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Because WHY We Make Art Matters

Did you watch the Oscars this year? It was my favorite Oscars, ever.

I am usually ambivalent about awards that pit artists against each other. Talent is unique, material is unique, and deciding which actor, musician or writer is “better” than others at the top of their game is a stunt pulled by and for marketing. What I especially hate are the “losers.” Yes, everyone feels sorry for the nominees who don’t win, but, honestly, they’ve been feted and will continue to be. They’ve grabbed the brass ring. Then winners inevitably give “the speech.” You know the one–“Hey, kid in the middle of nowhere who doesn’t fit in! I once was you, and here I am! Your dreams CAN come true!” Obviously for the statue-holder, that is correct. He was feeling alone and misunderstood in Paducah, yet here he (or she) stands. Can’t argue with that.

If your dream is to live through middle school and high school and eventually end up somewhere where you feel comfortable in your own skin, absolutely true.

If your dream is to win an Emmy or a Tony or a Grammy or an Oscar–no, those dreams CAN’T come true, unless you are one person out of 500,000 truly talented working professionals in any art form during any given year.

To my mind, the real “losers” on these shows aren’t the non-winning nominees. They’re the uber-talented, hardworking artists who aren’t in the auditorium and will never be. In other words, most of us. Talented artists who spend hours doing art and also work at the hardware store, the library, the community college because we live in a society where bankers and plumbers are valued and dancers and poets and painters and singers and writers are not. The losers are also the general public who are only made aware of certain easily-accessible pieces of art which are mostly “entertainment.”

But this year showed there was another possible way to win.

Okay, as far as entertainment value, it wasn’t close to the best Oscars. The opening number was XXX 2015_OSCARS_RD025_20150222_APS.JPG A  ENT USA CAinfectious and jaw-dropping as far as the special effects. The rest of the show proved that even Neil Patrick Harris, who rocked the Tonys and the Emmys, could not hold up the behemoth that is the Oscar telecast. It still implodes under the weight of its own importance. This year’s ceremony was crippled by the fact that all the winners were givens. (Although I’ve got to say that Meryl sold the grief bit before the “In Memorium” better than anyone ever has and proved her worthiness for yearly nominations all over again.)

But the reason it was great was that it was the first time I remember that we were all called to remember WHY we do art.

A couple of years ago, I was eNYTM_Actors_71diting a really wonderful book in which working actors talked about their craft, and how to have a successful life while being an actor. One of the best was Eden Sher, who plays Sue Heck on THE MIDDLE. She is phenomenal. USA TODAY and other periodicals have gotten tired of trying to call the attention of Emmy voters to this consistently bravura (and totally funny) show. They have never gotten the respect they deserve, but Eden is committed to her art and to her character (even at the expense of having “the Hollywood look” every week.)  Another mega-talent in the book was an English actor named David Oyelowo. I know lots of actors, and each actor has a pet project they will produce/star in some day. They also have a reasonable plan about how this is going to come about. Usually, this plan is in its 13th or 14th iteration. Mr. Oyelowo had played Henry VI for the RSC almost right out of drama school. He had then done a couple of interesting turns in quality BBC shows, after which he moved to the States. He was in EVERYTHING. In tiny roles. He was the pastor in THE HELP. (Do you remember there was a pastor in THE HELP?) The school principal in INTERSTELLAR. One of the Union soldiers who recite the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln in LINCOLN. The bag guy in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.  The other bad guy in JACK REACHER. So he was working all the time. But he had this pet project. He was going to play Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time he was interviewed for the book, he was on plan 12. Everyone in Hollywood knew that the project had been bouncing around for years and had lost funding (and directors) more than once. A lot more than once. But this one felt different to David. He is a man of principles and faith, and he felt the MLK movie was about more than David advancing his career. It was why he acts. He spoke about it in his NOW YOU TELL ME! entry. I thought of those as “genre comments,” filed under pet project.

You might notice I haven’t blogged much lately, even though I’m under strict instructions to be habitual. But I was tired of being a writer. Not of writing, but of being a writer. Making artistic decisions that are market driven. Trying to be fun and myself and yet do my part to market and sell my books. Watching famous friends who have grabbed the ring do it more easily than I (or at least in bigger houses and at fancier events). Truthfully, they often have people who do it for them. I thought, maybe I’ll just go back to writing little things that I like and that no one else has to like because no one else has money riding on it. (We writers often default to the introspective cave mentality.)

Now You Tell Me! 12 Actors Give the Best Advice They Never Got with all this wonderful acting (and artistic and living) advice came out, and it did fine. No brass bands, no brass ring, fine. Like so many wonderful books by wonderful people. Fine.

