Monday, September 12, 2005

ORWELL, STONE, NADER, LIFE AS A FAILURE AND THE TONY DANZA DOCTRINE

What most people fail to realize about Who's The Boss is that the whole show went to shit when Tony Danza shaved his head. Out came the crewcut, down came the ratings. The fact that he and Angela, his live-in employer, finally became a couple that season, thus depriving the show of the core of its reluctant romantic sparks that flew between the two leads like errant drops of fire, has been cited by some as the source of the program's demise. (A similar change in relationships happened to Moonlighting, when Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis finally toppled into bed together. That was a big deal, that particular episode was; I remember discussing it with my Grade 6 class and teacher Mrs.Macmillan in our daily front-of-the-room discussion group, so I guess even eleven-year olds were hip to the show. I actually thought the show got better when the romance angle died down; it allowed room for Willis's partner, Curtis Armstrong, to show off his comedic chops. You may, or may not, remember Armstrong in his brilliant performance as 'Booger' in Revenge of The Nerds, surpassed only by his low-key but magnetic performance as Jamie Foxx's manager in last year's Ray.)

I think what happened, however, is that Danza lost his hair, then lost his zeal. His power. His confidence. You don't cut Samson's mane, you don't tug on Superman's cape, and you don't slice Tony Danza's locks. So say I.

And yet recently, as far as I've been able to gather from this side of the Pacific, Danza's career has been positively booming; he's rebounded nicely from the crewcut calamity of a decade past. He got nominated for an Emmy for The Practice, popped up in last year's critical smash Crash, and even hosted his own talk show. He probably pees regularly throughout the night, too. (Nothing, of course, in either his personal or professional life, will surpass his brilliant performance in the criminally underrated Cannonball Run II.)

After Who's The Boss tanked, he tried two other sitcoms, which also tanked. But I'm sure these failures invigorated Danza. I'm sure there were dark and lonely nights when he wandered the streets of Los Angeles, forlorn, desperate, wondering if it was his radical haircut that did him in, or a public tired of his folksy Italian-American persona. He probably became the modern equivalent of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, is what I'm thinking. From those depths, that despair, he plotted his eventual ascension. I'm sure of it.

Living in Cambodia, I've come to see despair and despondency and failure as some of the more common traits of the human condition. (Tony Danza cutting his locks and bombing big time has more in common with Cambodians than Bill Gates or Donald Trump, is what I'm thinking.) The rich get away with anything and everything, getting even richer in the process; the poor remain powerless, becoming poorer. On days when I'm feeling low and broke, when I think that I should be in a higher status of life and living, I look around at the myriad people even lower than myself and think: This is real, this is good, this is noble. One of my favorite quotes from Oliver Stone is his own recollection of reading Down and Out in Paris in London by George Orwell, when Stone, too, was in a similarly dark and gloomy time. He learned then that it was okay to be down, okay to be fucked-up, okay to not know who you were or where you were going. That is the place where you learn. And he learned and learned and learned.

So much of the TV I see and the movies I watch are about what we want and how we can get it. It's about things and status and glitz and bullshit. So much of it is designed to our baser, insecure natures, warning us that we, too, could soon become losers. I'm reminded of a quote I read from social activist Ralph Nader in an old biography, where he tells a group of high-school students that they should disregard all the media advertising that is highlighting their own petty facial insecurities and concentrate on something bigger and larger than that. Don't buy into their game, is what he was saying.

These are thoughts that elevate and ennoble; these are thoughts that are worthy of a Danzanian-like renaissance within all of us. As I've written about before, so much of life tells us to fear failure, shun failure, beware of failure, but failure can contain within it the seeds of our own ascension. Sometimes you cut your hair clean off, your show bombs, and you become nothing more than a late-night joke from a third-rate comedian. But the hair grows back, right? And who's to say that more talk-shows and film roles don't loom on the horizon? And if failure comes, and defeat is inevitable, well, let it be a failure of the soul and the spirit, not a failure centred around the fact that we just, can't, get those damn pimples to recede. Let it not be a failure of the human condition that is, at root, nothing more than the equivalent of a botox-like regression into our past.

My recent skin-tight haircut has nothing to do with Tony Danza's experiment of ten years ago, of course, but now I'm starting to see the benefits. A cleaner, sleeker feel. Less to worry about. Less to stress about. Maybe that haircut doomed Danza in the short-term, but propelled him into his own long-term. Who knows. All around me are the dregs of society, the ones who will work their entire lives but have nothing to show for it, and yet I can't help but feel that they, like the immortal Danza, like you, are concentrating on the real stuff of living, the true arc of life, independent of others' expectations and goals, and that they (and you) will eventually achieve a moment in time, somewhere in time, that will allow a certain sense of enlightenment to brighten their day, like a supernova, before burning out and leaving only the resonant afterglow behind.

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