Old Man Talking

Awards season is here. While the Golden Globes are already passed, we still have to suffer through the Critic’s Choice Awards tonight (the 13th), the Screen Actors Guild Awards January 27, the Directors Guild Awards February 2, the GRAMMY Awards February 10, the British Academy Film Awards February 20, the Writers Guild Awards February 17, the Independent Spirit Awards February 23, and then the Academy Awards February 24. The entertainment world in general and Americans especially not only has a thing for handing out trophies but making sure everyone’s project has a chance to be recognized.

Yes, even in entertainment, we want everyone to have a chance to get a trophy.

Trophies are nice when we’re in junior high or maybe even high school. They provide a sense of accomplishment and encouragement to keep moving forward. Parents like it when their children receive trophies because it gives them the hope that perhaps, someday, their child might make something of themselves and move out of the basement.

For most people, we stop chasing trophies as adults. Sure, there are professional awards and some of those can significantly boost one’s career. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t hope each year that a project I was on might win an ADDY or CLIO award. My reasons, however, were not so much for the accolades as for the pay bump that inevitably came along with such success. Having a little trophy to take up room and collect dust didn’t then and doesn’t now have much appeal.

In the entertainment industry, though, the number of trophies one has makes a huge difference in how much one earns for subsequent projects. Women, especially, who have traditionally been severely underpaid in Hollywood, need the recognition that any one of the long list of awards can deliver. An Oscar is worth millions for many actors and actresses. One of the reasons there are so many entertainment awards is because they can have such a dramatic impact on a winner’s career.

Awards are so heavily valued in the entertainment industry because producers and studio heads are of the opinion that the buying public are more likely to spend money on well-known award winners than they are unknowns. Winning awards creates a level of fame th at results in greater box office returns and higher record sales. So, winning any one of those awards we’ve listed really matters, right?

Well, not always. Sure, there’s the short-term bump that comes from winning an award, but over time the fame that comes from winning an award fades if one doesn’t follow with yet another award of some kind. Having that bright light shining on one can also reveal some aspects of one’s life that are less than appropriate. Ultimately, in as little as one generation, chances are not high that one’s name is fondly remembered.

Time Is The Enemy Of Fame

Old Man Talking

The temporary nature of fame becomes evident every time I try talking to my 20-year-old about anything that predates his period of entertainment consciousness, which apparently didn’t kick in until somewhere around 2007. Any time I make a reference before that, with the exception of Veggie Tales or Dora the Explorer, I get back this clueless look that questions whether I’m just making up names out of thin air.

If we’re honest, though, those of us who are not true cinephiles or trivida geeks don’t relate to anyone whose career existed prior to our own period of “awakening,” whether that came with the onset of puberty or some traumatic event that found us seeking solace in a song. All those “old” movies and television shows are for the benefit of our parents, who remember when those shows and movies were new. While a handful are strong enough to survive into the contemporary lexicon, such as I Love Lucy, most programming prior to the 1990s is now locked away in a vault somewhere, waiting for a wave of nostalgia to bring them back. Even the TV Land cable network, which placate those just older than myself with multiple reruns of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Andy Griffith back-to-back during the morning, fill their primetime schedule with shows that, for my generation, still feel recent: King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Two And A Half Men.

Perhaps no better example exists than going through the list of people who won Oscars for Best Actor/Actress in a Supporting Role. Without going back into “ancient history” (the 60s), consider whether you recognize any of these names:

  • Lee Grant
  • Beatrice Straight
  • Melvyn Douglas
  • Lina Hart
  • Harry S. Niger
  • Peggy Ashcroft
  • Dianne Wiest
  • Mercedes Ruehl
  • Geoffrey Rush
  • Roberto Benigni
  • Benicio Del Toro
  • Marcia Gay Harden
  • Jim Broadbent

Chances are very high that if one is under the age of 40 that none of those names mean anything. There are even two names in that list who won for leading roles but are not actively remembered outside the narrow community of those committed to such trivia.

