A Word to the Newly Wise

Dean Rosen, Faculty, Graduating Class of 2007, honored guests -

My name is Larry and I am a masochist.

Falling off the wagon, I recently called a film producer in the hope of interesting him in our working on a project together. Getting as far as his assistant, I was then treated to a two day-long recording of the complete works of Barry Manilow -- the director's cut -- after which I was asked to leave a message by the producer's executive assistant, who I have no doubt will be sitting in his executive boss' chair not too many phone calls from now. A person who, from his voice, sounded like a fetus in a three-piece suit.

Trained as a pup to save his future ex-employer as many precious seconds as possible by relaying as much advance information as he could glean, the young man then inquired, "Just so I can give him a heads-up, may I ask if you're calling about anything?"

With any luck at all, some of my offerings today, a few licks from a somewhat worn-down salt block, will meet that requirement; that at no point in the next few minutes will you be prompted to ask whether what I hope to impart is also about anything.

Not knowing all that much about a whole lot of things I'm hoping to share with you the little I know about whatever is left over.

My thanks, to begin with, to Dean Rosen for his invitation to travel all the way from Beverly Hills to address you here today. I take it as a good omen for your futures that I had the lights all the way.

Mindful of the importance of this assignment, I promise to take up only a nanosecond of those futures that await you -- futures that are now no more than a horizon or two away.

Let me tell you something right off that you've probably already discovered for yourself. It's always a mistake to equate age with wisdom. Let me assure you that I continue to make many of the same mistakes I've always made, the chief difference being that, thanks to many years of practice, it's now possible for me to make them with blinding speed.

At any rate, it's always special when I happen to find myself back at UCLA. No, no. Sadly, it is not my alma mater. I've never studied here. It's more a case of their studying me over at the medical plaza. Routine stuff. A few check-ups; a few trips through the various scanners here to help pay for all that equipment.

Having been born the same year as Mickey Mouse, I was once invited to participate in a research program here, one dedicated to the study of Alzheimer's.

Ready to give whatever is left of my all to science, I'm afraid I chose to chicken out when I learned that in the course of the two year study I would be required to undergo more than a couple of dozen brain scans.

When I asked the head of the program if that much radiation wasn't likely to shorten my life, she asked me how old I was. When I told her that I was seventy-five, her response was swift and direct.

"What do you care," she said.

Happily, by now, I've forgotten the woman's name completely. (Angel of mercy though she was.)

What never fails to amaze me -- as I know it will you one day -- is how the trip from cap and gown to one of the hospital variety can turn into such a blur; one that happens in no more than the blink of a lifetime.

For the record, and with no desire to spoil your day: being young is no trick. We all start out that way. The real challenge in the years ahead will be your ability to stay young.

I don't mean just learning how to lie about your age -- or having some 90210 plastic surgeon turn you back into a ten -- so that he can add to his fleet of Porsche Cayennes.

I'm talking about retaining -- make that clinging tenaciously -- to what is the very best about your youth: remaining creatively curious. Of having an itch that no amount of scratching can ever ease. Of being restless. Of being endlessly experimental. Of being less interested in knowing all the answers than in learning that it's impossible to ever know all of the questions.

The real effort will be not letting yourselves age by following tired, pre-tested creative patterns. By not letting yourselves become dated by clichés -- the kind of sure-fire, formulaic material that turns you, at best, into a video savant. Of somehow getting the idea that there are certain rules and methods by which plays or motion pictures can be done by the numbers.

Of learning to resist the altogether too many of those who will encourage you to write -- to direct -- or to give a performance that, like a well-chewed cud, will have already been pre-digested, asking only that you become the latest artist to merely regurgitate it.

On the one hand, it is imperative to know what's preceded whatever efforts you have in mind that will constitute your own bodies of work. No crystal ball really works well unless it comes equipped with a rear view mirror. We all have an obligation to appreciate the legacy left behind by the founding fathers and the birthing mothers of the dramatic arts.

Whatever path you've decided upon for your career: whether you choose to thrive on rejection by becoming a writer, or you elect to become a member of the Screen Waiters Guild, or you discover that perhaps there's a trace of DGA in your DNA, it behooves you to know what's gone before whatever it is that you hope to offer up next.

Such knowledge will broaden the range of your interests; such knowledge will add to the height of your standards.

Get to know your predecessors; they are your real competition, not the names that you find daily in Variety and in the Hollywood Reporter.

Get to know them all. From Aristophanes to Arbuckle. From Shakespeare to Chayefsky. From former émigrés to present day MBA's.

Get to know the sisters Gish; the brothers Warner; the brothers Mankewicz and certainly, the brothers Marx.

We, each of us, have to know the works of Larry and Curley, to say nothing of Moliere.

To add to your knowledge of the King Davids of TV -- the Davids Chase -- Milch -- and yet another Larry -- Google, if you will, David Wark Griffith.

But bygone time and deeds need no further burnishing. Your class -- every commencement class -- represents the perpetual promise that the best is yet to come.

