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Star Making

Ever see the movie, A STAR IS BORN? Take your pick among three–soon to be four–versions.

The original film came out in 1937 and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. It is NOT a musical. While ironically in real life Gaynor’s career was waning and March’s was just hitting its stride, Gaynor’s portrayal of a star-struck girl named Esther who comes to Hollywood with no training and no contacts contrasts well with March’s brittle acting technique. This version, unhindered by big musical production numbers, focuses on the plot of a nobody of extraordinary talent discovered by an alcoholic major star on the skids, their relationship first as mentor and student, then as friends, then as newlyweds, then as a married couple held together by her determination, and finally the heartbreaking tragedy of his ultimate sacrifice for her.

Today, some critics find the original story line to be less plausible than the subsequent versions. I disagree in that I feel they are thinking too literally. The story is all about being star-struck, about having dreams that are bigger than you are, about finding the guts to reach for them, about maybe–just maybe–meeting a mentor that will give you a helping hand up to your first foothold, about then clawing your way forward through hard work, persistence, and raw ability, and about the price you always pay for whatever you achieve.

The 1954 version–sometimes referred to as A STAR IS REBORN–is all about a Judy Garland comeback. She’d been off-screen for four years before fighting her way back to the lead of this film. Critics seem to love this one. After all, Judy Garland! What more needs to be said?

Well, I think quite a bit. The story line in the second film has been significantly altered, although most of the major plot points remain. Garland’s character Esther has worked her way up to a mediocre singing career, where she has hit a plateau. She’s happy there, until James Mason’s character hears what she can really do with a song. He convinces her to reach higher. The film, despite having George Cukor as director, struggles to balance the plot against numerous production numbers that showcase Garland’s voice. It often loses that struggle and sags badly in the middle.

In Cukor’s defense, the most egregious number–one that goes on and on and on and on–was added after he’d finished the film, requiring a few plot points to be cut. (And as we writers know, editors can sometimes chop and hack our polished effort brutally to fit some production agenda other than our artistic vision.)

The film also suffers from lost footage, so there are weird patches of black and white photo stills overdubbed by dialogue. While damaged footage is common to silent movies because of age and faulty storage, it seems peculiar for a film made in the 1950s.  I don’t know what occurred to damage Garland’s movie. I believe the film was restored in the 1980s, when the stills were inserted as some sort of Band-Aid measure. If you have never seen the 1937 film, you’ll find this section of the Garland movie to be baffling.

Garland’s talent is undeniable. The voice is still strong. The acting is still delightful. But she looks fragile and strained. Her personal issues show in her face, but like the character she’s playing, she hangs in there.

However, the original version had a grandmother character who embodies the theme of the story. She is the one that encourages Esther’s dreams and sends her cash when Esther is struggling to find work in Hollywood. And when Esther feels beaten and is ready to throw her career away, the grandmother steps in and chastises her for being a quitter. There are several reasons why I prefer the 1937 film, and the grandmother is one of them.

As a writer, over the years I’ve known feast and famine, success and failure, high praise, touches of glory, and moments of disappointment so acute I wasn’t sure I could go on. All of that goes with a writing career. There are times when the only way to keep going, to keep writing, to keep submitting is sheer determination. So I like the grandmother’s scene where she won’t let Esther quit or throw away all that’s been achieved. It speaks to me, and that’s what story (whether prose or film) is for.

The 1954 Garland version lacks the grandmother character. Occasional care and encouragement are provided now and then by the character of the studio head, but there’s no tough love coming from granny. (As for those who claim the Garland film is more plausible than the Gaynor version, I ask if you really swallow the concept of a studio head being as warm and kind as a grandmother.)

Few actors can cry or transmit grief better than Garland, so she tugs your heartstrings enough, especially in the scene when Esther is worried and crying about her husband and then is called by her director to resume her performance and hits it perfectly, but I wish there had been one less overdone song to make room for preserving the grandmother role. Scriptwise, it’s important to keep that theme of paying the price–which to me is the core of the entire plot–going.

As for the two other film versions, also centered on music, there’s the 1976 vehicle with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I admit I haven’t seen it. Streisand’s singing ability is huge, although her acting annoys me. Kristofferson–a talented songwriter–has never otherwise impressed me. Since I haven’t seen the film, I don’t feel it’s fair to comment on its merits or possible flaws. However, it’s a copy of the copy. Let’s leave it at that.

