Hollywood is full of comebacks. It's part of the lore and legend of the film business. The oft-told story of the "has-been" who re-emerges from the murky depths of obscurity is a staple of popular culture and fodder for lots of press. One of the most resonant comebacks of the 90's was John Travolta who regained his status as a 'cool' bankable  star after Tarantino cast him in Pulp Fiction. In the past, many once powerful actors who disappeared from the public eye had nowhere to go but into film purgatory where they wandered reflecting on their glory days. Now, television offers a haven for these thespians who still have the talent and/or the cachet to draw audiences who are searching for something intriguing or fun to watch at home.

Comebacks are great. They give us hope and fill our need to imagine that life is full of endless possibilities - or at least second chances. One of the most notable Comeback Kings of the moment is Wes Bentley, whose meteoric rise after he was cast in American Beauty is chronicled in our documentary, My Big Break.  One look at Bentley's Imdb page demonstrates that his second break is nearly as astonishing as his first one. Bentley has talked openly about his regrets, his struggle with substance abuse, and the lessons he's learned along the way. Now that he's been been cast in Interstellar  directed by Christopher Nolan and will also be part of HBO's new series Open, Bentley has the chance to reclaim the potential everyone saw in his iconic performance as Ricky Fitts.

But, for all of those actors out there who are just starting out, or who just got their Big Break, it's important to remember one very important truth: hardly anyone who has fallen into the darkness of the Hollywood depths gets a chance at a comeback like Bentley's. He was lucky to survive his terrible years of confusion and substance abuse. So many other talented actors, like Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, River Phoenix and most recently, Cory Monteith, were not so fortunate.

Actors, keep in mind that the vicissitudes of fame are hard enough without creating destruction and havoc in your body. By staying clean, sober and totally dedicated to your work, your loved ones and your life itself, you can most skillfully ride the inevitable ups and downs that come with the creative path you've chosen.
Wes Bentley in 'My Big Break'


Playing The Fame Game On Planet Stardom

Now that The Hunger Games is a certified blockbuster, the movie's glowing lead, Jennifer Lawrence, has entered that thrilling but dizzying realm reserved for anointed Megastars. In the April issue of Glamour UK , 21 year old Lawrence mused before The Hunger Games opened: "I feel like I got a ticket to another planet and I'm moving there and there's no turning back, and I don't know if I'm going to like that other planet or have friends there. It's just scary." Yes, it is  scary and whether or not Lawrence likes it- she's arrived.  

For anyone, sudden fame is a destabilizing force but young performers are particularly vulnerable. Without much life experience to help them gain perspective, the shock of being the main attraction in a worldwide arena (very Hunger Games!) is overwhelming. Leonardo Di Caprio, who was a working actor before the megahit, Titanic, almost sank under a titanic wave of fame. Even "wholesome" Daniel Radcliffe now admits he battled alcohol addiction after his stratospheric rise as Harry Potter. The list goes on and on…from Lindsay to Britney to Shia….there's a pattern of emotionally "acting out" after being caught in the permanent glare of the limelight. 

One of Lawrence's co-stars in The Hunger Games, Wes Bentley, who plays game master Seneca Crane, knows this story all too well. In his promotional rounds for The Hunger Games Bentley was repeatedly asked by the media about his own experience with sudden fame, Bentley was exactly Lawrence's age when he burst on the scene as iconic Ricky Fitts in the Oscar- Winning American Beauty . He  made such an impact in the film that  he immediately became one of the most sought after young actors in Hollywood.  But the fame game was too much for him. As we chronicled in the documentary, My Big Break, Bentley retreated from the spotlight and followed a familiar pattern by slipping into the darker side of the Hollywood dream. It's taken a rough ten years for him to begin his real comeback. Bentley is fortunate to have pulled through and get another chance in Hollywood - and more importantly - in life, but not everyone is so lucky. 

So, why do so many promising young rising stars burn out without realizing their full potential? What happens when they arrive on that "other planet" called Stardom that so many try to reach but few do? 

