"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Talent Is a Ticket to Nowhere (Guest Post)

My husband, Brent, has been preoccupied lately with the successes of a few (very few) writers who have self-published their novels. There is a feeling that by self-publishing they’ve somehow subverted the talent-driven system of agents and publishers. To that, I snort though my nose and cry “Hah!”

(Blog owner's note: My wife says I've been preoccupied, but apparently she's been preoccupied herself since rewatching the entire season of Smash already this summer. I've offered her the platform of this blog to get some things off her chest.)

I don’t believe in the talent-driven system. As far as I’m concerned it’s a myth that we share with others to promote hard work and persistence – it’s the Santa Claus of the creative world.

Cute braids require long hair,
not a mullet.
I lost my faith in this particular Santa Claus when I was 7-years-old and I auditioned for a part in a community production of the Sound of Music. I loved that show. I knew all the songs. I could expertly tell you the story from beginning to end without leaving anything out. Unfortunately, I had two things working against me: my 1977 mullet hairdo and my big mouth. I mentioned the audition to a friend who had luxuriously long brown hair and an adorable lisp. She mentioned it to her mother who proceeded to bring her five daughters (all with flowing manes of very not-1970s hair) to the audition. Although the girls had never seen the show, sung the songs, or imagined themselves dancing at the Captain’s ball – they all got cast in the available parts, leaving nothing for me. Apparently, the length of their hair was really all the talent required.

This was the first of my run-ins with the dismal reality of art – it’s not really about talent. Most recently, I’ve been struck by this fact as it relates to a TV show I’ve been watching: Smash. I’m a Broadway fan. I moved to New York for two years, mostly because it meant I could go see plays anytime I wanted. So, when they announced Smash in the television lineup, I was camping out to buy my ticket. Unlike many others, I tuned in all season, and while I admit there were some flat episodes, overall I liked it.

The central conflict of the story is the competition between two actors for the role of Marilyn in Marilyn! The Musical. (Technically the fictional title is Bombshell. But I think Marilyn! The Musical is catchier. Don’t you?) Karen is just off the bus from Iowa. She’s na├»ve and starry eyed and just wants you to let her be your star. We’re told repeatedly that she is very, very talented. In contrast, Ivy comes from a musical theater family. Her mother is played by Bernadette Peters (who seems to be playing Patti Lupone) and Mama is an established, Broadway Phenom. Ivy has spent years working in the chorus of different Broadway shows, but has yet to break out. Luckily for her, one of her best buds is writing the music for Marilyn! the Musical and he thinks she’d be perfect as Marilyn. She, too, just wants to be given the chance to be your star.

The show has painted some stereotypes a bit thickly. Karen is sweet and refuses to do anyone dirty to get the part. Ivy is cynical and ruthless enough to do whatever it takes. We see this in the second episode where both women are invited to sleep with the director. Karen walks out. Ivy starts taking her clothes off.

Karen on the left.
Ivy on the right.
Who's more Marilyn?
As the season progresses, Ivy is cast as Marilyn in the workshop production, but as the show moves closer to Broadway, she is replaced by a “big name” movie star. Back to the chorus goes Ivy. Meanwhile, Karen becomes the understudy to the movie star. All this leads up to the climactic season finale when big name movie star pulls out of the show during Previews and the creative team has to decide who will go on as Marilyn that night. The director, against strong, loud, and logical argument, chooses to have Karen play the role, rather than Ivy. Everyone else on the creative team just KNOWS that this is a mistake, that Ivy should be the one to do the part. But the director, in a really blunt moment, explains that when he closes his eyes, he sees Karen as Marilyn, not Ivy.

In reading reviews of the show’s season finale, most of the critics have been scathing in denouncing the director’s choice. Mostly because in comparing the two performances throughout the season, Megan Hilty, who plays Ivy, seems to be the more talented than Katherine McPhee, who plays Karen. In reality, they lament, she would be the one who would get the part. But she wouldn’t. That’s my point. In TV, film, and theater, the part goes to the one who fits the director’s vision, not to the one who out-Stanislavskied everybody else.

Who writes this movie if not for
one lucky man?
The evidence of this permeates the creative world. Damon Lindelof (writer of the Lost series and Prometheus) in a recent interview explained that he got his job writing for J.J. Abrams because he knew an executive at ABC. I’m not saying Lindelof isn’t talented because clearly he is. What I am saying is that he lucked out by knowing someone who had the power to get him in the room. How many other, perhaps more talented, screen writers toil away in obscurity because they don't have the good sense to grow up well-connected?

In another example, a few years ago NBC’s summer reality show, Last Comic Standing made the news because its celebrity judges (including Drew Carey) walked out of the final episode in protest over the announced finalists. They publicly complained that the people standing on the stage were not the people that they had picked as the funniest comedians. The producers of the show ignored the expert judging they had recruited in favor of fulfilling their vision of who should win.

It’s a hard fact. Talent isn’t a ticket to anything except frustration and grief unless it’s paired with luck, connections, or a pretty face. So to Brent and the rest of the world, I say publish or perish. If the internet is the only connection you have, then use it. Fifty Shades of Grey is a small price to pay if the internet also reveals another Shakespeare--or Depeche Mode.

P.S. Brent thinks it’s very important that I disclose that he’s never watched an episode of Smash. Perhaps this is why he still believes in fairy tales of talent.

7 comments:

  1. I have to agree with all of this, though I also have not seen an episode of Smash. The current agent/publisher system is not talent-driven. Sure they look at talent, but also ignore it if they feel it would be out of the norm or not the trend. Who you know and who knows you are still high considerations,along with a ton of luck. I hope the whole thing crashes to the ground. What comes from the ashes may not be entirely talent-driven, but we can hope it will be something slightly better.

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  2. Snookie wrote a book. I think that alone proves your thesis.

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  3. @Charlie: The only thing that I think hinders self-publishing from completely annihilating the current publishing system is the sheer volume of material that is now available to read. For example, I went on Amazon to check out a book from the Kindle Lending library. There were over 12,000 books available in the category of fiction. But most of the titles were self-published and I had no efficient way of wading through several hundred titles (what I was left with once I narrowed my search to Science Fiction) since there were no recognizable names or titles to help me figure out what to choose. Eventually, I just gave up.

    @Bryan: Snookie is usually my go-to example when I rant on this topic. I can't believe I overlooked her in this post. Thanks for bringing her up.

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  4. It would be poetic justice to see the publishing giants falter, but due to the abundance of material self-publishing offers, the fact there is so much of it may be exactly why things will not change too much for the traditionalist who still think a story should be formatted to perfection in order to be considered. I am still baffled by the success of Fifty Shades.

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  5. Your wife is so right about show biz. For so many years, all I heard in acting auditions for many parts was "You do the character so well" but you don't have the look I want. It drove me crazy. So now I write and I can create the characters I want without worrying about whether or not I've got the correct look.

    Shelly
    http://secondhandshoesnovel.blogspot.com/

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  6. Yes, yes, and - Amen, Hallelujah! - yes. That's what's up. While it does sometimes happen that the Head Cheese's vision matches the actual Best Person For The Job, it doesn't always.
    Some Dark Romantic

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  7. That is the main reason 99% of the stuff on teevee is actually on now. It's all about what someone thinks will sell. You can go to any coffee shop or street corner and find talent.

    It's not what you do, it's who you..... know.

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