Toto Eclipse of the Heart

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RainbowSeventy-five years ago this past weekend, The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. One hundred and fourteen years ago this fall, L. Frank Baum published its source material, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Very little has been done in either industry to improve upon things ever since.

The Wizard of Oz was my first movie love, and you never forget your first love, but it has also been a major influence throughout my life. According to my mother, I was so terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West as a child that I would hide behind the couch whenever she appeared on screen – but that didn’t stop me from demanding my family watch the film any and every time it aired on TV. My love for the rest was just too strong. Thus, the first thing The Wizard of Oz gave me was my courage.

That new-found bravery came in handy when I learned that the community children’s theatre in my town had chosen Baum’s story for their next production. At age nine, the idea of being on stage was mortifying, but the opportunity to play Toto was one I could not resist. Yes, Toto; he was my dream role. Sure, others are more glamorous, but Toto is the real star – he’s in the most scenes – and the true hero of the story. Plus, I wouldn’t have to say any lines and in the movie he was basically the 4th-highest-paid actor. No contest.

For weeks, I wore out my storybook cassette tape, playing the narration on our living room stereo and acting out the entire story on the rug, from Toto’s perspective. I got the part. It was my first taste of success, my first bite of the acting bug, and my first experience with improv and collaborative storytelling. That play is also how I met the woman who to this day is still my best friend (she played a citizen of the Emerald City). Thus, The Wizard of Oz led me, in multiple ways, to my heart.

Time and again I have fallen back on Toto and the gang as I have chased down my heart’s desire far from my own backyard. After I completed my first screenplay – on a whim, really, just to see if I could – and the thing wound up being read at several major studios and almost getting made, I was faced with a frightening challenge. Suddenly, people in power knew my writing, and wanted to see what else I could do; I needed another screenplay to prove I wasn’t a fluke, but I had not thought that far ahead.

So I turned to what I loved. I wrote an adaptation of Dorothy’s story as a coming-of-age romantic comedy, with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion representing archetypes of imperfect boyfriends. (All brains / no chemistry, gay, and commitment-phobic, if you’re curious.) I also started to develop a sitcom about a girl living in an apartment above a bar called The Rainbow. Both were way too weird for anyone to want to make them, but they kept my career going. Thus, The Wizard of Oz has helped me engage and exercise my brain.

At the 75th-Anniversary screening in the refurbished Chinese Theatre. (Ruby slippers on foot, of course.)

At the 75th-Anniversary screening in the refurbished Chinese Theatre. (Ruby slippers on foot, of course.)

To celebrate this weekend’s milestone, I decided to re-read Baum’s original book, which I so enjoyed as a child. Now, as an adult writing movies of my own, the adaptation choices of the screenwriters are of great interest to me. Most people know that the witch’s slippers were changed from silver to ruby for the glory of Technicolor, but did you also know that Glinda is an amalgam of two characters in the book – the North and South witches merged into one? Baum’s good witch of the North, Gaylette, is described as one “everyone loved…but her greatest sorrow was that she could find no one to love in return, since all the men were much too stupid and ugly to mate with one so beautiful and wise.” These days – these still single days – that is my favorite line in the story.

Other changes are more significant. In the books, Oz is multi-colored (blue in the East, yellow in the West, red in the South and green in the middle), but Dorothy does not fly “over the rainbow” to get there – it just sits trapped in a vast desert. There is a lot more danger in Baum’s Oz, and in turn a lot more killing by the Tin Man and Lion to ward off said danger (a fairly disturbing number of chopped off animal heads), and in the book Dorothy is stuck in Oz so long that Uncle Henry has the time to single-handedly rebuild their one-room farm house.

That last one is my favorite difference; in the book, Dorothy’s adventure is real, while in the film they chose to make it a dream. The reason I love this change is because, by doing so, The Wizard of Oz (the film) managed to both introduce the single most memorable line in movie history and completely subvert its message at the same time. Dorothy’s mantra is “There’s no place like home,” but by populating Kansas with the same actors portraying the denizens of Oz, the film shows that everywhere – even over the rainbow – is just like home. It is a physical manifestation of the old proverb: “no matter where you go, there you are.” Real change happens within.

Think you need intelligence, or compassion, or nerve? All you really need is to recognize those things in yourself. What is Dorothy’s lesson before she can click her heels? That she need not search for her heart’s desire anywhere but where she is; if the answer isn’t within her already, it isn’t anywhere. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion all learn that your problems are your problems wherever you go. Where you are is irrelevant, because who you are is what matters.

Los Angeles is a very difficult place to live – doubly so if you have a soul – and the film industry is downright hostile. Between dating and working here since college, I have had the urge to run away roughly once every week for a dozen years. The Wizard of Oz has stopped me every time, because I know getting out of here won’t really change anything that matters. Los Angeles isn’t my home, but neither is any physical place.