Now, there’s going to be a 2018 effort. I believe the film will be released this October. It stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Is it to be a copy of the copy of the copy? In 1937, Frederic March channeled the amazing but self-destructive John Barrymore for his performance. In 1954, for her performance, Judy Garland channeled the very best of the amazing but semi-destroyed Judy Garland. Who will this year’s stars channel, if anyone? I hope the music appeals to Gaga’s fans. I hope the best of the plot remains preserved. But I hope most of all that the theme of reaching for your dreams despite the price you pay has not been tossed aside as irrelevant.

Anyone in the performing arts, whether writer, actor, or singer, has to face that reality sooner or later at any level, and find the guts to pay up. Anyone who’s driven to perform or write–or why else do we do this–must pay. If you don’t, if you quit either by giving up due to discouragement and fear or by refusing to train and hone your craft or by drowning your doubts in self-destructive behavior, then that means you are silencing the muse and destroying your gift. Think of poor Whitney Houston–blessed with outstanding talent–who threw it away. There are so many other tragic examples. Don’t be one of them.

If the price before you seems too high, ask yourself why. What must you give up or sacrifice for it? Time, effort, and hard work? What else are you going to do?

If the timeline for success seems too long and discouraging, so what? As my father always says, “Time goes on anyway.” Get started and keep going!

If the price challenges your ethics or honor, take a second, even harder, look at the situation. No writing gift requires you to cheat, plagiarize, steal, or lie. Back away and choose a different path to your dreams. Find a price you can pay.

Face reality. Your heart may be set on writing bestselling novels, but your ability lies in nonfiction. How can you make that work for you? When I began my career, the hottest genre on the market was romances. I tried, but my heart wasn’t in them. I had to choose other genres, knowing they were less lucrative. That was a price I became willing to pay. One of my favorite novelists, Georgette Heyer, was brilliant at writing witty, socially satirical Regency romances in the style of Jane Austen. She wanted, however, to write mysteries. And although she penned several, they never achieved the outstanding success of her Regencies. Did she pout? Did she quit? No, she kept going.

Once you’re in the game, how will you stay in it? By being willing to make sacrifices, by putting in hard work, by adapting and changing what you do and write as the world, your readers, and the markets shift, and by never quitting.

Remember that whether you are a big or little star, you make your luck through persistence, hard work, and being prepared to seize opportunities when they come your way.




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Creeping Influences

We’re supposed to constantly feed our imaginations. We do that by ingesting story as much as possible from multiple sources. Books are the best sources, followed by movies, chatting with people we meet during the day, and news items.

Yet while you’re reading a particularly good book, haven’t you noticed “bleedover” into your writing? One day you’re channeling the poetic description of L.M. Montgomery. The next day you’re using the snarky style of dialogue that Jim Butcher offers.

You don’t intend to copy. Certainly you never seek to plagiarize. But how do you avoid inadvertent imitation?

*By being vigilant for it when you edit.

*By not reading books in the same genre as yours while you’re composing rough draft. (When I’m writing a fantasy novel, I read mysteries. Once my book’s done, I dive into the stack of fantasies awaiting me.)

*By understanding that when you admire a particularly favorite author–perhaps more than life itself–it’s okay to imitate a technique in order to teach yourself. Just edit out the imitation later.

Movies are a little safer. You shouldn’t copy dialogue or plots, but you can draw on pacing and the way actors emote. I find actors to be a terrific source for me in terms of utilizing facial expressions and gestures. Just the way Al Pacino tilts his head in a particular role may give me something to work with in a very different context. Or the way Bette Davis walks across a room. The quirking eyebrow and eye roll of John Barrymore. The way Ethel Barrymore compresses her mouth as she lets skepticism fill her eyes. Or how a character actor with few lines to say can steal a scene from the star just by the way he or she is handling props in the scene’s background.

Another hazard of influence lurking for the unwary writer comes from writers’ groups. I’m not against critique groups–within reason–and I’m not against writers socializing. We’re in a lonely profession. We need to interact with those of our own kind once in a while just to keep our balance.

However, if writers are brainstorming or submitting their work for critique or just chatting about a plot problem they’re having, they’re running the risk of theft through influence.

I don’t mean that your worst enemy and chief writing rival–Nellie No-good–is lurking at your elbow at every writers’ party, evesdropping so she can rush home and steal your plot.

But someone’s idea may be similar to your own. Or, six months later, you start developing a premise that’s come to you and before you realize it, you’re pulling a few plot points that came from that past brainstorming session.

Here’s an example: a writing friend and I have been plotting a collaborative novel for a couple of years now. We each have heavy schedules, and it’s hard to figure out when we can work on this book, but we have our setting, premise, major characters, and several plot events worked out.