For those who do genuinely remember some of those names, the list is somewhat tragic. There are actors and actresses that were really big deals back in their heyday but didn’t receive their Oscar until shortly before their deaths. Others represent once-bright flames that never managed to reach their perceived potential for whatever reason.

Our point is that fame is a very momentary experience that simply doesn’t last for the majority of those who achieve it. One can spend a lifetime chasing after a trophy but within a decade after their passing their name, and achievements, are all but forgotten.

This brings us to a critical life question: if what we’re doing isn’t going to last, then why are we doing it?

Let’s take a look at three times when entertainment awards didn’t do much to help anyone’s long-term popularity at all, then we will examine what is a better personal goal than trying to become famous.   

A Vanishing Legacy

Old Man Talking

When one looks at the list of primetime Emmy winners in the comedy category, one sees some pretty impressive names: Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Jean Stapleton, Valerie Harper and Bea Arthur. Sandwiched in between Lucy’s and Jean’s wins, though, is the name Hope Lange. If that name doesn’t immediately  ring a bell, you’re not alone. One would have to be of “the greatest generation,” or somewhere close to that, to remember the actress who won the award for Best Actress in a Comedy both in 1969 and 1970. The show ran for two seasons on NBC and one on ABC before being completely cancelled.

Ms. Lange’s career spanned from 1942 to 1998. It was movies that first made her famous. When she was cast in Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe, the famous blonde was so jealous of Lange that she pressured the film’s producer to have Lange’s blonde hair dyed a light brown. That still didn’t keep Lange from walking away with and marrying the film’s leading man, Don Murray.

In fact, Ms. Lange was considered a bit of a bombshell on her own during her youth. Many thought it downright scandalous when she was cast in the 1957 movie Peyton Place, which was considered so risqué at the time that many theatres refused to show it. She dropped Murray for an affair with actor Glenn Ford, her co-star in Pocketful Of Miracles, then married producer Alan Pakula who she later divorced so she could date Frank Sinatra, who was later replaced by novelist John Cheever. She so often played the sultry sexpot in films that she became typecast to that kind of role, which might explain why her television career in more tame roles tended to struggle.

Even though she won the Emmy in her category two years in a row, her performance was not enough to save a show that came of mild up against My Three Sons and The Lawrence Welk Show while on NBC. When the series moved to ABC, it had the bad luck of being on against Family Affair, [No, if you’re under the age of 40 you’ve likely never heard of any of those shows. Trust me, they were big at the time.] What’s worth noting there is a sad reality of television preferences in the 70s. Each of those shows beating Ms. Lange in the ratings was male-dominated programs that fed into the long-standing patriarchal view that was at times rather heavy-handed. It would take Mary Tyler Moore, whose show started in 1970 on a different network, to prove that women could handle a primetime series on their own (Lucille Ball was considered an anomaly that couldn’t be duplicated).

By the time Ms. Lange was cast in her final roles in Message from Nam and Clear and Present Danger, she was already seen as “that old actress whose face you sort-of recognize but can’t remember from where.” Her final appearance was at the 40th anniversary celebration of Peyton Place in 1998. When she died in 2003, hardly anyone outside the industry bothered to notice.

Lange’s fading fame is a perfect example of how quickly and easily history ignores those whose legacy is thin. Contemporaries who tended to put Ms. Lange and Ms. Monroe in the same basket have wondered if the latter’s continued legend might have suffered a fate similar to Lange’s had she not died when she did. Would we still remember Marilyn Monroe if she had filled the late 60s and 70s with projects that never captured the public’s enthusiasm as the star grew older? Hollywood has never been kind to aging actresses and it has only been through the persistent insistence of people such as Glenn Close and Dame Maggie Smith that women have secured notable roles and awards past the age of 40.

With more new programming being produced now than ever in the history of visual entertainment, the opportunity for momentary fame is within the reach of more people than ever and millions of people are grasping for that brass ring. Sadly, that most likely means there will be millions more people winning awards whose names are quickly forgotten.

A Bright Light Slowly Dimmed.