One of the main factors is that breaking through in Hollywood is so difficult that most aspiring actors don’t consider what it would actually mean to be successful and famous. They're focused on working toward the realization of a dream, not preparing themselves for when that dream comes true. When they get their big break and become stars they mistakenly believe that the only thing they'll be required to do is act (or sing or whatever their particular talent might be). Nothing could be further from the truth. 

They're immediately swept into a whirlwind of interviews, photo shoots, studio meetings, media appearances, script selection, premieres, high-profile parties and galas. It's an exhilarating rush at first. This is the seemingly glamorous side of making it that the public sees. It’s enticing and the promise of being part of that kind of world draws thousands of hopefuls to Hollywood each year. But for many, the excitement only lasts until they find out just how many strings are attached to their newfound celebrity status. Agents, managers, publicists, lawyers, accountants and studio executives now control their schedules and activities with only one thing in mind - increasing the star's market value. And all those glamorous marketing activities aren't optional, they're part of a star's job description. 

The rules and expectations that they encounter have nothing to do with their big, big dreams but they can't escape them, so they end up resenting the demands on their time and energy. That's the point where they start to rebel and act out instead of act  - and that's the danger zone. Hollywood allows very little push back. There's money to be made and other up-and-comers who are more than willing to take the place of any reluctant rising star. It's a harsh truth but one that needs to be understood before you go to all the trouble of climbing the mountain only to flame out at the top. 

So, for all of you who are pursuing your dream, here are a few tips about how to handle yourself when you get your big break. With a bit of foresight you'll stay strong, steady and successful in the face of the bottom-line reality of the Hollywood Dream. 

1. You now have a job. It's a very high profile job, but nevertheless, it is a job. There will be a lot of requirements, a lot of responsibilities and a lot of people working for you. You'll find that most people on the business end are primarily interested in you as a "hot property". That might bother you, but if you get lost in feeling exploited and fight them at every turn you'll be the one who pays the price. Relax, find ways to ride the wave calmly and work with, instead of against the business types. You don't  actually have to do everything they ask but in the beginning learn the ropes willingly so you can be far more in control as you get established. 

2. Great artists are obsessed with their work. If you consider yourself an artist remember, in any field the best artists are consumed by their creation. They respect it and spend their lives refining and exploring their art. Find a great teacher- you should never stop learning. Seek out other creatives in the business who live grounded lives and are dedicated to their work. Read great literature and see classic films. Study the masters who've come before you. Do quality theater. Things like these will help you balance the often disturbing demands of the Hollywood market culture with the artistic passion that inspires you.

3. Be thankful. Be humble. As actor Chad Lindberg says in My Big Break, "Appreciate every moment!" You're one of the rare people who beat astronomical odds but that doesn't mean you can take your success for granted. One of the quickest ways too lose the spark that got you that break to begin with is to stop feeling grateful and slip into jaded irritability. The audience can sense it from a mile away and you'll turn them off. Gratitude keeps you open, inspired and inspiring.

4. Stay clean and sober. The fastest way to crash and burn in Hollywood is to buy into the "high" life that's so pervasive in the business. Anxiety, frustration, boredom and lack of any real structure tempts everyone - from those who are struggling to those who are successful - to turn to drugs or alcohol for solace or stimulation. If you're a person who doesn't understand moderation or has a predisposition to substance abuse, or if you find yourself going in that direction, you're in real danger of destroying everything you worked hard for by slipping into addiction. Sure, you think it will never happen to you, no one does, and yes, Hollywood parties can be incredibly seductive and fun, but if you're truly committed to your work and you value your success, you'll understand that no high is worth jeopardizing your abilities and your career. It creeps up on you - so be vigilant and be honest with yourself. Learn to go to parties and hang out without getting high or drunk. It pays off. 

For unique and in-depth insights about the world of film and filmmaking you must check out Film Courage.

Was DiCaprio's Best Performance Before His Titanic Break?

