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, December 31, 2023


                                    Here comes 2024

                                            (Photo by Robert Aasness)

Yeah, I know ... this is actually the last Sunday in December, not the first Sunday of January, so why is the monthly BS&T post appearing today? Hey, rules were made to be broken, and besides, it's New Year's Eve. I can't think of a better time to offer one last Hollywood air-kiss to 2023 while bracing myself for what's coming in the New Year. 

Although I may be one of the few sentient beings in this country who’s never seen a single episode of Homicide: Life on the Street — and likewise missed the entirety of Brooklyn Nine-Nine despite the fact that it was shot on a soundstage just a few yards across the alley at CBS Radford from the stage where I toiled on the longest running show of my so-called career— I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn of Andre Braugher’s entirely premature death last month. 2023 was a rough year for those who appreciate good actors of all stripes. The list of those left us is long and painful, and although there’s no way to determine which of these artists represented the greatest loss (and why the fuck would anybody even attempt such a ghoulish task?), it’s often the most recent losses that sting the most, and such is the case with Andre Braugher. 

I first became aware of him in the 2007 sci-fi thriller/horror film The Mist, a taut, spooky, and ultimately bleak film that made quite an impression on me, but I didn’t see him again until Men of a Certain Age came to my television a couple of years later.  Braugher gave strong, nuanced, memorable performances in each of these productions, which marked him as an actor to watch. You can get an inkling of how broad was his thespian range and what kind of guy he was from an interview that was broadcast on NPR, but for a measure of the man himself, it's hard to beat this story from a dolly grip who worked with him a long time ago.*

"About 25 years ago I did a movie with him (don't remember the name).  I'd gotten divorced a year earlier, and with a small daughter, still didn't have a lot of money. I took a date to the wrap party, a young lady that I wanted to impress.  We stopped for drinks at a restaurant on the way, and there was Andre at the bar.  I said hi and we chatted for a minute. My date said she liked whiskey, so I told the bartender to give me his best two shots. After we downed them, he said "That'll be sixty dollars."  

This was way more than I could afford -- I was expecting maybe twenty bucks ... in 1998 dollars.  Andre must have seen the panic on my face, and without missing a beat he told the bartender 'I've got this one."

"Thank you,' I mouthed."

"Forget it,' he said, then wished us a good evening. I've never forgotten this small act of kindness. He was a good man."

         Andre Braugher: a wonderful actor and an even better man.



Anybody who's been watching Slow Horses on Apple TV knows what an entertaining show it is, and that the lead is a role Gary Oldman was absolutely born to play.  It's been a long time since Oldman's birth, of course, and the weight of all those years is evident in everything about the slovenly leader of a motley crew of disgraced MI 5 agents -- slow horses -- each of whom has been shunted off to perform menial and meaningless bureaucratic busy-work under the relentlessly critical eye of seasoned veteran and fellow disgracee Jackson Lamb.**  

As this piece from GQ notes, the show provides Oldman the opportunity to release and "embrace his inner crank" and let the bile flow while guiding his younger agents through the labyrinth of spy-craft at the price of occasional blood. As usual with Brit shows, the acting of the entire cast is terrific. Slow Horses is a fun show now in its third season, and if you're not watching it, you're missing out. 


I've long thought of Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life as a Christmas Noir: a film that takes its protagonist -- a good man so thoroughly disillusioned by the cumulative weight of fate and circumstance that he's driven to commit suicide, but is saved at the last second by a guardian angel who then shows him how miserable the lives of those he loves would have been had he never been born. It's a truly great movie, but I never thought much past that thumbnail description for one reason: analytical dissections of cinematic classics was never -- ever -- in my wheelhouse. If it was, maybe I'd have spent a forty-year career doing something less strenuous and bruising than wrangling heavy cable and lamps on set in Hollywood. Still, I enjoy reading the analysis of those who do the mental heavy-lifting my brain can't handle, as in this take on Capra's movie from Mick LaSalle, senior film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

"This movie was considered too downbeat for audiences when it debuted in 1946, and today is misremembered as a sentimental Christmas classic.  The truth is somewhere in between.  It's a Christmas movie, in a sense, but it's one that mostly addresses a central question that people ask themselves throughout their lives.  The question starts out as "Will my life amount to anything?"  Then it's rephrased over time: "Is my life amounting to anything?" "Has my life amounted to anything?"  Finally, it's "Did my life amount to anything?"

