Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Recent reading

I haven't been reading much since starting the UCLA Extension writing classes in January, so I figured I might as well get this post up since these few have been waiting months to see the light of day. All three are fantastic and highly recommended.

The Lyons by Nicky Silver

This is the third of Silver's plays that I've read. The first one, The Altruists, I absolutely loved. It was a master study in liberal/social justice hypocrisy, which floored me because those are very much Silver's people and I was shocked he'd go after them. It was darkly hilarious, with a horrifying, heart-wrenching climax. On the other hand, Beautiful Child made me want to take a Silkwood Brillo Pad shower after reading.

The Lyons, which in 2012 became the first of Silver's plays to make it to Broadway, presents a truly dysfunctional family. Patriarch Ben Lyons (played by Dick Latessa) is on his deathbed, with his ditzy, distracted wife Rita (Linda Lavin, who received a Tony nomination for her performance) at his side. They are at each other's throats, their marital pact apparently held together all these years only because that's what their generation did. That isn't stopping Rita from planning for life after Ben's demise - even as he's succumbing to cancer, she's flipping through magazines looking for living room redecorating ideas and bringing up ancient history that she's kept quiet about for years and which means nothing to her foul-mouthed husband now.

The bickering couple are soon joined by their two grown children: Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), a divorced, recovering alcoholic and Curtis (Michael Esper), an unsuccessful writer who is gay (much to his father's displeasure) and too wrapped up in his own romantic relations to have been involved much with his parents in recent years.

Death in many forms abounds in The Lyons. Ben kicks off before the second act. Lisa will end up romancing a terminal patient down the hall from her father, while Curtis's relationships are revealed to be works of fiction.  Rita, seemingly unconcerned at the loss of her husband, has the most lively reaction of the three, none of whom seem to be able to handle being together, but aren't doing well on their own.

For me, one of the problem with reading plays is that you don't hear the actor's voices or feel their energy. In his introduction, Silver lavishes praise on his cast and what they brought to the play. If there's ever a locally produced revival of The Lyons, I'll be first in line for tickets.

BEN: Why are you here? We don't see you. You're not part of us. Not really.
CURTIS: I have my life!
BEN: You walk in here and you "forgive me"!? Go fuck yourself. 
CURTIS: It would be easy, you know. It would be nothing to kill you. I could take a pillow, I could hold it, press it on to you, until you were dead. And it would be nothing.
BEN: So do it. I'm going to die soon anyway. You think I care how it ends? I don't. My life is one long parade of disappointments. And you're the grand fucking marshal. Do it!

Star-Crossed: The Story of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones by Beverly Linet

Star-Crossed is the sad story of actor Robert Walker, who died in 1951 at the age of thirty-two from what was believed to be an adverse reaction to prescription drugs. And while the book addresses Walker's untimely death, it focuses mainly on his life.

Walker was a nineteen year old acting student when he met classmate Phylis Isley, who would become the love of his life and eventually his wife. She would also eventually become Jennifer Jones, the protege of David O. Selznick, who made her into a huge star. Eventually Jones and Selznick dumped their respective spouses for each other and Walker never recovered from the loss of his adored wife.

Star-Crossed is mostly Walker's story. Jones is a cipher - you don't really understand at which point she fell out of love with her husband and into love with Selznick, except maybe at one point where she expresses that being an actress was more important to her than anything else in life, and Selznick was obsessed with making her into a star. Early in their marriage, Jones (then still Phylis) produced two sons, which derailed her career for a few years while Walker became hugely successful in radio. Selznick on the other hand engineered a movie debut as the title character in The Song of Bernadette that put her on the Hollywood map and earned her an Oscar. Selznick would go on to micro-manage her career and he also protected his secretive, publicity-shy wife/star from the press, which is probably why there isn't more information available about her during those years.

While Jones's debut was being carefully crafted, Walker signed with MGM and quickly became a popular star. Today he is mainly remembered for his role as the psychotic Bruno Antony in Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, but he was a star long before that film. But he went downhill after Jones left him, drinking heavily, agonizing over his loss, getting into trouble with the law and eventually spending time in a sanitarium. He seemed to have found some inner peace after being discharged, making his premature death all the more tragic.

Walker didn't suffer alone. Jones was dominated by Selznick, frequently suffered from depression and attempted suicide several times. Mary Jennifer, her only child with Selznick, committed suicide at the age of twenty-one by jumping off the roof of a Los Angeles office building. Ironically, the part of the book where Jennifer really blooms as a fully developed person is after Selznick's death, when she met and married Norton Simon, a multimillionaire industrialist and art collector with whom she blossomed into a sparkling society hostess and philanthropist.

My personal life has been completely wrecked by David Selznick's obsession for my wife. What can you do to fight such a powerful man?

Film School: The True Story of a Midwestern Man Who Went to the World's Most Famous Film School, Fell Flat on His Face, Had a Stroke, and Sold a Television Series to CBS by Steve Boman

The title says it all - that's exactly what Steve Boman did. And it was even more difficult than the title suggests.

Boman embarked on film school after years as a journalist and briefly working in the field of organ transplants (he helped coordinate donations and carried the cooler containing the organs).

To his credit, Boman worked and succeeded in circumstances that would have crippled a lesser man, and he did it while being separated from his family (a wife and young daughters back home in the midwest) and suffering a mild stroke at the beginning of his second year. He also worked like a dog to get through the USC film program. Just reading about his schedule of classes and film work was exhausting.

Boman happened to be at USC during the 2007-08 writer's strike when fate fell into his lap. CSI:New York writer/producer Trey Callaway decided to fill time during the strike by teaching a pitch class at USC. Boman enrolled and created a show based on his previous job in the world of organ transplants, then wrote and delivered a pitch so impressive it wound up being optioned by CBS.

The resulting show, Three Rivers, starred a pre-Hawaii Five-0 Alex O'Loughlin and Alfre Woodard. Reviews were mixed and the show didn't score CBS-level ratings, and it was cancelled after only a short stint on the air.

But along the way, Boman scored an agent, got to rub shoulders with legendary director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) who executive produced Three Rivers (his first foray into network television) and showrunner Carol Barbee (UNreal, Hawaii Five-0, Jericho, Judging Amy), among others. He's upbeat about the Three Rivers roller-coaster, as he is with his unlikely success as a middle-aged film school student at one of the most prestigious film schools in the world.

The only thing that bothered me is Boman's lack of credits since Three Rivers and Film School. In the afterword he assures readers that life is great and he's writing and working on developing a new show, but Film School was published in 2011 and in a search of the web and imdb, it seems like nothing but radio silence since then. Boman comes across as a great guy and an extremely talented, hard-working writer, so I hope everything is okay and that we hear from him again.

Looking back, the amount of toil and effort that went into creating this show was astounding. Many very talented people worked extremely hard on THREE RIVERS. The set itself was huge. Paramount knocked out the walls of two adjoining soundstages and built a connecting hallway between them to give us extra space. The whole enterprise was breathtaking in its scale. It was like building a warship, which then sails out of the harbor all proud and sparkling clean...and is promptly sunk in battle, to the dismay of everyone onshore.

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