Saturday, March 23, 2013

Changes of Perception: Part Two

If you haven't read Part One yet, go ahead and catch up. I'll be here when you get back. 
(I don't have to link to it for you, do I?) 

I, like most American's, have been a "Consumer of Entertainment" pretty much my entire life.

As such, I, like most American's, have long held perceptions of how certain aspects of the entertainment industry works.

But, thirty years ago, I joined the other side.

The "Producers of Entertainment," if you will.

And, over the years, I have had the opportunity to observe from the inside. And from that perspective, I have learned that while many things that "Consumers" perceive are truth, many of them are not.

I could probably devote an entire book to the many facts, myths and assumptions about the entertainment industry.

Maybe someday.

But tonight, I want to focus on a single topic. One that bothered me for years and without realizing it over a long, gradual period of time, I observed up close with a sense of bewilderment and fascination without ever being able to explain it.

Until the answer hit me suddenly, a couple of weeks ago.

The issue is the entertainment industry's practice of trotting out it's aging celebrities, it's legends, for one more performance (or ten) long after it appears that their bodies and/or minds have begun to fail them.

I'm thinking, off the top of my head, of Frank Sinatra being walked out onto a stage by a handler and singing from a TelePrompTer so as not to forget any lyrics.

Or Bob Hope, doing commercials for (if my own suspect memory serves) Denny's and KMart, dutifully delivering his few lines while his eyes seemed to be wondering where he was.

My perception of this was that someone, their heirs or managers or someone, was trying to squeeze a few more dollars out of them before they died.

And that, I perceived, was outrageous. There aughta be a law!

Over the last few decades, I have had the opportunity to meet and, sometimes, work with some great "old-timers." Actors, performers and personalities whose heyday was during my youth (or earlier.) And I have often observed a phenomenon that I found baffling. And for the longest time, I never connected that phenomenon to the topic that I mentioned, above.

Not neccesarily in the grip of full dementia, but well into their dotage.

Performers who had to be escorted to and from the make-up trailer for fear that they would become confused and get lost. Or, who exhibited difficulty tracking their thoughts in regular conversation. Their voices shaky, there bodies feeble.

And yet, if I asked them about a movie they stared in forty years ago, they would regale me with stories.

And, when they got in front of an audience or a camera, they would suddenly be in full form, playing the role, delivering their lines, professional as always.

And, when the director yelled "Cut!" Or when the talk show was over, the performer would be met by his/her escort and helped back to their dressing room or into their car.

It was the damnedest thing.

A few examples...

The soap opera Grand Dame who, in an interview a few years ago, spoke in a quiet, unsure voice, unable to complete sentences.

But to this day, on a daily basis, she portrays the imperious family matriarch, doling out wisdom to her heirs as they tremble in her presence.

The television personality who was ubiquitous on game and talk shows in the 1950s and '60s who, in the late '90s, was prone to wandering off and getting lost in the location base camp of the TV series she was making a cameo on. But, delivered her lines in a single take in every shot.

The 1960's and '70s action star who, in 2012, appeared to be frail and slightly confused.

But, when the talk show host rolled the clip from his latest movie, his performance was as powerful as if it was shot thirty years ago.


Which brings us to about a month and a half ago.

In that time, I had the opportunity to observe, up close, an elderly actress who was a comedy legend on television and film in the 1970s, (and still works a lot, today,) not once, but twice in a one month span.

The first time, she was such a loose cannon that she left us all wondering, "Is this shtick? Or, has she (and this is a medical term) lost most of her marbles?"

The audience loved it. And she clearly loved that the audience loved it.

But it was a bizarre performance.

A few weeks later, an unexpected circumstance made it appropriate to have her back on the show.

This time around, knowing what to watch for, and being able to observe more closely, it became clear that the actress had very little idea of where she was, except that when she got on the stage, she knew she had an audience. And, in that moment, she knew how to play it.

I also got to observe her handler, her daughter, it turns out. She had the frazzled air of a mother chasing a sugared up toddler.

And, that is when it all came together.

My epiphany.

This actresses daughter was not squeezing extra dollars out of her, clearly, not present on the same plane as the rest of us, mother.

Because God knows there must be easier ways to make money.

When she takes her mom to a shoot, she is giving her a great gift.

The same goes for the Sinatras and the Hopes and others who have held their famous parent's hands as they set out to perform a few more times.

Here is the conclusion that I have drawn from my years of very unscientific observation.

That part of the brain that drives a performer (and I have always believed that everyone in entertainment is driven by a part of the brain that most never access. Even me. Which would explain a lot,) remains strong, even after the rest of the brain begins to betray it's owner. That lobe gives the performer, even in the grip of Alzheimer's disease, a point that is as focused as it always was. For a bit, the confusion that comes with dementia can be escaped while the performer performs, safe in the knowledge that the script, or the audience, or the memory of days gone by will give them something to hang on to.

To be clear, not every octogenarian, performer or otherwise, is doomed to dementia.

Off the top of my head, Betty White and Dr. Ruth Westheimer (not to mention, my own mom and dad,) come to mind. I wish I was as sharp as either of them on my best days.

Which brings me back to President Ronald Reagan.

The story I told last night suggests that he spent most of his presidency in a steady descent into dementia.

The unasked, unanswered question of that story is this...

Reagan was "The Great Communicator." A man who could orate with the best of them, tell a story, and ad lib a witty remark. (Even as he was wheeled onto an ambulance after being shot.) How could he have spent most of his two terms descending into Alzheimer's?

I think that this explains it.

Reagan was, first and foremost, a performer.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if science could figure out how to locate the part of the brain of anyone suffering from the ravages of Alzheimer's that informed the core of that person, the way I think the "performer lobe" defines a performer?

It could, truly, be a gift.

Tomorrow night...

Something lighter, I hope.

Funny would be best.

Something that would allow me to return to referring to myself in the third person without seeming inappropriately flippant.

I'll figure something out.

1 comment:

  1. I'm grateful for this perspective because I, like you once, saw trotting these celebs out in a far more cynical light. I much prefer to think of it as a gift. Hopefully that is the case more often than not.

    Also, I imagine you're onto something with your thoughts about the science of it. I think you should share this theory with someone who can influence studies. Perhaps you know a doctor (or four) who might have contacts with the research community.... (Imagine the when they make the break-through: it all started with the observations of a Hollywood make-up artist!)