Monday, March 8, 2010

When The Brass Ring Slips From Your Fingers

Leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony last night, Turner Classic Movies has been screening its traditional 31 Days of Oscar festival. During this time, it broadcasts a flurry of wonderful films that either won or were nominated for Oscars.

Which always makes me wonder ... whatever happened to some of those actors?

This is not idle curiosity. Earlier this year, I wrote of my lingering yearning for fame and fortune (When Should Boomers Euthanize Their Dreams?), and I have long been fascinated by what happens to people who strive so mightily for the spotlight, only to have it turned off long before they would have flipped the switch themselves. I remember reading once in People that Donna Douglas (Elly Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies) went into real estate. She seemed happy with the decision.

There almost seems to be a palpable pattern. Take an actor like Michael Paré, who made big splashes with Eddie and the Cruisers (1983), Streets of Fire (1984), and The Philadelphia Experiment (1984). Shoot, he doesn't even come up under "popular searches" when you look for him in the Internet Movie Database; Michael Park and Michael Pate do (who?). After those three movies came a short-lived TV series (Houston Knights), supporting roles, and either TV movies or movies with straight-to-video titles (Ninja Cheerleaders, BloodRayne II: Deliverance).

It’s not just actors. Whatever happened to Robert James Waller, whose novel Bridges of Madison County created such a splash? And the legions of one-hit wonders in the music industry? Do they constantly yearn for those early days of promise? Do they wallow in the inflection points of the lives and careers and wonder what would have happened if they'd done just one thing differently?

What happens when they run into people who remember their glory days? What’s that conversation like? I always remember the classic exchange in Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden says to Gloria Swanson, "I know you. You're Norma Desmond. You used to be big." Gloria Swanson replies imperiously, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Of course, Norma Desmond was completely crazy.

I'm sure some of these people live shockingly middle-class lives. But what if instead of a suburban home, they live in a two-bedroom apartment in a seedy neighborhood, the money gone and the spotlight's filament long ago fizzled? How do they feel then? Grateful for the moment they had? Jealous of those whose careers seem to thrive even with the occasional bomb (come on, Harrison Ford — Hollywood Homicide?). Scheming for a chance at a comeback?

For people like this, I believe there is great comfort in the words of actress and singer Bette Midler, whose career has certainly had its ups and downs. She started out her movie career with a big hit (The Rose) and she followed it up with a stinker (Jinxed). Back in 1987, she explained her feelings about fame to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter: "Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, and if you're not prepared to lose, then you shouldn't be playing the game. It's absolutely inevitable that it's going to go away once you get it, so you shouldn't invest so much emotion in it that it's going to crush you when [that time] finally comes. You have to be more devil-may-care, more cavalier. You have to have fun."

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