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Anyone who was alive in the United States in 1977 likely remembers the song You Light Up My Life. Winning both the Golden Globe and Academy Award for best original song, it broke records at the time, staying at number one on the Billboard charts for an unprecedented ten weeks, more than the Beatles’ Hey Jude. Even after slipping from the number one position, the song remained on the charts seemingly forever. By the time it disappeared, radio DJs were so tired of playing the song that many broke their copy and vowed to never play it again.

And they didn’t.

If ever there was a song that represents famed denied, this is it. On one hand, Debby Boone, the daughter of squeaky-clean singer Pat Boone (you know, the guy with the white loafers) shot from complete obscurity to instant stardom only to fall back into obscurity. For the better part of a year, Ms. Boone was everywhere, on all the important talk shows, on variety shows and television specials, and in all the music-related magazines.

The song was trouble from the start, though, and that trouble continues to haunt the legacy not only of Ms. Boone but two other people closely connected to the song.

You see, Debby Boone was not supposed to be the person who recorded the hit. In fact, if one watches the movie of the same name, for which the song was written, it is not Ms. Boone’s voice they hear, but that of Ukrainian coloratura Kasey Cisyk. When writer Joseph Brookes hired Ms. Cisyk to record the song, he told her that her version would be released as the single. By all rights, it should have been Ms. Cisyk, not Ms. Boone, that shot to fame with the song.

Brookes changed his mind, however, and decided to re-record the song with Ms. Boone, who was carefully coached to specifically imitate every detail of Ms. Cisyk’s version, right down to where and how she breathed. Only in the movie’s credits is Ms. Cisyk given any recognition. Even on the Original Soundtrack recording, the song is credited to “Original Cast,” not Ms. Cisyk. Ms. Cisyk continued recording jingles such as “You deserve a break today,” and “Have you driven a Ford lately,” before dying of breast cancer the day before her 45th birthday in 1998.

Joe Brookes, who wrote the song and the movie script as well as directed the movie may have thought he’d win by double-crossing Ms. Cisyk, but life didn’t turn out so well for him, either. The movie itself, starring Didi Conn in the lead role, bombed. By the time the song fell off the charts, not only were people tired of hearing about it but the industry was tired of Brooke’s overbearing and blatant self-promotion. He fell into the same obscurity as his song.

That didn’t stop Brookes from trying to play himself off as a top Hollywood director, though, and in 2009 he was indicted for multiple “casting couch” rapes. He was, in contemporary terms, the precursor to the #MeToo movement. Brookes never came to trial, however, choosing to hang himself while still in jail in 2011. Only the jailer and Brookes’ victims noticed.

Life hasn’t necessarily been all bad for Debby Boone. If one pays attention to certain sub-genres of Christian music they’ve likely seen some of her occasional projects popping up there from time to time. She also married one of the sons of Rosemary Clooney (George’s aunt), who was herself a major musical powerhouse of the post-war era. After Ms. Clooney passed in 2003, Ms. Boone recorded a tribute album in 2005, covering some of her late mother-in-law’s hits. The album met with marginal success among Ms. Clooney’s fans in the soft jazz community. She has, at the very least, managed to stay busy even if she’s nowhere near the limelight she was in 1977.

You Light Up My Life proves that fame can be manufactured for a moment but the level of manipulation and deception required to make that happen is unsustainable and ultimately leaves everyone associated with it in relative obscurity, hiding from the very thing that put the light on them in the first place.

When The Laughter Stopped

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More recently, the star of Monique Angela Imes, known professionally as Mo’Nique, is one that seemed poised to shine among the brightest of the bright. After winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2009 for her role in the movie Precious, she was given her own late night talk show on the BET network. In 2015, she received an Emmy Award nomination for her role as Ma Rainey in the HBO film Bessie. Everything seemed to be going well.

Then, it all stopped.

When something like this happens the rumors start flying and it would be inappropriate for me to repeat those here. For her part, Mo’Nique has publicly stated that she blames Lee Daniels, Tyler Perry, and Oprah Winfrey, all important figures in black entertainment, for blackballing her. While such a move does not seem characteristic of any of those people without sufficient reason, they have not responded publicly to the claim so we’ll just have to let that go.

