Watching a morning TV show – starting up is a little harder these days, forgive me my little peccadilloes – the actress Mary Steenburgen  is telling the story of her big break.

When she was still an aspiring actress, her day-job was waitressing in NYC at The Magic Pan – what an aptly named place – and one lunchtime, she waited on a casting director from Paramount Pictures.  As one does when waiting, Ms. Steenburgen overheard that a Jack Nicholson film was being cast and – uncharacteristically – asked if there might be a role for which she could audition.  She was told that they were only seeing well-known film actresses and models. After her shift, she goes to the Paramount offices, is politely refused again, and announces to the casting person that she’ll just sit there til they give her a script and let her be heard. The casting person and actress auditioning go into the office and Ms. Steenburgen is suddenly mortified by her own behavior.  She’ll sit there only til the casting person reappears so that she can apologize, and then slink away to lick her wounds.

A pair of shoes, a pair of trousers appear in front of her, and a voice says, “Were you waiting to see me?”  It’s Jack Nicholson.  She says no, he asks again, she says no again – I’m guessing at this point she’s wishing the floor would simply open up and swallow her – and he hands her a script and tells her to return the next day to read with him.  After that, she’s flown to Hollywood for a screen test and is kept for some days, but while there runs out of money. She goes to the test and asks to borrow just enough to pay her hotel bill, she’ll pay it back, and Jack takes the cigar out of his mouth and says, “Kid, you’re on the payroll.”

Great story, no?

That made me think of the Madge the Manicurist commercials for Palmolive dish soap, the story’s not dissimilar. There was Jan Miner among all these 19-year-old manicurist/model types, and she used her individuality to its best advantage.

I’m not saying that models can’t act, by the way, or that crossing over from one profession to another is impossible – look at Mary Beth Peil. My topic has more to do with the anomalous being interesting in our oh-so-homogenized world.  I’ve been musing in my other blog on type-casting coming from actors, nowadays, actors who “type” themselves not only in their physical appearance but also their technical acting choices.

All of these examples come from the entertainment industry. But it’s a question in life, isn’t it?

People tell you, you don’t belong here, you don’t have enough experience, you have too much, you’re too short, too tall, too thin, your hair is the wrong color. My friend Nancy, who makes wonderful necklaces and bracelets for herself, was asked to make some costume jewelry so that another friend could sell it at an upscale-yet-Tupperware-type party and Nancy agonized for hours over what people would want. I said, make what you would wear, it’s your aesthetic that got you asked in the first place. The thought had never occurred to her.

When did this start, this “I can be anything you want, just tell me what it is” jazz? Maybe the beginning of society-as-a-construct, was that the Stone Age? Because society exists to perpetuate itself, not to celebrate the individual.  That’s how all of these institutions – like LORT theaters – have gone from being creative outlaws helping define the next generation of art to being expensive, building-laden institutional societies of their own. How the world of art has become the world of content-wedged-between-the-banner-ads.  But I digress.  Not for the last time.

Back to my point, one last thought.  “Individuality” for its own sake, choices that come from an “I have to be different to be noticed” place, is about as useful as greed.  Wait, it is a form of greed. In this century, this selfish, desperate, empowered-yet-disenfranchised century in which we’re all beginning to look and sound and act alike, in which control is god despite its being an illusion and the ultimate running-with-the-pack is to come up with some outrageousness, some “innovation” – in the 21st century, perhaps we need to jockey our perceived needs and desires with an honoring of that uncharacteristic little voice and its related horror-at-our-own-behavior.  Ah.  That’s the crux.  People in this century don’t listen much, particularly in American society we’re all just filled with our own knowledge and a conversation is often just an opportunity to be heard while not listening or hearing.

If Ms Steenburgen hadn’t had the true humility to be horrified by her own behavior, my guess is that she’d have gotten her reading as a way to get her out of there quietly and that’s it. But her true nature shone through, the one that was embarrassed by her momentary pushiness, and it’s that nature that got her hired, not the other way ’round.









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