March 28, 2021
On the Need for a Little Empathy
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I wish he’d choose better roles. This is often said of famous Hollywood actors, both male and female, and variations of it exist for other kinds of artists. It’s said of directors whose best films were made long ago, singers and musicians whose most recent albums don’t match the excellence of the ones that made them famous, and authors whose latest work just doesn’t measure up to their earlier masterpieces. I’m sure you can think of artists you’ve heard this said of. Here are a few off the topic of my head – Jim Carrey (especially among those who think he hasn’t made a good movie since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Nicholas Cage (who seems to make seven or eight movies a year), Bruce Willis (who is criticized for agreeing to do anything that is not a box office hit), Boyz II Men (for not making another II), and Weezer (for not making another Pinkerton). We could add Al Pacino, Michael Caine, Robert De Niro, Owen Wilson, Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, Yimou Zhang, Gong L,… the list goes on and on.
The sentiments behind the aforementioned remark are not necessarily antagonistic. Instead, they could reflect a yearning for something almost intangible, the awe with which we matched movies when we were our most impressionable, when we had the time to discover the new and really explore what came before. Those days when the end of the week meant scouring the Friday editions of newspapers for the latest theatrical releases or mentally circling the release days of upcoming movies starring our favorites. I remember those days well. Just having to see Rain Man on its first day of release. Making a pilgrimage to San Francisco to see The Story of Qiu Ju because no theater in Sacramento was screening it. Turning to a friend of mine and explaining how blown away I’d been by the mastery of The Sixth Sense. Making an early morning trip to Tower Records to ensure that I was the first of my friends to own Def Leppard’s Adrenalize. Such moments are treasured. They shape our experiences, giving them color and resonance, and it can hurt to find them gone.
And so we project upon those artists a power that many of them no longer have. We imagine them sitting comfortably in their mansions with an unlimited supply of juicy roles for them to choose from, each one offering them salaries we could only dream of getting. Richard Roeper once voiced his displeasure at Eddie Murphy’s choice of roles, explaining that he had hoped that by that point in his career Murphy would be taking on more challenging roles in dramas, while also making smarter comedies. The same sentiments were voiced regarding the late Robin Williams. Surely, this line of thinking went, he had better offers than RV or Old Dogs. David Itzkoff’s biography Robin makes it clear that he didn’t. I doubt Murphy did either, and I’m almost certain Cage and Willis don’t now.
See, the time when artists are at their peaks is fleeting. There’s always an up-and-coming comedian, a rising heartthrob, a younger action star, a child star reaching adulthood. Age also pushes many stars into lesser roles; where once they were the star, now they’re the father or – ever worse – the grandfather. The best scripts are often offered to this new younger class, the veterans left to make due with the crumbs. Sometimes TV offers them a respite, but for most, the glory years, when their names were at the head of every directors’ wish list, when they headlined marquees and posters and received seven or eight figure salaries, are mostly gone – often to no fault of their own. They put in the work; the audience just stopped coming.
Some simply walk away; others take matters into their own hands, making their own opportunities by starting their own production company. Others slip behind the camera and cast themselves in the lead. We should applaud these efforts. Yet in doing so, we should not lose sight of the fact that many chose a different path: to continue working regardless of the quality of the parts they play. Some do this out of a love for the work. It is who they are. Others have no other choice: So, they talk the bit parts, the guest spots on TV shows, the unnecessary sequels, the straight-to-DVD productions, the poorly written comedies, the action films that have far too much in common to the films they made earlier in their careers. In other words, they do it to live, and we should applaud them as well. After all, in their position, I think most of us would do exactly the same thing.