This post is getting rerun today because I’ve decided to make a major name change in my story. From now on my narrator, for reasons that matter only to me, will be Joe, not Daniel, Ferreira. Other, lesser, names have changed too.
“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” — Bill Shakespeare
Believe it or not, it’s one of the hardest parts of fiction writing, at least for me: coming up with names.
If the name isn’t convincing, the character won’t be. That’s my take, anyway, which is odd because when you think about it names are actually pretty random in real life. Oh, we think there are “typical” names for people. But in reality there aren’t, unless you subscribe to the thought that our names determine what we do. Yet we’re set up to think there are “right” and “wrong” names for people: consider Yul Brynner (yes, that was his real name), or Omar Sharif (no, that wasn’t). And doesn’t Burl Ives just look like a Burl Ives? You somehow just wouldn’t buy a car or a resort timeshare from someone named Lennie Slickman, would you? But how about investing with someone named Vincent Johnson? A little easier?
I agonize over names. Really agonize. I think they’re as important to the inevitability of your characters as the sound of their dialogue or their depth, or back-story. And I keep making alterations. There are often wholesale changes as drafts go on. This applies to fictional places too–restaurants, and so forth.
For the present story I made up the name Welsey Shaw because I wanted something unique (I can’t find any evidence of any real woman currently with the name Welsey) as well as something that had a trace of “blue-blood” in it. Something that would represent a pale, blonde thespian perfectly. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfect—that’s blood bluer than a Smurf’s. But she’s already using it.
For my male protagonist, I wanted a more “meat and potatoes” name. Daniel Ferreira was originally Michael Ferreira, but I liked Daniel more. It was easy enough to change from draft one to draft two with a word processor. I think of how an editor at Macmillan decided that Margaret Mitchell’s heroine should be named Scarlet and not Pansy O’Hara, and told some lowly copy editor to change it every time it appeared in the manuscript. That must have been fun.
Back in the classic Hollywood days they were always changing actors’ names. Think of Cary Grant. Joan Crawford. John Wayne. Cary Grant sounds gracious, and there’s just no way Marion Mitchell Morrison could get all those settlers over the rugged mountains and onward to safety the way John Wayne could. How sexy is Norma Jeane Mortenson? (Not very.)
Somehow, you know Woody Allen is a comedian; Allan Stewart Konigsberg is an historian, or should be. Luke Skywalker and not Deke Starkiller is your clean-cut sci-fi hero and Scarlett and not Pansy OHara is your romantic lead. Seriously, can you picture Clark Gable (now there’s a name, and it was his) saying, “Frankly, Pansy, I don’t give a damn”?
Today it seems name-changing isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, except for rappers. (Let’s face it, Robert Matthew Van Winkle carries little street cred.) Movie and TV stars tend to keep their real names far more often, even if they’re highly unusual (Kaley Cuoco). Partly it’s because we’ve grown more comfortable with ethnically-diverse names. Once Cameron Diaz might have been unthinkable, especially for a blue-eyed “all American” blonde. Keep in mind that 1950s network executives thought it was ridiculous that Lucille Ball (another real name) would be married to Desi Arnaz in a TV show, even though they were in real life.
But the right name is still important. After all, there’s a reason Thomas Mapother IV changed his.
It’s official, in case you had any doubt: Gwyneth Paltrow is the world’s most beautiful woman!
Thus spaketh People magazine.
The glossy declared the Iron Man 3 star to be the tops just days before that very movie opens to the public. And, if the timing weren’t convenient enough, it also coincides with the release of Gwynnie’s latest cookbook, It’s All Good! (Mmm-Mmm Good! was already taken.)
Ms. Paltrow responded to the honor by saying aw shucks shucks shucks shucks!, she really wasn’t the most beautiful woman in the world, but that she appreciated the honor, which she called “sweet,” and said it was nice they’d chosen a 40-year-old mom for the title. Which is true, but personally I’d be more impressed if they’d selected Joan Allen, who’s 55, a mom, and so hot it almost hurts to look at her.
