black kid to a school with quite a few. And unlike the black kids in Kentucky (who rarely opened their mouths) these kids took no shit from anybody and would kick your ass if you looked at them wrong. Although, racial equality hadn’t quite arrived on the national scene, it was in full force on the playground of Margaret Heywood Elementary. I was getting a fast education that the racist attitudes of my uncles (who would turn off the TV whenever a black person appeared on screen), had no bearing on the real world.

Since I wasn’t much of a ballplayer or rough-houser, my first few weeks were mostly spent getting beaten-up. The first safe haven I found was in a totally unexpected place. Every day at recess, a group of very resourceful little black girls would run an extension cord from the door of the gym out to the playground where they would then plug in a portable record player and dance to Jackson Five records. One day as I saw an ass-kicking coming my way, I jumped onto the imaginary dance floor with them. Denise, Gloris and Athena initially thought this was hilarious, but eventually accepted the skinny white kid since none of the other boys would come near this deadly” sissy zone.” Dancing daily to “ABC” and “Stop! The Love You Save May Be Your Own,” bought me a little time until I eventually found my place in the pecking order.

To me, what made little Michael so extraordinary was that he sang like a grown-up. When I watched him on "The Ed Sullivan Show," I found it hard to believe that he was just a little older than me. By the time he reemerged as a mega-solo act in the 80’s, I was even more astounded because he seemed so, well… girly. He spoke in a high, effeminate voice, wore make-up and dressed in the most outlandish, over-the-top outfits imaginable. In interviews, I remember wishing he would butch it up a little. But as it turned out, he didn’t need to. His talent surpassed anything that could be said about him. I can still remember the Motown 25th anniversary special when he electrified the audience and then the world. In the blink of an eye, he was the most famous, successful (and ultimately bizarre) entertainer the world had ever known.

When his eccentricities (and inappropriate behavior with children) overtook his fame, I began to feel sorry for him. In the early 90’s, he donated a chunk of change to an elementary school near where I currently live. To express their gratitude, the school put up a sign (using big stainless steel letters) on the west side of the building, marking the entrance to new “Michael Jackson Auditorium.” When news of the first child molestation charges broke, the school covered the sign with a large plywood box. When the charges were dropped, the box came down. After the second set of accusations, the box went back up again – this time permanently. Hollywood tour buses still stop outside the school to let tourists snap pictures of the awkward-looking plywood box covering Michael's name.

His sudden death last week (on the verge of what may have been his big comeback) brings to a close one of the strangest, saddest and most extraordinary stories in pop culture. Apparently, unimaginable fame and wealth don’t buy stability, direction or love. I suspect that when the toxicology reports come back in a few weeks there will be more bad news about the last days of King of Pop. And that will be sad. The tragedy seems complete already.

Thursday also brought the news that Farrah Fawcett had lost her long and very public battle with cancer. As a teen I’d been a big fan of Farrah’s. Mostly because she was so perfect-looking. The teeth, the hair, that body. I first noticed her in commercials plugging tooth paste and shampoo, plus I also belonged to a whole generation of boys who owned that famous poster of her in the red bathing suit. I‘d watched her skyrocket to stardom on “Charlie’s Angels” and witnessed her fall from grace after leaving the show. After floundering around for a while in some really bad movies, Farrah announced that she was going to New York to try her hand at acting in an off-Broadway play.

By that time, I was an overly-earnest young actor struggling to be taken seriously in the rugged world of New York theatre. We hardcore theatre types looked down on Hollywood and were used to seeing TV and movie actors come to town in an attempt to legitimize themselves on stage. Most of those attempts ended disastrously and we took a certain glee at seeing these lightweights banished back to the west coast with their tails between their legs.

Farrah had made the seemingly suicidal decision to replace the much-praised Susan Sarandon in a controversial play running in a small theatre on the Westside. The play (“Extremities”) was an incredibly intense, very physical show that opened with a graphic and horrifying rape scene and just got worse from there. I had seen Sarandon do the show and it was harrowing. The idea that Farrah could pull off such a wrenching and physically demanding role seemed laughable. As expected, the critics were kept away for a few weeks while the new star got her bearings. But then rumors began to circulate that she was actually good in the role. In fact, not just good, but really good. When I finally saw her, I was floored. Farrah delivered a raw, emotionally charged performance that set everybody’s hair on end. She made us eat our words.

