Girl with thoughts, beware.

Think. Write. Repeat.

Archive for the month “May, 2014”

Book Review: “Stories I Only Tell My Friends” by Rob Lowe

 

10211494

Surprisingly delightful! I have to admit though, I did have low(e!) expectations going in. I saw an interview with Rob Lowe on Oprah Prime a few weeks ago, and he was promoting his latest book- and sequel to this autobiography- “Love Life”. As my dear friend Stacie would say, a lot of my problems stem from watching too much Oprah. I immediately ordered a copy of his first memoir from Amazon Prime and felt only slightly sheepish about it.

But “Stories I Only Tell My Friends” is luckily not the cheesy, poorly written and arrogant dish-fest I first suspected it might be. Rob Lowe is very insightful, heartfelt, and candid in this book. I’m a sucker for all things 1980s nostalgia, so of course I couldn’t wait to read about his adventures with the Brat Pack. I was only slightly disappointed- this isn’t as “telling” and no-holds barred as the jacket copy would have you believe, but I found his story as an up-and-coming actor suddenly swallowed up in the murk of fame and excess fascinating and inspiring nonetheless. 

And while much of what he discloses in the book is revealing in nature, if not particularly juicy, it’s more interesting to note what he doesn’t reveal. A few years back, my friend went on a huge biography binge and promptly loaned me some of the more dishy/trashy books in his canon, including Tori Spelling, Jodie Foster, and Melissa Gilbert. In Gilbert’s memoir, she recounts in excruciating detail a tumultuous affair with Rob Lowe, her first big love, that ended in bitter heartbreak. Lowe is described as being a complete cad (which, by the way, I’m sure he would agree with at that point in his life). While Melissa Gilbert devoted more than a few chapters to Lowe in her book, Lowe gives her barely a 3 sentence mention. It’s either a hilariously subtle “F-You” to Gilbert in retaliation to her comments, or he really thought she perfectly summed up their relationship so much that it didn’t merit a re-telling in his book. I would have gladly given Rob Lowe’s book 5 stars if he just put “My relationship with Melissa Gilbert in the 80s: Please see Melissa Gilbert’s memoir. ‘Nuff said.”

Neither does Rob Lowe give any mention to his younger brother Chad’s rising career during the period where Lowe’s was sagging. Chad Lowe actually won an Emmy for his role in Life Goes On circa the early 90s, an award which has eluded Lowe for the bulk of his career despite starring in some of TVs greatest shows. Granted, this is Rob Lowe’s story not Chad’s, and maybe he left it out in case Chad ever needed to write his own memoir. Rob Lowe also discloses more stories in his latest follow up, “Love Life”, so perhaps he writes about it there, but I found it odd that he didn’t even give one sentence to Chad’s similar rise to stardom in this work. 

I was never a huge “Rob Lowe Fan”, though I knew who he was and happened to like cult classic St. Elmo’s Fire as a teenager. He’s probably the least likely member of the Brat Pack to carve out such a long and successful career. I had no idea he was a former alcoholic, but I did know at age 13 that by the time he did Wayne’s World he was already considered a has-been. In his book, Lowe recounts that much of his career has been spent trying to be taken seriously as an actor, a considerable task for a man as gorgeous and “pretty” as he is. Somehow Mike Myers tapped into a part of Lowe no one had ever encountered before and I find his comedic turns, especially Parks and Recreation, to be some of his best- and most charming- work.

The man name drops with abandon, but not without good cause or purpose. I had no idea until reading this book that many of our biggest actors and celebrities today started out around the same time. Lowe either went to school with or worked with the likes of Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Chris and Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr. Holly Robinson (Peete), Tom Cruise, John Cusack, Sarah Jessica Parker, Darryl Hannah- just to name a few- and all before they had even landed their first big gigs. Was there something in the water in Malibu circa the late 70s? Do we see this same phenomenon today? If this book tells us anything it’s that Hollywood has changed ten-fold within the last 30 years, and thank goodness we have Rob Lowe’s intelligent eye to bear witness. 

Actors will love this book and find it extremely engaging. His humbling stories behind some of his earlier films, The Outsiders in particular, are pure instruction for inquisitive actors. Lowe is at his most candid recounting his distaste and dissatisfaction with the Hollywood system, and how he’s managed to overcome several setbacks throughout his career by becoming more in tune with who he is as a person. Part of this came about with his sobriety and a large part has to do with his wife, Sheryl, and becoming a family man- something he never imagined doing in his youth.

I love the below passage because it sums up my life in a way as well:


If you’d asked me when I was a young punk what would be the best thing that could come my way, I would’ve said, ‘A movie with Martin Scorsese’. But God had other plans. He gave me Sheryl.

As Rob will tell you (and learned the hard way), happiness comes in many forms and not just in the form of a fulfilled career.

