Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Enough From Me – What Do You Think About Me?

The 2012 Screen Actors Guild Awards were held this past weekend. You can see the list of nominees and winners here. As usual, there are some worthy recipients and nominees. (I didn't watch the entire show myself, just some clips, but I'm always glad to see good work recognized.) For Oscar watchers, the SAG Awards have some predictive value, since actors make up the largest block of Oscar voters. That said, I did find this panel of a slideshow web ad hilariously appalling:

"The only award show where every award goes to an actor."

Yikes. I hoped to FSM that this was the idea of some marketing person, and not anyone at the SAG Awards, but Backstage and several other sites use the same slogan in their coverage. (Google shows the phrase only appearing in recent coverage – older webpages featuring it are merely displaying recent feeds.) I don't see how this pitch can be read as anything else but, 'no awards for boring stuff.' Where's Jenna Maroney to sneer at all the little people?

You'd be hard pressed to find any film-lover who didn't appreciate good acting (even if their conception of it was highly atypical). Personally, I love and prize fine acting, and enjoy discussing the art and craft of it, especially how a particular actor approached a specific role, or scene, or line. Some actors are lovely people in real life and a joy to work with professionally. However, all those tales of diva thespians you've heard are, um, extremely well-founded. There's an old saying that Hollywood is high school with money. Actors are the popular, good-looking kids. One of the all-time best Oscar presentations was in 2010 for the screenplay awards, as Tina Fey and Robert Downey, Jr. sparred over writers versus actors, and Downey's topper was that filmmaking was "a collaboration – a collaboration between handsome, gifted people and sickly, little mole people." It was hilarious, especially because some actors actually think this way. Some view directors and everybody else as failed, wannabe actors. After all, they are the stars – who wouldn't want to be them? While some are indeed wonderful people, actors as a class are the most narcissistic, vain and self-absorbed people involved in show biz. (Certain producers, agents and directors can give them a run for their money.) Some of this self-absorption falls into the "occupational hazard" category, depending on what school of acting one subscribes to (it can be a delicate balancing act of insecurity and ego). Still, stories of actors (and pop stars) neither understanding nor caring about what everybody else on the set does are commonplace. Hell, they're also some of the most popular show biz stories (less so among the divas themselves). Some such tales are legendary, and even mostly true. Consequently, trumpeting an awards show as "the only award show where every award goes to an actor" betrays a lack of self-awareness and just feeds the beast. Sure, that's what Hollywood stars really need, reinforcement of their worst traits! Let's encourage the most narcissistic group in Hollywood to ratchet it up several notches! That's what the public needs, too, to be persuaded that all non-acting work in the biz is of piddling importance!

It's all reminiscent of what Jessica Alba said back in 2010: "Good actors never use the script unless it's amazing writing. All the good actors I've worked with, they all say whatever they want to say." (Ken Levine made short work of that.)

Indeed, who needs writers, or awards for them? The scripts write themselves. Screenwriting must be easy, because everyone in Hollywood has written a script (including actors). Directors? Films direct themselves; each actor can ignore everyone else and do what feels right, including improvising the blocking; the cameraman will adjust. Sound? Well, actors don't need to be heard. Bring back the silents. Cinematography? Some would argue that the image is what makes a film a film and not a radio play, but that's just silly. Editing? Editors are the scumbags who cut into a brilliant performance. Let it run, uninterrupted, in a ten minute closeup. Music? It's not necessary. Who can remember the scores from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Psycho, The Shawshank Redemption, Brokeback Mountain, Tron: Legacy, or any score from Ennio Morricone? Visual Effects? Almost every one of the top grossing films of all time uses visual effects, but they're not really necessary. Production Design? My cousin Bob has a homemade alien spaceship in his backyard, we can use that. Makeup? Since when have you known an actress to want, let alone need, makeup before appearing before the public? Costumes? Well, they're not that important in "adult" films, so surely all those stodgy "costume dramas" can make do with less, too.

It's not surprising that People magazine, other gossip rags and late-night talk shows focus on actors to the exclusion of almost everybody else in entertainment. As a class, they're the prettiest and most glamorous, and American celebrity-watching is the same spectator sport as obsessing over a royal family. (There's also the schadenfreude, train-wreck appeal of some celebrities.) They are the public face for endeavors that involve (in Hollywood productions) hundreds of other people. Audiences form emotional connections with characters and the actors who play them. However, even Entertainment Weekly and similar outlets discuss directors and writers who aren't Steven Spielberg and considered "celebrities" themselves. While undoubtedly there is a group of moviegoers who only care about actors and neither understand nor care how this movie they love so much came to be, I have to wonder how large this group really is. I also have to wonder if this group was staying away in droves from the SAG Awards before, but will be lured in by this implicit promise of 'no awards for boring stuff.' (The ratings for 2012 were almost the same as for 2011 – a 2% rise, but also a slip in the much coveted 18-49 demographic.) Even relatively popular actors often can't "open" a crappy movie. A really big star can do this (that's in large part how stardom is defined by the studios), but even then, word of mouth and reviews quickly spread. Even among fans who are inclined to see everything that, say, Julia Roberts is in, they will distinguish between their favorites and the ones they feel aren't as good. (All but the most unreflective consumers have some sense of this.) Most Hollywood flicks of a certain budget level show technical craftsmanship. As for content, crap sometimes sells awfully well, but even potboilders are not all created equal, and there's also nothing wrong with a good popcorn flick (it's just not good when that's the only thing available). However, generally, a well-made popcorn flick with a big star will still do better box office than a poorly-made popcorn flick with a big star. Take that one step further – all the SAG Award nominees, which are in some cases quite popular or crowd-pleasers, do aspire to a much higher level of craft than "Ow, My Balls."

All this makes the SAG Award pitch an odd blend of pandering and snobbery. (Or, at least, an obsession with the cosmetic, and reflecting that high school mentality.) We actors know what you the people really want – US!

An actor friend of mine has said that he's never been on a (professional industry) set where the actors didn't have the easiest job. Acting can be grueling and emotionally draining. Prosthesis work or special rigs can make for a long day. However, in most cases (especially for stars on big productions) actors can hang out while everyone else is setting up the next shot. Stars have their trailers, their riders, and even have stand-ins so the DP can get the lighting right without asking the actor to be present. Some actors don't stick around for off-camera reverses shots in a given scene, and the script supervisor or someone else reads the lines. (Some actors insist on sticking around as a professional courtesy.) Basically, there's a small army of people there working non-stop to make the actors look good (using the term broadly; for someone playing a villain, "looking good," often entail being convincingly evil.)

The dynamics are much different, of course, on smaller sets and independent guerilla projects, where the lead actor may also be the production designer, or the director also is the field mixer, gaffer, dolly grip and script supervisor. (Those projects can also be much more fun.) Some high school and college theater programs insist that all their aspiring stars do some tech and backstage work, to gain a better appreciation for what everyone does. (On the flip side, some film programs insist on aspiring directors taking an acting class, since some have never done theater and are relatively clueless about the acting process.) Actors who get their success late in life tend to be cooler (not always), because they know what a crap shoot the game is. Likewise, working actors of the non-star variety can occasionally be deluded divas, but tend to be more grounded and pleasant to be around.

In any case, I hope the SAG Awards continue to honor good work, and I particularly like that they give awards for entire ensembles. However, that's also precisely why I hope they ditch that awful slogan. Theater, TV and film are highly collaborative art forms. Plus, as one of my directing teachers was fond of saying, "Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art."

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