Soon, big deal TV projects like “The Burning Bed” and “Small Sacrifices” came her way. Amazingly, she landed the movie version of “Extremities” (over Sarandon) and would go on to other films earning the praise of co-stars like Richard Gere and Robert Duvall. Nobody was laughing anymore. The most unimaginable thing had happened. Farrah Fawcett was an actor. Like many women of a certain age (especially those blessed/cursed with incredible looks) roles became scarce and personal problems increased. There was the obligatory reality series (“Chasing Farrah”). And then the diagnosis.

It always makes me a little queasy when people opt to have something as personal and gruesome as a battle with cancer documented for the world to see, but when “Farrah’s Story” aired on NBC last month, the response was huge. There was an outpouring of love and support and it was inspiring to see Farrah’s spirit so intact. She seemed plucky and oddly fearless. Right to the end.

I only saw her once in person. It was at a loud and slightly raucous party out in Malibu several years ago. Determined to meet her, I sailed over and asked her for a cigarette. She gave it to me, but didn’t seem terribly interested in talking. I didn’t blame her. I’m sure she spent her entire career deflecting gawkers like me. She gave me a light, but that was about it. What I wanted to tell her was that I was happy for her. She had gone from being a contestant on the “Dating Game” to Poster Girl to Angel to legitimate actor (complete with Emmy and Golden Globe nominations). She’d held on, fought hard and kept herself viable and afloat for three decades in a town where that’s no small achievement. And she still looked great. I don’t know that Farrah’s posthumous fame will last as long as Michael’s, but for those of us who grew up with her, she’ll be remembered for a long time to come.

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, June 21, 2009

Fond Farewells

I recently attended two very different celebrity memorial services here in L.A. The first was for the always hilarious, Dom DeLuise and the other was for stand-up icon, George Carlin.

I knew Dom a little. About ten years ago, his wife, Carol Arthur (a wonderfully talented performer in her own right) replaced an actress in a play I had written (and was also performing in). Since the director had returned to New York, I drove out to Carol and Dom’s house in Pacific Palisades to rehearse with her in her living room. Dom sat in and acted as de facto-director. He and Carol (having been married for 35 years) had a terrific shorthand and he was great at helping her nail the jokes. Once she started performing in the show, Dom made sure their friends showed up en masse. He was wonderfully supportive of the whole enterprise and for a time wanted to option the play and develop it into a TV series. That idea never panned out; I think in part because Dom was already experiencing some fairly serious health problems.

Not having seen them in a while, I was hesitant to attend the memorial until I ran into a friend of Carol’s who’d understudied the show. “Carol would love it if you came,” she assured me. The memorial was held in a large theater on the Westside and was packed to the rafters. Dom’s sons (all of whom followed him into the family business) had created three short video montages of their father’s work dating back to the start of his career. Many old friends including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart, delivered loving, hilarious tributes and there were lots of heart-warming references to Dom looking down from above and smiling on us.

Carol was given the star spot at the end where she read a funny and touching letter she’d written to Dom. We all shuffled out into the sunshine, drank lemonade and traded stories. There were grandkids, neighbors and lots of stars from the 70’s (including two different women who’d both been famously involved with Burt Reynolds - which might have explained why Burt himself was not present). It was clear that Dom was a guy who had worked hard to make people happy and even marginal friends like me were made to feel like a part of the family.

The next event was a memorial for George Carlin on the one-year anniversary of his death. I had only met George once when my friend Ray was moderating a tribute to him at the Museum of Broadcasting in Beverly Hills. I was invited to tag along and was shocked when I found myself standing in the green room actually hanging out with George beforehand. Still razor sharp at 71, he was completely accessible and welcoming. I could barely believe I was reminiscing about the “Hippie-Dippy Weather Man” with the guy who’d actually created the character. Six weeks later, he was gone.

His memorial was held in a comedy club in Hermosa Beach and was set-up as a fund-raiser for a charity founded by Kitty Bruce (daughter of Lenny Bruce) to help homeless kids. At the top of the show, George’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, a very funny writer herself, warned everybody that the last thing her father would have wanted was for people to say stupid things like “I’m sure he’s looking down on us from above and smiling…” In fact, she said he would probably have preferred it if nobody talked about him at all. So nobody did. Instead, a high-powered string of extremely funny stand-ups took the stage and delivered their best “ten minutes.” In keeping with George’s pioneering spirit, the material was as edgy as it was hilarious. The evening ended with clips from George’s long career, starting with his early performances in the 60’s, all the way to his most recent HBO special which just aired last year. It was a great night.

