The fall of Harvey Weinstein has illuminated some of the longstanding practices of sexual exploitation in Hollywood. People also mention how he and his brother were bullies, routinely yelling and intimidating people and using their power and influence to get away with it. I contend it is all part of the same behavior – people who feel that to validate themselves they must humiliate others. Earlier-era Hollywood players like Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck, and Alfred Hitchcock did similar things as do many in Washington, DC, today.
But for composers, those days are over.
Once upon a time, a film composer, if talented enough, could be imperious and demanding (although I don’t know of any who were the sexual predators many of their bosses were). “Difficult geniuses” were tolerated, even respected. Jerry Goldsmith was famously prickly as was Bernard Herrmann. But, today, every successful film and television composer I know is a nice guy/gal.
Some of the most meaningful acts of generosity I’ve witnessed have been to fellow composers – exactly the people who, if they are successful, will end up being the competition. Sometimes it is by teaching, sometimes by offering career advice, sometimes it is as dramatic as helping someone get a job. Sometimes it is just a kind word at a crucial moment.
When I first moved to Los Angeles 18 years ago, I knew no one. One of the first people to listen to my work and give me hope was Shirley Walker. She didn’t have any gigs to offer me, but just the fact that someone I respected told me I wasn’t a loser and that I had a future in the business made an enormous difference and gave me the strength to continue when logic and a dwindling bank account told me to leave town.
Harry Gregson-Williams and Cliff Martinez gave me my first shots ever at writing cues for “real” movies. Harry introduced me to Hans Zimmer, which changed my life. Hans has launched more of his competitors’ careers than all their agents put together: Harry, John Powell, Heitor Pereira, Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL), Steve Jablonsky, Ramin Djawadi, Lorne Balfe, Jeff Rona…the list goes on and on. And I have personally witnessed an act of kindness, compassion, or sincere gratitude by every single one of these composers.
Some have given back to others by teaching: Mark Snow, Sean Callery, Nathan Barr, Mac Quayle, George S. Clinton, Mark Suozzo have all inspired the next generation with their experience. Jeff Beal donated enough money to Eastman to launch an entire Film Music Department! Laura Karpman has been instrumental in paving the way for other women composers through her work as a Governor of the Motion Picture Academy, and, with Miriam Cutler, as founders of the Alliance for Women Film Composers. The board of the AWFC – which has done more to overcome the lingering institutional sexism in our field than any other entity I know – also includes other outstanding women composers who I have witnessed perform spontaneous acts of goodness: Lolita Ritmanis, Kathryn Bostic, and Penka Kouneva.
Andrew Gross and Richard Gibbs both founded composer’s organizations (the Topanga Composer Junto and the Composers Breakfast Club, respectively) that meet on a regular basis with the sole purpose of helping other composers. My fellow Governor at the Television Academy (Emmys), Rickey Minor, although better known as a music director than a composer, fights to improve the lives of composers on a daily basis. He was crucial to the success of Words & Music, the concert we produced for the Academy that featured the works of many of the names on this page.
Michael Giacchino, Thomas Newman, Leslie Barber, James Newton Howard, Pinar Toprak, John Debney, Rupert Gregson-Williams, Wendy & Lisa, Reinhold Heil, Kurt Farquhar, Pedro Bromfman, Mark Isham, Lili Haydn, Bear McCreary, Lisbeth Scott, Dave Porter, Trevor Morris, Charlie Clouser, John Lunn, Joseph LoDuca – I’ve personally observed each perform an act of kindness or generosity to another composer. And that’s just the ones I remember![After this was posted, I realized I had forgotten Mr. Kindness & Generosity himself, A.R. Rahman, whose middle name, if it weren’t already “Rakha”, would be whatever the Tamil word for “mensch” is . He matches Jeff Beal in that he started an entire school in India. See – there are just too darn many of them to keep track of!]
Maybe it’s always been more true than we know. Elmer Bernstein – another composing great from the old days not known for his diplomacy – told me a story about how when he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era and out of work, Bernard Herrmann recommended him for the job of writing a music for a dance sequence in The Ten Commandments which Victor Young was scoring. Young was stricken with cancer and became too sick to do the film so Elmer got the overall scoring gig. Which, in turn, led him to scoring The Man With The Golden Arm during a lull in the 10 Commandments production, and earned him an Oscar nomination. All in the course of a year. But he didn’t know all that was going to happen when he called Herrmann to thank him for the dance sequence job, his first in two years. Herrmann listened to him babble out his gratitude then sharply cut in to say, “Look kid. The only reason I recommended you was that I thought you’d do a good job. Now don’t f*ck it up!!” And hung up.
Sometimes, nice comes with a grumpy face.
So, is this a coincidence? I think not. The same temperament that allows someone to communicate with directors and producers, that gives them the empathy to understand the characters in a story is what makes them good citizens when it comes to their peers. Because that’s just who they are – and, thankfully, that’s good for business, too. Despite what you’ve heard to the contrary, nice folks finish first.
Photo credit: E. H. Shepard – “He Went on Tracking, and Piglet… Ran After Him”