Friday, August 15, 2008
The Best Career An Actor Has Had After Quitting Something That The Actor Should Not Have Quit.
Quitting, and America's love of quitters and hatred of success, is on my mind these days. We Americans have come to hate the steady worker and come to celebrate the person who abruptly decides to "follow their muse" or "grow as a person" or through some other collection of buzzwords opts to give up on a reasonable level of success and attempts to win the lottery.
Note: attempts to win the lottery are celebrated. Actually winning the lottery is despised. We like people who try to win the lottery by "pursuing other creative goals" but when those people actually do win the lottery, we don't like them anymore.
Nowhere is the idea of leaving something that's successful to try to be more successful more common, and more celebrated, than the world of acting. Actors (note: I'm using "actors" to mean men and women. An actor is a person who acts, just as a waiter is a person who waits and a conductor is a person who conducts. If people had asked me back in the PC days, we'd never have had the embarrassment of (a) women being fake-upset over being called "actresses" or "waitresses" and/or (b) the word "waitron.")
Actors have for years and years and years been achieving some success, and then abruptly deciding that the success they've achieved isn't good enough, so they have to stop doing the thing they were finally good at and go do something else that they usually are not good at; if they good at this other thing, they'd likely have achieved their success in that thing.
Despite that, and despite the many failures over the years, actors have long left cushy, successful jobs doing what they do best to fail at some other job. Shelly Long quit Cheers and did... nothing. Scads of comedians, from Dana Carvey to Joe Piscopo to all those people after 1992 who I never cared to watch made it pseudo-big on Saturday Night Live and did... nothing.
It's not something limited to comedians or sitcoms, either. That girl that played Monk's first assistant decided that being on a TV show on basic cable was not successful enough; she should have asked all the other actors who would love to have roles on a TV show, including the girl who took her place, what they would do if they were in her basic cable shoes. She didn't, though, and instead quit to go on to... nothing.
Sweetie likes to watch Law and Order: Various Permutations of the Same Crime, and people are always leaving that show and going on to do... nothing.
It's still going on today. Katherine Heigl, having completely failed to realize that her "success" in movies had little to do with her Heiglness, has begun a campaign to get out of Grey's Anatomy. Miley Cyrus is obviously trying to get Disney to cut her loose (since leaving Big Mouse did so well for Hillary Duff) by doing scandalous things (a move that worked perfectly* for Jessica Biel when she quit 7th Heaven)[*note: "perfectly" in this sentence means "not perfectly and in fact did not work at all"] and Lauren from The Hills said recently that she may quit the show, which has to mark some kind of first, because supposedly the show is just a bunch of cameras filming Lauren's life, so if she quits, she will become the first person who quit their life to try something else.
Why? Why do people do these things? Especially actors? Although it's not limited to actors. John Edwards made a mocha-zillion dollars as a trial lawyer, only to decide he'd be better as a Senator, and then decided that he'd be even better as a President, and now appears to have decided that he'd be even better as a scandal-ridden former presidential candidate (a career arc pioneered long ago by Gary Hart). Singers like Madonna try to be actors, oblivious to the fact that all the actors are trying to be something else entirely.
Here's where my theory comes in, both as to why people do these things, and why most people (me excluded) celebrate them for doing this. Because I don't celebrate them; I think it's stupid. I think it's absolutely moronic to, at the height of success, quit doing what you're doing and try to do something else. If everyone did that, the world would fall apart; if CEOs made it to the top of companies and then decided that they'd just go and do something else, companies would constantly have to be recruiting new CEOs. Do we really want an assistant manager to get promoted to the head manager at McDonald's, and announce "What I really want to do is run a charter fishing service?" and retire? I think not. We need continuity at our McDonalds restaurants, especially since drive-through orders are now being routed to India.
That's true, by the way: At some McDonald's, your drive-through order is taken by someone in Asia. Someone who probably, having gotten that job, is preparing to quit and try his or her hand at directing.
My theory about why people do this, and why everyone celebrates them, is threefold, as all good things are: theories, wallets, pamphlets: three folds = brilliance.