Leonardo DiCaprio is a big star. A really, really big star - a bonafide A-lister who can call the shots. DiCaprio went through a pretty standard Hollywood trajectory for an aspiring actor kid who was born and raised in Los Angeles. First came the commercials, then the guest star roles followed by a stint as a recurring character on a goofy sit-com, then some sci-fi crap, some noteworthy smaller films and then the trajectory took one of those rare twisty curves and a run-of-the-mill working actor became a megastar by getting not just a big break but a giant, gargantuan break - when he was cast as Jack Dawson in the aptly titled Titanic

DiCaprio's ability in Titanic to make young girls swoon, weep uncontrollably and pledge their virginity to him eclipses Robert Pattinson's Twilight powers a thousandfold. Titanic was the first film to make a billion dollars - and his fans' desire to watch DiCaprio's "Jack" declare his undying love for Kate Winslet's "Rose" over and over and over was one of the main reasons Titanic raked in that immense amount of bucks.

The Titanic experience messed with DiCaprio's head big time. He retreated from his massive fame and became profoundly uncomfortable with "Leo-Mania". In a 2000 interview with Time, DiCaprio said "I have no connection with me during that whole Titanic phenomenon and what my face became around the world [...] I'll never reach that state of popularity again, and I don't expect to. It's not something I'm going to try to achieve either." 

Like so many other young performers, DiCaprio couldn't handle the pressure and the expectations so he spent his time indulging in escapist pursuits. He blew off interviews, partied heavily and ate - a lot. If his intention was to destroy the "heartthrob" Leo and bury him under a layer of flesh - he succeeded. When he emerged from his food-fueled retreat he had gained 20 pounds and his pretty face was bloated. But eventually the extra weight made him appear older and more serious. He transformed from Leo into DiCaprio - and entered Scorseseland.

When I first saw DiCaprio I never guessed he would become such a big star - although I did think he'd have a great career as a character actor. I wasn't a fan of Growing Pains or any of the other early DiCaprio fare so I had no idea who he was when I watched Lasse Hallström's quirky but moving film What's Eating Gilbert Grape starring Johnny Depp, another actor who has a love/hate relationship with his own pretty face. DiCaprio played Depp's mentally challenged younger brother, Arnie, with such intense realism that I had a hard time believing Hallström hadn't cast an actor who really had a disability. 

Although DiCaprio is one of the actors in his generation who will probably have a long, diverse career - he'll probably even win an Oscar along the way - I don't know if he'll ever give a performance as nuanced and moving as the one he gave in Gilbert Grape. Why? Because stardom tends to have the strange effect of flattening rather than enhancing an actor's range. They get paid to be themselves rather than lose themselves in a daring performance. These days, DiCaprio is a leading man who stars in high-profile films with high-profile directors and is valued more for being DiCaprio than for being versatile. 

So let's look back at DiCaprio before "Leo-Mania" and see how good he was as a relative unknown in a small but powerful film.


David Lynch And The Bright Future Of The Dead Extra

The first time I came into contact with the unique brain of David Lynch was when I saw Eraserhead. I sat in the darkened theater watching in amazement as strange, nightmarish, often repellent images flickered across the screen. My boyfriend at the time was mesmerized and afterwards declared Eraserhead to be the most brilliant movie ever made. I wasn't sure what I'd just seen but it definitely made me think twice about having kids.

Later, I saw Blue Velvet and when I emerged into the light I felt like I'd woken up from the kind of disturbing dream that impresses you with how creative the subconscious mind can be. Who could come up with such a weird creation that reveled in shiny, innocent people being pulled down into a miasma of degradation and creepy brutality?

Then I met Lynch.

David Lynch with Isabella Rossellini
I had the chance to work with him as a regional casting director on the pilot for his classic television series, Twin Peaks. He strolled into our office with a big smile on his appealing, boyish face. The first thing he asked for was...yes... a cup of coffee. He was friendly and polite, sprinkling his sentences with plenty of "gosh" and "gee". He had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting via the Twilight Zone. At one point,
when his producing partner, Mark Frost, informed him that he couldn't have one of the actresses staggering around blood-covered in just her bra (this was TV in the 1990's after all) but could maybe get away with having her wear a teddy, Lynch furrowed his brow and said, "What the heck is a teddy?". Frost explained that it was like a silky, skimpy undershirt, to which Lynch, frustrated but amiable replied "Gosh no, Mark, that won't do at all. We have to be able to see the blood running down her naked belly!". Ultimately, Lynch had to bow to the times and settle for a tattered slip.