Gwyneth’s “surprise” at the news was odd considering her publicist surely brainstormed for the accolade, and the studio attached to the Iron Man franchise likely paid for it. All she had to do was type the date it would hit the newsstands into her smartphone and practice her stunned look. Even Harvey Levin of TMZ figured out this was a fakeroo. Seriously, Meryl Streep never had to do stuff like this, and therein lies the difference between then and now.
In Entertaining Welsey Shaw, there’s a scene in a restaurant where Welsey and her management team hold a crisis meeting to manufacture some new publicity about her, because she’s falling, skidding, getting bumped from her mantle of first place by up-and-comings. It’s a no-holds-barred session, where everything short of a sex-tape is considered, and that is only off the table because they know Welsey would never go for it. The name of the game is to keep their client in the headlines at all times. Of course, the longer this goes on, the harder it becomes and the more they have to top themselves. Some celebrities get “involved” with causes that amount to posing for a poster and writing a check. Some endorse products that fit their image. Others endorse products you wouldn’t associate with said celebrity—or any celebrity for that matter. And one has to be careful with celebrity endorsements, lest the image of the celebrity become a liability.
The problem with all this is that the public is a step ahead of advertisers and PR people. We are so jaded today that we believe everything is staged. Someone “left” an iPhone prototype on a bar stool? Pul-lease! The decision—quickly reversed—to slightly dilute Maker’s Mark whisky because of increased demand? Gimmick! Kim Kardashian’s first marriage? Staged! Heck, many thought the whole Paula Broadwell-Jill Kelley dust-up was a manufactured event—to what end I cannot imagine, since no one came out of it looking good. If the Lindbergh baby were kidnapped today, people would be posting to blogs saying it was done to resuscitate the aviator’s falling career.
It’s hard to blame folks for the cynicism. Just this week another sex tape has emerged, this time from someone I’d never heard of until, well, a sex tape emerged. Farrah Abraham originally was to claim the video was unstaged. But her partner in amore was none other than a well-known porn actor named James Deen, and as Mr. Deen points out, if you want to make a sex tape seem unscripted you don’t hire a porn star to be in it. At least for The Blair Witch Project, they recruited a bunch of unknown kids. And they did such a good job, they’re still unknown!
So what’s real anymore? Does Gwyneth’s “title” have any relevance? No. Seeing is no longer believing, and never will be again. Yet celebs and wanna-be celebs continue to take this road. And Ms. P will likely be in the news again, this time as People’s ”Most Outstanding Gluten-Free Macrobiotic Mom” or something, probably just before Iron Man 4 hits theaters next summer.
Viola de Lesseps has a problem. Viola is the character Gwyneth Paltrow plays in the wonderfully-inventive film Shakespeare in Love. And it’s inventive all right. For one thing, it invented tobacco colonies in Virginia fourteen years before they existed.
Viola is forced into an arranged marriage and sails off to America to her new husband’s tobacco farms. “I fancy tobacco has a future,” he says, probably his only correct observation in the film.
Of course, when they made Shakespeare in Love, they knew darned well that those colonies weren’t there yet. They were just fibbing, bending facts to fit their story. It’s something the Bard himself did often. Many of his “histories” are chock full of inaccuracies, some of which he probably knew of, some of which he surely didn’t.
Recently, in the wake of Lincoln and Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, there’s been a lot of talk about screenplays that, well, fib. New York Times columnist Maureen Down recently wrote an excellent piece about scribes and their lies.
But the sort of fibbing I’m talking about is a little different. (For the record, I wish filmmakers and fiction writers wouldn’t deviate so much when they really don’t need to. When they do—such as when the movie The Right Stuff telescoped endless teams rocket researchers, designers, engineers and technicians into one small band of about eight Germans who handle everything in NASA from concept to launch—I can completely understand. In real life hundreds of scientists worked from dozens of locations around the U.S. To show all of this would make the movie confusing and even longer than it already was.)
No, the fibbing I’m talking about is when writers add a lie to make the plot possible. In Shakespeare in Love, without the colonies in America, there’d be no really compelling reason to send Viola off somewhere far away and have unrequited love. Sure they could have substituted another place, but it would probably be somewhere dimly known to audiences today.
