Tag Archive: hollywood


Peg Entwistle’s Entropy

There’s something about pursuing a life as an artist that can sometimes lead to acts of self destruction. Whether the writer drinks to excess, the painter cuts off part of his ear, or someone like actor James Dean crashes his sports car and ends his career after only three films. More modern examples abound, including Robin Williams, Amy Whinehouse, and even River Phoenix. I think we expect our artists to be both immortal and indestructible, and the truth is, Philip Seymour Hoffman, after years sober, can suddenly listen to the demons of addiction and overdose, ending one of the most prestigious careers of the modern era.

Still, when I worked in Los Angeles on a little known show called, Mysteries & Scandals, one artist stood out: Peg Entwistle. She had had a fairly successful career on Broadway, and definitely paid her dues, but Hollywood was not so kind to her. Her only supporting role came in a Myrna Loy/Irene Dunne, David O. Selznick vehicle called “Thirteen Women” that was released after her untimely death.

Peg Entwistle went for a walk one night and wound up in the Hollywood Hills with a suicide note in her purse. She claimed the letter H in the sign that then read, Hollywoodland, now just Hollywood.

I don’t know how much depression led to her suicide, how much alcohol contributed, and how much can be attributed simply to the impulse in some artists to self destruct. Robin Williams, one of my heroes for the way he lived life on his terms, unfortunately marred his legacy because of an intractable depression that came out of a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, but word has it he died sober. That saddens me even more. With a clear mind, he took his life, and didn’t in that moment know the amount of joy he had brought to millions.

I suppose none of us are immune to the Black Dog Days that Winston Churchill described as plaguing him at times. The best we can do is go to bed early, take care of ourselves, check in with our friends, and trust that those dark days do indeed pass.

I just wonder a bit about the artistic bent toward self destruction. I recently started reading, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work in an effort to understand how best to channel those creative energies.

That showed a more positive spin on how people organize their days to insure heightened creativity. The key, I think, is what to do to survive fallow periods when you’re not feeling creative. Self preservation is more important than any particular string of well constructed sentences.

Boozy But Beautiful

Veronica Lake made a splash in Hollywood in her breakthrough role in the 1941 war drama “I Wanted Wings.” During filming, her trademark blonde hair slipped over her eyes, creating her signature peekaboo look.

She struggled mightily with stardom, however, and fame was a fickle friend. Alcoholism and mental illness dogged her career and marred her legacy, and she faded into ignominy later in life.

I worked at E! Entertainment television between 1997 and 1999 on a little known show called Mysteries and Scandals, and we used to do profiles of all the old Hollywood legends, covering, of course, all the greats, such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Spencer Tracy and Lana Turner, but we also focused on lesser known figures like dancer Isadora Duncan, comedian Fatty Arbuckle, actor John Barrymore and, naturally, Veronica Lake.

Veronica Lake made several films with the five-foot five stature-challenged actor Alan Ladd, including the memorable “This Gun For Hire,” and the lessor known film noir classic, “The Blue Dahlia.” Ladd was known for his height, or lack thereof, and Lake was known for her hair and smoldering eyes. She later became a pin-up girl for soldiers during WWII and sold more than her fair share of war bonds.

Unfortunately, alcoholism, and later, mental illness, took its toll. The two in combination proved deadly, and she died of hepatitis and acute kidney injury at age 50. In reality, Lake ran through her money, and was forced to stay in a series of low rent motels, barely able to pay her bills or put food on the table. When fans tried to send her money, though, she turned down their offers of assistance, insisting that she was still able to make ends meet, and that she was doing just fine on her own, thank you very much.

In our Mysteries and Scandals TV feature at E! Entertainment television, we hinted through a bizarre interview clip that Veronica Lake may have had a lobotomy, but this idea was never substantiated, and in fact, her behavior, strange though it was, could probably have been chalked up to tipping back one too many drinks, one too many days in a row.

I’m reminded of the Marlon Brando quote from the film, “On the Waterfront,” where he shouts out, “I coulda been a contender.” Veronica Lake coulda been a big star, but her career careened off-course, and she never really dealt with the personal demons that haunted her.

Hope Springs

I would watch Meryl Streep read the phone book. She is that compelling onscreen. She is, in fact, the most gifted actress of our generation, the same way Katherine Hepburn was the most celebrated actress of her time. Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award seventeen times, winning three, for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Sophie’s Choice (1982), and the latest, Iron Lady, in 2011, whereas Hepburn was nominated twelve times, winning four.

The movie Hope Springs features Streep in an unusual, highly effective pairing with Tommy Lee Jones. The story shows two married people growing apart, mired in routine. In some ways it examines what I would call the uncomfortable nature of familiarity. When you are deadened to real feelings, having substitute conversations rather than saying what is actually on your mind, your marriage is stagnant.

Kay and Arnold seek outside help from a highly touted marriage therapist, played by Steve Carell. He first suggests an exercise where they hold each other. Watching Streep’s character reach out to touch her husband, the audience sees her hand shaking, nervous to disturb the status quo. As the most talented actress working today, Streep doesn’t waste a single gesture, be it a hand shaking, a nod of the head, repressed tears welling up, the magic as a smile as it colors her face. She shows love, fear, trepidation as well as, eventually, hope, simply by knowing the exact gesture to fit the moment.

Jones’ character Arnold learns that the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” can indeed be turned on its head. The movie celebrates the change from meaningless, mundane activity to the point where a couple might find a way to reconnect. The therapist tells the couple, “Sometimes when a connection is lost, we forget about how to want one another.” That is the journey the couple must take.

At one point, midway through the movie, Streep’s character declares, “You know how you always think you’re headed toward something. There’s always something to look forward to.” She despairs that now she’s grown too old to be surprised, to experience a feeling of wonder and hope. She fears she’s sliding on a downhill slope toward the end of life, and she can’t even rely on her husband to be her stalwart pillar of strength and, perhaps more challenging, to be present to her as they live out their life together.

His reaction to her attempts to resuscitate the marriage is to say, as a stoic figure, “There are some things in this life that you don’t say for a reason.” As a tax analyst, he values routine and predictability, and he is challenged by his wife to move forward rather than stultify in fear. As Carell’s character notes, “Even great marriages have terrible years.”

The trick, in my mind, is to love in spite of the obstacles. Who wants to get to the end of life, only to wonder, “Have I done all I could to make my life mean something?”

The title says it all: Hope Springs.