During the July 4th weekend, I started working on a fantasy idea that’s seized me. I let myself write a chapter one–by no means a chapter one that I’ll keep–just to get the creative juices flowing. I liked the chapter enough to then sit down and answer those preliminary questions I shared with you in my last post.

If anything comes of it, this project will be an alternative history. I was busily charting plot events and working through character motivations when a faint alarm bell rang in my mind.

That’s when I realized that I was drawing on a few concepts from the collaborative project. The time periods are different, but there were two or three parallels … too many for me to be comfortable.

I had to step back and nix several plot points. It’s not a problem. It’s forcing me to be more creative as I turn the premise in a different direction. What matters is that I caught on before I’d written a significant portion of manuscript. Best of all, the idea is growing.

You want to emulate without imitating. You want to learn from the best. You want to keep yourself attuned to what’s happening in the fiction market. You want to channel that hero worship you have for your favorite author into something productive.

Just stay alert and be ready to catch the thievery when it happens, as it will. When you do catch yourself borrowing too closely, don’t despair. As writers, it’s far too easy for us to become melodramatic and tell ourselves that we can’t think of anything better than what another author has already used. Piffle!

Instead, tell yourself that you can think of something different. That’s all it takes.


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Films I Like … and Why

Who can resist listing fave picks?  Of course, what galvanizes and inspires my imagination probably makes yours snore.  Even so …

THE HEIRESS, staring Olivia de Haviland & Montgomery Clift.  I love the sets.  The parlors filled with antiques are magnificent, if you happen to like pre-Civil War furniture and architecture.  Beyond that, the story itself is compelling, with nuanced characterization.  None of the three principal players is drawn simplistically.  You expect stereotypes, but you don’t get them.

THE WOMEN, starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford, and Marjorie Main.  Although there’s a newer version of Clare Booth Luce’s story now on film, nothing beats this version.  These actresses deliver their zingers, barbs, and witticisms with awesome skill.  The humor balances the drama of a once-happy marriage that’s breaking up.  The fact that no men appear on the screen at all is amazing.

CASABLANCA, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  I would say, who hasn’t seen this wonderful movie?  Except I keep meeting people who haven’t.  One of the best WWII movies ever made (not to mention one of the best films ever), it offers a solid central story plus charming–sometimes heartbreaking–little overlapping subplots.  A magnificent film.

THE LITTLE FOXES, starring Bette Davis and Teresa Wright.  I like almost all of Bette’s movies because she rarely chooses a flat or simple role.  The title of this movie is taken from the Biblical verse about the little foxes that spoil the grapes.  Bette and her brothers are horrid, greedy people eager for her invalid husband to die so they can get their hands on his fortune.  The best moment in the film is a shot of her expression as she lets her husband die without trying to help him. 

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, staring Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Maureen O’Hara.  It’s an early film, and the staging of the story reflects that.  Even so, Laughton’s portrayal of Quasimodo is compelling, especially once the hunchback falls in love with Esmeralda and realizes he’s too monstrous-looking for her to ever love back.

MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, staring Judy Garland, Mary Astor, Margaret O’Brien.  Simple story filled with bright musical numbers and gentle family dynamics.  I want to live in that house.  I want to be a member of that family.  It’s a feel-good film, like wrapping up in Granny’s quilt.

MIDNIGHT, staring Claudette Colbert, John Barrymore, Mary Astor, and Don Ameche.  A sophisticated little romantic comedy about an American chorus girl masquerading as a baroness in Paris.  Light, sparkling, witty.  Oh, to have those clothes!

A PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, staring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, and Ethel Barrymore.  A surreal, haunting love story based on one of Robert Nathan’s wonderful novels.  The concepts of alternative dimensions, time relativity, people caught in endless loops of tragedy are all here.  Even better, woven through the love story is the struggle of a young artist trying to find his inspirational subject.

REAR WINDOW, staring Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Raymond Burr.  Forget that it’s considered a cinematic masterpiece and just let it slowly pull you in as it builds suspense frame by frame.

PALM BEACH STORY, staring Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea. If you’ve never seen a Preston Sturges film, then you’re in for a comedic treat of rapidfire plotting, zany characters, unpredictable twists, and masterful dialogue.

AMADEUS, staring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham.  When this film first hit the theaters, I went and saw it seven times.  Never mind that I love Mozart’s music.  The contrasts of raw genius packaged in stupid vulgarity versus mediocrity wrapped in so much yearning to achieve more are just sublime.

ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.  A terrific love story between two honorable people deeply attracted to each other in an era when divorce isn’t possible.

IN NAME ONLY, starring Cary Grant and Carole Lombard.  Despite the casting, this isn’t a comedy.  Instead, it’s another love story between a woman of conscience and a man unable to get a divorce.  (Looks like I’ve got a common theme running here! The two films are set 100 years apart, but human nature doesn’t change.)

TOVARICH, starring Claudette Colbert, Charles Boyer, and Basil Rathbone.  A comedy about exiled White Russians taking jobs as a butler and maid in Paris.  It turns serious near the end, when the grand duchess must make an important decision.  This film’s a bit hard to find, but well worth the search.

THE UNINVITED, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey.  It’s often billed as the best ghost story ever filmed.  I have to agree.  Some terrific special effects, considering it was made in 1944.  There’s also a nice love story plus the most gorgeous house.  I want to live there–without the ghosts, of course!

THE AFRICAN QUEEN, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.  Setting: Africa at the start of WWI.  Situation: a boozy Canadian and a prim English missionary must escape the Germans along a dangerous river.  Objective:  turn a modest river craft into a floating torpedo and sink the German ship terrorizing Lake Victoria. A love story woven with terrific adventure, featuring truly indomnitable characters.

DOUBLE INDEMNITY, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.  Novelist James Cain knew how to write about nasty people you wouldn’t want to meet under a rock.  Watch Fred MacMurray succumb to Stanwyck’s evil seduction; then wait for the plot to start twisting!

STEEL MAGNOLIAS, starring Shirley Maclaine, Sally Fields, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Darryl Hannah, and Olympia Dukakis.  A terrific women’s story about friendship, both comedic and tragic.

SCARAMOUCHE, starring Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer.  The best kind of old-fashioned swashbuckler centered around love triangles, revenge, and the search for identity.  It features a marvelous sword duel at the finish.

A ROOM WITH A VIEW, starring Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, and Daniel Day Lewis.  Filled with enchanting sets and costumes, this love story is set amidst a charming comedy of manners.

THE WINSLOW BOY, starring Rebecca Pigeon and Jeremy Northam.  Based on a true story, this film is about a man’s quest to achieve justice for his young son.

LITTLE BOY LOST, starring Bing Crosby.  Neither a musical nor a comedy, this story will tug at your heart as an American searches the orphanages of post-war France for his young son.

A LITTLE PRINCESS, starring Shirley Temple and Arthur Treacher.  What can I say?  I love this story in all its versions, book and film.  Shirley does a good job coping with the cruelty of Victorian England.  But the Wonderworks mini-series is even better. 

LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY, starring Freddie Bartholomew and C. Aubrey Smith.  This pair of fine actors really make this simple story shine.  Look for a small role played by Mickey Rooney.

MRS. MINIVER, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon.  Greer is a marvelous actress.  This story is about a family trying to get through WWII, and yet it offers so much about kindness, decency, courage, and conscience.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, starring Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul.  Although there are numerous versions, my preference is this older, BBC-produced mini-series.  The casting is perfect, and their performances really capture the satirical wit of Jane Austen.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power.  Billy Wilder was a genius, and here he serves up a stunning courtroom drama with some plot twists that will astonish you.

GALAXY QUEST, starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman.  “Never give up!  Never surrender!”  A brilliant parody of the original STAR TREK and its continued popularity at science-fiction conventions, this film is not only funny but very well written.  You don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy the jokes.  An additional bonus is that it’s the kind of movie that makes you walk around, spouting lines of dialogue.  (My favorite: “Whoever wrote this scene should DIE!”)

MIRACLE ON 39TH STREET, starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwen, and Natalie Wood.  Do you believe in Santa Claus?  Natalie Wood steals the show as a sophisticated little girl who doesn’t believe in fairy tales of any kind . . . until she meets a charming old gentleman.  Is he really Santa Claus?  (I believe . . . I believe . . . I believe.)

STALAG 17, starring William Holden.  Another Billy Wilder film, this story centers on a German prison camp where successful sabotage maneuvers and escapes are being masterminded by the American inmates.  But someone is a snitch, in league with the Germans.  A fascinating array of characters.

I suspect this list might well stretch to infinity if I let it, so I’m stopping even while I’m tempted to keeping adding just a few more (PHILADELPHIA STORY, A TOUCH OF MINK, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, MCCLINTOCK, BALL OF FIRE, GILDA, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT, etc).  My list may contain some of your favorites or perhaps it will lead you to some films you haven’t seen before.   Happy viewing!

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