Phoebe Augustine as Ronette Pulaski
In casting, every client is different. Some want to see as many people as possible for each part. Most want at least 8-10 choices. Lynch, not surprisingly, was different. He wanted to leave it up to us to pick just a few top candidates to read for each role. When I say "read for", I'm using it in the broadest sense because Lynch didn't actually have any of the actors read from the script. Instead, he spent time talking with them and getting a feel for their vibe. He asked questions  like "So, do you like to fish?" or "Have you ever eaten in a diner?" He assumed that if they were there in front of him they could act, and he was more interested in them as a person than in their ability to read lines. This actually threw off some of the actors who were already nervous meeting a director of Lynch's caliber and would have have preferred hiding behind a script. Looking back, I think that discomfort was exactly what Lynch was looking for; he wanted to get behind the mask and poke around in the essence of the unprepared actor.

One of the the roles that Lynch was looking to cast was the dead homecoming queen, Laura Palmer, who was at the core of the Twin Peaks mystery. The actress who'd be chosen would be "playing" a dead body wrapped in plastic and might be seen cavorting in flashbacks or home movies. It would give whoever was cast exposure but the part was basically a featured extra. The only prerequisite was that she had to be pretty,wholesome and preferably blonde.

We immediately thought of Sheryl Lee, a young actress who had all the elements Lynch was seeking. It turned out that Sheryl was going to be in Colorado when Lynch was in town and at first she wasn't sure if it was worth flying back to Seattle to audition for such a small part. But after all, it was David Lynch. How many chances would she get to meet someone of his stature? No young actor who is serious about making it in the business would miss that opportunity.

Lynch's face lit up as soon as Sheryl walked in the room. She was exactly what he was looking for: sexy but a little shy - sure of herself but with a fresh, youthful innocence.
You could see immediately that they hit it off. 
After she left, Lynch wasn't interested in seeing anyone else for the role.

Later, we got the word that Sheryl had been enthusiastic and professional while shooting the very uncomfortable dead body scene that took place on a freezing cold beach. Lynch had also been very taken with her in the "home movie" scene in which Laura Palmer is seen playing around before her death. She made such an impression on him that when the series got picked up Lynch decided to write her a part. He created the character of Maddy Ferguson, Laura Palmer's cousin, just for Sheryl. From featured extra to series regular all because Sheryl was smart enough to override her initial reaction of "is it worth it?" and grab a chance when it presented itself. You'd be surprised how many actors wouldn't have done the same. That audition was Sheryl's big break She's gone on to appear in numerous TV shows and films and even starred on Broadway with Al Pacino.

I love stories like this  - even more so when I've witnessed them myself. It proves that breaks do happen in the weirdest and most unexpected ways. It's not easy for actors to keep believing in that possibility. They're faced with so much frustration and rejection - rejection that feels deeply personal; it can really beat them down. They get sick of going out for yet another audition that isn't anything like that great dream role they've longed for all their lives. 
Becoming jaded is one of the biggest traps inherent in the acting profession. It makes actors who were once enthusiastic and fresh lose their creative spark. It makes them want to dull their frustration and anxiety with drugs or indifference. Unfortunately, it can also blind them to seeing an opportunity when it arises. 

My advice to actors? Take a chance, take all chances, even if you don't want to. You've chosen to be in one of the most unpredictable professions in the world so don't work against possibility - help it work in your favor. You really never know which odd experience or seemingly unimportant opening can lead you where you've always wanted to go. 

And if you ever have to fly somewhere to audition for David Lynch - do it! One way or another it'll be quite a trip.


A Twisted Genius And The World's Greatest Sinner

When I discovered that a friend of mine has a blog called The Timothy Carey Experience, I immediately surfed over to find out what she meant by that intriguing title. I clicked the link and, low and behold, I saw the piercing eyes, the crazed expression, the unforgettable face that I recognized immediately. It was one of those "Oh, THAT guy" moments that often happens when we see a familiar actor whose name we don't know. I should have known the name and now I'll always remember it. 

