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Everything I Know I Learned at the Movies

From ”All About Eve” to ”The Producers,” life lessons gleaned from classic films

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You want to break into film? Be a top-selling pop star? Become famous for no reason whatsoever? Except for that last one (try the Survivor producers), the movies can help. Make sure you rent the right ones, though. Flashdance may teach you how to take off your bra without removing your shirt, but does it really impart any serious tips to the showbiz neophyte? To truly prosper in the performing arts, memorize the life lessons buried in the following dozen movies:

LESSON NO. 1: PUT ON A SHOW
Babes in Arms (1939)
Take a clue from Mickey Rooney in Busby Berkeley’s archetypal showbiz kids musical: If no one wants to make you a star, then you might as well do it yourself. Or, as the Mick says, ”I’m going to write a show for us and put it on right here!… What do you say?” Of course, costar Judy Garland and the rest of the gang then start a rally with torches and dance around a bonfire — no, really, they do — and the revue they eventually stage in a barn starts off with the most politically incorrect blackface number you’ll ever see. But, hey, it gets ’em to Broadway….

LESSON NO. 2: WATCH YOUR BACK
All About Eve (1950)
Show business is no place for paranoid neurotics. Unfortunately, show business is full of paranoid neurotics. Take Broadway diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis). She’s at the pinnacle of her career, in love with her adoring director (Davis’ real-life husband Gary Merrill), but she knows in her bones that sweet-faced ingenue Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is a conniving, backstabbing bitch. She’s right, of course, and Eve is gloriously witty proof that showbiz paranoia is, in fact, a professional asset.

LESSON NO. 3: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
A Star Is Born (1954)
As rising starlet Vicki Lester (née Esther Blodgett), Judy Garland (née Frances Gumm) is willing to subject herself to the full dream-factory makeover, but she witnesses firsthand what nightmares can result when megastar husband Norman Maine (James Mason) tailspins into self-pity and alcoholism. Still, she does get an Oscar out of the deal. For further elucidation, see the 1937 Janet Gaynor-Fredric March version, the 1976 Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson version, and, especially, the 1932 original What Price Hollywood?

LESSON NO. 4: SUCK UP AT YOUR OWN RISK
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Sleazy publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) affixes himself to the rear end of all-powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker (a deeply scary Burt Lancaster), and what does it get him? A ruined career, a thrashing from a crooked cop, and a reputation for having the ”scruples of a guinea pig.” A lacerating B&W look at the showbiz cesspool, Smell remains the ultimate cautionary tale for would-be Sammy Glicks.

LESSON NO. 5: MOTHER DOESN’T ALWAYS KNOW BEST
Gypsy (1962)
Purists carp that Broadway originator Ethel Merman should have been cast, but Rosalind Russell still makes the case that Rose Hovick was the pain-in-the-ass stage mama of all time, pouring her thwarted dreams of celebrity into daughters June (who ran off to become movie star June Havoc) and Louise (who found fame as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee). Ann Jillian and Natalie Wood shine as the girls, but Russell makes your blood freeze when she sings that anthem of delusion, ”Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” An excellent argument for leaving home.

LESSON NO. 6: DON’T BE HAMPERED BY TASTE
The Producers (1968)
Well, yes, broadway con man Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and nebbishy accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) hope their horrific stage musical will bomb so they can run off with the backers’ money. But Springtime for Hitler is so exquisitely awful, and writer-director Mel Brooks’ embrace of excess is so enthusiastic, that both play and movie can’t help but succeed. How many times did the Farrelly brothers watch this as kids?

LESSON NO. 7: BE PERSISTENT
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
You could cut a record, mail it off to the tastemakers, and hope for the best. Or you could make like Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek), and drive to every radio station in the South, giving interviews, playing live tunes, and generally making sure that the damn platter gets on the playlist. Who knows? Maybe someday an actress will win an Oscar for playing you.

LESSON NO. 8: TRY A NEW LOOK
Tootsie (1982)
Actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) has ticked off every casting agent in New York City with his fussy Method perfectionism. His career needs a new foundation — which he finds in the foundation garments of ”Dorothy Michaels,” the mother-hen actress he pretends to be in order to land a soap opera role. He stretches as an actor and a human being as a result, proving that there’s more than one blessing in disguise.

LESSON NO. 9: BE REALLY PERSISTENT
The King of Comedy (1983)
For every showbiz success story, there are a thousand earnest, hopeful failures. They can lack talent, or timing, or connections, or, as in the case of truly bad stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), all three. But at least he shows a certain insane gumption when he kidnaps talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) just to get on TV. In Martin Scorsese’s acerbic view, it’s Rupert’s clammy, funny-creepy obsessiveness that, in fact, makes him a star.

LESSON NO. 10: HAVE CONFIDENCE
Get Shorty (1995)
Remember how the gangland sharpie played by John Travolta silences any and all adversaries with a quiet ”Look at me”? Remember how sleazy movie producer Gene Hackman tries the same stunt and gets clocked on the head? The difference is pure, unreflective self-belief, and this adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel understands how rare and useful a commodity that is in Hollywood.

LESSON NO. 11: DON’T DISCOUNT MIRACLES
That Thing You Do! (1996)
One day you’re banging around with a dinky little rock & roll band in your parents’ garage; the next, your record is in the top 10, you’re doing TV appearances, and the lead singer has decided he’s an artist. Tom Hanks, making his directorial debut, clearly understands that pop glory — especially the 1960s hit-single variety — is all the sweeter for being so unexpected and so ephemeral. Are you listening, Sisqo?

LESSON NO. 12: HAVE A UNIQUE TALENT
Boogie Nights (1997)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakthrough film is really just the latest version of A Star Is Born, with busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) rechristened Dirk Diggler and rising to fame, riches, and industry awards on the strength of his enormous… gift. That it’s the porn-film industry, and that said gift is strictly anatomical, doesn’t negate the basic message here. All together, class: If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

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