Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Like a Dog in the Manger

Nobody knows anything. –William Goldman

Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar.
You’re gonna go far, fly high,
You’re never gonna die,
You’re gonna make it if you try;
They’re gonna love you.
Well I’ve always had a deep respect, and I mean that most sincerely.
--Pink Floyd

William Randolph Hearst was a man of extraordinary power and influence. Some credit him with launching the Spanish American War. His newspapers set styles, boosted political candidates, and ruined careers.

Marion Davies was one of the standout comediennes of the early Silent Era. She began as a “Follies” girl, then graduated to films and became substantially popular. Then she met William Randolph Hearst, fell in love (or some reasonable simulation thereof), and became his mistress. Over the next several years, the Hearst newspapers did everything in their power to boost Davies’ career.

The attempt was close to disastrous. Despite amassing a sizable body of work, her career has generally been overshadowed by her relationship with Hearst. Worse, Hearst liked putting her in costume dramas, whereas her main talent was for light comedy.

Of course, Davies was already a woman of accomplishment before Hearst took a shot at elevating her still further. There are innumerable other actors, singers, models, musicians, comedians, writers, etc., who have been hyped as The Next Big Thing, only to slide quickly into obscurity.

John Gilbert was also major star of the Silent Era, rivaling Valentino and sharing the screen with Garbo. His career came to a screeching halt with the introduction of sound. One legend holds that Louis B. Mayer, with whom Gilbert was often at odds, ordered his sound technicians to use a high-pass filter on Gilbert’s voice to make it high pitched and squeaky (his natural voice was tenor). Current conventional wisdom in the critical community is that it was merely ludicrous scripts that did in Gilbert’s career. Either way, Gilbert became an Object Lesson.

I made you and I can break you just as easily. –The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The entertainment industry has two important characteristics, mass production and personalized appeal. Printing was close to the first example of mass production (I’ll allow grain milling as old #1). The economies of scale can produce gigantic jackpots. H. G. Wells once said, "I went to bed one night a fairly well-to-do man and woke up the next morning wealthy beyond dreams of avarice." Similar things have happened to other writers, actors, singers, athletes. And these success stories are each individual, idiosyncratic. They don’t happen to large groups of people, any more than an entire town can hit the lottery.

The connections between the performer and the audience are personal, magical. They are inherently hard to predict, because there are too many factors involved.

"Weird Al" Yankovic has said that his movie UHF had one of the most successful test screenings in its studio’s (Orion Pictures) history. Unfortunately, it came out at the same time as Lethal Weapon 2, Batman, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Oops.

But Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything,” quote only applied to the upside of the market. Every motion picture studio knows how to bury a film. Every publisher can insure poor sales of a book. Every record label has lawyers available to tie up anyone who has signed with them in endless litigation if they wish to Make a Point.

So it is that the gatekeepers take their tolls. Toll taking is not facilitating a journey; it’s ability to extract payment comes from the ability to deny the journey.

I’m using the entertainment industry here because it’s an egregious example of an industry where dog-in-the-manger tactics are rampant. The other obvious example of it is politics, where the jackpots are even bigger, and the faces uglier. The tactics are pretty much the same though; straight out of the Protection Racket. It’s SOP to hang somebody up, just to show that you can do it. If you do it often enough, then you become important, and that’s were the money is made. Because all it takes is a little piece of a jackpot to change your life forever.

Everyone who calls wants to know one thing.
They want me to say yes to them and make their movie.
If I say yes, they think that come New Year' will be just them and Jack Nicholson on the slopes of Aspen.
That's what they think.
--The Player, screenplay by Michael Tolkin based on his novel.


Anonymous said...

Just noting that Mr. Goldman at the top of your post seems to have turned into Mr. Golding in the middle.

Is there some manner of societal breakdown occurring?

James Killus said...

No, more like mental breakdown. I don't get Goldman (Temple of Gold, Boys and Girls Together, Soldier in the Rain, plus all those screenplays) confused with Golding (Lord of the Flies), but sometimes my fingers do.

Thanks for the note. One good thing about blogger is that you can fix mistakes, and it's fixed now.

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