smile. Not a regular pleased-to-see-you smile but a strange, otherworldly, psychotropic drug-like smile. A stupid smile. The kind of smile Danny De Vito has in "Cuckoo's Nest" when he eats Nicholson's Monopoly pieces, "Hotel, hotel, hotel .*.*." The kind of smile that creases your face in the presence of godlike greatness. The kind of smile that says, "You are The Real Thing and I am not fit to spread your Man Tan." It's TSS: Toxic Star Syndrome.
I was an art director the first time I witnessed TSS in full bloom. We were shooting Burt "The Man" Lancaster, Mr. Major Old World Studio System Star/Deity. I was a fan sure, but I also fancied myself a pretty hot-shit art director and Burt was by now just another old guy. Rule 1: TSS strikes when you least expect it. Looking back, if TSS was going to infect me, I'm glad it ravaged my system on a Burt Lancaster shoot. "Elmer Gantry," "The Crimson Pirate," "Birdman of Alcatraz"- hey, this guy rolled in the surf with Deborah "The Woman" Kerr. We're talking Alpha Thespian here. I don't care if Nicolas Cage yanked out all his molars for a role-Burt "The Man" Lancaster is a star.
Day of shoot: August and hot. VPs and senior VPs of departments I never heard of crowd the tiny L.A. soundstage like cholesterol in a downed artery. Somebody says 65 big shots have shown up. Pinstripes and stupid smiles are everywhere. The whole room is infected.
Delirious with TSS, I enter the men's room for the sixth time to push my hair around into something I think Burt might approve of. I try and wipe the stupid smile off my face. Useless. I hate myself. I am a miserable scum-sucking art director unworthy to touch the hem-let alone choose the wardrobe-for Burt "The Man" Lancaster. Rule 2: TSS side effects include intense feelings of self-loathing for being less than pond scum in the presence of The Star/Deity. Suddenly the director enters the men's room. He's got a schmear of cream cheese running from the corner of his mouth to the middle of his cheek. He doesn't seem to care. He's wearing the stupid smile too. He's infected! This was the same guy who three days ago said he'd have a "little chat with Burt about how he should deliver his lines." Wow. At the time I thought, This guy's got a pair. Now I leave him in the men's room smiling down at his blue urinal cake peeing figure eights. I begin to think maybe I too can direct ...
Rule 3: The Star/Deity is always late. Burt finally walks into the room, heels clicking like castanets. He's an hour and a half late and everyone in the room wants to apologize. We've got it really bad. The room jack-knifes to attention as he strolls in. Sixty-five owners of expensive suits, dark Porsche sunglasses and indomitable egos leap from their seats like brain-dead dolphin to their favorite Body Gloved Sea World blonde. Burt will stay for about two hours ("More than enough time!"). Burt will do about 10 takes ("We've got it!"). Burt will pull down about 50 G-Whizzers ("Tell Burt we're sorry, it's the best we could do."). Burt will refuse to say the product name ("It's fine. Really fine."). Rule 4: The Star/Deity will bleed you like a celestial leech and you'll wish you were a blood bank.
When Mayer, Goldwyn, Warner and the rest came up with the concept of a star some 70 odd years ago, I believe this is what they had in mind-big, heavenly out of this world Star/Deities. Beyond the ken of mortal men. They would fill the great yawning holes in our unremarkable lives. Star/Deities would walk taller, talk cooler, look better, kiss longer and receive more worldly stuff than any of the five billion little wannabes our pathetic planet could hiccup.
Since I began directing I've worked with a bunch of stars. Some are TSS carriers, some aren't. Quarterbacks, comedians, heavyweight champions, nightly news anchors-I can never figure out who's carrying.
Rule 5: TSS can never be understood. Like extraterrestrials, some people think they see a glow around the truly toxic-starred. I don't know about that. I do know that TSS is a very rare thing to catch these days. I miss it. I want somebody's mere presence to knock me stupider than I already am. I think if Burt "The Man" Lancaster were ever to recover from the effects of that stroke, he'd still be a major TSS carrier, at least for me. Emilio Estevez? Leonardo Di Caprio? Hmmmm. End of day walkaway consensus would be either A) Nice guy, or B) Shithead. In both cases I think TSS would be majorly absent. Disagree? Write your own article.
Now imagine yourself leaning (casually) by the craft service table trying to tell Gable what color pants you think he should wear in your deodorant spot. You're stammering. You're not making any sense. You've got a shit-eating grin on