Ellen Page. Shailene Woodley. Anna Paquin. Elle Fanning. Dakota Fanning. Julia Stiles. Jessica Chastain. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jennifer Connelley. Virginia Madsen. Connie Nielsen. Many others I’ve no doubt forgotten. Female stars in Hollywood have a disturbing tendency to be around for a few films, and then disappear into either minor roles or, at best, franchise series.
Of course this happens to the men too, and there are plenty of hot new leading male stars who have disappeared. But it seems to me the phenomenon is more common with young women.
Women seem to be more dispensable in modern filmmaking. Their parts are often more stock—yes, even if they’re an ass-kicking superhero or supervillain like Scarlett Johansson or Kate Beckinsale or Margot Robbie. Face it, it’s easy to replace one with another. Margot won’t do it, call Charlize Theron.
That makes a great payday but at the same time building a career is tough. How many actresses recently have, after their breakout picture, gone on to varied performances lately, besides Jennifer Lawrence, and that may be only because David O. Russell loves her. A few others come to mind—Michelle Williams, Keira Knightly—but not many.
Some say this is deliberate on the part of studios. It helps keep budgets down. Productions are less inclined to pay $15 million for a Julia Roberts when they can have a current “it” girl for four or five. Though they still spend upwards of $180 million on epic films, they aren’t doing it as often as they once did.
The biggest reason is simply it’s hard to find well-written lead roles for women—roles where they aren’t arm-candy to the male leads, or the damsel who has to be rescued. Sure there are a few bad-assers out there, like Michelle Rodriguez and Daisy Ridley, but those bad-assers have no depth. They’re as two-dimensional as the action figures they help sell.
So every few years we’re treated to a string of new “breakout” talents who take the world by storm with a tremendous performance in what I’m going to controversially call a legitimate film—Jessica Chastain in Zero-Dark-Thirty, Ellen Page in Juno, Shailene Woodley in The Descendants, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby—and then they either don superhero outfits or disappear altogether. Or both in succession.
It’s hard to develop acting talent when that’s your talent pool—superhero characters. It leads to a very infantile set of options for serious artists. And maybe that’s why the stars in Hollywood don’t quite shine as brightly—or as long—as they once did, not long ago. Hollywood today caters to teenagers and overseas box offices. And both are very fickle.
One of the biggest cliches in any discussion of writing is “Why do you write?” It seems to be a question that won’t go away. I find it interesting, especially since nobody asks the plumber “Why do you plumb?” or the carpenter “Why do you carpet?”
But I’ll also tell you my answer, the same answer William Goldman gave in his excellent 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade: “I’ve got secrets!”
Secrets, you hear me, secrets! And I agree. I know things, big things. Things right under our noses, only I’ve assimilated and made sense of them and now I’m bringing them to you, wrapped in a nice candy shell of good writing, witty dialogue and poignant moments.
After all, isn’t this why anyone writes?
Actually no. The genre writers, I don’t think, care too much about this sort of thing. They write mainly escapism. I know I’ll get arguments—there are lots of people who find profundities in every Star Wars and Harry Potter installment—but I really believe genre is generally antithetical to discovery, to the search for truth.
Why? Because unless you break the rules of genre (and I love it when writers do—Jose Saramago is a great example), you have certain foregone conclusions. Most people find that sort of comforting; I don’t.
I don’t care for most westerns, but one of my favorites is The Cowboys, a 1972 John Wayne film. Why? Because Wayne, obviously the star, gets shot in the back two-thirds of the way through the movie. You don’t expect that in a Western.
Another is Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. There simply isn’t enough time to describe all the ways that one went against the grain.
By defying genre expectations, the creators are saying, “We’ve got secrets!” Because secrets keep the genres going! And going!
That’s why I write.
It’s lonely. When I was first starting Entertaining Welsey Shaw, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and fire was newly discovered, I read somewhere, on either the internet or a stone tablet, a quote attributed to Toni Morrison†: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, write it.
I liked that advice, and set out to do that. I was amazed no one had written the definitive ordinary-guy-meets-celebrity novel, a setup I thought was ripe.
But agents and publishers aren’t so lofty-minded. They want stories that are very close to what they’ve already published, so they can see it that way. Despite Ms. Morrison’s advice, most people don’t like to see something they haven’t seen before. Nearly every agent and publisher I showed the novel to wanted to know, immediately, what the “comparables” were, meaning, what’s “like it.” Some websites even gave examples: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games. Yeah, agents and marketers think far and deep.