Timothy Carey was one of the most perfect embodiments of the term "character actor" that ever existed. He was a gifted, unpredictable thespian and he sure as hell was a Character. Although he was notoriously difficult to work with, Carey's unique screen quality and strange, riveting talent was sought out by the likes of Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes and Quentin TarantinoAlthough his preternatural intensity was thought by some to be chemically enhanced, Carey summed it up when he said, "People were always offering me grass or cocaine. I got my own cocaine -- my own personality. I am cocaine. What do I need that stuff for?" Indeed.

Carey was kind of like asafetida - the malodorous spice so odd and powerful it's known as devil's dung or stinking gum but also food of the god's. Just as asafetida can impart the right flavor to a recipe when used correctly, so Carey could enhance a film with his unsettling presence. But when handled improperly both the spice and the actor wreak havoc. Thus, although Carey's  talent was admired, rumors of directors and co-stars losing their minds and attacking him abound, and Carey himself said he was known as "the scourge of Hollywood".

I first remember seeing Carey in Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Paths Of Glory, in which he played the doomed soldier Pvt. Maurice Ferol. Although Carey was usually cast as evil, psychotic or a lunkheaded heavy, he was brilliant as Ferol, a part that called for vulnerability. I've never forgotten that film (or any of Kubrick's films - but that's another post altogether) and Carey was one of the main reasons it made an indelible impression. 

Once you start delving into the being that was Timothy Carey you realize that the twists and turns of his life and his mind are seemingly endless. No wonder there's an entire site devoted to him. He worked with great masters and he also worked with The Monkees. He had many moments of genius and he had moments that are...well...hard to describe, like when he worked for eight years on a play  about "the incarceration of farting in society and one man’s struggle to free it".  But he also did a one man show about Salvador Dali - oh, how I wish I'd seen that!

For more about Carey - and anyone who is interested in acting, film, Hollywood or fascinating people should know more about Carey - check out the November 16, 2011 podcast of The Projection Booth and listen in as the marvelous Mike White and Marisa, the magical mind behind The Timothy Carey Experience discuss Carey's opus, The World's Greatest Sinner, a cult film classic that is as weird and wonderful as the man who created it.

I had posted a clip from The World's Greatest Sinner here but it was flagged by Absolute Film - who owns the copyright. I highly suggest, though that you follow the link to check them out.


The Illusion That Is Marilyn Monroe

Every day another girl looks in the mirror and says to herself wistfully, "I want to be like Marilyn Monroe. I want to light up the world, I want to be beautiful, I want to be a woman no one ever forgets." Marilyn is the guiding angel that inspires  them to live their Hollywood Dream. Her mystique acts like a beacon to their sensitive, longing souls. She's the shimmering, seductive Anima of Tinsel Town. 

If you look carefully at Monroe's career it quickly becomes apparent that Marilyn worship isn't about her actual achievements as an actor. I'll go out on a limb and say that although she was certainly good at what she did, her versatility and depth as an actor isn't all that impressive (unlike her fellow legend James Dean). 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a hater. I enjoy watching Monroe do her legendary thing as much as anyone. But what's most enthralling about Marilyn isn't her acting, it's her presence, her ability to emanate something radiant and unique, her ability to transform into a Goddess.  

Norma Jean Baker, the troubled, ambitious girl who was tossed from foster home to foster home, was the first and best Marilyn impersonator. Norma Jean conjured Marilyn from archetypal elements of beauty, sexuality and desire. Although many have tried to recreate the formula they've mostly fallen short.

To be fair, I haven't seen (the otherwise talented) Michelle Williams try to bring Marilyn to life in the latest silver screen offering, but judging from the pictures, trailer and clips, Williams strikes me as yet another actress playing dress up. No Marilyn emanation at all. Naomi Watts is supposedly next in line to march in Hollywood's endless Monroe parade.
If you want to see a Marilyn's Marilyn check out Suzie Kennedy channeling the diva. She pulls it off so well because she let's go of being a great actress. She just moves herself aside and let's Marilyn manifest. 


