IN DEFENSE OF DIVAS
Our screenwriter Karen came up with the first draft almost a decade ago, well before a disastrous but brief 17 hour (!) marriage of her own, so it bears the delightfully innocent stamp of someone who still believed in the power of love.
As a man who endured his own tumultuous years of marital drama – great wedding, but it was all downhill after we opened the gifts - this kind of romantic optimism would, in my humble opinion, qualify it for inclusion in the “science fiction” section of your local Blockbuster where it not for the performances of our wonderful cast led by Andrea Roth-
-anchored by her leading men Gabriel Hogan and Vincent Walsh -
- and ultimately elevated to an entirely new level of deliciousness by the presence of Miss Delta Burke as the Danielle Steele-esque “Dahlia Marchand”.
Now I know what you’re waiting for, dear reader. You want to hear all the scandalous dirt about the making of the movie; the temper tantrums on set, the disastrous accidents which befell us, the torturous hours and nightmarish working conditions we suffered all in the name of bringing to you, the audience, a couple of hours of light entertainment.
Well guess what? There isn’t any!
Unlike my last Canadian production with its complaining crew and bone chilling temperatures, this one - for reasons best left undisclosed for fear of cursing my next one - rolled along with barely a hiccup.
Sure, I’m ignoring the effect of the declining American dollar on our budget, shrinking it by sixty thousand bucks and knocking a day off our schedule; far be it from me to comment on the wisdom of basing one’s corporate cash flow on the vagaries of world currency exchange.
I’m also not going to mention the rather peculiar Eve Harrington-like Production Assistant who entered one of our actresses’ trailers while she was on set and proceeded to rearrange her personal effects - including the contents of her purse and private documents - into alphabetized piles and hermetically sealed zip lock bags. This understandably freaked out said actress for the rest of the shoot, especially when her co-star revealed that the same PA had done it to him before on another film.
And I certainly don’t want to give you the name of the stylist who continued to soak another of our actors in toxic hairspray, even after she repeatedly explained to him that she was nursing a child and really couldn’t risk exposing the infant to breast milk tainted with Aquanetta.
Furthermore I will not tell you anything about the constant arguments between the Sound Mixer and the Wardrobe Dresser regarding who was better suited to affix the wireless microphones to the actors in order to conceal them from the camera’s probing lens, a battle which eventually led to a showdown so intense that I actually had to step in and pull them apart for fear of having a double murder make the headlines on Entertainment Tonight.
No, dear reader, you will not be hearing any of these sordid details from me. These were, after all, just the sorts of common minor league dramas that regularly occur on any film set and hardly worth the breath. Especially after the wonderful experience of the warmest Ontario autumn on record, a pleasantly enthusiastic and hard working team of mostly non-psychopathic crew members and the gracious welcome we were given in Hamilton and – even more shockingly – at our final location, the glamorous Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto.
What I do want to talk about, however, is the Diva Factor.
I have, in what passes for my career, had the opportunity to work with several of our more colorful actresses and while their reputations have often preceded them – not necessarily in a terribly positive light – I've been surprised to discover just how un-Diva like they've all been. Even the certifiable ones.
I am reminded of a certain “bad girl” whose escapades as the star of not one but two hit television series are legendary in Hollywood gossip circles. She graced a recent film of mine and I will admit that having her name put forward initially by the casting director gave me considerable pause. Would she throw one of her legendary “fits” on set? Would she make unreasonable demands? Would she ignore my every request and just do as she damn well pleased?
Imagine my delight to discover that said “bad girl” was anything but. From the fifteen minutes she spent in hair and makeup in the morning (virtually unheard of for any leading lady, and almost an hour less than her leading man required for the same process) to her incredible professionalism on set, having her in my movie was simply a magical experience. And even more extraordinary was the friendship we forged off set as we swapped favorite scenes from 1940’s film noir movies – interestingly most of our current Divas LOVE old Hollywood -- and worked our way through several fields of New Zealand grapes in our joint quest to find the perfect glass of wine.
It occurred to me during that shoot, and on subsequent films with other equally ill-reputed thespians, that perhaps they hadn’t so much “sinned” as been “sinned against”. The rumors of "difficult" actors may make for great tabloid fodder but like the rest of the trash spewed out by the Entertainment News Industry - those inane bobble heads of hair and teeth who shout at us nightly about the latest celebrity rehab scandal or which pop singer left her baby on the hood of a car - they are often utter bloody lies. If these so-called "reporters" fed any closer to the bottom, they'd have sand in their teeth.
And not to besmirch my fellow members of the Director’s Guild but if anecdotal evidence has any weight at all, it’s probably safe to say there are more jodhpur and beret-wearing jerks per capita calling action than there are actors refusing to listen.
