The Joy of Paper

October 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

In general, I abhor clutter, cleaning out my closets regularly and avoiding buying more than I need. The glaring exception is paper records, which I save by the boxful. Part of this is government-mandated: U.S. taxpayers are supposed to save at least 5 years of Federal and state returns (or is it 7?), along with receipts and other documentation. This is no small matter: careful record-keeping saved me when I was audited in the early 2000’s for a mistake my accountant made in calculating my business deductions. Because I could produce every receipt, the IRS determined that I owed no fines or penalties on the additional taxes I had to pay. But there’s another reason I save paper: as a writer, I need documentary evidence to reconstruct the past.

As a filmmaker, I need climate-controlled storage for my film and video footage, masters and hard drives, and because temperatures in my house fluctuate wildly, I have to rent a storage unit. My paper records also reside there, including all my manuscripts–or so I thought when I went through the boxes recently to try to find an old screenplay that a friend was interested in pitching for television. Although I found an early draft at home, the version I was looking for–updated a few years ago for technological reasons, i.e., cell phones–existed only on a CD. True to form, the CD was damaged, so down to storage I went to find the hard copy. An hour later, I’d opened every box, uncovering not only manuscripts but things I’d entirely forgotten I had kept: the correspondence from a brief long-distance relationship when I was 17; my high school poetry; my first attempt at a screenplay; and my abacus (lessons in which were required at my elementary school in Japan). This excavation provoked considerable grunting and cursing, to the probable consternation of the possibly homeless person who was hanging out with his possessions in the next unit. The only thing it didn’t uncover was the revised screenplay.

Because my father worked for a computer company, I’ve been hearing about the “paperless office” all my life. It’s a laughable concept in light of everything I’ve lost due to technology: short stories stored on floppies; saved mail when I’ve changed computers or servers; a novel when my computer crashed; and now this script. Clearly the answer is to keep hard copies of everything; if worse comes to worst, I can always scan or retype it.

Ironically,my travails coincided with a NYT article about Marie Kondo, a Japanese household organizing expert who, in addition to teaching folding techniques, advocates getting rid of everything that doesn’t “spark joy,” from socks to kitchen utensils. As for papers, she simply throws them all out, on the principle that “they will never spark joy, no matter how carefully you keep them.” My happiness-inspiring report cards, diplomas and awards notwithstanding, Ms. Kondo has apparently never encountered a writer, let alone the IRS, whose MO is the opposite of sparking joy. No matter: in light of the script I’m going to have to re-write again, I’m printing out everything from now on. But I am going to throw out those love letters, and maybe even that abacus.

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Rarely “Spot On”: British Actors and Their American Accents

October 10, 2014 § 10 Comments

Michael Sheen in "Masters of Sex"

Michael Sheen in “Masters of Sex”

Michael Caine in "The Cider House Rules"

Michael Caine in “The Cider House Rules”

Eve Hewson in "The Knick"

Eve Hewson in “The Knick”

Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"

Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”


Clive Owen in "The Knick"

Clive Owen in “The Knick”

If you’ve spent time in London–or just read its newspapers–it won’t be long before you come across a review of a British actor playing an American character in a play, movie or TV show. “His/her accent is spot on!” the critic will invariably say, but how could he tell, not being American? In fact, the “spot on” assessment is rarely true. While most British actors can perform American accents without embarrassing themselves (unlike most American actors doing British accents), their work almost always suffers from two major problems: exaggeration and a complete absence of regionalism.

British actors supposedly find American accents easy because doing them requires “subtraction” from their native accent. (The same theory holds that American actors attempting British accents must add to theirs, addition being the harder task.) Nevertheless, most British actors playing Americans fall back on two tricks: elongating their vowels and overemphasizing their r’s. While it’s true that Midwestern vowels tend to be flatter than their Eastern or Western counterparts, they are not loooonger. As for the heavy r’s, the actors employing them sound more Irish than American. Another dead giveaway that the actor is British is speed: talking veeerrry slooowly is an actor’s crutch, not an American characteristic.

Even actors who manage to avoid exaggeration fall into the mistake of creating an accent so bleached of regionalism that it doesn’t exist, except onscreen. One would think that actors from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would assume, given the rich variety of accents in their homeland, that a huge country like the United States would have even more. But no: the prevailing idea among British actors is that there is such a thing as a Standard American Accent. A good example is Michael Sheen playing Dr. William Masters in “Masters of Sex.” Yes, he manages to sound American, but where is his accent from? Not Cleveland, where Masters was born, or New Jersey, where he prepped, or upstate New York, where he went to college. Listening to Sheen is like meeting a Dutchman: though his English and inflections are seemingly American, his accent is untraceable.

