Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Oscar's Big Night

Yeah, I'd be grinning too...

Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren.
Photo by Paul Smith

“It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.”

Excerpt from “Day of the Locust” by Nathanael West

I first read Nathanael West’s dark reflections on Hollywood life shortly after arriving in this smog-choked* entropical paradise of Los Angeles. Fresh off the turnip truck, I was abysmally ignorant in the ways of the Industry, and eager for any insights on the nature of Hollywood, my new home-away-from-home. “Day of the Locust” proved to be a lurid, entertaining, and memorable read – but as a product of its time (1933), I thought it rather dated, and more than a bit over the top. Thirty years later, I can only offer a belated apology to the late, great Mr. West, who got a lot more right than wrong in nailing Tinsel Town to its very own gilded cross. He took a good look at the human dilemma facing every artist who comes to work in the movie business, poking a hard finger into the pretense and phoniness layered like six inches of sickly-sweet frosting atop the bitter cake of greed, fear, and insecurity at the heart of this heartless Industry. Much has changed in the last seventy-five years – the advent and ever-expanding reach of television, the dazzling virtuosity of modern film technology, and an exponential increase in the population of LA – but the essential truths underlined by Nathanael West still hold today.

Last Sunday was Oscar Night, Hollywood’s annual air kiss into the brightly lit make-up mirror of onanistic narcissism, a self-congratulatory salute to everything the Industry holds dear. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Oscars, or our perverse obsession with celebrity here in Tabloid Nation -- gawking as youth and beauty march arm-in-arm down that famous red carpet dressed in ridiculously expensive, one-off gowns designed to be worn exactly once. The broadcast itself has metastasized over the years into a bloated carnival of glittering tedium, an endless parade of winners lurching from the relative anonymity of the audience up those steps and into the spotlight, there to blubber thanks to their agents, managers, lawyers, and other bloodsucking Hollywood leeches.

That much, I understand. In a business famous for its dependence on the highly volatile blend of talent and supersized ego (so often driven by the neurotic need to be “loved” by faceless legions of utter strangers), and equally infamous for behind-the-scenes backstabbing in the desperate, zero-sum struggle to grasp another rung on the slippery ladder of Hollywood success, an annual group-hug by and for the inmates of this gilded asylum makes a certain sense. It made a lot more sense back in the old days (way before my time), when the Oscar ceremony was a private affair for insiders only. All that changed in 1953, when the Academy allowed NBC to take the Oscars public with the first television broadcast, turning the event into an official network product: a bright, shiny bauble designed and staged to induce millions of viewer/consumers to sit through three-plus hours of expensive commercials. The Oscar broadcast remains unique among award shows in that it’s live – and in some ways, can be seen as the original “reality show” (a relatively unscripted drama involving carefully selected individuals) – but in essence, it’s now just another television show.

Everyone directly involved with a nominated film -- actors, writers, directors, and producers, along with highly skilled below-the-line craftspeople – has a vested interest in the Oscars. In a big little town like Hollywood, most of us living in the radius of the studio zone know somebody with a connection to a film in the running. But despite the dusty warnings of Nathanael West, I still have a hard time understanding why anybody outside the Industry – civilians – would actually care which movie wins Best Picture, or what director/producer/actor/actress/composer/editor/art director/cinematographer goes home with the little gold man. I find it astonishing that so many people are willing to line up outside the Kodak Theater and wait hour after hour on a chilly February afternoon just to catch a fleeting glimpse of a few movie stars and their parasitic celebrity-wannabe hangers-on. But they do, year after year. Although the LA Times complained that “only 33 million people” watched last Sunday night, that’s more than ten percent of the entire U.S. population, representing a huge public appetite for this elaborately staged, weepy, and well-coiffed spectacle. The audience may be aging, and down in numbers from past broadcasts, but a lot of people still love the Oscars.

I used to enjoy the event a lot more than I do now. During my early years in the biz, I dutifully planted myself in front of the toob on Oscar Night. Having worked so hard to become a tiny cog in the vast Hollywood Machine, I felt a sense of belonging, as well as a certain obligation to observe the rituals of the clan at large. I was finally part of Hollywood – if only as a bottom feeder, far below-the-line -- and when in Rome, one does as the Romans.

As my work shifted from features to commercials and music videos, the Oscars began to lose their relevance. At a certain point, I tuned-out altogether, ignoring Oscar Night for twenty years. I finally broke tradition to watch during the year Charlize Theron won for a performance in which she transformed her lithe and lovely self into a monstrously grotesque homicidal prostitute. In a way, this seemed like a mirror-image of the transformation Hollywood itself goes through every year for the Oscars, morphing from its actual Industrial self -- a cold and merciless money-machine -- into a glittering, beautiful blond lighting up the world with her ten thousand watt smile. If this sounds a bit harsh, remember that Hollywood is very much a bottom-line business that has left countless starry-eyed dreamers battered and broken in her wake. Perhaps this is the fate of dreamers everywhere – romantic idealism mugged on the mean streets of reality -- but the beatings meted out by Hollywood are particularly bruising.

