My Cat Fight With Gwyneth Paltrow and my Fear of Failure
The year is 1991. I’ve been senior class president, most popular girl and Homecoming queen in high school.
It is obvious I am destined for greatness.
This is only confirmed when I get a phone call from the casting agent for then-Broadway director, Arvin Brown, telling me that out of hundreds of actresses (many of them from New York where the real actors live) I’ve won the role of Madge in a revival production of William Inge’s Picnic, a classic tale of a small-town beauty queen falling for a dangerous drifter.
(Kim Novak and William Holden played the leads in the 1955 film).
The show is to be staged at the respected Longwharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut which means I have to move to the east coast for the run of the show.
This is my first real acting gig. I’ve worked on a few independent films where I lugged cables and props and furniture around and even set my own lighting.
I’ve performed in a godawful production of Twelve Angry Women in a cafeteria with smashed out windows at an unsavory, needle-strewn rec center in Hollywood.
But this job will earn me my Equity card and the opportunity to work for a beloved Broadway director and seasoned Broadway thespians.
I am the shit. This will jet-propel me to a path of success (and perhaps excess, if I’m lucky).
During the first month of rehearsal I’ve developed a mad crush on my leading man, had my first interview with a newspaper and am earning enough money to keep humble abodes on both coasts.
One week before previews our director enters the women’s dressing room (the men have their own!!) to tell us we have some “special guests” who will be watching our rehearsal today, because they’re slated to do the very same show two months hence in Williamstown.
I’m nervous because one of the guests/spies is well-respected actress, Blythe Danner. The second guest worries me not.
She’s the girl who’ll play my role in the Williamstown production and everyone knows she got the part because of nepotism.
She’s Danner’s daughter and has a weird name. Gwynnie or Gwydoline or maybe it’s Gwyneth?
I meet her briefly before rehearsal and find her instantly forgettable: pale, wan and mopey. I have no doubt in my mind which of us will make the bigger splash. I almost feel sorry for her.
Two years later a film called Flesh and Bone is released and suddenly a star is born.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s role in the film could’ve been a nothing had she not imbued it with an assured, seductive-as-a-snake performance that literally stole the picture from its headliners, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid.
Two years after that I’m thirty-years old and still waiting tables.
I haven’t had one meaningful acting gig since Picnic, unless you count an Oatmeal Crisp cereal commercial where I talk to a Macaw that keeps flying off its roost and shitting in my hair every time the director yells, “Cut!”
To add insult to injury, many of the other unknown actors I’ve performed or studied alongside are also becoming household names: Ian Zeiring, David Schwimmer, Chad Lowe. Hilary Swank.
Something’s gotta give. And it does.
On the night it happens I come home at 2 a.m. from slinging lobster at my seafood restaurant to my infinitesimal studio apartment just off Lincoln Boulevard, where I’m occasionally mistaken for a prostitute.
I dig into some cold lamb leftovers, drink too much red wine by myself then have a panic attack.
I’ve never had a panic attack before. It’s very unpleasant. My brain spins like Linda Blair’s head in The Exorcist, I can’t breathe and my heart hammers out of my chest.
Not a religious person, I do what many agnostics and atheists do in a crisis. I get down on my knees and start to pray.
I ask for help, feeling utterly ridiculous. Yet in the deep black nothing behind my closed eyelids I see six words as if they’re lit up like a Las Vegas marquee in pink, flashing neon.
This what they say: “Don’t go where you’re not loved.”
Suddenly, like a thunderclap, or a case of the clap, I understand I have to change. I have to stop trying to be a professional actor. I have to give up and accept failure.
Just like that I can breathe and my heart slows down to its normal, only mildly frantic hummingbird tattoo.
I’m now officially a person who has failed. And failed at something she really, really wanted. I say to the Godless room aloud, “I am a failure.” And the Godless room replies, “Meh.”
It’s okay. I’m okay. Failing does not kill me. It doesn’t even embarrass me. And I walk away with no regrets.
Acting has led me to a richer inner life. Portraying characters that are broken and angry has allowed me to access and give voice to all of the hurt and anger I repressed as a “good girl” from a broken home.
Leaving acting doesn’t change my inner journey toward wholeness-through-art, instead I turn to a new mode of transportation, which is the written word.
Writing both pays dividends and makes me a pauper, is sometimes the agony and the ecstasy. And there may come a day I give writing up as well and turn to charcoals, or the strip tease, or the lute to continue on my art-driven path to self.
But there’s one thing failing in my first great passion has given me that no one can take away, which is the knowledge that I’m the kind of person who gets back up after falling and keeps moving forward.
Which is what I intend to do until my reel runs out.
Have you ever failed at something you really wanted? And if so, how do you move forward?