Those actors who break the no-regional-accent rule do so with wildly varied results. Michael Caine’s Maine accent in “The Cider House Rules” sounds nothing like any American accent, New England or otherwise. At times it sounds Cockney, hardly surprising as Caine has used his own thick Cockney accent in virtually all of his movies, whether or not it made sense for the character. (See “The Quiet American,” in which he plays a Cockney-accented foreign correspondent in 1950s Vietnam, when such journalists were invariably Oxbridge types.) That he won the Oscar for “The Cider House Rules” is proof not of his success in the role but of the Academy’s tendency to give Oscars for lifetime achievement rather than nominated performances.

In sharp contrast, every accent Daniel Day-Lewis does is flawless, the product not only of his enormous talent but research and hard work–three to five years of grueling preparation for each of his roles. As Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” he speaks in an intricate blend of Yankee, Irish and Wisconsin that explains Plainview’s origins better than any visual montage.

Notable American accents by non-Americans can be found in the new TV drama “The Knick,” set in New York at the turn of the 20th century. As Dr. Thackeray, Clive Owen speaks in Gilded Age tones that were probably inspired by Day-Lewis in “The Age of Innocence.” Though Owen does well with the accent, he is completely outshone by Eve Hewson, whose character Nurse Elkins is from West Virginia. Unlike Owen, Hewson is Irish (and the daughter of Bono and Aly Hewson), which might explain her facility with accents; her real-life speech is Dublin with trans-Atlantic overtones, though you’d never know it here. Her performance is all the more impressive because Appalachian accents are so hard to imitate (and, for natives, hard to lose)–twangy and lilting, with flattened vowels. Yet Hewson never falters, displaying a deft touch in every scene. It’s an accomplishment that can hardly be exaggerated: seamless, unforced and spot on. I’m sure Daniel Day-Lewis would agree.

The Newly Announced Peg Entwistle Biopic

October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Still from "Peg Entwistle's Last Walk"/Copyright 2007 and 2014, Hope Anderson Productions

Still from “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk”/Copyright 2007 and 2014, Hope Anderson Productions

I was in New York a couple of weeks ago when two friends emailed within an hour of each other to tell me that a feature film on the actress Peg Entwistle had been announced in the trades. Tony Kaye (“American History X”) is slated to write and direct the film, and producer Arthur Sarkissian promises the result will be “in the vein of…Vertigo and…Seven.” http://deadline.com/2014/09/actress-death-hollywood-sign-movie-jumped-off-h-peg-entwistle-836778/

When I started researching Peg Entwistle’s life for my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign in 2006, the accurate public record of her life was tiny, consisting of three or four photos, her nationality at birth (English) and her suicide from the Hollywoodland Sign in 1932. The amount of erroneous information, however, was enormous. It included her career (she was not a wannabe starlet but a successful and accomplished Broadway actress); her background (she was brought up not in England but as a naturalized American in New York and Hollywood); her motivations for suicide (which were not as much professional as existential). Among the falsehoods was the assumption that Peg’s choice of the Hollywoodland Sign was a message to the film industry. It’s a great bit of symbolism, except that the Sign was nothing more than a billboard for the Hollywoodland tract at the time. Because I knew the history of the Sign and live along the route she took, it was obvious that Peg chose the Sign for two simple reasons: it was high enough to do the job and in 1932 so isolated that no one was likely to stop her. As I progressed in my research, the misinformation kept coming. Even the date on her death certificate was wrong–it appears as September 18th, the date her body was discovered. But because Peg went to the Sign on the evening of September 16th and could not have survived her fall for long, the date of her death was clearly September 16th.

Many of the lies about Peg came straight from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon , whose chapter on her tragic end was accepted as fact until I set about correcting it. I identified the book’s half-nude portrait of Peg as a fake, which should have been obvious since the only feature the model shared with Peg was her platinum blond bob, a ubiquitous hairstyle in Hollywood at the time. Yet everyone, including her family, had taken Anger’s word for it.

As a way of telling Peg’s story, I made a short feature film about her fateful climb to the Sign called Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk, incorporating the footage into my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign. After I put the short on YouTube in 2007, it caught the attention of tens of thousands of viewers, including James Zeruk, Jr., who was researching her life for a book. James helped me to find Peg’s family, who generously made available a trove of playbills, photographs and documents about her life. Most importantly, I was able to interview Peg’s half-brother, Milt Entwistle, then 92 and the only living person with direct memory of her.

Under the Hollywood Signwas released in 2009. Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk remained on YouTube until this year, when I pulled it off to release it on DVD and Vimeo, along with her biography, as Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of An Actress. http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361

Last year I published an ebook consisting of Entwistle family photos, the script of the biographical documentary and the production diary of Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk. http://www.amazon.com/Peg-Entwistle-The-Hollywood-Sign-ebook/dp/B00FSOGCV4
Zeruk’s book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide was also published last year.

Biopics can’t be entirely invented, and I can’t imagine whose work Tony Kaye will draw on for his script if not mine and James Zeruk’s. Because alternative secondary sources don’t exist and many of the primary sources can only be found in the Entwistle family’s archive, I await Kaye’s film, assuming it gets made, with considerable interest.

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