How does one measure success? Well, in a consumer-based capitalist society it’s the number of widgets one accumulates, the power and influence one amasses, and the number of foes and former friends who want to drag one into court to a) take a share of the pie and b) ultimately topple a master of the universe.
Unless you’re flying under the radar as an unknown entity with a new idea, resistance can be extraordinary right at the outset. The secret? Don’t give a shit, just keep your eye on the prize as you grope for weaknesses, snatch at every possible opportunity and don’t get distracted by the ruse of friendship or the mirage of romance.
This is an extremely culture-specific genre that, unsurprisingly, has been pretty much cornered by American filmmakers, and they know too well that dramas of building and maintaining empires at all costs would be tedious without injecting some humanity along the way. How they do this varies, and it’s tricky because a false move or showing of cards too early will upend the story. Everybody loves a winner? For sure, until it’s time for them to be frozen out or brought down altogether.
At the core of every protagonist in this genre is the seed of origin, that thing, that career, that idea that they either love so much that they dare not take their attention away from it, or a past so traumatically unsatisfying that they can’t reinvent themselves quickly enough. Fortune is not necessarily the paramount goal and neither is power, although both perks generally follow – it’s the recognition of success, of being the best in the business. That acknowledgment can come in the form of a standing O, hitting a million followers or becoming an industry icon, all of which are forms of celebrity that come from blazing on the top rung of the ladder. And there is always someone coming up the road – eyeing the beacon – with a taller ladder, ready to climb over backs and between legs to get to the top.
My five films of the proverbial merry-go-round riding brass ring grabbers:
Citizen Kane – Orson Welles (1941)
Although it was officially declared a box office failure, primarily due to the efforts of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, this is, historically, the highest regarded effort by any American filmmaker. 25 year old Welles’ first film is essentially a mystery – a tycoon dies, muttering his final word “Rosebud”, and the balance of the story is told in flashbacks through Kane’s humble childhood and his hungry climb to the top in industry and politics, as we try and unravel the past to discover its meaning. The real story here is the wealth of narrative and technical innovations used by Welles and his creative team, including cinematographer Gregg Toland, editor Robert Wise (the same), and composer Bernard Hermann. Much has been written about this visually rich, superbly written, acted and directed milestone about megalomania, yellow journalism and all that money can (and cannot) buy, and those who stop and look closely today should find the film as relevant right now as it has ever been. Hearst – in true narcissism mode, thought the film was about him and feverishly campaigned in the extreme to prevent the film’s release or, failing that, its success. That, plus the overall pessimistic tone that explores the sacrifices made on the road to wealth and power, cost the greatest American film to flop like a dying mackerel at the Oscars (they opted for the sunnier John Ford/John Wayne bucolic, How Green Was My Valley). In this age of cross-pollination between celebrity and politics, the impact of polarized journalism, and the inevitable emptiness of short-term gains and vast acquisitions, Citizen Kane maintains a firm grasp as both an artistic achievement beyond rebuke as well as a film with considerable social importance.
The Social Network – David Fincher (2010)
Thankfully, Mark Zuckerberg has considerably more humanity and fewer delusions of grandeur than WH Hearst because David Fincher’s modern day “Kane-ish” effort is, in fact, about him, specifically, and his transformation of a cheesy college dating site into the most powerful communication tool since the printing press. Again, everything about this film is as good as it gets. Aaron Sorkin’s sharp script, Jeff Cronenworth’s startlingly beautiful cinematography, and that impeccable Reznor/Ross score have the rare ability to offer something new and deeper with each subsequent viewing. Fincher bottles all this lightning, draws stellar performances from every actor with a speaking part, and then presents us with a modern day parable of what is lost and what is gained in the making of the world’s youngest billionaire. Parallels between TSN and CK are uncanny with one exception – Zuckerberg is more interested with advancing his technology than with wealth and power incurred along the way. Social impact and the credit for its development become the new currency, replacing grandiose castles filled with works of art. One thing remains the same from 1941, however – the slightly sour – even scolding tone – cost Fincher’s film a deserved grand night at the Oscars. After the film won nearly every critical award that season, it went down in flames at the Oscars when AMPAS opted for a Harvey Weinstein sentimental wankfest about stuttering royalty. How the mighty fall.
All About Eve – Joseph L Mankiewicz (1951)
Beware the fan who lurks at the stage door. Behind those adoring eyes is a predator after your job. If only stage legend, Margot Channing (Bette Davis in her showiest role) had clued into this fact before it was too late. Mankiewicz’s acerbically luminous script is honey for the ears and one of the most sarcastic, intelligent and entertaining scripts ever written. His film is the only movie in history to garner four Oscar nominations for its female actors (where are the Joe Mankiewicz’s of today?) It takes a warts-and-all inspection of the entertainment business in general, from the interfering dresser back stage to the haughty critic in the audience, lambasting actors, producers and writers left and right along the way. The molten core of the story, however, is Eve, the doe-eyed ingénue that attends every performance given by her idol, which is nothing but shrewd ambition disguised as adoration. She knows how to maneuver her prey’s blinding ego to her advantage, and where Margot goes, her entourage follows. And, again, that glorious script….Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.
The Devil Wears Prada – David Frankel (2006)
When neophyte journalist (Anne Hathaway) lands an editing job at Runway Magazine, she doesn’t realize she is about to be snagged by the whirlpool that has evolved around alpha-female Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), a woman who can, with the snap of her fingers, practically create her own weather. The trick here is, despite our first impression, Priestly does have a beating heart that is slowly revealed by the end of the story. The film makes a point that, like in show business, a woman who is a magnate in industry has to do the same things a man does, only backwards and in heels. This has become one of my favorite Streep performances. “Command” does not begin to describe her character’s presence, and when she’s onscreen, we are in awe of her efficiency and attention to detail. While her abilities dazzle (and intimidate) her employees and her public, they also set her up as a target for replacement that only the loyalty of those under her can divert. There is more going on here than meets the eye in a single viewing. Frankel’s few films all have a light touch to them, and in this case, his lightness probably contributed to the film’s box office success. After all, honey draws more flies than vinegar.
Glengarry Glen Ross – James Foley (1992)
We’ve looked at the top of the mountain, so here is a tale about the climb. Foley assembled an all-star cast for his adaptation of David Mamet’s treatise on how to succeed in real estate by really, really trying. Then he had Mamet create a prelude scene in which Alec Baldwin, a corporate trainer, “motivates” the salesmen with everything from access to the best leads and steak knives to termination. It’s a brilliant scene that resonates through the film as the sales force (Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin) struggle not to be last over the finish line. Mamet’s language is fresh and real, unsparingly loaded with obscenities – even the cast referred to the film as “Death of a fuckin’ salesman.” Foley moves us back and forth from the darkness outside to the fluorescent glare of closed office space, accenting the desperation of those within to succeed. The film covers events of only two days – magnify that by the length of a career and you have what is written all over Jack Lemmon’s face, that the road to the top is a minefield, grueling, exhausting and unforgiving. “Always be closing” for your entire adult life.
Success in the eye of the (be)holder is very different than the idea of success for those trying to seek it out. Those that have it miss what they have sacrificed, yet those that seek it are willing to make the same sacrifices to attain it without a second thought. Ahh, the law of the jungle and the flytrap adage bait that “one can be whatever one wants to be; one only has to apply oneself”.