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It’s scary up there

MEMO TO: Golden Globe winners

FROM: Peter Bart

All you need is that one big break.

That’s long been the ultimate truism of show business. If you get that one hit, that one Oscar or Golden Globe or Emmy, then the rest will be smooth sailing.

Well, maybe. Survey the careers of those who actually made that big score and you learn that life often became more difficult, not easier. Careers came to a halt rather than taking off.

Last year Roberto Benigni completed his grand tour of rambunctious acceptance speeches and for him, clearly, life was beautiful. His hit movie, however, was shot three years ago, and the normally industrious actor-filmmaker hasn’t worked since.

Two years ago, Jim Cameron defied naysayers on “Titanic” and became, as he modestly put it, King of the World. He has yet to start another directing project.

The summer before last, Steven Spielberg achieved the unthinkable: Four of his productions scored big numbers at theaters around the world and he also managed to win over audiences and critics alike with “Saving Private Ryan.”

IN RECENT MONTHS, however, the frenetic filmmaker has seemed distracted, juggling a bunch of high-profile projects without committing to any. Indeed, this is the longest he’s gone between directing gigs in 30 years.

Quentin Tarantino seemed destined to become the most influential filmmaker of his generation five years ago with the release of “Pulp Fiction.” Since then, there have been no original screenplays and one disappointing movie, “Jackie Brown.” Essentially, he’s disappeared.

So what’s happening here? At a time when these various artists hit the pinnacle of power and prestige, why have they gone into a retreat mode?

Several forces seem at work here:

  • It’s intimidating to be King of the World. Not only are people scared of you, but also you’re scared of yourself. What happens if you fail? How will people react when they learn you have feet of clay?

  • It’s disorienting to have too many choices. The great old directors of the studio system like Howard Hawks and George Cukor were told what to do. They made two or three movies a year and never had time to ulcerate over the range of possibilities.

  • The economics of success can trap you, as well as enrich you. A filmmaker’s fee escalates to such rarefied heights that every new project becomes cosmic. Suddenly the element of risk-taking that brought you success now seems prohibitive. Yet, playing it safe clearly is the riskiest option.

  • The most fearsome tyrant is your own ego. Nothing is good enough: no proposal, no script, no budget. Collaborators are scared away by the pathology of narcissism. Friends won’t offer advice and filmmakers become too important to solicit it.

Where does all this lead? Political scientists like to employ the word “stasis,” which originally meant a stoppage of the blood through the arteries, but has come to refer to that moment in a nation’s history when the flow of ideas ceases and paralysis sets in.

IN THE CASE OF AN ARTIST, of course, regeneration is always a possibility. Cameron might yet shake off the cobwebs. Tarantino may come out of hiding.

Spielberg might opt to shoot “Minority Report,” which Tom Cruise would like him to do. Or he may say, “Sorry, Tom, I can’t lick the script,” and address himself instead to the Harry Potter books, which Warner Bros. has been prodding him to do. Or he could finish writing his script on artificial intelligence, originally inspired by Stanley Kubrick, and tackle that as his next project. He could even revive the once-fascinating idea of filming “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Or he could return to the Lindbergh biopic, which briefly held his attention.

Spielberg once told me he likes having lots of things on the table because it keeps him from becoming obsessive about any one project. Developing a couple of scripts even while shooting yet another wards off the delusion that you’re creating a masterpiece, he insisted.

Well, OK, Steven. You’ve got enough on your table now. The time has come to surprise your constipated colleagues by making up your mind. I realize it’s fun accepting awards and collecting kudos, but, after all, wouldn’t it be nice to get back to work?

That goes for you Globe winners, as well. Enjoy your moment in the sun. But remember, in show business, that frost settles in mighty quickly.

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