Many aspiring actresses who look to Monroe for inspiration are drawn to the power of the symbol, the adulation she evokes, the tragic power of her story. But if they're serious about the craft of acting they'd do well to be inspired instead by actors like Meryl StreepHelen Mirren or Marilyn's former roommate, Shelley Winters. It might be terribly seductive to be a Goddess but it's also fraught with peril. Mythology is peopled with those who draw the wrath of the gods when they try to be like them. And the goddess of sex and love - Aphrodite - is known to be particularly cruel when a mortal steps into her territory. 

It's said that "whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad". Thus, it comes as no surprise that once the fragile, emotionally scarred Norma Jean had completed her transformation into The Sex Goddess Marilyn Monroe, she spiraled into depression, addiction, bitterness and despair. Her destruction was part of her myth. No matter how talented the Celestial Marilyn was, her human self was a nightmare to work with. By the end she was viewed in the industry as an irresponsible, royal pain-in the ass who was as out-of control as that modern trainwreck, Lindsay Lohan

But, with her physical death, Marilyn Monroe was finally free of the neediness, pain and frustration that had been locked in the flesh and bones of Norma Jean Baker. Without the weight of human frailty she was able to achieve her greatest ambition and take her place among the Immortals.

Here is an excerpt from Marilyn's last interview that gives a candid glimpse into her troubled state of mind near the end of her life.


The One Scene Every Actor Must See

James Dean. With only three films to his name and a sudden shocking death at 24, the handsome, sensitive young actor became so iconic that his image is visual shorthand for Hollywood. Because he's such a legend it's difficult to view Dean's work objectively. But, if you're able to put aside all preconceptions and simply watch James Dean in East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, it quickly becomes clear that yes, the kid was really that damn good. The fascinating complexity he brings to his roles along with his willingness to make odd, even risky choices sets him apart. His style and look have been endlessly copied but never with much success. Modern day actors who have been influenced by Dean too often miss the mark and end up creating characters who are sulky and puerile rather than finely drawn. 

Dean got his big break when Elia Kazan cast him as Cal Trask, the conflicted young man desperately trying to gain his father's love in East of Eden. Dean stunned audiences with the power of his performance and his sheer magnetism. He then took his place in the pantheon of Hollywood Stardom by playing Jim Stark, the angst-ridden teen, in Rebel Without A Cause. With his final role as the envious ranch hand, Jett Rink, in Giant, Dean stole the film from Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson  and proved his tremendous versatility as well.

But Dean was gone before Giant was even released and became the quintessential personification of the old phrase: "The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long". He was the first actor nominated for a posthumous Academy Award - nominated not just once but twice- for Best Actor in both East of Eden and Giant

Sometimes Dean's emotional, unpredictable Method acting confounded his more conventional co-stars. This worked to great effect in scenes with Dean and the stage-trained Raymond Massey who plays his father in East of Eden. Their clash of styles underscores their characters' inability to connect -  which is the emotional thread that moves the story. Other times, Dean's co-stars just seem stiff in comparison to his realism and truth.  

When Dean is in the company of a talent that matches his own the effect is riveting.That's the case when he's on screen with Jo Van Fleet who plays his hard-bitten, fiercely independent mother, Kate, in East of Eden. Van Fleet brings a nuanced intensity to the role that perfectly complements Dean's stellar performance. 

Before she was cast as Kate, Van Fleet was an acclaimed stage actor but, like Dean, East of Eden was her big break into film. Right off the bat she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Van Fleet became known for playing strong characters who were usually older than she really was. Ironically, as she actually aged she was cast in fewer roles. When her career languished she became frustrated and somewhat bitter. Hollywood is capricious and often talent counts for far less than it should. 

In this scene from East of Eden, Cal, who has never spoken to his mother, comes to the brothel she runs to borrow money so he can invest it and give the earnings to his father.

Both great actors create their characters from a masterful combination of words, rhythm and gesture. Watch the way they use their hands, eyes and posture to bring Cal and Kate to life. it's thrilling to watch even with the sound off. Their level of skill, and the layered interplay of subtext and expressed emotion makes this, in my opinion, the one scene that every actor who is serious about their craft must see.