As I enter into the second half of my life, I expect to be attending more and more of these memorials. It’s just how it goes. Show business farewells are quite a bit different than civilian affairs. If the person was known as a great dramatic actor, you can count on the memorial being filled with big, tearful remembrances. If the individual was a comedian, you can count on a really good show. I suppose some people would be mortified by all the jokes, but I find them very reassuring. They make sense to me. Show business is a life lived on the edge and the concept of some form of “death” is never far away.

Because I’m a writer and (occasionally) an actor, it’s hard not to let my imagination drift into what I hope will be the distant future; that day when it will be my memorial service. All I can say is I hope it will be crowded, funny and brief. My fingers are crossed that when the moment comes, I’ll be granted a quiet and reasonably dignified demise. Hopefully nothing that involves drugs, animals or sex workers.

The good news is you won’t have to worry about trudging out to Forest Lawn since I’m a big fan of cremation. If there’s a memorial, I’d like it to have that same fun, glitzy feel that most Hollywood events do. A red carpet would be nice and maybe a few photographers. Lots of kibitzing. Some decent hors ‘d oeuvres. And plenty of networking! God knows nothing would make me happier than if somebody at least got a job out of it.

People like mementos, so I’m thinking that at the end we could hand out gift bags - which might start a whole new trend (“Funeral Swag”). The bags could contain a couple of DVD’s of some of the work I did and maybe a few coupons from local merchants. Maybe a fragrance sample. And just to give it that personal touch, perhaps a small, tastefully packaged vial of my ashes.

I love this idea since it would allow my friends to take away not just their memories of me, but a little bit of the real article as well. They could then sprinkle them into a favorite house plant, toss them off their balcony or release them into the wind, off some cliff in Malibu. Some folks might want to hang them off their rearview mirror (sort of like those fuzzy dice that used to be so popular) or depending on my popularity at the time, sell them on E-Bay. None of these outcomes would bother me. I’ll be dead. I won’t even know it’s happening.

I have zero wisdom on the subject of how to spend one’s life – although I do suggest trying to have as few regrets as possible. One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from British poet, Ted Hughes; a guy who certainly had his ups-and-downs, including being married for a time to Sylvia Path, who was no barrel of laughs. The quote goes: "The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated…And the only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all."

I think Dom and George certainly measured up in that department. For my money, I can’t think of anything more fun than a life spent entertaining people (as often and as fully as we can). So go out there and make some memories this week, Hollywood! Give your friends some good stories to tell about you after you croak. It’s a short ride. Enjoy 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

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Before the Parade Passes By

Last week, I was again invited to perform at "Sit 'N Spin," - which is sort of a writers' showcase held at the Comedy Central Stage here in Hollywood. I thought for a change of pace, I'd publish the piece I wrote for the show. It has nothing to do with show business, but I thought you might enjoy it.

Recently, a straight friend of mine asked me if I was planning to attend the annual Gay Pride Parade in West Hollywood. I half-heartedly replied that I probably would. My friend shrugged, saying that he and his wife always used to attend, but didn’t bother anymore. “It used to be so outrageous,” he explained. “The people, the floats. It was like Mardi Gras. But now it’s just a bunch of people in Khaki shorts pushing baby carriages.” His remark sort of stung a little. I had to admit that lately, my enthusiasm for the whole “Pride” thing had flattened out a bit. I’d mostly chalked it up to age. When I was young(er), I loved “Pride.” It was the one day of the year you could get super-drunk before noon, dance in the street and kiss your boyfriend (or somebody else’s boyfriend) in broad daylight without any fear of getting the shit beaten out of you. It was an exhilarating, no-holds-barred, free-for-all celebration of being “the outsider.”

My friend was right in that the freaky “in-your-face” quality the parades once possessed had sort of waned lately. Although, we still had the scary “Dykes on Bikes,” the flatbed full of leather men and of course, the occasional drag queen staggering by, mostly all you got now were lots and lots of “groups” (“The LGBT Coalition for/or against Something”) all marching along in their color coordinated T-shirts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not necessarily something you want to stand all day in the hot sun to watch.

The most fun I ever had at Pride was when I marched with the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Each year, they would “salute” a different classic movie and that particular year it was “The Sound of Music.” After a bloody, hair-pulling fight, I managed to land the much-coveted role of “Maria.” Surrounded by a very ethnically diverse group of Von Trapp children, I skipped along, strumming my guitar in my postulate costume, followed by dancing nuns, shirtless boys in lederhosen and quartet of large Lesbians dressed as the Swiss Alps. It was beyond fabulous! I would, however, like to offer you a tip. Never attempt to “skip” 2.5 miles while wearing a pair of women’s shoes. There was, for a time, some concern as to whether I would ever walk again.

