In the original “Star is Born” picture of 1937 Janet Gaynor cares for her alcoholic husband, now definitely on the way downward in fickle Hollywood. After his suicide, she, too, wants to give up on La-La Land, where she’d recently become a smash, the toast of Tinseltown.
And her granny won’t hear of it, telling her that having chased one’s dreams, you inevitably “lose your heart” in the process, but still have to stay the course.
Meaning what? Perhaps that in terms of truly realized art in the widest sense, “civilians,” as they used to be called, rarely see everything necessary to make a fine, pleasing finished product. (Today of course there’s a massive amount of self-hype in the air to confuse us.)
But the real thing in any domain (and that could include realms like athletics) demands that a whole series of prices be paid, often onerous ones, and again, frequently unnoticed by those who haven’t gone deeply in such directions.
Readers lingering on this space will know of my interest in a great Swing-era musician, Artie Shaw, a compulsive perfectionist if ever there was one. After he dropped his inimitable clarinet in the mid-‘50s, he would be asked repetitively why he didn’t at least pick it up for fun.
And he’d snap back that there was no fun in it. Not given what he had to go through in order to produce the music he did.
W. Somerset Maugham, a great short story writer, wanted to burn his work in old age! He, too, had “lost his heart” to a trade he’d done so well and again, pleasingly.
One of his best stories, “The Alien Corn,” features a character who is supposed to take over a great estate and possibly a political career in England of the ‘20s; but he decides to put everything into becoming a topflight concert pianist. After a couple years of daily work, the entire family summons an accomplished pianist to assess this son’s playing, and she definitively nixes his ambition: it just won’t and can’t happen for him. The lady then plays herself, making her “art” seem as natural as a bird singing, according to Maugham. And that’s the essence of greatness not only in art, widely put, but again, athletics and many other domains: it makes what’s hard look easy and natural.
Speaking of which, Artie would again snap at people when they praised his musical talent. He would tell them to work at it a huge amount of hours every day for thirty years on end, then talk about “talent” – the word itself abhorrent to him.
This much is true: while they certainly have egos, the really great in any discipline are fundamentally humble people.
They take nothing for granted, and certainly don’t self-hype the way so many “Emperor’s New Clothes” “talents” of today seem to do.
How decent many of us seem to be when it comes to all these forgettable types and what they offer. And simultaneously, how rough on our authentic greats!
Moving back to athletics, that iconic hitter, maybe the best ever, Ted Williams, worked so hard at his craft that he, too, made it all look rather simple. So Boston writers would regularly rake him over the coals whenever he didn’t come through at the plate, hitting only .368 or whatever that year and, say, 45 homers. “Only!”
“Why don’t you walk in these moccasins?” Ted probably wanted to scream out. Artie felt much the same when it came to music. He said that if you wanted to be a good violinist you should start out by doing everything a virtuoso like Heifetz was doing; in other words, try paying roughly the same prices.
Nowadays everyone, but everyone is supposed to honor the “artiste” inside them.
When many would be better off keeping such things merely as hobbies, and having real trades in life for which they’re more suited. This whole “art’s for everyone” vogue, especially on a so-called professional level, has gotten well out of hand in our culture.
The main thing here being to pay those prices in order to please others, not you. Exactly as so many fine restaurant-owners or tire-repairers do around these parts.
B.B. Singer has taught at several area colleges including Niagara University.