One criticism that has been documented is that Mo’Nique refused to participate in some of the publicity effort around the movie Precious. We all know how that works: weeks before a movie hits theaters, stars are assigned to do interviews on various talk shows and other media outlets as part of the publicity for the film. For the vast majority of actors, even major names, participating in such efforts is in their contract with the studio. Refusing to participate in publicity is certainly something that would give a studio pause before hiring a person again.

Another significant possibility, though, is that Mo’Nique’s brand of comedy did not change as the attitude of the country did. We’ve seen this happen with other comedians whose careers on the backside of the #MeToo movement are taking a rapid nosedive.

Earlier in her career Mo’Nique was known for saying”White and black people, we’re just mad at each other, we don’t know why we’re mad at each other. We’re not each other’s enemy. We’re not the enemy. It’s the Chinese people we need to watch out for.” Where jokes like that drew applause back in 2000, by the middle of President Obama’s second term it was becoming increasingly obvious that a disturbing number of people do look at people of color as the enemy. The old jokes stopped being funny.

Mo’Nique has not been off the main stage all that long so I was surprised that when I asked ten people over the age of 25 if they remembered her, it was only the white comedian who did. Her fame among mass audiences has disappeared. That’s not to say she still couldn’t make a comeback. Mo’Nique is a strong and courageous woman for whom anything is possible, but her path back is going to be more difficult than it was the first time.

The Futility of Chasing A Prize

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There are a lot of awards and prizes that are given to people outside the entertainment industry, but few others have the ability to bestow any significant level of fame outside one’s own industry. Getting one of those shiny trophies, at least in certain categories, pretty much guarantees one a spot on the talk show circuit for the next fifteen minutes or so and a host of new project offers with enticing salaries attached. When entertainment contracts can be worth several million dollars, going after that trophy can seem like a worthwhile effort.

For most people, however, chasing after a trophy or some other prize often ends up rather futile. Perhaps the greatest prize in the United States is that of President. Surely, if there is anything capable of cementing a person’s legacy, winning the presidency would do it. Rutherford B. Hayes might argue with that supposition, however.

As nasty and partisan as contemporary elections have become, we’ve yet to come close to the nastiness of the 1876 campaign that elected Hayes as the 19th president. With the South still in turmoil and the political process largely handled by corrupt state-level poll bosses, the election was so contentious it was not finalized until an act of Congress recognized Hayes as the winner a mere two days prior to the March 4 inauguration.

As part of the deal made in Congress, however, Reconstruction policies in the South ended immediately and with it any chance former slaves had of achieving any of the civil rights they had been promised by President Grant’s administration. Policies toward native peoples suffered as well. In the end, most historians consider Hayes one of the most ineffective and unimportant presidents to ever hold the office. Hence, the reason many people don’t even know his name. Winning the prize is futile when one doesn’t do anything worthwhile in the aftermath.

Fame is a right now, in the moment type of recognition. Once the moment is gone, so is the attention that comes with it. While an elite few are expert enough it chaining together one moment after another, the vast majority fall short even though they may possess superior talent and skill.

When we allow winning the prize to become our primary focus and goal, we place ourselves on a merry-go-round that gives one no opportunity but perpetuates a cycle of chasing the next, bigger, louder, brighter, better-paying moment in hopes of winning the next statue or trophy. When life ultimately tosses one off that merry-go-round, often aggressively, one often finds themselves wandering in random circles on a downward spiral into oblivion.

Defining Success On More Intelligent Terms

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When we win awards in junior high and high school, they’re meant to be motivational; they encourage us to achieve and do well and for a lot of people that motivation has worked as long as they were in high school. Beyond that, however, the method tends to break down. Life and work are not the structured environment we have in school. School makes it safe for us to focus on something without the worry of paying bills or feeding a family (in most cases). Unfortunately, as much as that might help one learn necessary skills or information, it does little to prepare us for the harsh realities of life.