After the big push for my most recent novel, I was tired. I didn’t blog. I didn’t write. (I also didn’t clean the kitchen, lest you get the wrong idea.) I was just kind of worn down.

Then, last Wednesday night, I turned on the television, and THE MIDDLE was on. It was a 2-parter, in which Sue (our friend Eden) had to tell her boyfriend why she couldn’t marry him. This was just a regular sitcom on a regular night, not even a “very special episode.” And at the end of the show, Sue finally gaveeden middle Darrin her answer. It was one of the longest monologues I’ve ever heard on television–but you didn’t think of that, then. Because to “Sue,” every word of it was new and being discovered as she spoke it and deeply true. It was one of the most bravura pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. I was agog. This is WHY she acts.  (It is also WHY I watch actors.) If she isn’t nominated for her performance in “The Answer,” there is no justice in the world.  There’s every chance she won’t be. But as she was doing that scene, through however many takes, her WHY was plainly and proudly on display. Eden Sher, you GO, girl!

Which brings us back to the Oscars. You probably heard that David Oyelowo played the radical son of Oprah and Forest Whttaker in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER. He and his family spent Christmas with selmaOprah, and David told her about his pet project. Lo and behold, it’s 2015 and SELMA, starring David Oyelowo, is up for Best Picture.  You probably also heard that his performance was overlooked for an award. So, in the eyes of many, he was a loser. In fact, the Hollywood Reporter always runs “brutally honest” ballot deconstructions in which various anonymous members of the Academy tell why they voted as they did. One woman said she found it very distasteful that the cast and crew of SELMA actually took a stand on current matters of civil rights. Apparently, they should make movies about it, but not actually DO anything about it. But that was David’s WHY.

On Sunday night, John Legend and Common performed “Glory,” the Oscar-nominated song they’d written for SELMA. The production of it was stirring. At the end, the audience in the auditorium leaped to their feet in an ovation that you knew was not just for the song, but for the film, for Martin Luther King, Jr., for nonviolent resistance, for the call for justice in this broken world.

The camera cut to David Oyelowo, who was doing his best not to cry. And then he was crying. david-oweloyo-crying-selma.ls.22215

And it had nothing to do with winning, or even with whether he was nominated or not.

It had everything to do with the WHY.

And I thought, God bless you, David. God bless everyone who is brave enough to speak up and speak out and work for justice. God bless everyone who holds onto the pet project that encapsulates her WHY.

And hell no, I’m not crawling back into any cave. I’m writing what I want, what I’m SUPPOSED to be writing, the things that feed my soul and tell me WHY I write. And I don’t care about the “voters” who want us to write about things but not DO things. This is about LIFE. It isn’t about awards. Or marketing.

David, man, you awakened courage and purpose in many of us, not by winning, but by caring.

And to my fellow artists, writers, actors painters, I say, “remember the WHY. And let’s go.”

 

 

Why I Love Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Esten

Recently, a woman wrote a humorous blog for Huffington Post about how much fun it was to be a Benedict Cumberbatch fangirl even though she’s middle-aged. I suspect that folks who walk into my office and see my BC calendar might suspect she speaks for me as well.

Not exactly. Or, at least, not entirely. So why do I love Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Esten?

Benedict_CumberbatchBENEDICT CUMBERBATCH

1) Enormously talented and serious about his work, Mr. Cumberbatch spent decades honing his craft and getting a good footing playing fops and “child-raping chocolate magnates” and doing Ibsen on the stage  before his career and fame skyrocketed.  “The trajectory (of his meteoric rise) was extreme,” according to Martin Freeman, who ought to know.  You’ll notice I said he was getting a good footing–not paying his dues, as if there’s a certain amount you must pay and then you get to join the club. No such thing. But it makes all the difference in the world if you’ve gotten to work at your craft and know who you are before fame overtakes you.

2) His male co-stars go all fanboy on him. Even before the hairstylist for the second iteration of “A Study in Pink” got a hold of him and females world over took notice, seemingly every talented young man with whom he made movies had the best time ever with Ben.  I’m not sure what he and Tom Hiddleston were doing during the shooting of WAR HORSE, but whatever it was, when you see the grins they have when they talked about it, they were obviously having a grand time.  By his own admission,  Jonny Lee Miller, with whom he traded roles in Danny Boyle’s FRANKENSTEIN, used to call him up after each episode of SHERLOCK and “go all fanboy” in discussing his acting choices. But my favorite is Tom Hardy, with whom he made STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS. There’s a video interview in which Mr. Hardy talks about Ben’s acting: “He has a sensibility and a directness and an oddness and a fantastic sense of humor…in acting, he  makes “next level choices…He’s a very generous, very sensitive, very focused, disciplined actor. ..it allows me to be free to do whatever I need to do.  Not everybody runs in the Olympics–[As an actor] Benny should be running in the Olympics.” OMG. Who freaking cares about the shirtless wonders of People’s Sexiest Man Alive” issue. “Talk talent to me” is way beyond  “talk dirty to me.”

