I've always been fascinated by Hollywood mythology, so it's surprising that it took me until this week to watch Sophia Coppola's 2010 film, Somewhere. The film charts the empty, lonely life of Steven Dorff's movie star, Johnny Marco, who lives at the Chateau Marmont, moving from encounters of meaningless casual sex, to meaningless promotional work for his latest blockbusting action flick. The paradigm of Dorff's life shifts when his daughter from a previous relationship comes to stay with him (not as icky as it might sound, as it turns out). Somewhere is a film made up of delightful moments, as when Dorff, who almost exclusively eats take-away, picks up an apple from a fruit bowl, and looks at it as though it had just landed from Mars. One of the things that struck me about Dorff's character though, was how useless he is, how impractical, and how he lacks drive, lacks passion, he just goes with the flow, he doesn't seem to care about anything, although this manifests itself as amiability rather than anything demonstratively destructive. In some respects, Coppola romanticizes Dorff's empty existence, fuelling my suspicion that she has disdain for us little people. There is however, a neat little scene, where Dorff, at a party, is engaged by a nervous young actor who asks him what “school” of acting he subscribes to, to wit Dorff shrugs, and responds that he doesn't subscribe to any school, adding that when he started out, he got an agent and “just went on auditions”.
I was also taken by surprise this week, by people who came out and not only defended ass kissing, but passionately advocated it after I had criticized it in last week's blog. If you haven't read it, I said that you shouldn't use your work to kiss ass, but simply let it speak for itself. One person came out and said that actors should kiss as much ass as possible, another said that ass kissing was an actor's only means of “getting work”, and another, a theatre producer, said that the actor who has the attitude that they will not kiss ass, goes straight in the “trash”. Why this advocacy for the loathsome toadyism? Well, ass kissing is a form of schmoozing, which is to say that you want someone to give you something but you have nothing to give in return. The ass kisser believes that one can become an enormous success without engaging in the nasty unpleasantness of actually learning a demonstrable skill, ie - without hard graft. This is not merely a point of view for the ass kissers, it's actually crucial to their psychic well being. Why? Because progress without effort enables the ass kisser to maintain their delusion that they are simply “special”, that they're not like us little people. For what else can success without effort mean? When, as happens with the vast majority of those who go into acting, they learn that the life of the actor is mostly about toil, we see them freak out, unable to cope with the shattering realization that they may need to put in a shift at some point, they flee the business altogether – hence the preposterous drop-out rate (in many respects, it's these wannabees who give acting a bad name – for sure, actors spend a lot of time working on themselves, but that's not because we think we're special little creatures, but because we use ourselves in our work - do we criticize professional sports people for being “obsessed” with their bodies?). In the end, that's what the ass kisser desires: the Stephen Dorff/Johnny Marco lifestyle, an unconstrained life, effortless and useless, where every whim and urge is catered for, the entire world their playground – not only is it success without effort then, but it's success without responsibility – and the ass kisser is rewarded with all this for the mere fact of their existence.
I'm advocating that the actor take responsibility for his work, and put in some graft so that his work is actually worth the attention of an audience. I'm advocating that rather than try to preserve our well being by ingratiating ourselves, the actor should cultivate a rational self-esteem through hard won accomplishments which require no outside validation. Don't “just go on auditions”, but define your ideal work, and apply yourself to the things within your control in order to construct precisely the body of work you want*. All this is an immense task of course, which will be spread out over many decades, and requires constant self-improvement such that we can work ever more productively, and for longer, necessary in order to get everything done. Understanding how and why you are making progress, boosts confidence and self-respect, which in turn becomes a self-perpetuating process of ever greater accomplishment. That doesn't seem to me, to be a bad place to be.
*I'm reiterating this point, because although people responded to my ass kissing comment, nobody responded to this comment – actors are constantly being told they should be grateful for whatever scraps come their way, but why not aim for something more?