To those who argue that there is nothing new under the sun -- usually in defense of their own creative poverty -- there is a counter-argument that challenges that assumption.

That something is you. You are what is new.

It is you who will offer the world the opportunity of viewing itself yet again -- only as it appears through your far less jaded eyes.

But be warned. Be very warned: though collectively and individually you are a welcome shot in the scarred arms of an ever-hopeful, forever-exploited audience, there are also - out there - those who will very much want to put your heads on their shoulders; those who will encourage you to come up with as much of other artists' originality as you can remember.

You are going to find yourselves, if in fact you haven't already, feeling very much like a pinball bumped from side-to-side by all the Doctor No's and all the far too many Know-It-Alls.

You will soon enough discover the joy of trying to prepare a chateaubriand, all the while being pressured to turn it into hamburger by an army of far, far too many helpers; all of this endless, gratuitous advice inevitably contributing, and perhaps explaining, why so many of the stories that we see on our screens, whatever their size, far too often turn out to be of the kind that have a beginning, a muddle and an end.

While politics might be the art of compromise, it is compromise itself that has the ability to turn the arts into mere politics.

Let them hire you, these infallible, executive Iron Chefs. Let them rent you. Let them lease you. Whatever you do, don't ever let them buy you.

Consider their criticism, by all means -- even a committee of one million monkeys, working together over an equal number of years, might eventually manage to produce a movie or a series or even a play, but use only what makes a solid, valid connection with your internal gyroscope. To put it more graphically: as often as you can, go with your gut.

You will find that very often these mavens -- and a good many of the mavettes -- may in fact have the ability to correctly diagnose a virus contained in your work. It is their suggestions, however, their prescription for a cure which can often prove far more toxic than the flaw they've helped you uncover.

By now, you are surely aware of the advantages and disadvantages of living in what is, with the possible exception of the theatre, a two-company town. To be part of this Mecca of distraction is to be constantly bombarded with reports of box office stats, of grosses and ratings. Of new techniques, of tectonic-shifting technology.

We are relentlessly assaulted by reportage regarding the business of the business. What's hot, what's not. What second rate effort we're told is now in first place. Who's hot, who's not. Who has been demoted upward. Which of your former agents has switched to production and is now telling you that you're not worth the money he used to ask for you.

All fascinating stuff; some of it maybe even useful to know. But we who dream in stories should aspire to more. Much more. Using the clay, sometimes the raw mud of experience to fashion our characters and our recollections. It's the business of life that should excite and stimulate us.

We and we alone give the lie to the idea that life is only lived once. Through our work, we are blessed with the ability to live as many times as we choose. We can win arguments once conceded as lost. We can supply fairness and justice where neither seemed present the first time around. We can punish those who got away with our money. Our pride. Our hearts. Even our elections.

Unsolicited advice being about as useful as unearned sentimentality, I leave you now - leave you to get on with whatever particular it is that you want to get on with.

The best, the most helpful tip I ever heard offered to young talent in this town were the two words once uttered by the movie star, Miss Bette Davis. Miss Davis' two words of incomparable wisdom?

"Take Fountain."

By whatever street you choose to travel, it's your turn to hit the road now.

But at the risk of burdening you with one moment more of sage advice, here are some final, hopefully helpful hints from my zip code in downtown Delphi:

Learn to defy conventional wisdom. Defy convention. Defy yourself.

Never mind working your head off. You'll soon learn how quickly it can grow back.

Whatever you do, whatever the medium, don't just strive to entertain. Use your talent as you would a stun gun. Dazzle us.

Remind us how to care. Remind us how to feel. And not just good. If your goal is to merely to make people feel all comfy and cozy, do a cooking show.

Shine your light into the darkest corners of our hearts and help us to remember our universal commonality.

Don't just add to the noise. We've had enough sequels and prequels. We don't need another movie that's based on another movie. Or one based on a ride. Or a game. Or, God help us, on a toy.

Do the first of something. The first of anything. Then, shred the recipe.

Beware of creative slam-dunks. Things you're able to do with the back of your hand are very often the only thing an audience might reward you with.

Be partial to projects that have a potential for failure. It always helps to doubt whether or not you can accomplish just what it is you had in mind. Discover how much adrenaline there is in risk. Failure is a far better teacher than success.

As the TV commercial so needlessly reminds us: Life comes at you fast. Just be sure that you're there when it happens. If being in the moment is a good idea, it's a far better one to be ahead of it.

While all things imaginative are in some sense autobiographical, try shuffling the deck now and then and tackling a subject -- or a world -- which you know absolutely nothing about.

Trust me, there is nothing like starting on a new project to give you a refresher course in humility.

You will find it a whole lot easier to express your opinions when someone else isn't paying for them.

If it's in motion pictures that you hope to make your career and/or your fortune, you would do well to learn the black art of certain ancient and exotic studio accounting practices: Crunching Numbers, Hidden Profits.

Okay, it's your turn now. Your turn -- as the Reverend William Sloane Coffin put it -- "to go out and have a lover's quarrel with the world."

Thank you.