WHEN Aaron Sorkin was a young nobody in New York in the 1980s, working as a bartender while writing his Broadway hit, "A Few Good Men," on cocktail napkins, he found himself observing the media darlings of the moment. The threesome, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz, were all as well known for their off-stage antics as they were for their literary work.
"I remember saying to myself, 'These guys aren't doing themselves any favors becoming known for all those other things instead of for what they wrote,' " Sorkin recalls with a wag of his head. "And then look what happened. To me!"
Sorkin's much-touted NBC series, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," whose last episode aired just a few weeks ago, was canceled before the end of its first season, a victim of bad ratings and mediocre reviews. But it was also ambushed by nonstop sniping between Sorkin and the media, much of it even before the first episode aired.
The storm seems to have passed. Though not exactly eager to unburden himself, Sorkin sat down for the first time since "Studio 60's" cancellation to discuss the perils of failing in public and navigating a media universe where it's increasingly hard to tell if you are being judged by your work or simply by your celebrity persona.
Let me put my cards on the table: I'm an unabashed admirer of Sorkin's work. He is a rare breed of writer today who uses both humor and a bracing moral seriousness to wrestle with the complexity of the real world. But "Studio 60," as good as some individual episodes were, never seemed to find a consistent voice, a must for must-see TV. It was, in hindsight, a bad idea, if for no other reason than it tried to graft Sorkin's fascination with social issues onto a story about career crises in the rarified world of TV comedy writers. But that made the show only more irresistible -- we got to see a brilliant writer try to breathe life into a doomed premise.
Sorkin insists that he's not sore about the way things turned out. He's moved on, with a new play premiering on Broadway this fall and an adaptation of "Charlie Wilson's War," a Tom Hanks-starring Oscar contender due at Christmas. He also has a new deal with DreamWorks to write three films, starting with "The Trial of the Chicago 7," a project that could end up being directed by Steven Spielberg.
Still, there are standard ways of dealing with failure in Hollywood. No. 1: Taking responsibility.
"I don't know how to emphasize this enough that I'm not disappointed or upset with anyone but myself," Sorkin says over lunch at Nate 'n Al's last week where he is repeatedly interrupted by fans wanting to share how much they enjoyed his work. "There are only two possible reasons for 'Studio 60' failing -- it was either my fault or it was just one of those things. On some shows, you can make mistakes and still survive. But with this one, I made too many mistakes for it to survive."
No. 2: Schadenfreude.
Bernie Brillstein, the fabled Hollywood manager whose clients included John Belushi and Jim Henson, is convinced that failure is an inevitable byproduct of industry envy and backstabbing. "Rightly or wrongly, Aaron got a reputation as holier than thou," Brillstein explains. "When you put yourself out front in the media, like Aaron did or Judd Apatow is right now, everyone is lying in wait for you. That's the psychology of the town. Once you're anointed, everyone wants the king to fail."
No. 3: Insularity.
It's almost impossible to keep any sense of perspective when you're in the midst of the pressure-cooker environment of making a TV show or a film. When "Studio 60" hit the ratings skids, NBC replaced the show with "The Black Donnellys," a show from "Crash" filmmaker Paul Haggis that flopped even faster than Sorkin's show.
"When you're doing a show, you're living entirely in that world, only trying to deal with all the issues in your show," says Haggis. "But then the show goes into people's homes and it becomes their show. Suddenly you have no control over what happens. And when you discover that the stories you're telling don't have the same meaning to other people that they did to you -- wow, it's a real smack in the face."
Nos. 4 to 100: Laying blame.
Every failure in Hollywood gets blamed on something else, from movies that bomb (freak snowstorms back East) to anemic album sales (illegal file sharing by snotty college kids). But Sorkin sees a more insidious villain -- a triviality-obsessed media no longer willing to separate gossip and idle speculation from reporting and criticism. "When all everyone does is try to draw personal connections between your characters and real people, you're not really watching a play or a TV show anymore," he says. "It becomes a tabloid experience."
Just ask Woody Allen, whose movies were psychoanalyzed by critics for years after he took up with Soon-Yi Previn, his then-girlfriend Mia Farrow's adopted daughter. Or look at the reception that greeted "A Mighty Heart," where it seemed impossible to find a review that didn't discuss Angelina Jolie's celebrity status. As Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum put it: "Despite the best of intentions, an actress who makes her own headlines gets in the way of the big picture." When Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" arrived last fall, conservative bloggers bashed the film -- mostly without seeing it -- simply because Haggis, a vocal liberal, had written the script.
"You'd think I'd single-handedly turned Clint into a Communist," Haggis recalls. "You get a lot of attention in journalism these days, especially on the Internet and on Fox TV, just by attacking people." The other day Roger Friedman, a Web-based gossip writer for Fox News, ran a quasi-review of Haggis' upcoming film, "In the Valley of Elah," taking time out from discussing the movie to offer conspiratorial speculation that the film makes numerous references to EarthLink because Haggis, like the founders of that Internet service, is a Scientologist.
This gossipy guesswork pervaded much of the media coverage of "Studio 60," in which much was made of the supposed similarities between "Studio 60" characters and real-life counterparts. It wasn't an entirely unreasonable assumption, since one of the show's lead characters -- a TV writer with a history of drug problems -- was written by Sorkin, a TV writer with a history of drug problems.
Still, Sorkin contends that TV drama is robbed of some of its punch when it's turned into a roman a clef. "There were too many people looking at this show like it was the cover of 'Abbey Road,' " Sorkin says. "It was never an autobiographical show. I'm a lot more than a recovering cocaine addict. Jordan McDeere and Jamie Tarses had one letter of the alphabet in common. It was really a lot of silliness." (Young and aggressive, Tarses had a brief run as ABC's programming chief, the first woman to hold such a position at a network.)
What clearly bugs Sorkin is that for whatever matrix of reasons -- his messy private life, his brash willingness to publicly trash Internet bloggers or just his star power as a writer -- he became a target for all sorts of gossipy buzz that doesn't haunt similarly successful writers like "Everybody Loves Raymond's" Phil Rosenthal or "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Larry David.
"I can flat-out guarantee that Phil was writing autobiographical stories in his show, but for some reason people just aren't caught up in the gossip of his life," Sorkin says. "It's just unhealthy. 'After the Fall' is a better play if you don't know that Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe were married. It doesn't enhance the experience of seeing the play if you're being a detective, always looking for clues. You only see the writing through a filter that takes you out of the actual story."
I suspect Sorkin is fighting a losing battle. We've become a nation of prying eyes, snoops hungry for the inside story. It's surely telling that Sorkin's old time slot is now occupied by a reality show about real-life wedding crashers, people eager to barge into someone else's life. For Sorkin, TV is an all-too accurate barometer of our ideals. As he puts it: "TV has a very measurable effect on our national mood. When TV gets bitchy and pissy, you find Americans getting bitchy and pissy too."
In a way Sorkin may have come around to a final way of handling failure: acceptance. "Expectations were high and I couldn't come close to meeting them, so you'd have to say our show failed in a big way," he explains. "But when you get to write 22 episodes and have them produced exactly the way you want -- well, as someone I know once described it, 'Things are OK when the things you complain about are the things you used to dream about.' "
Could any of Sorkin's characters have said it better?
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