That said, the Oscars are not the worst offender among awards shows. When it comes to the lamest and most purely commercial of award extravaganzas, the Grammys take the title every year. Lest there be any doubt, consider two words that sum up the Grammys in a nutshell: Millie Vanilli. Quality has nothing to do with it where the Grammys are concerned. Quantity -- as in gross sales income – is everything. The Grammies represent all that is hollow and rotten and ruthlessly corporate in the music industry, the one business that still makes Hollywood look good by contrast.

Finishing a distant second in the Award Show Hall of Shame are the Emmys, which slavishly follow the party line of conventional Industry wisdom when it comes to bestowing awards. I’m not saying those who receive Emmys aren’t deserving -- some of them, anyway – but rather that the Emmys remain grimly determined to take no risks whatsoever. Go out on a limb to reward a quirky, innovative show that hasn’t yet managed to attract millions of advertiser-pleasing eyeballs? Forget it, kid. The Emmys don’t go there.

This is just one juicer's opinion, of course. Lots of good people enjoy the Grammys and Emmys -– there is, after all, no accounting for individual taste -- but personally, I’d rather go to the dentist than sit through either of those shows. At least the dentist sends me home with clean teeth. The best I can say is that the Oscars look pretty good in comparison, but considering that we’re grading on a curve in the broadcast equivalent of a Third World whorehouse, such comparisons don’t count for much.

So did I utterly ignore the Oscars last Sunday? That’s not really an option if you live in Hollywood, with half the streets blocked off, helicopters buzzing around in circles, and far above, the Goodyear Blimp drifting back and forth among patchy clouds like a fat, blue-on-silver whale. When 5:30 arrived, I turned on the toob in time to see Regis Philbin wind up his one-man orgy of blathering, groveling self-humiliation, then watched the first half hour of the broadcast.

That was enough. I mean no disrespect to Daniel Day-Lewis, Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard, Tilda Swinton, or the Cohen brothers – hey, congratulations to everyone who had a big night in the Kodak Theater, winners and nominees alike – but I turned off the television and found something else to do until dinnertime.

Given that life is usually more fun inside with the party -- rather than pressing one’s nose against the icy glass while peering in from the cold -- you might wonder if there's a reason for my sour attitude towards Oscar, some dark secret or private grudge I’ve nursed all these years, turning me against all that glitters on Oscar’s Big Night.

Mostly I just find the broadcast too dull for words, but truth be told (and if this blog is about anything, it’s about the raw truth of Hollywood life), there has indeed been a small, sharp Oscar-shaped bone stuck in my metaphorical craw for three long decades. Very early in my so-called career, I worked on a film that won an Oscar. In 1978 -- when “The Deer Hunter” was awarded Best Picture, Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won for “Coming Home,” Christopher Walken took Best Supporting Actor, and Michael Cimino (“Deer Hunter”) beat out Alan Parker (“Midnight Express”) for Best Director – a film called “Teenage Father,” written and directed by the young Taylor Hackford, won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. It was barely half an hour long (short films by definition being... short), but the golden statuette Hackford held in his sweaty palms that night was just as big and shiny as Jane Fonda’s – and as far as Hollywood is concerned, winning an Oscar for anything is the rough equivalent of receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. In this town, there is no higher award.

So did I get a golden statue? Of course not. Did I deserve one? Absolutely not – as a wet-behind-the-ears swing man on a three person grip/electric crew, I was just lucky to get the job in the first place. Besides, other than an occasional technical achievement** award, neither grips, juicers, nor gaffers are eligible for Oscars. The closest we get to Oscar Night is when a film we worked on wins for Best Cinematography – and that represents a combined win for the grip, set lighting, and camera departments. If they’re lucky, the winning D.P. might remember to thank the crew before he walks offstage clutching his little gold man.

Other than the paycheck, the only thing I actually deserved (along with the rest of the grip/lighting crew) was a credit: my name somewhere near the bottom of the crawl at the end of the film. Credits are a throwaway -- the cheapest of perks routinely doled out to those who do the heavy lifting essential to making any film. As anyone who has endured the full ten-to-fifteen minutes credit roll at the end of a feature screening knows, everybody who works on a movie -- from the lowest production assistant to the lead actress’s husband’s girlfriend (generally listed as a “producer”) -- gets a credit. Whoever you are, and whatever you did (or didn’t do), you get your name in the credits. It’s part of the deal, just like getting paid. And don't for a moment think that we crew members won't sit there in the dark waiting for our names to appear up on the screen. Many will deny this, but we all do it. As silly as it seems, those credits matter.

