Of Laurels And Lepers

It was impossible to sit through last week’s AFI Steven Spielberg tribute – yes, yet another award to Spielberg – without sensing the perversity of the whole awards ritual. Here were a thousand or so representatives of Hollywood’s best and brightest, stuffed into their tuxes and evening gowns, heaping honors on someone who already has all the honors and all the money anyone could desire, and who probably would prefer to be home in bed.

Viewing the spectacle, one couldn’t help asking, why doesn’t anyone ever throw a dinner for someone who’s down and out? Why doesn’t anyone ever give an award to an artist who’s on a cold streak, not a hot one?

The answer is obvious: In honoring Spielberg, the man who has everything, the American Film Institute can raise lots of money and score solid TV ratings, whereas if the group had instead heaped honors on the 85-yearold Elia Kazan, as some had proposed, the demos would have been considerably less felicitous. Organizations succeed by rewarding success.

Yet even the mighty Spielberg, like all artists, has had his share of debacles. Though speakers at the banquet dwelled on “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” I vividly recall a younger, less confident Spielberg coming off “Empire of the Sun” and “Always.” It’s easy to forget that the same gifted young filmmaker who conjured up “Jaws” also delivered the ill-conceived “1941.”

My point is not to puncture the Spielberg myth but simply to point out that, when Spielberg was young and discouraged, I never noticed a procession of groups lining up to give him an award.

The bottom line is that filmmaking is an art and art is more often about failure than success. Yet in Hollywood especially, there is an extraordinary loneliness in failure.

“The phones simply stop ringing,” observes William Goldman, the brilliant screenwriter who recalls the five years he spent as “a leper” in the middle of a remarkable career.

Looking back on his work in the early ’80s when he “went cold,” Goldman does not now believe that there was any sudden literary deficiency or absence of effort. Due to a variety of circumstances, several of his scripts simply didn’t come together – stars dropped out, directors changed their minds, executives lost their jobs, and suddenly the phone calls stopped. Today, of course, Goldman is on top of his craft yet again.

Certainly another dramatic example of the leper syndrome is John Travolta, who was as hot as an actor could be in his early 20s before his career simply vaporized. Even when “Look Who’s Talking” became a hit, many managed to overlook Travolta, attributing its success to Bruce Willis’ voiceover. For 10 years, no one was tossing banquets for Travolta. “Pulp Fiction,” of course, has propelled him back to stardom.

Indeed, surveying a list of artists who have entered the realm of leperdom, one can cite a number of common strands:

* Self-destructiveness: For years Richard Dreyfuss couldn’t seem to avoid turning up in blockbusters (“Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) until he got into the habit of driving into lamp posts. Paradoxically, his return to stardom was facilitated by a film called “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” which, for a time, defined his dilemma.

* Ideology: Paul Newman could do no wrong as a young romantic lead, but in the early ‘0s he became adamant about “making a statement.” A series of pictures like “WUSA” made statements, all right, but also sent his career into a tailspin.

* Overreach: The brilliant Hal Ashby was the hottest director around after “Shampoo” and “Coming Home,” but, eager to increase his productivity, Ashby decided to shoot pictures back-to-back, then edit them simultaneously. The results were disasters like “Second-Hand Hearts” and “Lookin’ to Get Out”; suddenly Ashby’s phone stopped ringing.

* Independence: Everyone was heaping awards on Abby Mann after “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “Ship of Fools,” and Mann was determined to set his own course as a dramatist. After “Wounded Knee” with Marlon Brando didn’t happen, and Ingmar Bergman got into a fight with Arthur Miller over Mann’s script of “After the Fall,” the “action” suddenly came to a stop. Years later, Mann created “Kojak,” won an Emmy for “Murderers Among Us” (about Simon Wiesenthal) and has just completed a movie about the McMartin case – the sensational trial over alleged child molestation in a California preschool – for HBO.

Says Bernie Brillstein, the shrewd manager and producer who has watched many careers orbit and plunge, “The whole business today is about perception and spin.” A star can come off a long-running TV series, yet the phones won’t ring. Another can suddenly get cast in a TV series and every movie director wants him.

Showbiz careers have always had their peaks and valleys, of course. No less a personnage than the revered Oscar Hammerstein II placed an ad in Variety five decades ago after the spectacular opening of “Oklahoma.” In it, he listed five shows that he’d done which had been horrible flops – musicals like “Sunny River” and “Free for All.” “I’ve done it before and I can do it again,” Hammerstein declared – his way of reminding everyone that the man who gave you “Oklahoma” was fully aware that he could fall on his face yet again.

Watching Spielberg smile and wave through his tribute last week in Hollywood, one couldn’t help wondering whether he was thinking the same thing – that the man who gave us “Jurassic Park” is fully capable of becoming a leper.

And no one wants to throw a tribute to a leper.

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