The Catastrophe of Success – Book Review
Unsuccessful people love to point at successful people and say things like,”but they’re not happy” or “they’re not close to their family” or “they’re bored with their lives.” There’s of course a healthy amount of jealousy involved in this reaction. Since the unsuccessful person pointing fingers would kill the next pedestrian that walked by to be in the shoes of the unhappy, bored, distanced from their family successful person.
In Hollywood, I’ve encountered plenty of both, very successful people and unsucessful people, and I can tell you, they have the same complaints. There’s always a reason, a group, a system keeping them from getting over that hump. I have a very successful director friend in the studio system who does nothing but complain when I meet him (and he’s doing very well). These two types are the same.
In other words, success and failure are illusions based on the person who sees you. If you’ve been fighting tooth and nail to be a screenwriter, but you’re still a waiter in a restaurant, maybe you consider yourself a failure — but to a slave who makes a dollar a day in South East Asia, you’re a great success. What joy it is to spend that much time on something you love and not succeed at it.
In Hollywood, success and failure, no matter who you are, is pretty much an illusion. Sure, Martin Scorsese is doing better than you, but he has five alimonies and makes only a fraction of his fee… that’s not to account for his expensive lifestyle and so on and so forth. Maybe you only make 30 thousand a year, but you don’t have a bunch of kids, ex-wives, a staff, and people suing you all the time (an everyday thing in Hollywood). The legend of anyone is based on illusion, even someone like say, Frank Capra, the director of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr.Smith Goes to Washington.”
After falling in love with Capra’s films, I read his autobiography, “The Name Above the Title” and was even more enamored of the legendary writer/director, a Greek immigrant who rose to become one of the great directors of all time. His films spoke deeply about friendship and the American Dream. The term “Capra-eske” was synonimous with anything American, like “Kafka-eske” is with maze-like bureaucracy.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT. My opinion on Capra was annihilated after I read Joseph McBride’s “The Catastrophe of Success.” A juicy biography that tells a page turning story of the endless, exhausting, and possibly not worth it efforts it takes to create the illusion that you’re one thing — when you’re in fact, quite the opposite. While Elia Kazan is frequently chasisted for naming names and being a communist, Capra did the same thing but this is NEVER brought up.
Yes, Frank Capra named names and was a supporter of the Communist Party. In fact, the all America classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” was on the Federal Watch List for decades for its hidden communist messages. The rich guy just benefits from the poor. The community need to stick together and pitch in to help each other. Rather than follow of his dream, Jimmy Stewart remains in town and stays part of the community. And NEVER FOLLOWS his dreams. Now, I’m not putting “It’s a Wonderful Life” down. I think it’s a great movie.
I don’t believe liking or disliking a movie because the maker is a despicable person. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are great films, in spite of his crimes. Frank Capra’s story is not fascinating because I want to point fingers at him. His pantheon will remain what it is as long as movies exist. He was a great filmmaker. And the stories he made up — which were endless — ascended him to a position all directors dream of. And the man, according to Joseph McBride, made up practically everything. From his immigrant stories, to his courageous confrontation with Harry Cohn, to virtually his entire autobiography (almost 1000 pages long). Capra was a filmmaker in real life and the movies.
For his gifts of treating fiction like reality, Capra suffered greatly in the last 20 years of his life. He had a splitting migraine that crushed his health. He attributed this, in the end of the book, to “naming names.” But his legend is protected. When I bring it up in conversation, people scowl at me and say,”really, you sure?” And you can tell they want that Capra myth intact (maybe for Christmas when they watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”). The man worked like hell to protect his legend in walls of solid concrete and it will remain there. But if you can “handle the truth” of what “Capra-eske” really means, check out this book — and, if anything, understand what it takes to reach his heights, stay there, and protect said heights long after you’re dead.
Written by: Norith Soth