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, April 5, 2020

Just for the Hell of It -- Episode 57

                                                 Lonely are the Brave

I don't imagine current generations know or care much about Kirk Douglas, a star from another era, but he was a huge presence in my young life. Going to a movie theater was a rare treat as I was growing up -- life in the sticks has its downsides -- so the only Kirk Douglas movie I got to see in full, blazing color back then was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  After we (finally...) got a black and white TV,  I was able to see his vivid, powerful performances in SpartacusLonely Are the BraveSeven Days in May, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and In Harms Way, each of which made a big impression on me.

Douglas rarely played a standard Hollywood hero or villain, but had a talent for breathing life into complex, tortured characters who would not -- or simply could not -- yield to corrupt authority. In film after film, his characters did what seemed right in the moment, yielding to self-serving or altruistic impulses in making decisions from which there was no turning back. The ensuing drama was often a blend of heroic and tragic -- and nobody could portray the bitter rage of idealism and hope collapsing into disillusionment better than Kirk Douglas.

Douglas had a gift for inhabiting manipulative, amoral, me-first-characters in movies like ChampionAce in the Hole, and The Bad and the Beautiful, but in Paths of Glory, he proved equally adept at playing a good man trying to do the right thing in confronting a rotten, self-serving wartime bureaucracy.  Douglas did the right thing in real life as well, when he helped break the stranglehold of the infamous Hollywood Blacklist back in the Bad Old Days. His version of the story paints him has the singular hero in that drama, of course, and as is so often the case, the truth was considerably more complicated.  Still, he had a hand in it, and deserves some credit.

From all I've read and heard, he was tortured by memories of a difficult upbringing, but while some actors turn to booze and drugs to hold their personal demons at bay, Douglas channeled his dark energy into a career. Apparently he wasn't always the most pleasant person to be around -- as occasional co-star Burt Lancaster famously noted:

"Kirk would be the first to tell you that he is a very difficult man. And I would be the second."

Maybe there's something to the "tortured artist" cliché, given that a happy, well-adjusted person might not be quite so driven to succeed in an arena as tough as show business -- I really don't know. Regardless of all that, here's an interview he did for NPR a few years back, and a nice remembrance of Douglas from NPR's Bob Mondello. Whatever drove Kirk Douglas, he now stands in the pantheon with the heavyweight legends of Hollywood. He was the last of the all-time greats, and now he's gone.

RIP, Kirk, and thanks for the cinematic memories.


The Coronapocalypse has made our world much larger while remaining very small -- larger because we can no longer go anywhere or do anything, but small thanks to the instant worldwide communication of the internet. In some ways, we've returned to the Very Old Days of our ancient hominid ancestors, who were safe so long as they remained huddled in their caves, but faced serious danger when it was time to hunt up some dinner. Rather than searching for a mastodon to spear, kill, butcher, and drag back home, we must prowl the tall grass of the supermarket veldt, where a silent killer lurks, unseen. What's old is new, and what's new is old -- and the quest for food is once again a potentially lethal task.

There are so many horrendous implications of all this -- too many to fully wrap my brain around -- and we won't know the full extent of the damage for a very long time. The only thing we can count on is that it'll be extremely ugly on the global, national, state, and local level, in personal and economic terms. Not so long ago (although it suddenly feels like ancient history), I was heartened to read that Hollywood's legendary Formosa Cafe  -- which had been bought, disastrously remodeled, then shuttered in the past decade -- has been restored to the full glory of the Good Old Days, and was again open for business. I was planning to make another trip to LA right about now, to join a few old friends for dinner at the Formosa, but that trip is now on indefinite hold. Running a restaurant or cafe is a labor-intensive business, and most survive on a thin profit margin. With so many of these establishments operating on an extremely limited basis, how many of our old favorites will survive the plague and reopen once it's past?

I don't know. Nobody does. Fingers crossed.*


Remember Noah Hawley?  Sure you do - he's the writer/producer responsible for the television series Fargo and Legion, among other things, and has written five novels along the way, only one of which (Before the Fall) I've read. I liked that book, and I like Fargo too, despite my initial skepticism about a television series based on a feature film -- but Hawley pulled it off. Like every other non-essential worker, Hawley was stopped cold by the pandemic shutdown, having completed filming on all but the final episodes of the latest season of Fargo.  So what does a busy guy like that do when the door slams in his face?  Read this and you'll find out.

But enough about wealthy (if undeniably talented) above-the-liners who won't have to worry about money during the Coronoapocalypse. If you're reading this, you're probably in the industry working below-the line -- or more accurately, not working at all these days. In this segment from KCRW's The Business,  several below-the-liners talk about how they're coping with this abrupt work stoppage. We can all relate, but none so much as those who are going through the same thing. There are also a few words from an actress who's taking full advantage of our suddenly empty streets to film her post-apocalyptic movie.  I made a joke about just that on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, but didn't expect it would really happen... which just goes to show that life truly is stranger than fiction.


From the So You Think YOU Have a Tough Job Department, a few horror stories from a variety of assistants who most definitely had it worse than you... back when anybody other than first responders, grocery store workers, and post office employees was still gainfully employed, that is.

And finally, this, from the eternally grumpy Ray Ratto, who has written for a wide spectrum of publications on the subject of sports. I very seldom address sports here, and am not about to start now -- I quite literally could not care less about some silly made-for-television cage-match/golf game pitting tarnished hero Tiger Woods against Phil "Lefty" Mickelson, nor would I watch such a tedious "spectacle." But that's just me -- if you want to watch such an event, that's your business. No value judgements here. My only reason for linking to Ratto's piece is the wonderful first paragraph: three sentences that, as far as this ex-juicer is concerned, Speak the Truth about the totality of the genre known as "reality television."

Ratto is a very entertaining writer, so I urge you to at least read that leadoff paragraph. If you want to read the rest of the piece, fine.

Hang in there, people -- this too shall pass. Lord knows when, but it will. Meanwhile, stay healthy.

*Regular business hours at The Formosa were 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m., but now it's open from 3 pm to 6:30 p.m., for delivery and take-out only

1 comment:

Jim said...

And of course there are the obvious parallels between the typical Kirk Douglas role you describe so well and the lamentably few "deep state" patriots who have done the right thing at their personal and professional peril.