50/52: THE WINDING STREAM: THE CARTERS, THE CASHES AND THE COURSE OF COUNTRY MUSIC
It’s a funny time right now. There are so many great possibilities for new filmmakers because the technology is so available. That part is awesome. The tricky part is anything that costs money – travel, archival rights… I guess my recommendation is don’t make big, archival-based music films unless you want to take 12 years. Shooting things that you have much more access to is probably a way to start off.
~ Beth Harrington
Producer/Director/Writer Beth Harrington is a Boston native who worked extensively with PBS and WBGH before moving to the Pacific Northwest. This documentary saga took her 12 years to complete and among its many gems is early television footage of the Carter women, Johnny Cash’s final interview, extensive audio recordings and a side plot about Border Radio that kind of blew my mind.
Anyone with an interest in American and music history will love the time spent here with the earliest originators of what we now call country music–and the vast influence these artists exerted over all of American music. There was so much I didn’t know and the Carter Family backstory is inspiring, jaw-dropping and the stuff of legends; it’s wonderful to see how their legacy lives on. This film is available to stream on Netflix.
I feel like I’ve been writing this post in my head for a very long time. A week ago today, I left Los Angeles–my home for 11 years–and moved back to Boston. It was a decision I wrestled with for nearly two years…what to do, where to go, how to make sense of walking away from something I’ve wanted since I was old enough to think thoughts. To be clear, I wasn’t walking away from my dream, but I was walking away from the place where I thought it would come true. Few things in my life have been scarier, more stressful or fraught with confusion than this decision.
The hardest part of it all was–and is–feeling like a failure. I always promised myself that I would never be one of those actors who called it quits and left Hollywood before what could have been their big break. I felt smugly sorry for them…sorry that they couldn’t hang on and smug because it meant one less actor competing with me for roles. There was always something ahead of me to accomplish–better headshots, a new acting method to learn, membership in the union, casting directors to befriend, a theatre company to join, agents to lock down…I thought that I still had my 10,000 hours to put in, confidence to gain and techniques to hone.
But then I put in those 10,000 hours and honed those techniques. I studied with several amazing teachers. I had incredible artists see and affirm my work. I got the agent and the union membership. But nothing else happened. I rarely got to audition. I rarely got to work. I was one of thousands competing every day for a shot at two lines on a TV show and it was impossible for me to stand out. Even with determined allies who wanted me to work, who tried to get me work…it didn’t happen. For an actor, this is death. There is nowhere to put all of that training or desire or potential if you don’t have a role to play. Acting is one of the few artistic pursuits that simply doesn’t work alone in one’s living room; we need a vehicle and we need an audience.
And then I was about to turn 40 and started having meltdowns in public, like in the crowded lobby of my dentist’s office, where I suddenly started crying and couldn’t stop. I started thinking about how many sleeping pills would be enough to knock me out permanently and how, exactly, to phrase the note so that it wouldn’t destroy my mom. I took an emergency trip to Boston after another of my boss’s toxic tirades and one night cried uncontrollably on the sofa while my parents sat on either side and held me because there was nothing else to say or do. I wandered my apartment at all hours because sleep was elusive. I lost several close friends in succession for reasons that remain hazy but probably amount to each of us being lost in fighting our own battles.
Then, on one of those trips home, my beloved seven year-old nephew took longer than usual to warm to me. I left him alone but, finally, we were outside about to go on a bike ride. He was behind me and I heard him blurt out, “I love you, Auntie Dawn!” I turned around and he had clamped his hands over his mouth. Then he said, “I haven’t said that in a long time. I love you. Do you love me?” And I realized, in that moment, that I was not okay with missing yet another year of his childhood.
There is nothing like leaving your 30’s to make you take stock of where you are in life. I had given everything I had–made tremendous personal, emotional and financial sacrifices–to pursue my dream in Hollywoodland. And, for a long time, it was a land I loved. I loved the sunshine, the palm trees, the beach, the mountains, the sweet-smelling & blossoming trees, the flowers that bloomed all year round, the random run-ins with famous actors I admired, the famous actors who randomly saw my work, the dear friends I made, the cinematic history, the fact that everyone was doing the same thing and the thrilling experiences that just happened out of nowhere because I was in Hollywood and they couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
But the grind caught up with me. I got priced out of the part of town I adored and wound up commuting three to four hours a day just so I could stay at a job that let me audition and afford to live in a part of town I despised. The few auditions there were dried up completely once I hit 35. My marriage ended in L.A., as well as another serious relationship. Meaningful friendships dissipated and there was a heartbreak that left a scar that will probably never fade. La La Land started to resemble a ghost town. There is, literally, no corner of that city that doesn’t hold a memory for me of the people I lost.