Outside of the educational system, awards and their associated fame are not so much motivational as they are distracting rabbit holes. Sure, everyone likes winning an award, but in the real life those trophies and any resulting fame have to be secondary goals to prevent one’s career from flaming out unnoticed.

Perhaps we would do better to define success not by what awards and trophies we’ve won but by the happiness we generate in our own lives and the differences we make in the lives of others. I am convinced that people who are not happy with themselves first are unable to be a positive influence for change on anything outside themselves.

While we can sit and argue all day over what constitutes happiness in anyone’s life, there are some characteristics that are commonplace no matter what it ultimately is that makes one happy.

  • The ability to do something well.
  • Enjoying doing that thing we do well.
  • We are not overwhelmed by what we do
  • We can momentarily set aside that thing we do to enjoy other things
  • We are not jealous of nor threatened by others who do the same thing well.

For some people, finding that thing we do well comes naturally, a talent or skill with which we seem born. Others struggle to figure out what that thing is, trying first one item and then another. There are a couple of important considerations when looking for that thing one does well. 1. What we do may be something quite simple, such as mowing the lawn or folding laundry. The level of complication in what we do in no way diminishes the importance of what we do. 2. What we do well may change. We are not stuck being the same people our entire lives. If we are 68 years old and discover something new that we do well, there’s no reason to not change up and do that thing.

One also needs to realize that some things we do well we may not enjoy doing. Inversely, things we do enjoy are not necessarily things we do well. Let’s take music as an example. I have a bachelors degree in piano. Playing piano is something I do well, but I do not enjoy practicing enough for it to be the center of my happiness. While I enjoy playing occasionally, it is one of the other things I do, not the main thing. At the same time, I love singing. Unfortunately, I’m not especially good at it. If I were good at it I would consider letting that be my main thing but even the dogs leave the room when I sing. I do better to put my focus on photography, which, for me, meets both goals.

When those five elements come together in harmony, then we have found our secret to being happy. Not someone else’s secret, mind you, because, as we’ve said often before, what works for someone else does not necessarily work for us. Our happiness lies first within ourselves and what we do.

I Want To Dance With Somebody

Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is often quoted as defining success as follows:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

While we might, in contemporary terms, question whether one needs respect from anyone outside themselves or whether honest critics actually exist, Emerson’s last line is where the gold is found: “to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.”

There you go, that’s the ultimate award, knowing that at least one life has had some moment of relief, had an opportunity to breathe, because you were there. Winning this award doesn’t necessarily require one to climb mountains or weigh a certain amount or look a certain way or love specific people. Winning at life is not about accumulating a wall full of trophies or the largest bank account or taking the most exotic vacation. Winning at life is about holding a child’s hand as they walk into a new school for the first time. Winning at life is when we look at the server who spilled the soup and smile, then add an extra ten percent to our tip. Winning at life is when we hire the felon who no one wants to give a chance because, once upon a time, he sold pot.

We misunderstand success if we, for even a moment, think that it is about us and our happiness. Success is when we take that thing we do well and love and use that thing to better the lives of other people.

Across his many books, the late philosopher Alan Watts warned that we err when we look at life as a journey with a starting point, an ending point, and a prize at the end. Instead, he insisted, we must realize that life is the dance that is happening right now, that both future and past are illusions. In his opinion, we waste time and effort when we overthink and overanalyze. “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes,” he said. “Zen … is just to peel the potatoes.”

When we look at life as a dance, a moment to experience and share rather than a line of goals to be met, we put ourselves in a position to help that one life breathe easier. The best dances are not those we dance alone but those we share with others. Dancing together, we have no need for awards or trophies or fame, we only have need of what we can share with each other right now.

As you go through the coming week, I challenge you to consider how we are approaching our lives. Do we live for the awards shows, the red carpets, and the shiny trophies, or do we live for the dance, sharing our happiness with a goal of making a difference in the lives of others?

You must choose for you. As for me, I want to dance with somebody.

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