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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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Longing For a Pond

In times of hardship or extreme interference, it can be helpful to the writing process to adopt mottoes. Anything that will boost our fragile writer egos and keep us going, right?


Here’s one that I’ve always liked: Illegitimi non carborundum.

It’s catchy. It looks swanky and erudite if you post it on your wall or desk. It’s even possible to remember so that you can mutter it beneath your breath as you put up with yet another distraction.

Translation: a quote from a Kris Kristofferson song with the lyrics “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

The language: pseudo-Latin cooked up as a joke to make us smile when things get tough.

People who enjoy such things have also translated the saying into real Latin. Here are two versions: Noli sinere nothos te opprimere, and Noli nothis permittere te terere.

So what … is … the … point?

The Thanksgiving holiday gave me a much-needed respite, a little time off to loaf, visit family, and relax. On the nine-hour drive home I left the radio off and just experienced the peace of my own thoughts. About halfway through the journey, I decided to solve a minor plot hiccup in my current work-in-progress.

I gave it some thought and came up with a solution. With no distractions except keeping my eyes on the road and minding my mirrors, I found it easy to decide on a plausible, simple motivation for this particular character’s actions.

The problem has been that I’ve been home for two days. Forty-eight hours have gone by, and I’ve yet to find a moment to jot down my solution, much less actually write it into the manuscript.

All I can do is be thankful for the peace and quiet around me when I thought it up. That’s enabled me to be very clear in my mind about what I want my character to do. The clarity has stamped it firmly on my memory. So often, when I’m plotting while on the run in my daily course, I forget what I came up with. Too distracted to remember more than, I HAD it, and it was perfect!

Yesterday, while heaving groceries through my front door, I found myself thinking of Thoreau and longing for a pond of my own. Oh, Walden, Walden, wherefore art thou and why can’t I have you?

There was a time, a long-ago age, when poets and bards had patrons who fed them in exchange for good stories. It wasn’t a perfect system. What system is? Were these storytellers given a chance to gnaw on their quill pens in peace while they cooked up the next installment of “The Distress of the Dying Damsel?”

I’d like to think so, but the cynical side of me wonders if maybe they weren’t wedged into a corner of the Great Hall with their lord and master yelling at his minions and belching over the stewed onions while a pack of flea-bitten hounds bayed at the cat crouched in the rafters.

Well, okay. Let’s choose someone from a more civilized age. Nathaniel Hawthorne was surely left in peace. No emails to answer. No text messages beeping for attention. No minivan of children clamoring for soccer games and piano recitals. Just a gabled house and a snowy afternoon, the quiet drawn close like a warm shawl around the shoulders.

Maybe. I’m going to think so. Surely Mr. Hawthorne wasn’t afflicted with the butcher pounding on the door to be paid or termites in his attic.

I need some hope that someday, somehow I’ll find a way to enforce more of that peace and quiet, that mental space around me similar to what I enjoyed on my long drive home.

I need that pond. I need someone to deliver my groceries in silence. I need all the paperwork, bank statements, and mail to blow to the winds of perdition for a while. I need the housework done. I need the dogs washed and the Christmas tree put up. I need the larger battery backup connected to my writing computer. I need a thousand hours to my day. And I would like more chocolate in my life, thank you.

Meanwhile, I’m hunting for a scrap of paper so I can write down that character motivation …


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