"Jimmy Stewart, a specialist in screen anguish, plays a man who's convinced that his life has amounted to absolutely nothing, and it takes a divine intervention to make him see otherwise. The redemption of his spirit is reassuring, not just to him, but to all of us. The movie tells us that Christmas is a time of renewal, but says it in a way that's unexpectedly visceral and personal.  Our relief for him is relief for ourselves. This is a great American movie about the meaning of success."

"You know you want to see it again. So see it."

Thanks, Mick. I think I will.


As the New Year approached, I had the feeling of being strapped into a roller coaster as it slowly clanked up through the darkness towards the first and highest peak, after which will come a stomach-churning vertiginous plunge into the twisty unknown at an ever-accelerating and increasingly lethal pace. Should anything go wrong -- a worn-out bearing, loose bolt, or broken piece of track -- the entire train of cars could hurtle into the void, sending all the passengers to oblivion.  A lot can go wrong over the course of this year, and here we are, just beginning to feel the heart-stopping panic as gravity takes charge ... and it hits us that we're suddenly no longer in control. 

What will happen, and what kind of world will we face a year from today? I don't know, but I find it hard to be optimistic these days.

All of this put me in mind of W. B. Yeats famous poem The Second Coming, which feels disturbingly appropriate for our current cultural, political, and geopolitical situation.

The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand:

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight somewhere in the sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man, 

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again: but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 

And what rough beast, its hour come 'round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On that somber note, I wish you all a Happy New Year -- and good luck. We're all gonna need it.

* That would be "D" of Dollygrippery fame, of course. Thanks for sharing your great story, D!

** If "disgracee" isn't a real word ... well, it should be.

Sunday, December 3, 2023



Christmas came early with the end of the SAG strike, but the ancient wisdom once again held true: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled."  The film industry's below-the-line workers -- who do the heavy lifting on and off set to move a script from computer screen to silver screen -- were getting trampled even before WGA picket lines went up on May 2. The powers that be knew damned well a strike was coming and had long since ramped down production, which is why so many below-the-liners have been out of work for eight to ten months now, and some even longer.  Unemployment benefits run out after twenty-six weekly checks have been delivered -- and $450/week doesn't go very far in LA anyway -- so many of those people have been in desperate shape for a very long time.

Having burned through their savings, plundered retirement accounts, sold what they could, re-mortgaged homes, taken temp jobs, and borrowed from whoever was able to help, most of those hard-working crew people are now in a deep financial hole. It's great that long-dormant movie and television productions are finally gearing up to shoot, but it won't happen overnight, which means much of Hollywood is facing a lean and hungry Christmas.  

Things will be different in the New Year, when the film and television industry should be going at it hammer and tongs.  Debts will be repaid and bank accounts gradually replenished as the months pass, and life will be better for a while, but another dark cloud looms on the horizon: the IA contract with the AMPTP expires next summer on July 31st. Those in the rank and file were not happy with the last contract negotiated in 2021, when the IA came closer than I'd ever seen to calling a general strike. After decades of watching more hard-earned benefits vanish with each new contract, the membership was fed up ... but not quite enough, because they ratified the 2021 contract.  Still, the consensus at the time was that the 2024 contract would have to be much better or a strike will almost certainly be called to make sure that -- as The Who memorably sang back in the days of my youth -- "We don't get fooled again.

