Swapping art forms is tricky
I am acutely aware of the fact that having a talent or skill in one line of art, does not mean you have the same level of skill in another line. A good actor does not automatically become a good screenwriter or novelist. A good painter does not automatically become a good sculptor. A good multimedia artist does not automatically become a good writer.
Rather, chances are that a mediocre or amateur painter will be come a mediocre artist in another medium. Each art form has its own skill set, its own techniques, its own history, context, methodologies and discourse. Enter into the world of a specific art form and you are dumped headlong into a world as different from whatever else you had been doing, as chalk is to cheese.
Change from the world of entertainment or art to that of commerce and you are in yet another world. More than one celebrity has discovered that moving from acting to fashion design or retail takes new skills, a lot of work, and a lot of learning. And even so, might not succeed.
How did Douglas Coupland fare in this transition? Go directly to the review.
Transitioning from one medium to another
What does it take to transition from one discipline to another, and from one medium to another? An artist who has had a successful parallel career as a writer is Douglas Coupland. But consider how few the artists are, who have turned into genuinely talented writers and whose books have, one could argue, gained them more fame in the long term than their movies have. Many books by actors or celebrities may sell initially but will soon be forgotten. Not everyone shows a natural aptitude for a medium or form different than what they have specialized in – like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon with their thriller, later screenplay, Good Will Hunting, that won them the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Screenplay (1997). Both Affleck and Damon have proved themselves to be multitalented and creative.
An actor who turned himself into a writer is of course, Stephen Fry, reviewed on this blog. But there are quite a few like him. An even more successful actor-turned-author is Dirk Bogarde, (born Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde, 28 March 1921, died 8 May 1999, aged 78), who churned out 10 autobiographies and 6 novels, all of which were (are) terrifically popular and enduring, and, apart from the handful of serious art films he made later in life, were much better than his many popular if rubbishy “heart-throb” movies. My favourites – and I have all of his books – are A Postillion Struck by Lightning and Snakes and Ladders, about his childhood in Britain, and A particular Friendship, about a literary friendship and exchange of letters.
We have an expression in our family, that we must put on our “hates” when we go outside, because that’s what Bogarde and his sister called their hats in his memoirs – since they hated them. I still hate “hates” and I am still amused every time I use that very fitting expression. Bogarde was an exceptionally private person and his acting roles were masks for his real personality. But in his books, he revealed a different picture, wonderfully eloquent and often witty.
He was awarded the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1990, and received an honorary Doctorate of Literature on 4 July 1985 by St. Andrews University in Scotland, and an honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1993 by the University of Sussex in England. He won two BAFTAs and was knighted by the Queen, but in my view he was much better in his second career as an author, than as an actor.
Another actor who took the leap from art form to art form is Ethan Hawke. His novels The Hottest State and Ash Wednesday have been well received. Hawke acknowledges the skill that goes into producing literature, when discussing Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, as one of the novels that have made a difference to him:
“I found this novel so surprising. I thought it would be a deep, interesting tale like Anna Karenina; instead it’s a giant prose poem that, paragraph by paragraph, has some of the most beautiful writing in the English language. But I won’t lie; it’s homework.”
Steve Martin cast aside his image as a funny-man to write the insightful novel about a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, The Pleasure of My Company. His other novels are Shopgirl (which was filmed) and An Object of Beauty (2010). Martin has written many pieces for The New Yorker, as well as stage plays, adaptions of plays, and screenplays. His memoir Born Standing Up, was ranked in Time magazine as one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007, ranking it at No. 6, and praising it as “a funny, moving, surprisingly frank memoir.” For his writing, Martin has received the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from California State University Long Beach and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Which other actors have published serious, well-received literature? (I mean more than one book, more than a children’s book, more than just a memoir, all by themselves without help, and more than just…not-worth-a-second-read-type stuff.)
Viggo Mortensen is a prolific poet, writing in English, Danish and Spanish, and often illustrating his work with his art and photography, resulting in edgy multimedia volumes like the abstract Canciones del Invierno – Winter Songs (2010), in Spanish and English with his own photos. He founded Perceval Press, which publishes his own books and helps unconventional writers and artists get published. He has published several photo books, including Coincidence of Memory, SignLanguage, Linger and The Horse is Good. His books are a treat for the eye but also, I think his poetry is excellent, truly atmospheric and redolent with feeling.
Mortensen is not the only actor turned visual artist – perhaps the urge to move to painting or photography comes with the business of constantly being part of created images. Brad Pitt, Drew Carey, Bryan Adams, James Franco and quite a few other actors and people in the entertainment industry have made names for themselves as accomplished photographers.
Woody Allen has published four collections of short stories featuring pieces that have also appeared in publications like The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, and The New Republic. He also won the prestigious O. Henry Award for his story “The Kugelmass Episode,” which appeared in his 1980 collection Side Effects.
William Shatner has been prolifically writing about Star Trek and producing Sci-Fi for decades. He co-wrote the TekWar series with Ron Goulart, 1989 to 1997 (9 books), the Star Trek series, with Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, 1995 to 2007 (10 books), the War series, 1996 to 2002 (2 books – sole author), the Quest for Tomorrow series, 1997 to 2002 (5 books – sole author), Believe (with Michael Tobias), 1992, and comic book adaptation William Shatner’s TekWorld, 1994, and Star Trek: The Ashes of Eden, a 1995 graphic novel. The man is multi-talented and indefatigable.
Carrie Fisher’s books include Postcards from the Edge, The Best Awful There Is, and the non-fiction Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic. I don’t know about the others, but I still have my copy of Postcards from the Edge and I re-read it every now and again – very sharp, very disturbing – but also wickedly funny.