3) He’s a gentleman. And he was long before Colin Firth held forth about it in his TIME Magazine tribute. There’s another video from STUART in which Ben arrives on set and introduces himself to all the day players, shaking hands and making them feel important and included.

4) He can chop onions. There’s a segment of a cooking show to prove it. My husband can chop onions, also. That is one reason I am married. I have little patience for men of no practical use.

5) He was nearly murdered and it changed him. He has spoken on several occasions about the time he and some of his fellow cast members from TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH were carjacked and kidnapped in South Africa and he really thought he was about to be killed. Apparently, this had a profound effect on him; he decided, once he was safe and alive, not to play it safe–that you never know when your life will end and you’d better ring every ounce of living out of it, take risks and chances. It seems he has, and it has paid off. A profound lesson for each of us.

6) He’s a silly dancer, but he doesn’t care. Have you seen him dancing to THRILLER?  He is also in good shape without having 6-pack abs. To my mind, 6-pack abs on actors is like a female actress having a size-0, prepubescent body with breasts. They’re both shapes that do not exist in nature and signify a horrific buy-in to the Hollywood zombie culture. But that’s my prejudice.  Ben is also handsome without being pretty. Much of his handsomeness comes from inside. Others could not wear the same face as well.

7) He is loyal. He is willing to work with his parents on SHERLOCK, which demonstrates an alarming vulnerability to me. He also did his best to stand up for Mark Gatiss Steven Moffat when CBS asked them to write a modern-day NYC version of Sherlock and promised they wouldn’t do one without them and then they did. Ben had a difficult dance because he was also doing his best to also be supportive of his friend Jonny Lee Miller, who was cast as Sherlock; yes, the yin and yang actors at it again. You can’t make this stuff up.

benedict-cumberbatch-perfectly-photobombs-u2-on-oscar-red-carpet8) He is an innately decent human being. He takes his art and craft seriously, but he also sees the bigger picture in the bigger world. He recognizes that, compared with many in the rest of the world, the problems he has (such as being labelled “upper class” in Britain), are “champagne problems” (as Brad Pitt advised).  Yet this guy photobombs U2. What more can I say?

 

 

CharlesEsten1CHARLES ESTEN

1) Enormously talented and serious about his craft, he was spent decades being a guest star as everything from “Secretary 67” on MURPHY BROWN to a doctor on ER. He was a regular on one season of many many shows.

2) He is smart, funny and can carry a tune. Which came in really handy on 196 episodes of WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?

10-14-12-chip23) He was known for years as Chip. Good ol’ Chip.

 

4) He has a wife and kids. And, God bless him, the same wife and kids.

5) He was into his 40s when he became a dramatic swoon-worthy, record-releasing leading man on the television show NASHVILLE. He now sings at benefits and, yes, at the Grand Ole Opry. Again, got his footing, plied his craft, and became a decent human being before “breaking out.” He also, apparently, sees a bigger world.

6) His young daughter nearly died from leukemia and it rocked his world. He and his wife now do a lot of fundraising and work for other families that have children with cancer.

 

WHY DOES THIS SPEAK TO ME?

1) First, and perhaps most obviously, I am no longer in my twenties, I have been plying my craft and getting a footing for a while now. And yes, half a million people have read the Eden Thrillers so far(!), but I wouldn’t mind a few more million. Could happen, right?

2) I can’t begin to describe the breeding ground for fiction that goes on in my mind. Nor can I describe how well both of these handsome, been-through-it decent human beings with a sense of humor are ripe with character potential.  (Have you read the movie mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS? Written before I heard of either of them, but how could you tell?) They are EXACTLY who you throw into a maelstrom of intrigue and moral quandaries and then just step back and grab your laptop.

3) I don’t know these gentlemen, and likely will never know these gentlemen, but I will tell you these very same qualities are what force me to write. Biographies about Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved 100,000 Jews in Budapest at the end of World War II. About Princess Kaiulani, heir to the throne of Hawaii who brought healing and aloha to the islands, and died of a broken heart at 23.  Like Jaime Richards, our protagonist in the Eden Thrillers, I am a sucker for nobility of spirit. This is also what attracts me to my closest friends, and made me marry my husband. And while I will tell you that B.K. Sherer, my Eden co-author, who happens to also be an active duty Army chaplain, is NOT the basis for Jaime’s character, I will also tell you that’s because B.K.’s own life and character is waaaay more compelling.

It’s important to me to remember that good guys win every once in a while.

Just look at Chip and Ben.

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