Oddly, my friend’s question did leave me wondering what exactly I was proud of. I was certainly proud of the accomplishments of Gay and Lesbian people. Starting with Plato and Socrates, all the way up to Ellen DeGeneres, Barney Frank and Ryan Seacrest, it’s an impressive list. I was certainly proud of the estimated 60,000 Gay and Lesbian soldiers currently thought to be on active duty in the United States military. Plus, I was proud of my community’s activism in areas like employment discrimination and HIV awareness. And we always look so good doing it. Our men, so sleek and well-groomed. Our women, so rugged and handsome. I was sure proud of Sean Penn! Here’s a guy who, to my knowledge, has never suck a dick in his life, but there he was on the Oscars, staunchly defending my constitutional rights. And I was, of course, proud of Barack Obama; the first US president to ever even acknowledge the existence of Gay people in his inaugural address.

But these were the accomplishments of other people. What was I personally proud of? If having “Pride” just meant acknowledging my history of sleeping with other men, I had quite a lot to be proud of! Having been gay since the age of four, I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years. However, since I have a strict “no cameras” policy in my bedroom, I don’t have anything I can show you. So, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

These days being Gay is less about sex than it is about civil rights anyway. As you may have heard, Carrie Prejean, the newly dethroned Miss California, recently got her big fake boobs caught in the gnarly mousetrap of opposing Gay marriage. Now free of her royal obligations, Miss Prejean has stated that she will continue her campaign to prevent homos from legally marrying because of a deep, personal feeling that same-sex marriage is just, well, “wrong.”

I can relate to Carrie’s feelings. Just last week, as I was rushing to an appointment in Koreatown, I too had a deep personal feeling that we should create a law that would allow ordinary citizens like myself to randomly shoot any driver that didn’t use their turn signal. I suspected that “David’s Law” would be very popular with California voters. But then when I thought about all the needless heartbreak and loss I would be inflicting on the lives of so many people; people I had no real relationship to and knew almost nothing about, it didn’t seem like such a good idea after all. And I guess that’s why we should always create laws based on constitutional principles and judicial precedent; and not on people’s personal fucking feelings. That said, I'd like to wish Ms. Prejean well in her new role representing angry, uninformed segregationists everywhere. God speed, Carrie.

So, after mulling this whole Pride question over for a bit, here’s what I came up with: I love men. And fortunately, men love me! So, it’s all worked out pretty well. To say I’m proud of being Gay is like saying I’m proud of my height, hair color or shoe size; things that were all decided for me before I was born. I mean really! If a guy likes to suck dick or a gal likes to enjoy a little pussy that’s not her own… What the fuck? Who among us wants to be judged on the most intimate, personal details of our lives? Wouldn’t we rather be assessed based on what we do or how we operate in the world? I stand before you; a man who has loved and been loved. I can install a light fixture; put up sheetrock and change a tire. I also have an uncanny ability to pick out the perfect lamp for any room and once sewed an entire patchwork quilt by hand (sort of like a prairie woman). I am a writer. A Democrat. A teacher. A mentor. An optimist. And a cocksucker. Am I proud of all those things? Well, I’m certainly not ashamed of them.

Not long ago, I was driving home from a rather raucous party when it occurred to me that I was a little too drunk to be behind the wheel of a car. So, solid citizen that I am, I pulled into the 24 hour “Subway” sandwich shop at Sunset and LaBrea. There was a cute, friendly Latin kid working there who I was pretty sure was straight, but I was drunk and it was three o’clock in the morning, so I decided to flirt with him a little. After we discussed the merits of the various subway sandwiches, I made my selection. At which point, my new, imaginary, Latino boyfriend looked into my eyes, smiled and said “So, can you handle twelve inches?” To which I replied, “Gosh, that certainly sounds good… but I’d prefer not to end my evening in the emergency room.” He laughed. And as I sat eating my sandwich, we shot the breeze a little. He was a student at LACC. He hadn’t declared his major yet, but was leaning toward law enforcement. I told him I was a writer working in the entertainment business - which explained what I was doing drunk in a Subway at three o’clock in the morning. It wasn’t a groundbreaking conversation. It didn’t change the world. But it was nice. And as I left, I couldn’t help thinking how swell it would be if someday we could all just order whatever appealed to us off the menu and enjoy it; without being particularly concerned about what the other guy was eating. And when (and if) that day ever comes, we will all – all of us – have something to be very, very proud of indeed.