And I’ve done some similar fibbing with Entertaining Welsey Shaw. I’ve tried to stay as real as I can, as far as I know. I’ve traveled to the places in the novel, talked to residents, and done lots of virtual exploring as well. I give lots of details, specifics of time and place. Having said that, I worked two deliberate fibs into the story.
The first is the Starbucks where they meet and have many conversations. There really is one at 48th and Park Avenue in Manhattan. When I wrote the first draft I just envisioned a city Starbucks inside a giant chrome-and-steel building, but when I was later in Manhattan I stumbled across a real one that looked pretty much exactly like the one I’d seen in my head, so when I did draft two I gave it a specific address. I felt it helped make everything seem more real and believable—essential, I feel, since the basic story is a bit on the unbelievable side, but I wanted the reader to think it could really happen.
But I cheated a little on the interior. I made it bigger. The real one has a counter directly in front as you enter and seating on the left, with windows that look out onto 48th street. Outside is a concrete patio with steps leading up from the street. Just like I imagined before I even saw it. But in the story I added more seating in an imaginary wing on the right side looking out onto Park. In real life there’s only a wall there.
I added the extra seats so that there’d be more variety. In some scenes Daniel and Welsey sit together. Other times they’re at odds, and glare at each other from across the abyss.
Plus I just always pictured it that way.
The other fib is a little more substantial.
It isn’t as convenient, or as pleasant, to get from the small hamlet of Callicoon to Manhattan as I make it seem in the novel.
I have an Amtrak train running to Pennsylvania Station. I’m told many years ago there was in fact passenger train service along this line.
But alas, no more. To make the trip today you’d have to take a bus. And I decided buses aren’t as interesting as trains. Not as romantic. Train stations are where excitement happens. Bus stations are utilitarian, and so are smoke-belching buses. So I didn’t feel I was committing a crime that would have Maureen Dowd in a snit if I made a commuter train stop at the Callicoon station (now closed in real life) every weekday morning. What commuters it could be picking up I have no idea…
Those are the only two deliberate lies I can think of. Nothing like made-up drama in a Canadian embassy or a state voting the wrong way regarding the 13th Amendment. As for Gwynnie, I hope she figures out she won’t be finding a Motel 6 anytime soon…
Someone is always going down in the celeb world. Currently it seems to be Christina Aguilera, who blew the National Anthem at the Superbowl, has been having drunken escapades and alienating friends, and this morning got arrested for public drunkenness, and Charlie Sheen, who has done more in the past week than this column has room for. A few weeks ago Lindsay Lohan was continuing her spiral down, but she’s cooled off—for now at least. Who knows who it will be next week? A couple years ago, everyone was expecting Britney Spears to drive off a Malibu cliff in her Mercedes. Never happened.
Happily, there are also reputations that rise back up. I don’t want to imply that Gwyneth Paltrow, whose biggest crime seems to be her website, is or has ever been as far down as Mr. Sheen or Ms. Lohan, but she has suffered a lot for her perceived WASPY, aloof ways. Back in the late 90s she was the toast of Hollywood, appearing in Miramax hit after Miramax hit.
Then the career stalled. Yeah, she took time off for motherhood and to bask in the life as the wife of a super-famous rock star. But she was also in a lot of bad movies and seemed to have trouble advancing her persona to more than that of ice-queen, a poor man’s Grace Kelly. On top of that, she chose to hop onto the Internet and start telling people what the best cleanses and purges were, how to buy an $800 water filtration system, and where to vacation. (It’s not anywhere most of us can afford for a weekend getaway.) Why she thinks anyone is interested in knowing about her bowl movements is a mystery only God knows. Then again, her website is called “Goop.”
For a while poking fun at out-of-touch Gwyneth Paltrow became sort of a sanctioned sport. A Salon article from last year asked “Why Do So Many People Hate Gwyneth Paltrow?” She herself said, “People are so mean to me.” What makes it tough to sympathize is that she probably said it from St. Baart’s while slathering on free-range suntan lotion and telling the nanny following her around with a custom silk umbrella that she didn’t want Apple and Moses out in the sun because as she’d pointed out on GOOP, solar rays can damage cells, and brains are made of cells, right?