This is a guy who went from teen heart-throb to addict and chronic ladies man with probably more than 50 (not kidding) sexual encounters under his belt, to serious TV/Film actor/writer and political activist who has been married to the same woman for 25 years with whom he has two children. Not a small feat, especially when you consider all of the current teen star meltdowns happening these days. He’s earned this autobiography, let me tell you. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in reading an inspiring, well-written, and unschmaltzy work by a bad guy who made good.

And P.S.- Tori Spelling’s first book, “sTORITelling”, was also enjoyable. Who knew?!

Book Review: “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A mother, her son, and a fifty year search” by Martin Sixsmith

6791212-the-lost-child-of-philomena-lee.jpg

On paper (pun intended), the story behind Michael Hess’ rise to political power in the Republican Party has all the trappings of a smash hit. Unwed mothers! Greedy nuns! Irish orphans! Homosexuality! Seedy nightlife! AIDS! Politics! A mother and son’s long search for the truth! Sixsmith must have visualized some sort of movie in his head while he pounded out this story. In fact, the story itself nothing short of compelling. The execution of the story, however, is completely disappointing.

If you go on the Goodreads website and read nearly all of the one to three star reviews for this book, you will see a general complaint: Martin Sixsmith, for whatever reason or another, fabricated most of the dialogue in his work. Why he chose to deviate from the journalistic style from which he’s built his career and write this story as a work of non-fiction meets fictional setting is beyond me. I urge everyone to read the review by Susan Kavanaugh. Susan is featured in the story as one of Michael Hess’ (né Anthony Lee in an Irish Catholic Abby to Philomena Lee) close friends, and her review completely lambasts Sixsmith’s butchering of the life of her good friend. She confirms much of the dialogue is made up, although it doesn’t take long for the reader to gather as much, especially since the main character is deceased. As I mention in my comment on Goodreads, I don’t believe for one second that 3 year olds sit in cribs at night having existential conversations about their adoptions and what it all means. This type of dialogue was written solely for dramatic effect and it becomes very clear that the author had designs on making this a dramatic, or rather melodramatic, work.

Only 10% of this book actually covers “the mother” and her “50 year search” as the subtitle proclaims. The bulk of the book is devoted to Michael Hess- his journey to America, his adoption into an American family, his youth, his rise to political stardom, his sexual escapades, and his fight with AIDS that ultimately ended with his death in 1995. The first quarter of the book is decidedly the best and most intriguing, as Sixsmith describes Philomena’s struggle in the convent to keep her child and the historical aspects of Irish adoptions through the Catholic Church during the 1950s and 60s. At first I thought I might be in for a great read- full of scandal, despair, and hope.

After such a promising start, the book quite drastically switches focus and Philomena Lee becomes a mere footnote. The story would have worked much better if Sixsmith had given equal weight to Philomena’s search for her lost child along with Michael Hess’ struggles to find his identity and Irish birth mother. The only way this could have worked is if Sixsmith wrote it as a journalist and not as a first person narrator. But somehow I suspect that either Martin Sixsmith or his publishers decided that this story wouldn’t sell without a heavy dose of sensationalism. And that is what characterizes most of Michael’s story. The amount of time the author devotes to Michael’s sexuality, relationships, forays into the darker aspects of the gay lifestyle in 1970’s Washington D.C., and his own troubled sense of self-worth overrides most of the main premise. Many of the reviewers on Goodreads point out that in the end the title of this story is misleading.

I wouldn’t say I felt misled by this book, but I have to wonder why Philomena was given such short shrift. In the last 50 pages or so that the author devotes to her story since leaving the Roscrea abby in Ireland, we learn she remarries twice and has two other children. We discover she went back to the abby to search for her lost son. We soon realize that she lived most of her life in pain and aguish, keeping her shameful secret from those who loved her. In the very beginning of the book, Sixsmith admits that he only came to know of this story through Philomena’s daughter. When I first read this, I thought “Ok, she obviously leaves the abby and goes on with her life. How does this happen? Does she get married, reunite with her family? Was it emotionally painful to have a second child?” I didn’t think my questions would ever be answered. As we moved painfully slow, year by year, through Michael’s life (1973-74 was a particularly long year- over 3 chapters), not once did the author touch on the parallel life of a mother in search of her son, or her thoughts and longings as she met her own daily struggles. I would rather Sixsmith trim all the extraneous points in Michael’s life- his early theatre career, his role in Gerrymandering laws, even the details of some of his early relationships- and share focus to Philomena’s side of the story.

I haven’t seen the movie “Philomena”, but from what I can gather from the trailer the focus is more on the mother than the son. I wonder if Dench ever read the book, or just skimmed it? In the afterword written by Judi Dench, she thanks Sixsmith for the “fairness” he gives to Michael’s story and the Catholic nuns. What a laugh. If anything, the nuns are depicted as greedy and scrupulous hags who have nary a compassionate bone in their bodies. Michael is characterized as a moody sexual deviant who treats his boyfriends like dirt, and for all his supposed charm is absolutely devoid of an interesting personality. Per Kavanaugh, Martin Sixsmith dishonored her friend’s memory with an unflattering portrayal that was contrary to any interview she, or Michael’s partner Pete, gave to him. I believe her. Sixsmith had an obvious agenda while writing this book and the result is a total mess. What could have been a fascinating read turned out to be an utter dud. Skip it.