Okay, it’s hard to blame them. The business is tough, and most books, like most movies and most recordings these days, don’t make money. So they’re being very careful about what they publish. At the same time, being this reactionary often means missing the next big opportunity. Once upon a time Ms. Rowling couldn’t find anyone who would publish a 500 page book with all text and no pictures aimed at kids. It does sound absurd, doesn’t it? What smart money would pursue that?
What all this means is fiction, particularly American fiction, is wedded to genre. It’s not as bad in other cultures. But I can’t help but feel sad when I see people reading predictable stuff over and over again. I can sort of understand why predictability is desirable—you want to know, when you invest your time, what you’re going to get. An old friend recently told me this is why she goes to Disney World again and again: you know how your vacation will turn out. You know what you’re going to see, how you’re going to react, what they’ll make you feel.
Me, I love surprises. I’d rather try something new and not enjoy it. For one thing, all the things I do love were once new experiences for me, ones I was iffy about. For another, well, as I said, I love surprises, don’t like the predictable. When I go into an action hero flick, I know they’re going to succeed in their mission—blow up the big battle station or whatever—but there will be a big loss…probably the most lovable character will die. But nothing subversive will happen.
I live for subversiveness. Art is created when the norms bump up against subversiveness and friction results. If we still weren’t shooting hero cowboys in the middle of the picture, we’d still be making Stagecoach. Nothing wrong with Stagecoach. There is something wrong with still making Stagecoaches in 2017.
Daniel Ferreira, my protagonist in Entertaining Welsey Shaw, has secrets, and they come out in his writings too. At the point we join him in the story, however, no one is interested in them anymore. He had one break-out book, when he was fresh out of college, Since then no one has been interested in anything he’s had to say. So he’s turning out schlock for third-tier magazines and newspapers, a hired gun.
That’s how Entertaining Welsey Shaw begins. You can read the rest of it, too, as it’s now out, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and just about everywhere else they sell books (if you ask nicely). You can also either get it, or ask them to order it, at your local indie book store. In fact, there’s a list of such stores right here. Whatever method of delivery you choose, from drone to phone, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get.
And there’s currently a contest going on. Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about a haphazard encounter between our Everyman Daniel and a famous, elusive celebrity. Tell me an interesting encounter you’ve had with a celebrity, either traveling incognito or in full view. The best story (judged by me) wins a free hardback copy of the novel–a $27.99 value as they say. The link is here—https://entertainingwelseyshaw.com/2017/03/24/giveaway-get-a-free-copy-of-entertaining-welsey-shaw-for-entertaining-the-rest-of-us-with-your-story/.
Good luck! And remember, genre is fun but surprises are better.
† I always say “attributed” because there are a lot of quotes that were not said by people who are famous for saying them, even well-known quotes.
Jennifer Aniston again.
It may seem hard to believe that people who always appear to be confident are as doubt-filled as the rest of us. Here is Jennifer Aniston responding with surprising candor to a question asked at a film festival in Italy. She was asked by a young girl if she ever woke up in the morning not knowing who she was. You’d think at this stage in her career, her life, such feelings would be far behind her. But not only are they not, but the very question caused the normally guarded Aniston to tear up.
“We’re all human beings at the end of the day, whether we’re a waitress or a baker or a student or whatever we are; at the end of the day, you kind of hit walls and think, I kind of can’t go any farther. Or this is too much. My heart can’t take it or the pain is too great, or am I good enough?”
She says “there are not enough fingers and toes” in the entire room for her to count how many times that has happened to her.
This in a nutshell is what Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about. Everyone thinks they “know” celebrities because they see them in wildly fantastic situations, being treated like royalty, being touted as living lives no one lives.
Of course there’s money and privilege, but one can have that and still be unhappy. But that aside, it’s clear these things don’t make insecurity disappear. Or unhappiness. Welsey tells Daniel near the end of the novel that she spends most of her nights “in here” (her apartment) alone, with the TV for company. Even if your TV is bigger and your apartment nicer, it can be a lonely life. But no one understands. Which only makes it lonelier. So you’re isolated by the very nature of your loneliness, despite the fact that it’s the same feeling anybody else has. Nah, couldn’t be the same.
Which makes it more astonishing that this girl’s simple question made Jennifer shed tears, and blot her eyes with a tissue. I’m trying to remember the last time I’ve seen a celebrity so unguarded in public and failing. And it happened with a celebrity who’s famous for her detached demeanor, her control, her desire to project herself with every hair in place.
“Am I good enough?” It was impressive that she admitted—to the world: to casting agents and fellow actors and the likes of TMZ—that she’s not secure.
She has a reputation.
Just like Welsey Shaw.
She doesn’t think she deserves it.
Just like Welsey Shaw.
