“Audiences don’t know someone sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.” Joe Gillis – Sunset Blvd.
Man, who knew being a writer could be such a tough gig?
The first two books I read by Stephen King were Dark Half and Misery – I was sure he had a death wish. Later, in college, I dove into Billy Wilder’s films and found, among other classics, Sunset Blvd. Suddenly, becoming a writer didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.
Sunset Blvd. helped spark a love for movies about movies though, and one of my favorites is State and Main. And though Philip Seymour Hoffman was among my favorite actors, he’s not what I love about it. Mostly because his character gets ignored. A lot. To the point that he is barely memorable in it at all. But at least the character survives the process. What is particularly disheartening however, is that after watching a documentary series about screenwriters, I have a feeling that movie isn’t far off.
If I say the names Bernie Taupin or Jim Steinman to people, I am often met with blank stares. If I say Elton John, Meat Loaf or Bonnie Tyler, especially to my fellow 80s children, I get recognition. Incredible because those last three wouldn’t be anywhere without the first two. Elton and Bonnie even seem to recognize that – two out of three ain’t bad right?
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame includes a few early songwriting teams such as Holland, Dozier, and Holland; Lieber and Stoller; and Goffin and King. But when Elton John was inducted, even he seemed stunned to be up there alone. He actually called Bernie up and gave him the physical award. It’s one of the things I love most about him. That neither Taupin nor Steinman have been inducted baffles me and frustrates me anew every year.
So why don’t we value writers? Is it simply that we don’t see them? We see the results of their work but unless they are performing, they are nowhere to be found. And we certainly do not see the hours, months, sometimes years of effort they put into the finished product.
In fiction, I have a feeling that writers often take the opportunity to work out their own neuroses or describe their own experiences. Certainly as a horror writer, King had every reason to fear his own pseudonym or his own “number one fan.” And I have seen enough interviews with Wilder that I can hear that Sunset Blvd. quote in his trademark German accent. I would bet good money that line was his (he always worked with a collaborator but if you watch all his films, you start to be able to pick out his patterns).
But that doesn’t explain real life. Why do only writers seem interested in who is behind our favorite works? Is it that we value language in a way that others don’t? Is it that we do understand the sweat that so often goes into producing something of value?
I do get it to an extent. The brown dirt cowboy isn’t nearly as flashy as Captain Fantastic. On the other hand, if you’ve ever seen Steinman, he is, as Meat once said, “One weird dude.” You’d think he’d be worth a little more interest. Of course, it doesn’t help that both he and Taupin have that reclusive artist trait going for them in spades. It may actually be the only thing my two favorite songwriters have in common. Taupin fronted a band for two whole albums and among the reasons he listed for giving it up was that he had inexplicably found himself a frontman. He went back to his ranch and his paintings and while I wish the Farm Dogs had done more, I can’t say I actually blame him.
I think a writer’s temperament must be very different from that of a performer. Some people can do both but many of us can’t. I know I’ve always preferred to be in the background rather than the spotlight. Keep me behind the scenes and I’m a happy camper. Make me speak in front of people and it doesn’t matter how passionate I am about the topic. It’s not my strength. Similarly, I’m better in print than I am in person.
All that to say I don’t really have an answer. I’m just fascinated by the recurring theme I keep seeing and much as I wish I could change it, I think many of us are happy back here behind our typewriters and computer screens. Just feed us every now and then, pat us on the head and recognize we’re here. And you know, maybe don’t kill us. That’s not so much to ask is it?