 

What to do about bad art.

I’ve been lamenting for oh, a couple months now, about my lack of good reading material. Seriously, I haven’t posted any reviews of the books I’m reading on the blog because, to be frank, they were so lackluster and not terribly interesting that I can’t even summon the energy to devote an hour to writing about them. Ouch.

But an article from the LA Times a couple weeks about James Franco’s dismal turn in Broadway’s “Of Mice and Men”  inspired me to talk about bad art. Or rather, art that is perceived to be bad. First of all, I define an artist as any creative being, whether its an actor, writer, painter, potterer, performer, musician, etc. Secondly, as an artist myself (sometime writer, actor, and card maker enthusiast), I’m acutely aware that I myself have probably been guilty of creating some bad art in my time. Who hasn’t? But the question then becomes: is it really the artist’s fault?

Look, I’ve written some posts that I consider subpar. I’ve given a few performances in plays in my day that were less than inspiring. In any of these cases, I don’t think of myself as lazy or purposeful in my horrible artistry. I simply wasn’t good. And this doesn’t mean I didn’t try. Call it a case of poor training, or I just wasn’t ready at the time, but I always consider my heart in the right place.

James Franco, per LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty, gave a bad performance to last a lifetime. And it appears that McNulty is accusing Franco of not doing the work.

He’s obviously an actor of wide-ranging intelligence, but his intellectualism doesn’t serve him here. His acting — unspontaneous, utterly devoid of reflexes and lacking the gremlin smirk of his best film work — happens strictly from the neck up…

Realistic acting of the kind demanded by “Of Mice and Men” doesn’t allow for short cuts. There’s a difference between behaving and signaling behavior, and onstage, where there’s nowhere to hide, it’s glaring. When Franco is overcome with strong emotion at a climactic juncture in the play, he does what any actor more comfortable with cliché than with actual feeling does: he retches.

To play devil’s advocate here, can we honestly say that Franco didn’t do the work? Maybe he’s acting his heart out up there and it’s just not working for us. Maybe he sat with the material for weeks and weeks and struggled and toiled and felt in the depths of his soul that he fully embodied that character, but we are the ones who are simply not buying it?

When is it ok for us to judge art as “bad” or “good”?

I can recognize bad writing, for sure. I can recognize when sheer laziness is involved and someone took the leap to make a quick buck (ahem, E.L. James of “50 Shades of Grey” fame). And I can absolutely ascertain a great story with so-so writing, but the editing is just out of whack (my recent reading of “Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin falls in this category).

I judge bad art by its poor preparation. If someone merely “phones it in” on a performance or written piece, I get angry. And you can definitely tell when it’s a lackadaisical effort. I highly doubt anyone wakes up in the morning and says, “You know what? I’m going to create something shitty and half-assed today!”, but I do believe that sometimes we wake up and say, “I’m tired. I’m not into this right now. And I’m not going to do much about it”. So if the reviewer for “Of Mice and Men” fully believed that Franco put his laziest foot forward then I agree with his decision to call him out on it.

On the flip side, however, is the fact that art is so subjective to begin with. For every person appalled by Franco’s acting is one person captivated by it. No formula exists, to my knowledge, that can really predict or put a label on “good” or “bad” art. My acting teacher says at the very least all we want is to feel moved. If we felt emotionally moved by any piece of art then the artist fulfilled his/her requirement ten-fold.

Take the recent paintings by George W. Bush, for example. His art has been lambasted for being childish and insipid. I actually found them charming. Really, I did. Despite all of my dislike for the former President and everything he stands for, I found his paintings of former Presidents quite whimsical with a child-like air. He managed to make his father look like a soft-spoken and mild-mannered human being with a whiff of befuddled grandpa. Were these Bush’s own perceptions captured on canvas or were they the product of his limitations in his art skills? He does know how to paint, that’s for sure. And whether he lacks the right skills or not remains to be seen. He captured something that someone, somewhere (me) thought endearing and heartfelt. I was moved. Maybe not moved enough to a point where I would want to buy one, but I liked his art.

So if I go back to my original statement at the top of this post about my recent lack of good reading material, am I calling the books I read a case of “bad art”? Not necessarily. I just wasn’t moved. I feel no emotional connection to any of the 4 books I’ve finished in the last 2 months. I sensed the writers enthusiastic and inspired about the material, but the execution in the storytelling wasn’t there. And if ever I come across another writer who I feel is writing for the sake of a paycheck, believe me, I’m calling them bad artists here and now.

You will all be the first ones to know.

Post Navigation