Kristen Stewart, who used to be, if not America’s sweetheart (she’s too dark and moody for that), at least America’s favorite vampire, has somewhat fallen out of favor, even as she’s worked hard to distance herself from her Bella character and take on new and different roles. But somewhere along the way, she’s gotten a rep for being unapproachable. Disdainful of her fans. A bit of a brat.
Just like Welsey Shaw.
This pisses her off.
Just like…Okay, I’ll stop.
This isn’t to say, by the way, that K-Stew is the basis for the character of Welsey. Welsey is an amalgamation of lots of famous people, plus a good deal I just made up. Or, in many cases, think I made up, only to discover some celebrity has in fact uttered that statement, been in that experience, thought that thought.
But in an interview a while ago, the 26-year-old actress got downright annoyed that people think she’s “unapproachable.”
“When I hear that people are intimidated or they think I’m, like, reposed or like, unapproachable or something that actually—I hate it. I’m always like ‘Dude, come up say anything to me. I would love to engage with you.”
If you watch the clip carefully, you’ll see she’s about to say it “pisses her off” when she quickly changes to “I hate it.” That in itself really makes her endearing to me.
But it’s true, and it’s an enigma: fans want to talk to their favorite celebrity, but as Daniel Ferreira finds out, it’s tough finding something to say when you get the chance.
I have a list of creative people whom I’d like to ask something regarding some aspect of their work. At the same time, if I ever found myself sitting on an airplane next to Meryl Streep or Wallace Shawn or David O. Russell, I’d probably hesitate to talk shop—because I figure it’s the last thing they’d want on their day off. They might even get justifiably angry at me and tell me off in no uncertain terms, and I’d go away upset that my hero turned out to be a jerk.
Another thing that struck me about the Kristen Stewart interview. She seems a genuinely reluctant celebrity. Like you-know-who. It seems an odd turn of affairs—you really have to throw yourself into the limelight to get discovered usually—but it actually is a lot more common than you’d think. Susan Sarandon went to a casting call with her then-husband Chris, who couldn’t drive at the time, and although he didn’t get cast, she did. Kristen Stewart grew up with parents in the business, but behind the camera, which is always where she thought she would end up. She says she didn’t want celebrity, and still finds it difficult. Which brings us to the question of whether or not they “owe” their fans anything beyond the work they do and put on the screen. Does spending eight bucks on a ticket entitle you to get to see them on their own time? There’s no easy answer.
But Stewart, among others (Mila Kunis is another) seems to love unscripted encounters with people—provided they’re respectful and considerate. Following another event that happened just last week, the shooting death of a reality TV singer for reasons still unknown, it’s important to remember that stars have good reason to fear the very people who pay their salaries. Kristen Stewart knows that too. Just like Welsey Shaw.
The world’s most famous vampire has this to say about Hollywood:
“It’s like the most gnarly popularity contest in the world…You take high school and make it like in the real world…Hollywood is boring, nasty and dog-eat-dog.”
Pretty frank talk from someone who’s only recently made her reputation, and whose career is still pretty fresh. Usually, this kind of jaded talk comes from vets, retired megastars with nothing to lose.
In part she’s talking this way because she’s coming out in a Woody Allen film that is about this very reptilian aspect of Hollywood. Still, the star of the Twilight franchise pulled no punches.
“There’s definitely an undeniably-opportunistic, hungry, insane fervour that occurs,” says Stewart. “I think human beings are always clawing at each other to get on top. I think that’s true in most industries but Hollywood can have a surface nature that makes it more obvious.”
Perhaps it’s ironic that she’s talking about how rough-and-tumble her business is when she’s promoting an Allen film. Though considered a director who’s easy to work with, Woody has come under fire for some inappropriate behavior off the set that also arguably informs the subject matter of some of his films (Manhattan, most notably.)
Kristen isn’t alone is saying Hollywood is a vast spiritual wasteland. Chloë Sevigny is also talking about her bad experiences—this time of the sexual kind. Sevigny has recently recounted several directors who used auditions to hit on her, try to get her to go out “clothes shopping” with them, and engage in other extra-curricular activities.
Possibly the best line she heard from a director: “You should show your body off more. You shouldn’t wait until you’re as old as this certain actress who had just been naked in a film, you should be naked on screen now.” Whoever he was, subtlety wasn’t his forte.
In all cases, she says, she didn’t get cast, but it shows you what many young women have to go through to end up with their name in lights. It also may explain why many mediocre actresses seem to get more than their deserving share of screen time, while others who are excellent fade away quickly.
As Welsey Shaw knows, it’s a rough world out there, where looks and sexuality determine, often more than talent, who gets cast and who gets passed.
Doesn’t stop a long line of movie star-wannabes from flocking to Hollywood every year, however. The allure of fame is strong.