Sunday, 8 April 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #879: Sometimes Success Can Hurt

Everyone knows that a flop can ruin your career in the movie business, but not everyone realizes that a smash hit can be almost as destructive.  I had written before about how success can hurt you if it causes your ego to go too far, today I'll take a look at how success can cripple your ego, and with it your career.

A classic example is Producer David O Selznick.  He had been a successful studio executive in the late 1920s & early 1930s with various studios, and had even given the green-light to the original King Kong when he was running production for RKO.  

However, he always wanted to be an independent producer without answering to a board and shareholders, and started his own film production company Selznick International Pictures, whose films were released through United Artists.

The company was a success, putting out hit films, winning multiple Academy Awards, and building up a stable of bankable star.  

Then came a little movie called Gone With The Wind.

Gone With The Wind was a massive undertaking, stretching Selznick's resources beyond their limits.  To get the film made he partnered with his old employer MGM, and its boss, his father-in-law Louis B. Mayer.

The film was a monster success becoming a record setting blockbuster, dominated the Academy Awards, and Selznick got most of the credit, since it was his vision and skill as a producer that prevented the movie from becoming an incoherent mess as it went through writers and directors like tissues during allergy season.

Selznick released one more movie, Alfred Hitchcock's Oscar winning American debut Rebecca, which had been green-lit during Gone With The Wind's production, and then he disappeared from the scene for four years.  During that time his only contribution to the movie business was profitably renting out the stars he had under contract to other studios.

After that hiatus he returned to producing movies, releasing some hits, and even a few classics, but Gone With The Wind hung over him like a cloud.  Everything he did, no matter how well it did, was unfavorably compared to Gone With The Wind.  By the late 1950s, despite some experimental television specials, he had completely and permanently dropped out of the business after his last film 1957's A Farewell To Arms had bombed.

Alfred Hitchcock did a sort of left-handed salute to the producer who brought him to Hollywood by making Raymond Burr's character of the murderer in Rear Window resemble an older Selznick.

Now how do I know that Selznick's career was hurt by the success of Gone With The Wind?  Well, the symptoms are all there...

1. THE EXTENDED BREAK:  Now it was reasonable to assume that Selznick was dealing with profound physical and emotional exhaustion after the ordeal of getting Gone With The Wind made and released.  However, that could have all been dealt with within a few months, or a year at the max.  The four years spent out of the business, just renting out his stars, and only coming back when their contracts were coming up for renewal, shows a bad case of creative paralysis.

You see it often happens when people have such explosively massive success they end up asking themselves and the Universe "Now what?"

Too many don't know the answer to that question, and they freeze up. They start making excuses for staying out, or doing other things, because  taking that big step into doing something new is a step into the unknown.

2. THE ATTEMPTS TO MAKE LIGHTNING STRIKE TWICE: When Selznick started producing movies again you got the feeling that he was, outside of two Alfred Hitchcock films, trying to hit Gone With The Wind style gold by making big budget romantic dramas.

Of course this naturally led to...

3. THE INABILITY TO SHAKE THE CONSTANT COMPARISONS:  Even though many of the films he produced were commercially successful, and some even considered influential classics, people still said: "But they weren't as big as Gone With The Wind."

This meant that good films were often forgotten, becoming mere footnotes to the Gone With The Wind legacy in the cinema history books.  That inevitably crushed his spirit as his output began to decline in both quantity and quality until he finally just gave up at the age of 52.

But how can this be avoided?

Let's have a little thought experiment to explain this process: You just made a movie that was very exhausting, but it became a mega-blockbuster that set records all over the world and made movie history. Amid the accolades and applause you're asking yourself and the Universe:

"Now what?"
The answer: these four simple steps...

1. MOVE ON AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. First, make sure you're healthy. Second, get back on that horse and start riding, even if it scares the royal hell out of you, but don't just go to the same place you did last time. This time you must...

2. DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.  If your mega-hit was an epic drama with a big budget, then do something the complete opposite. Perhaps a small scale comedy or thriller.  Whatever, just do something so different from your mega-hit that it breaks people of the habit of constantly comparing your future output to your mega-hit.  

If they don't then you must...

3. FUCK THE TROLLS. When some smart-ass says: "It wasn't as big a hit as your last movie," you say: "It wasn't supposed to be."  You can't let those kinds of people define you. Hollywood loves to pigeonhole, because it helps them define you into terms their feeble brains can understand.  Once they have you defined they will do everything in their power to keep you there until you believe it yourself, and once that happens you're screwed.

Don't let them get a chance to do that.

Once that's done, you must...

4. ACCEPT THAT IT MAY NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN. You may never have another mega-smash again, but if you continue to do your best work, you might be able to one day stand outside of its shadow and be appreciated for the whole of your accomplishments, and not just one.

1 comment:

  1. It's Rainforest Giant again,

    One example of the problems of massive success in Hollywood are Larry and Andy Wachowski.

    After their first crazy runaway hit, Larry became 'big' enough to be Lana and started living out his fetishes in his real life. It not only took up most of his time but pretty clearly screwed with his creative juices.

    Some things should never see the light of day and in his case being a cross-gender sub obviously left him with nothing to draw on.

    That's all I got on this but I am sure there are other examples. I know it happens in business and the military as well.

    Rainforest Giant.