What Baum meant when he wrote “there is no place like home” is that nothing compares to the feeling that you belong. In that sense, home is an energy, not a place. It is family, yes, but not just traditional family (Dorothy is an adopted orphan, after all). Home is the people who love us, and the people we love in return – with any luck, including ourselves. I never feel more myself than when I am experiencing this story, revisiting all of the memories and people I associate with our history. Thus, The Wizard of Oz brings me home.

Happy Birthday, Toto. And thanks.

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

How Do I Love Me (Let Me Count the Ways)

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Narcissus didn’t stand a chance. All he had to do to live a long and healthy life was avoid reflective surfaces, yet there he sat, in his prime, wasting away on the edge of a lake. Seems pretty weak – except it was inevitable. While he certainly wasn’t a perfect man, Narcissus did have a really, really good-looking reflection.

It is well documented that my heart and I have an unhealthy affinity for narcissists. This is clearly not good for me, as evidenced by the fact that my most successful relationships thus far are with my two dependent cats and a ’96 Toyota. I have tried to kick the habit time and again, but I keep running into the same snag: the problem with narcissists is that there is a lot of awesomeness there to adore.

The original Narcissus was literally part god. He was the love child of the river god Cephisus and a sexy nymph named Lyriope, so his esteem for his own physique was 100% legit. Even Apollo – the real-deal god, not the pilot from Battlestar Galactica, though I personally would take either – was infatuated because Narcissus was so frakking pretty. While I have never had the pleasure of a romantic entanglement with such an exceptional beauty, experience has taught me that every narcissist has some remarkable trait that makes him worthy of affection – his own as well as mine.

(Of course, there are also plenty of folks with a completely unfounded esteem for their own greatness, but we should label them accurately as what they really are: delusional asshats.)

Like Jane Goodall of the Ego jungle, my years in the field have brought me vast knowledge of these cold yet fascinating creatures. They are not all alike, but they are all capable of driving a lover to despair. In hopes of saving even one future Aminias – the Narcissus admirer who kills himself in the Greek version of the myth – or Echo – who in Ovid’s telling retreats to the mountains to end her days in lovelorn solitude – I feel obligated to share my research with the world.

Within the Genus Narcissa I have so far categorized three distinct Species: the Passionate Artist, the Depressed Intellectual and the King of the Room. Which makes me Dorothy in a very F-ed up version of The Wizard of Oz.

Artiste Passio is the most classic species of narcissist. This guy is all about his talent, which only makes him increasingly talented. I have pined for brilliant writers, hilarious performers, and more musicians (okay, bass players) than I care to admit, but regardless of medium the outcome is the same: there is no room for anything but “the craft”. Sure, these Artists love the attention, the admiration, and the praise we shower on them, but that is all they love. From whom the praise flows is irrelevant – unless that “whom” happens to have financial backing. Shutting off the affection faucet will often get the Artist’s attention (he might even take steps to keep it flowing freely), but do not mistake a love of being loved for actual love of the lover. We are merely faces in his adoring throng.

A more controversial species is the Literati Depresso – not because it is controversial to be depressed (heck, it is practically vogue these days), but because calling a depressed person a narcissist isn’t exactly PC. I don’t care; I have had enough relationships with depressives suffering from everything from chemical imbalances to Woody Allen to know that a certain amount of self-obsession is needed to maintain that level of inner torment. It takes impressive focus and mental agility to see every interaction as a reflection on themselves, analyze all new information in terms of how it impacts their life, and suspect that every personal thought might hold the secret to their impossible existence. No question, these Eeyores have remarkable brains, but rest assured there is no capacity reserved for wondering how we are feeling today. (Unless it is how we are feeling about them…)

Rex Locus is the third and most insidious species of narcissist – the King of the Room. This is the guy with Personality. Mr. Awesome. His defining characteristic is that people love him, but the problem is his lack of ability – or possibly courage – to sincerely love anyone in return. Narcissus loved that Echo followed him everywhere, so he called out that she should show herself; when she rushed out of hiding and hugged him, he recoiled at the intimacy and literally shoved her aside. The King of the Room does the same. His ‘why’ will vary from one to the next – he’s a loner, he’s a rebel, we aren’t perfect, we’re too perfect – but it will always be some version of, “Uncertainty and vulnerability scare me! So…. I’m gonna go meet a room full of new people now.” Like sharks they keep moving forward, leaving us to flounder in their wake.

Still, we chase these narcissists time and again, keep Echoing their greatness, and we probably always will. Pain fades over time, but Talent, Intelligence, and Charm remain potent drugs. Narcissus didn’t stand a chance against his own beauty; how can we Echos be expected to resist?