Mac Dixon, the first Artistic Director of the Theatre Workshop once remarked to my fiancée, “Only mediocrity succeeds on Nantucket.” It was a harsh comment, but even three decades later it continues to resonate because with every passing year the idea becomes more and more of a universal axiom. In politics, in corporate America, even in the building trades, the inept and the mendacious succeed while the gifted and hard-working fall by the wayside. From Jimmy Carter’s defeat at the hands of the charming but catastrophically foolish and ideologically blinkered Ronald Reagan to the more recent electoral nightmares, to the sub-prime lending scandal that may yet bring down the entire American economy (Someone decided it was a good idea to give mortgages to guys living in refrigerator boxes), the plague of dull-witted, pedestrian greed rages on. For the most part I’ve become numb to it, but occasionally the phenomenon hits close to home and I have to face it.
In the community of aspiring screenwriters the Nicholl Fellowship – a screenwriting contest sponsored by no less an organization than The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, stands as an almost unattainable measure of achievement. Blogging screenwriters compare notes on the harrowing triage of talent … who made it to the quarter-finals and the semi-finals. More to the point, they discuss the mysteries of the judging: why their script never placed at all, how to improve, where to find the secret code that unlocks this exalted prize. There are websites devoted to coaching neophytes in the arcana of this contest. I should mention I never entered the race because as a member of the WGAw, I’m automatically disqualified. This quest is for amateurs only.
I had never seen a winning screenplay until today. This one is being shot on Nantucket and a friend of mind is helping to hire the extras and scout locations. I read the script and I confess to being stunned by it, stunned the way you feel when you crack your shin on a coffee table in the dark or miss a step going down a ladder: a physical jolt of outraged surprise. Because this script is bad. The dialogue is stilted and laden with exposition. The characters are barely sketched in, rounded off to the nearest cliché. A local sailor was asked to check the sailboat details; every single one was wrong. So are the points of local color. A shrill local rants against tourists, referring to them as wash-ashores; whereas anyone who lives here knows that a washashore is a resident who came from somewhere else. My son was amused by the local girl telling the off-island boy that “We always go to Jetties for The Fourth Of July – it’s crowded but it’s a tradition.” He said, “Right, because I’ve lived here all my life and don’t know anyone with a boat or a house with a view of the harbor.” The script is a symphony of wrong notes, a trite family drama complete with the callow grandson who learns important life lessons and the curmondgeonly old grandpa who teaches them. None of this would be of even passing interest (I read dozens of scripts just this bad and bad in just this way when I was reading for production companies in L.A.) except for the astounding, jaw dropping fact that this commonplace bundle of lazy plot points and sticky sentiment won the Nicholl. It beat out literally thousands of other screenplays, at some of which were probably pretty good. The scripts that won Project Greenlight on HBO – and the films made from them – were just as awful … as are so many more traditionally produced movies and TV shows. So something is going on here. But what?
Perhaps it’s true: mobs and morons rule the world. Certainly the wrong people seem to run everything. The notion may be economically disheartening and politically frightening, but it’s kind of liberating artistically. The opinions that make one cringe and cower (people have seriously considered giving up writing after not placing in the Nicholl three years in a row) are in fact nothing more than the senseless noise Truman Capote was talking about when he dismissed critics with the phrase, “The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.” So not winning the Nicholl isn’t a defeat and humiliation, after all: it’s a badge of honor. It’s a credential. It proves you’re not mediocre. Unfortunately, Mac Dixon was right: much of the time, in every profession, in every art and craft, mediocrity succeeds.
And not just on Nantucket.