But recently Paltrow seems to be turning things around. She’s had a good guest-starring stint on Glee, is coming back for more, and while her country movie didn’t do well, her own performance has brought her some new street cred. Most of all, though, she seems to be celebrating her WASPiness—the very thing that had been held against her by so many for so long.
That’s the funny things about reputations. They can go up for little reason, down for little reason, or one can go down for something that does not affect another guilty of the same charge.
A few years ago Claire Danes was reviled by so many because she “stole” Billy Crudup from his eight-months pregnant wife Mary Louise (“Weeds“) Parker. The vitriol was pretty intense, and Danes has made it a point not to talk about her personal life in interviews anymore.
But not nearly as much hatred followed Angelina Jolie when she wedged herself in between Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Sure there was backlash, but somehow we forgave her because we were carpet-bombed with photos of her adopting shopping baskets of poor orphans. As the New York Times indicated in a piece once, she is brilliant at manipulating her public image, which he does herself, without paid consultants.
I’m glad to see Gwyneth is back to doing well these days, and happy that Claire is riding high, with a Golden Globe, AFTRA Award and Emmy for her role in HBO’s Temple Grandin. But in the glare of celebrity, it’s so easy to tear down a career with one misstep. All Gwynnie need do is recommend a weekend jaunt that’s too expensive, all Claire has to say is that her marriage is perhaps a little tougher than she’d imagined, for not just tongues to wag, but sharks to circle in the water, smelling blood. People love to tear down the mighty as much as they love building them up.
And that, as they say, is showbiz.
UPDATE, Tue March 8th: To see a preview of Gwyneth’s latest appearance on Glee, scheduled for tonight, in glorious 720p, click here.
One of the basic premises of my novel is that a huge and versatile movie star with tremendous box office power exists. I’m starting to wonder what’s happened to them in real life.
Just ten to fifteen years ago there were dozens of them, and despite the fact that Hollywood made plenty of junk movies (and that a number of these stars were in them) they also made a good deal of Oscar-buzz films built around the Gwyneth Paltrows, Juliette Bincohes, Nicole Kidmans, Joan Allens, Emma Thompsons, Daniel Day Lewises, Lawrence Fishburnes, Nicholas Cages and Kenneth Branaghs. Just take a look at some of the great, literate films these actors cut their teeth on.
Now things have changed. So many of these stars are now doing mostly comic book movies. You know the type: films people go to see largely for the CGIs, not the acting or stars. Do you think Iron Man or Iron Man 2 sold any more tickets because Gwynnie was in it? Were you as shocked as I was to see Adrian Brody and Lawrence Fishburne in Predators? Has Nicole Kidman made anything recently that’s worthy of her potential? The point isn’t that these aren’t or are “good” movies. The point is that the stars aren’t the draw. They seem to have lost some of their luminescence.
Meanwhile the celebrities that are making headlines are people who are accidentally famous, the “reality stars” and scandal sordids we just can’t seem to get enough of. (Just watch TMZ some night.) It seems today we don’t want famous people to have actually achieved anything, and I hesitate to arm-chair psychoanalyze, but I wonder if this says something about us. While there have always been the disproportionately famous, Paris Hilton began the present cycle of notoriety for absolutely nothing. And she opened the floodgates for all the Kate Gosselins and Kim Kardashians and Jersey Shore “celebrities.”
So what is fame? Is it recognition for achievement, or just hitting the lottery? It’s a good question—and one not easily answered. And is the premise of a Paltrowesque heroine now an outdated (or at least anachronistic) one?
P.S.: I just found this post, which seems to agree with me—movie stars as such may be a thing of the past, Welsey Shaw excepted! This writer thinks franchises are the draw now, and while that may be true, it’s interesting to note that a lot of franchise movies have landed with a thud this summer. So what’s next? Who knows?