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, June 8, 2009

Power Mad

Last week, a friend sent me a link to Forbes magazine's annual “100 Most Powerful Celebrities” list for 2009. For those of you unfamiliar with it, this list is composed of public figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports and politics, who, by virtue of their gigantic salaries, overall media coverage and number of Google searches, have been deemed “Most Powerful.”

Apparently, the big news this year was that America’s favorite mega-mogul, Oprah Winfrey was finally unseated from the number one spot by the beautiful, talented and extremely skinny Angelina Jolie. According to Forbes, Angelina’s new ranking came thanks to her exploding film career plus the publicity garnered from the birth of her twins, her philanthropic efforts and her relationship with the equally pretty Brad Pitt (who came in at No. 9 on the list - right behind his even prettier ex-wife Jennifer Aniston). Given that last year Oprah earned about 200 million more than Angelina and is about to launch her own TV network, her demotion strikes me as a little strange. It makes me wish that at least a few other factors had been taken into consideration. As much as I like Angelina, I still think Oprah could take her in a cage fight.

In other “surprises,” the top four slots were occupied by women (Angelina and Oprah were followed by Madonna and Beyonce) and almost half of the top ten were African-American (which at least demonstrates some progress in how wealth and celebrity is being doled out these days). This was also the first year that a sitting U.S. President made the list with Barack Obama coming in at No. 49. Odd that a guy who is running two wars and holds the future of the U.S. economy in his hands would wind up so far down the list behind Miley Cyrus and 80’s hair band, Bon Jovi. I guess the term “powerful” doesn’t mean quite what it used to.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting kind of sick of these lists. It seems like every rag on the newsstand now churns out some kind of annual list -- Most powerful, most beautiful, wealthiest, sexiest, fattest, youngest, oldest, thinnest, drunkest, stupidest. And who exactly puts these lists together? I can only imagine the sort of horrible, pasty little trolls who sit around debating why Dr. Phil should get the No. 21 spot over say, Britney Spears. What is it with all these damn lists?

My friends in publishing tell me that the answer is simple. “Lists” sell magazines. For some reason, we lowly mortals want some kind of scorecard so we can see how the Masters of the Universe are doing. Who’s buying their own chateau? Who's starting their own clothing line? Dating a supermodel? Who's plucking yet another orphan from some crappy impoverished village? I gotta say -- This last phenomenon continues to amaze me. I know some folks praise these decisions since it will supposedly encourage more Americans to consider foreign adoption. Given the number of homegrown kids currently warehoused in foster care, I don’t see the logic. Personally, I liked Ms. Winfrey’s approach. Instead of picking one lucky child (to be raised by her staff) she instead chose to build a school overseas that would benefit thousands of children for years to come.

If I’m going to be painfully honest, I suppose the thing that pisses me off the most about these lists is that I’m never on them. If you rounded up all the people who know me, have worked with me (or have ever even heard of me) and polled them, I doubt the terms “Most Powerful” or “Sexiest Man Alive” would be the first thing out of their mouths.

I admit it. I’m a nerd. I have nerdy interests and nerdy problems. I worry about money. I can’t lose the 10 pounds I gained last year. My skin is not flawless and my phone calls are not instantly returned (by anybody). So I guess when I see people who seem to have lots of everything and are surrounded by legions of folks willing to help them do anything they want to do, it sort of stings a little. It just doesn’t seem quite fair.

I suppose the only real option is for me to start my own magazine. I’ve heard that the most successful periodicals these days are the ones that focus on celebrity gossip or "Green” issues. So, I'm thinking I might call it “Earth Nerd.” Each week we could feature a truly non-famous person on the cover and interview them about their un-extraordinary lives. Who knows? It might catch on! God knows there are enough unimportant people in the world that, if we all banded together, could make it a huge success! Every year we could publish our own list of the “100 People Who Should be Rich and Powerful, But Aren’t.” We’ll select the names by lottery and list them in alphabetical order just to be fair. And we’ll be known for our un-air brushed cover photos.

I suppose the Forbes list (if viewed in the right light) could provide a little healthy inspiration as well. It’s not like those people aren’t hard-working or smart. Stephanie Meyer (the author of the “Twilight” series) showed up on the list this year and she’s far too clever and talented for me to hate. Well, not yet anyway. As we all know, jealousy is a deadly confidence-eating virus that can strip the joy out of life. At least I can console myself with the fact that a few of 2008's “Power 100” got booted off the list this year; including Jennifer Lopez, Johnny Depp and Justin Timberlake. Thank God I don’t have to compare myself to those losers anymore!


THANK YOU, PHIL ABRAMS!!

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