But not on “Teenage Fathers.” None of us – not the gaffer, key grip, or lowly swing-man received a credit at the end of that film. If those credits had been limited to actors, director, and producer, I’d have been okay with it, but when the production assistant got a credit -- she who brought coffee and donuts in the morning, kept our minimal craft service table stocked, and cleaned up the locations after we wrapped – I smelled something rotten in Denmark. That P.A. worked hard, and fully deserved her credit, just like the rest of us. But unlike us, she happened to have a very famous last name, well-known in literary circles and beyond -- she was somebody, and thus more deserving than those of us who carried the sandbags, ran the power, and set the lights.

That was one of my first lessons in The Way Hollywood Works. It wasn’t the last.

Do I sound bitter? Moi? Nahh, it’s nothing. I got paid for the job, and that’s supposed to be enough, right? Hey, this is America, where (in the words of Randy Newman) “It’s money that matters.”


Right. But that money is thirty years gone, and there wasn’t all that much of it in the first place. Short films are made on equally short budgets, and I’m sure the writer/director and his producer were just trying to save a few precious dollars by skimping on the credits. But to this day, I feel a tiny surge of adrenaline every time I hear or read the name “Taylor Hackford.” Not only did he win his Oscar, then go on to enjoy a richly rewarding Hollywood career, but he ended up marrying Helen Mirren, a wonderfully talented actress, and the sexiest sixty-something woman in the world – which is reason enough to give him a hard time.

And no, I never thought I'd ever use the words "sexy" and "sixty-something" in the same sentence...

It’s not possible to work in Hollywood for any length of time without taking a few slings and arrows along the way, and there’s always more where those came from. All you can do is throw them on the back of that overloaded camel groaning in the shadow of the Hollywood sign – and when my camel finally collapses with a broken back, I’ll know it’s time to go.

So I raise a glass in this post-Oscar week to Mike Popovitch and Josh Rich – two superbly skilled lighting grips who taught me a lot when I knew nothing at all. We didn’t get the credit, but thirty years ago our efforts helped win an Oscar. Not everybody in this town can make that claim, and not even Taylor Hackford – or those missing credits -- can take it away from us.

*In the late 70’s, eye-stinging, lung-searing third-stage smog alerts were everyday life in the summer. For those who lacked the blessing of air-conditioning – yeah, that’s me raising my hand in the back -- late August and September in the Valley was like crawling naked through all nine flaming circles of Hell. Some things do get better over time, and although smog still plagues Southern California, it’s not nearly so bad as it used to be.

** In 1983, Dicky Deats won a Technical Achievement Oscar for the design and manufacture of the Tulip Crane – or “Little Big Crane.”


D said...

Another good one. I've always heard what a jackass Hackford is. I have worked with Helen Mirren though and she is a dream. A very sweet lady.

egee said...

I have not watched the Oscars for a number of years though there was a time when I took pride in sitting through the entire broadcast. However, something changed. I remember watching Ann Reinking as one of the presenters one year (I don't remember which one). I remember never seeing her present again. I can remember when Cher presented the Oscar for Best Picture. I'm not sure but I'd guess it's been a while since she was up on that stage. I can remember when Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars. How long has it been since he was involved?

It seems like the presenters (and to a lesser extent, the winners) tended to be a "who's who" of the currently trendy. Yet once they fall into relative obscurity, those individuals are never asked back regardless of their talent and ability. I guess the whole Oscar thing came to seem so very superficial...and boring. Now I scan the headlines the next day to see who won and see if I agree with those decisions and then I generally forget about it. I would never state that the awards are meaningless as some very talented individuals deserve recognition for their achievements. But I have this nagging feeling that talent ultimately has only a small part to play in the complex process that creates Oscar winners.

P.S. By the way, I've NEVER watched the Emmys or the Grammys. Glad to hear I've not missed much.

Michael Taylor said...

Egee --

You're absolutely right - other than the occasional "homage" appearance or honorary award (Charlie Chaplin way back when, and more recently, Robert Altman), Oscar is all about the here and now: who's currently hot. That's what happens when a private, insiders-only award ceremony is turned into a network television event. TV exists for the sole purpose of selling advertising, and the target market these days is young people who have yet to form entrenched brand loyalties. They're still up for grabs -- thus the preponderance of here-and-now, look-who's-hot talent at the Oscars.

Not that it's working, mind you. Young people are just as bored with Oscar as the rest of us. Good for them.