June 13, 2007

"La Vie en Rose"

From my upcoming review in The American Conservative:

Why is the "struggle with inner demons" such a staple of movies about musicians and actors?

Part of the reason is selection bias: producers aren't dying to make "The Johann Sebastian Bach Story" because composing a new masterpiece for Sunday church services each week while raising 20 children didn't leave Bach much time for self-inflicted drama.

Nonetheless, on average, performers really do live more chaotic lives than the rest of us. The detective novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler explained in The Little Sister, his novel about a troubled actress: "If these people didn't live intense and rather disordered lives, if their emotions didn't ride them too hard -- well, they wouldn't be able to catch those emotions in flight and imprint them on a few feet of celluloid ..."

Nobody lived a more intense and disordered life than Edith Piaf (1915-1963), the Parisian chanteuse depicted in the melodramatic and moving French film "La Vie en Rose." While her contemporary Judy Garland became an icon to male homosexuals (the gay liberation movement began in 1969 when drag queens returning from Garland's funeral rioted at New York's Stonewall bar), Piaf was a national heroine, as French as Johnny Cash was American.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Thursday said...

Its interesting that, a few small irregularities aside, it is often the very greatest artists who tend to break the "inner demons" mold: Shakespeare, Raphael, Bach, Balanchine, and, I would say, Spielberg. Of course, there are the Beethovens too.

Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Mozart come out somewhere in between. Their lives were not perfectly ordered, but they too were mostly interested in work. To make their stories sufficiently dramatic you need to drag in princes, popes and Salieris.

Anonymous said...

Charles Murray, in Human Accomplishment, talked about the sine qua non of truly great achievement being monomaniacal devotion to one's pursuit (plus, of course, towering genius, but there are scores of such geniuses for every great achiever).

This requirement precludes much preoccupation with one's troubled inner dramas.

L. C. Staples said...

There's another, more telling, quote about Hollywood fame in The Little Sister:
"Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver's shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunchbox. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blase and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture mover in a sweaty undershirt."

(More here.)

Anonymous said...

You've also got to remember the distinction between the creative and performing arts; being too screwed-up inhibits your ability to work hard on sixteen novels, but might help you portray a screwed-up character better on film.

Thursday said...

I'm not so sure Russell is right on that one. Truly great writers leading very disordered lives include Tasso, Camoes, Cervantes, Villon, Rousseau, Kleist, Hugo, Balzac, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Conrad, Lawrence, Yeats, Faulkner, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And thats only the writers. Somehow these guys managed to keep producing despite the craziness.

Almost all artists seem to have at least some potential craziness in their makeup, but many of them manage to keep it under control for most of their lives. Sometimes, however the nuttiness manages to slip out into full view and produce some really ugly incidents, like with Dickens, who managed to live a pretty quiet adult life, until his divorce.

Interestingly, a lot of artists, despite their potential craziness, seem to have some inkling ahead of time that letting their mad impulses run wild in their lives will only impede their productivity. A surprising number of them look for a good, stable wife and then settle down to an quiet, productive life, without too many distractions to stir up the nuttiness. Wordsworth, Blake, and Joyce all did this. Tennyson did too (and they don't come more morbid and melancholic than Tennyson). Some, after long stuggles, realize this a bit later in life and settle down, often leading to their greatest work. Dostoevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, and Yeats all saw their productivity go up after marriage.

Unknown said...

The crushed rose smells the sweetest.

Don't you think actors and those who make careers singing ballads have to live disordered existences & lose battles with their inner demons in order to achieve great fame?

This counters those controlled, restrained geniuses making earth shattering discoveries in artificial intelligence and physics back at the lab.

And all function together to create a yin-yang sort of balance in the universe so the rest of us can drive cars fueled by vegetable oil to get to the latest rock opera.

Anonymous said...

But many of the greatest actors led conventional and fairly dull personal lives:

Michael Caine, Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, Alec Guiness, John Wayne (who was supremely talented at playing John Wayne at least), Meryl Streep, would all be indicators of not too many personal demons. On the comedic side Rick Moranis, Harold Ramis, Dave Thomas, John Candy, and Eugene Levy all led fairly conventional and stable lives. The only thing unstable was poor Mr. Moranis's loss of his wife to cancer (which left him unable to perform).

For writers, guys like Dashiell Hammett, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Forsythe, Eric Ambler, and others seem to have had a bit of unconventional life early on, or exposure to it, and then settled into a mostly disciplined routine when they worked. Ambler for example was widely believed to have been an intelligence agent of some sort before and during WWII.

Unknown said...

Better take Dashiell Hammett off that list. Wasn't he paired off with Lillian Helman in a tumultuous relationship involving alcoholism and womanizing?

Writing can be done daily or in spurts no longer than a weekend or a month leaving someone relatively free to indulge in licentious living.

Probably someone who pursues another career in order to maintain a stable income will demonstrate more discipline and restraint. Among Poets, Wallace Stevens who maintained a corporate career seems to have been very stable. He makes a stark contrast to Sylvia Plath who doesn't even seem to have taught at the college level.

I've noticed erratic, impulsive behavior can be a trait of politicians and preachers as well. Something you don't necessarily expect but there they are, Clinton, Jim Baker, Giuliani, Ann Richards (RIP) along with all those who haven't been indiscreet enough to get caught.

Anonymous said...

If there are more troubled souls in show biz than in the "real world," that may be a reflection of just how hard it is to succeed in show biz.

Consider two hypothetical young women who are both talented actresses and singers, and who both want to become stars.

Judy is a smart, wholesome, well-adjusted Christian girl who gets good grades at school and has a supportive, loving family.

Judy's parents convince her to go to college and get a degree, just so she'll have something to fall back on. Judy goes to college, turns in several dazzling performances as a member of the Drama Club, and graduates in 4 years. She then moves to New York at age 22 and tries to make a career as an actress.

Then there's Charlotte. Her father left her mother years ago. Charlotte's mother is an abusive alcoholic. Charlotte is a social misfit who gets lousy grades. Acting and singing are the only things she's good at, and the only things that bring her any happiness. Charlotte leaves home and moves to New York at 18 to try to make it as an actress.


Now, like most young actresses, both girls struggle at first. They have to share tiny, squalid apartments with several other girls. They have to work menial jobs to pay their bills. Acting and singing gigs are few and far between. They're living on peanut butter sandwiches and bologna, and it's starting to get discouraging.

After three years of struggling, which of those two girls is more likely to give up her dream and try for a more mundane, "normal" life?

Judy, of course! After three years, she's likely to say, "Hey, I tried! I had a dream and I gave it my best shot. But I'm tired of living this way! I have enough education credits to get a teaching job. I have enough business credits to work on Wall Street. I have options. Maybe now it's time for me to do something else."

Charlotte, on the other hand, can't see where she has any other viable options. She's going to stick it out as long as it takes, because she NEEDS stardom in a way that Judy doesn't.

Success in show biz requires talent, but it also requires luck and persistence. And screwed-up people are more likely to hang on to their dreams than normal folks. Charlotte may not be any more talented than Judy, but she's more likely to keep plugging away, which means she's more likely to catch a big break one day.