But then Covid shut things down for a while, and as production gradually resumed, it was with mandatory safety protocols -- daily testing, mask requirements, social distancing, strict and often fickle Covid Safety monitors, and an onerous A-Zone/B-Zone/C-Zone sector on every set -- which made a tough job all that much harder and pretty much took all the fun out of this business. Much of the workforce hadn't fully recovered when the WGA and SAG went on strike, which slammed the door for 114 days during which no sector of the industry suffered more than the below-the-line community, who supported the strike despite not having a dog in the fight. So when it's our turn for a new and better contract in July, will the battered, bruised, and still-recovering IA membership really be willing to call another industry strike -- and if so, will the WGA and SAG support us?

I don't know, nor does anyone else. To quote another old saying: "Time will tell."

It seems a bit early to declare who the real winners and losers were in this strike, but that didn't stop The Hollywood Reporter from sharing a few thoughts on the matter.  Whether they're correct in that assessment remains to be seen, but I hope they're right about at least one thing: the Lizard Queen losing influence -- and hopefully her job -- leading the AMPTP.  I didn't like her when she first got the job, and nothing since then has softened my view. 


A while back -- quite a while, actually -- a post appeared here called Art vs. Commerce discussing the age-old struggle between those in Hollywood who are driven to reap profits and those whose interest is in creating cinematic art.  When the two drives miraculously come together, the result can be a classic film ... but that doesn't happen often enough.

My own cinematic coming of age in the 70s was sparked by a new style of filmmaking that focused on compelling dramas with something to say, many of which did well at the box office. A young generation of writers and directors turned Hollywood upside down and created a new mini-Golden Age, but the good times couldn't last. Once George Lucas and Steven Spielberg demonstrated the massive profit potential of slick, well-crafted, undeniably entertaining movies like Star Wars and Jaws, that brief flowering of artistic expression in Hollywood was doomed. 

Nowadays Hollywood's bread-and-butter is a depressingly juvenile string of CGI-laden tentpole superhero franchise spectaculars, because it's all about the money.  The industry always has been, really, but there was a time when producers and studio heads were so befuddled by the changing tastes of a younger generation that they had to roll the dice on new writers, directors, and actors. The resulting cinematic renaissance fired my young imagination enough to lure me to Hollywood, but I have to wonder: if I was twenty years old now, would the current crop of superhero comic-book movies  drive me to enter the film industry?  I doubt it. I'd probably be more interested in the video game industry, which -- much to my surprise -- turns out to be bigger in monetary terms than the film and music industries combined.**

Look, if you love all the superhero/Marvel stuff, great: I'm not judging anybody else's taste, so more power to you. All I'm saying is that we're not gonna see another The Last Detail  -- let alone a classic like Chinatown -- emerge from Hollywood anytime soon, and I think that's a shame.

For those of you who might be weary of me shoving various books down your throat, here's a change of pace: Boxed Out is an excellent piece by Michael Schulman that appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The New Yorker, analyzing why the most recent Golden Age of Television -- the early streaming years -- didn't and couldn't last. Another New Yorker piece by Schulman is a profile of Ridley Scott titled Napoleon Complex, which appeared in the Nov. 13 issue. I hope those links work for you, although they may lie behind a paywall. In that case, both of these articles are worth seeking out, either from friends who subscribe to The New Yorker or at your local library.

On the general theme of art vs. commerce, here's a fascinating interview/conversation with David Byrne  that will be of interest to any fans of The Talking Heads.  Byrne is not your typical pop/rock/whatever star, and is thus always worth a listen.

And speaking of music, in what passes for tradition at Blood, Sweat, and Tedium, here's the annual presentation of the inimitable Robert Earl Keen's classic Christmas song. 

And since I have no way of knowing if the "embed video" function still works at blogger, here's a direct link just in case: Christmas With the Family.

The world is a mess these days, here and abroad, but I hope you all find a way to have a wonderful Christmas season.  

* Okay, so it wasn't exactly VJ Day, but amid the tsunami of grim news in 2023, settling the strike qualifies as very good news indeed - and for anybody who doesn't see the connection, here you go:

** This is a total hypothetical, of course, since the last video game I played was "Pong" back in the early 70s.