With the exception of Alfred Hitchcock and, occasionally, Steven Spielberg the average filmgoer doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the name after “A Film By”, so perhaps it behooves the film industry to stop coddling every AFI brat with a viewfinder and an all access pass to Sundance around his neck and start giving our modern Divas a little more respect. I'm sure this will sound sacrilegious, and I'm probably setting myself up for a blistering series of attacks on my own admittedly spotty oeuvre, but do we really need any more self-styled auteurs using their trust funds to fill our collective imaginations with their usually privileged look at the seamier side of life? Call me old-fashioned, but I think we could do with a little less ugliness on our movie screens and a little more in the way of good old fashioned glamour.
Which brings me to Delta Burke.
She started out as an honest-to-god Florida Beauty Queen and made her way to Hollywood where, after several false starts, she became the much loved star of a wildly successful sitcom, destined for tv immortality. With a solid marriage to actor Gerald McRaney and high profile guest starring roles in hit feature films and television shows, Delta has become an icon to millions around the world.
Fast forward to 2007. Our producers discover that Miss Burke is interested in our script and decide to contract her for the movie. This is a major coup, not just for me but for the network as well, and the machinery moves into place to bring her to Toronto for our shoot.
However, while the Toronto film industry does many things well – pretending to be New York comes to mind – it does NOT understand how to treat talent. This is the reason that most actors leave Canada immediately upon achieving even a slight level of stardom; it's not just about money and opportunity, it's about respect. I don't care if you've got maple syrup running through your veins, if you have to fight for something as simple as a dressing room that isn't just a tent pitched behind a porta-potty, you're not gonna stick around very long.
And so, no sooner was the ink dry on Miss Burke’s contract than the rumor mill groaned to life, rumbling about what problems she MIGHT cause before she’d even landed at the airport - the conventional wisdom up here being that Movie Stars ALWAYS cause trouble.
Of course the fact that she contracted a horrible head cold onboard the flight, probably the result of being seated too close to some disease ridden infant (I firmly believe children on aircraft should be treated like gels and liquids - sealed in a small plastic bag until they reach their destination!) only added fuel to that fire. When the cold got so bad she was unable to even get out of bed, and our schedule had to be delayed by a day causing some minor irritation amongst various departments, heads began to shake - was our Star being "difficult"? Knowing this is how rumors get started, I decided to plow head on into the situation before it got out of hand.
“She is a legend”, I reminded the crew. “But even legends get chest colds. And I'd rather have one Delta Burke hacking up phlegm balls the size of cabbages than ten nobodies who can breath. End of story."
Surprisingly, not a word was said about it again and once she got her sea legs back, Delta charmed the whole crew in less time than it takes to say "rolling". Which left me with the impression that this “anti-star” thing isn’t something the locals actually believe as much as they have been indoctrinated into; a version of that Canadian mantra, as patriotic as a Tim Horton's Deep Fried Beaver, which drones “what makes you think you’re better than anybody else?”
And as for Delta, well, she IS better than anybody else. Not only was she a complete professional on set, but every scene, every moment and every emotion she plays in our movie is perfectly tuned and brilliantly performed. Her character's final speech brought tears to our eyes and her presence in the picture is the icing on an utterly delightful cake.
Back in American cinema’s Golden Age – the era roughly bracketed by Fred and Ginger at one end-
- and Bonnie and Clyde at the other -
- the studio bosses understood the intrinsic value of "Stars", those glittering icons whose very presence in a film created the kind of magic that brought audiences back time and time again. It wasn’t just about the money, it was about the fantasy and in Hollywood, a country unto itself during its prime, these people were Gods. But that was when the movies were made by men who loved them, and the dream they represented, not by the ghastly little bean counters of today whose upward failures have been rewarded by the insertion of their names into the credits of a film for doing nothing more than showing up on opening night.
These days, with very few exceptions, movie "stars" are little more than interchangeable stick insects with three names and rubber breasts - for the women AND the men - jammed randomly into plotless teen vulgarities or overblown special effects extravaganzas aimed at the seemingly endless audience of thirteen year old boys who interrupt their bouts of video game playing and masturbation just long enough to loudly storm into the local Gigaplex, order nachos and then text message their absent friends through the entire movie anyway.
Occasionally, however, one gets a whiff of that great classic era when Divas ruled in Hollywood. Like tonight, as we all gathered in the historic Library Bar at the Royal York, once host to those same stars of the silver screen – Astaire, Garbo, Gable, Monroe – to celebrate the successful completion of our film. After several rounds of extraordinarily well made martinis – with the tab very generously picked up by one of our producers - I looked across the table to see Miss Burke in her glory, holding court amongst the rest of the cast and crew.
It wasn’t The Brown Derby, to be sure; hell, it’s not even Musso and Frank’s.
But there was magic in the air. And even if I didn’t get to work with Miss Davis or Miss Crawford
or even the fictional Miss Norma Desmond
I think I can take comfort in the fact that I’ve got a Shannen and a Delta on speed dial.
Frankly, that’s quite enough for me.