I don’t know how that happens, especially when relationships mean so much to me, but I do know that it’s a town of competition and envy; a town of unequal fortunes; a town where people don’t return your messages or flake out of plans at the last minute; a town where everyone drives everywhere and no one wants to drive anywhere; a town where you’re up and down so many times that you’ve lost count and no one can be bothered to care anymore because they’re just trying to survive the same as you.
I realized that the last meaningful piece of work I’d done was to produce and act in my own short film…and that nearly every piece of meaningful work had originated with me and had not come from auditioning for someone else. I looked back over my life and saw that I was always creating opportunities for myself…because I had to…because there was no other way to live. One night I was re-watching La Vie En Rose for the millionth time and I thought, “I’m running out of time. What if I die without ever getting to play the kinds of roles I dream of?” In that moment I took full responsibility for my art because I knew it was never going to come to me the way I hoped it would for all those years.
I started down the road of developing a feature film for myself and that has turned into a beautiful partnership with a screenwriter. She wrote a script for me that, in my wildest dreams, would never have come into my life had I not actively willed it to happen. And then my old love for truly independent filmmaking began to surface. And then I found out my nephew was getting a baby sister. And then I began to think, maybe it’s time for a change of scene. Maybe I need to find a place where I can rest and not spend hours of my life in traffic and maybe I can actually get an audition and maybe I can live near my entire family for the first time since high school and watch my nephew and niece grow up and maybe I can make this film on my own terms and see if this dream can be fulfilled in ways I never saw coming.
So, that’s what I’m doing and so far it’s been great and surreal and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I still wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if I’ve made the right decision. I still get pangs of envy and disappointment when I hear about acting opportunities that friends have gotten instead of me. But I also get huge, uncontrollable smiles on my face when I encounter parts of this “real” city, like trains and tunnels and thick accents and winter weather. I feel like I’m meeting a part of myself I’d forgotten existed but it’s a part that feels like the real me. The constant anxiety and stress is gone; I revel in the moments I have to be with my family and can’t believe I was ever away from them for so long. I’ve left my home and friends and the industry behind but, as one of my acting teachers once said to me, I carry my dream with me. I have to believe that all of the people and places and work I love still surround me in some way and that, in time, we will find a way to meet again.
30/52 WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED
I have been waiting for this. Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong is one of my favorite directors of all-time. You know her from such beautiful films as Oscar and Lucinda, Little Women, Charlotte Gray and My Brilliant Career (this one is a MUST SEE). However, Armstrong hasn’t made a narrative feature since 2007 and the reasons are becoming familiar as I research and watch these films by women. The issues are a lack of funding and opportunities for women filmmakers and films, of overblown corporate studio systems that get in the way of making good films and, most of all, the wasteland that exists when it comes to finding a solid script. Armstrong has been outspoken about the fact that, for many years, she hasn’t found one decent narrative story to make. The scripts that come her way are “banal” and “predictable after the first ten pages.” She believes the best writers are mostly in television now (true) and laments the dearth of great dramatic and character-driven theatrical films.
Like Debra Granik, whom I also featured on this blog, Armstrong has turned her hand to documentaries, where there is a wealth of wonderful stories to be told on less expensive budgets. This week her latest documentary was released on VOD and it tells the story of Orry-Kelly, the incomparable yet mostly unknown Hollywood costume designer, who also hailed from Australia. Although you may not know his name, you have definitely seen his work, as he designed for everyone from Bette Davis to Marilyn Monroe to Ingrid Bergman to Katharine Hepburn to Jane Fonda. He also had a profound influence on some of our best costume designers working today, such as Ann Roth (The English Patient), Colleen Atwood (Chicago) and Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby).
This film is fascinating on a few levels. As a lover of Old Hollywood film history, I couldn’t get enough of the inside scoop on the behind-the-scenes drama of the studio system. There are tons of juicy tidbits about actors such as Bette Davis, who is one of my artistic heroes and who was a close collaborator with Kelly. The fashion and glamour is a feast for the eyes. But, most of all, Kelly was one of the few openly gay and working members of the Hollywood system at a time when the LGBT community was often ostracized and blacklisted. And Kelly carried a powerful personal secret to his grave that I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t seen the film.
Armstrong went on a long hunt for a lost memoir of Kelly’s, which she finally located and which is finally going to be published. Her sources are first-hand–both Kelly’s own writing about his life and other artists who actually worked with him. Armstrong employs actors in stylized re-enactments of certain scenes; it’s a bit jolting at first but stick with it. Eventually it dawned on me that, as a master of her craft, Armstrong made a precise choice in how to tell her story and it all serves her subject matter perfectly in the end. It’s an emotionally compelling and entertaining ride through old Hollywoodland and I’m thrilled to see new work from this director I love.