First, people think that skill in one area automatically translates into skill in any area. That's why everyone assumes that Chevy Chase, being good at pratfalls, would be good, too, at hosting a talk show. But it doesn't add up. Mathematically speaking, selling potato chips is not the same thing as selling cars -- people will spend 2 bucks on an impulse. Nobody brings home a car because they were feeling a little hungry on the way home; and nobody ever worried that their Hyundai was bad for their cholesterol. Over and over again, the theory is disproven. Basketball is not the same as baseball, running a conservative talk radio show is not the same as commenting on football, and whatever it is that Ethan Hawke is doing in his movies (sulking? pouting? Being greasy? It isn't acting) is not the same as whatever it is Ethan Hawke is doing in those "books" he releases.
Despite the numerous examples of that, Americans want to believe that if you're good at one thing, you're good at everything; it's what our entire culture is built on, and it's the Founding Fathers' fault, because they really were good at everything. They could run armies and write Constitutions and farm tobacco and by hypocritical by owning slaves while fathering children with them, and buy up swampland in Virginia and then suggest that the swampland would be a great location for the capital of the government they'd just formed, and then write pithy aphorisms and discover electricity.
But they were anomalies; they were giants among men and all that rhetoric. They left us with a culture that idolizes that kind of behavior and expects that we will all fly kites in the rain while inventing the printing press.
A second factor: nothing is ever good enough for us. It's a well-known fact that my own personal opinion is that no adult ought to be allowed to earn more than $200,000 per year; after that, the rest should be taken and distributed to others to even things out a little, so that we don't have people living without electricity and proper health care while Angelina Jolie owns 16 houses and just bought 1/2 of France. It's an embarrassment to our society and our principals that Tom Cruise spends more on Suri's birthday party than most people make in a given year, and things like that will eventually bring down the U.S.
But until the revolution occurs, people will continue to believe that good enough is not good enough. Making $10,000 per episode for doing nothing more than lazing her way through a 90210 remake isn't enough for Tori Spelling, because someone else gets $20,000. Getting $100,000 per episode wasn't enough for Jorja Fox on CSI: Yes, it's still on; she was going to quit to get more (maybe so she could afford corrective surgery on the spelling of her name?) Being on a hit TV series and making one million per episode wasn't enough for the Friends; they wanted to be in movies.
There is, literally, no top point to success, no point where we can say "okay, I'm pretty good here" and just enjoy life. Actors are not immune to that, either. For every Sam Waterston working the same job for years, there are hundreds of other actors who appear three times on a TV series and decide they have broader horizons than that.
Actors embody so much in our lives, and they embody those drives, too: they exemplify, we think, the idea that good at one thing means good at everything, and they show us that we should always be striving for the next thing.
But there's a difference between reaching for the stars -- which we all should do; we should all be trying to be the best possible version of ourselves we can be -- and reaching the stars, then deciding that you should have all along been reaching for the planets. Striving for success is good; achieving success and then tossing it away as not good enough is spoiled behavior and destructive.
It's in that light that I've picked The Best Career An Actor Has Had After Quitting Something That The Actor Should Not Have Quit. The career that is celebrated today in this category is...
Here's David Caruso's acting career in a nutshell: Become successful on TV cop show. Decide that's not good enough. Fail at other stuff. Become successful on TV cop show.
That, readers, is the ideal career arc for this nomination, because it shows what I'm talking about: Success can be good enough. It is enough, in our lives, to achieve one success; so many people never do that, so many people never realize even one dream of theirs, that it seems wasteful to be a person who did reach their goal, and then just throw it away like a disposable Cracker Jack prize. When you've dug down through that box past the peanuts and popcorn to grab the prize, hang onto it for a while!
Sweetie, who is an expert on many things but especially celebrities, was actually the one who picked David Caruso's career for this nomination. She also gave me many of the examples and would like the world to know that she, at least, knows the name of Monk's first assistant. (It was "Sharona," played by Bitty Schramm.)