The Artist is Always Failing: The Unhealthy Nature of Nostalgia

In nostalgic stories, characters live in a fun past that outshines the present. The protagonist represents the audience’s window into the story. A narration or title cards often inform the audience that the movie follows sentimental reminiscing. Since these movies tend to focus on male protagonists, the opposite sex tends to remain obscured and mysterious. The character also rarely has to change as much. Instead, the climax involves them having to be propped up.

However, nostalgia exists in a status quo that almost never gets challenged. The protagonists always represent the audience point of view. When real people try to apply these same beliefs to life, nostalgia can lead to unhealthy behavior from the audience.

‘My Favorite Year’ and Toxic Fandom

In December of 2020, Matt St. Clair of rogerebert.com published an article detailing how the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (1990) predicted a wave of toxic fandom that had become common on the internet. In that story, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) kidnaps the writer of her favorite book series and forces him to rewrite the book off the lead character of the series.

However, years before King published his book, the film My Favorite Year (1982) presented a much more insidious portrait of an entitled fan. Whereas Misery frames Annie Wilkes as the clearly demented villain, My Favorite Year presents its fan as the audience stand in.

Premise

My Favorite Year acts as a work of pure nostalgia. The opening narration features protagonist Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) describing the magical irreplaceable year of 1954. A television writer for a live comedy show, Benjy gets assigned to take care of Alan Swan (Peter O’Toole), a washed up drunken swashbuckler based loosely on 1930s matinee idol Errol Flynn. Benjy adores Swan’s screen persona to an extreme extent.

The Movie

In this world, Benjy’s validation matters more than Swan’s many personal problems. He meets Benjy’s family and takes him on many misadventures. Swan helps solve many of Benjy’s minor problems, such as Benjy’s relationship with female assistant K.C. Dowling (Jessica Harper). Benjy spends the movie chasing her around the office until Swan teaches him how to woo her.

Throughout the story, Benjy Stone never has to give up his worship of Swan’s screen persona. When an intoxicated Swan has to be tied up to get undressed, Benjy is more impressed that Swan can quote one of his old movies than saddened by his current state. Benjy’s fandom gets rewarded rather than punished.

In the climax, Swan has a panic attack when he learns that the show will go out live to millions of people. When he admits to Stone his fears, Stone tells him that he does not care about his actual feelings and that he need him to play this larger than life swashbuckler character. And it works. Swan jumps in to save Benjy’s boss (Joseph Bologna) from a couple of gangsters. Even at the end, Stone narrates that he prefers to see Swan as a larger than life hero. Viewing him as a full human being with a drinking problem never really enters his mind.

The Character of Alan Swan

As a character, Alan Swan has lived almost as colorful as his films. He has married multiple women and has sexual conquests throughout the story. All of these traits paint Swan as colorful rather than sad.

In order to keep the light nostalgic tone, every one of Swan’s problems gets portrayed as largely unimportant or trivial. All drunkenness gets played as a vaudeville act or silent movie. Similarly, Swan has an estranged daughter. At the end of the story, Benjy narrates that Swan went to see her and it was like “they were never apart.” According to director Richard Benjamin’s audio commentary, he cut an ending where Benjy visits Swan’s grave because it made audiences too sad leaving the theater. In order for the audience to still feel nostalgic and upbeat at the end, Swan has to remain immortal and mythic.

The Present Day

This movie came out before the internet and social media. The new medium of live TV now parodies the type of entertainment that Benjy loves. This narrative suggests that an absurd and entitled audience expectation of movie stars existed long before the internet.

Marvel

While Swashbucklers and Westerns do not exist as mass entertainment anymore, the Superhero movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe probably represent the close equivalent. While successful, the series also has its share of fans that went after people over creative decisions in the series.

The Avengers

When The Avengers first came out in 2012, it sat at 100% good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes until film critic Amy Nicholson gave it a review deemed negative. Nicholson received hundreds of comments on Rotten Tomatoes attacking her based on her gender. Rotten Tomatoes has since disabled the ability to comment on reviews. Despite all this negative publicity, Nicholson gave a pretty Lukewarm review (3 out of 5 stars).  She comes at the movie based on disappointment with what she describes as a generic storyline (especially the climax) rather than vitriol. Such mild criticism getting met with malevolent of defenses suggests that fans of the time felt that such a review deserved bullying.

Perhaps the closest person to Alan Swan in the modern day is Robert Downey Jr. After getting sober from drugs, Downey revived his career. In one of his most long lasting career choices, Downey decided to play wise-cracking billionaire Tony Stark or Iron Man. After playing the character for more than a decade, Downey decided to call it quits. When Avengers: Endgame (2019) killed off Stark, fans petitioned for them to shoot an ending where Stark survived. The creator of the petition felt that Stark – a fictional character – should not killed off as part of a story. It did not matter what the filmmakers’ intentions or actor’s wishes were.

The difference between My Favorite Year and this is that it centers on thousands of fans saying that they do not care about real people’s actual feelings and intentions in favor of their own narrative satisfaction. With the internet, all criticisms and horrible parts of the fan base get amplified.

John Belushi and Chris Farley

The same year that My Favorite Year came out, comedian and actor John Belushi died of a drug overdose at the age of 33. A star on the newly formed Saturday Night Live (1975-present), Belushi would star in a couple of big name movies before his death. Although he was a larger man, Belushi’s humor focused more on his behavior than his weight. While this article could focus on Belushi’s many brilliant performances, I have chosen to focus primarily on Animal House (1978) for the sake of clarity.

‘Animal House’

Animal House acts as another work of nostalgia. Since the story takes place in 1962, it gets to contrast the characters’ outrageous antics against a “more innocent time period” before social unrest and Vietnam. It focuses on the anarchic Delta fraternity and their quest to remain on campus. Like My Favorite Year, the trailer for the film features a narration about the wonders in college in 1962.

Although he played many characters, Belushi probably became known for the character of Bluto in Animal House. Belushi plays Bluto in a deadpan manner. Besides certain big scenes, Belushi’s performance acts in a more subtle manner than actors in many later comedies. While Belushi’s humor comes less from his physique and more from his defiance and detachment, the scenes that often got noticed focused more on the character’s drinking, partying, and slovenliness.

Women in ‘Animal House’

In Animal House, the female characters mostly exist in a hyper-sexualized manner. Women rarely have a moment alone, but when they do, they often act as a little more than a Greek chorus that describes the male character’s sexual escapades. When not talking about sex, they have pillow fights topless or masturbate. Since this is male centric sex comedy, women tend to not exist outside of these conquests

The film also never really bothers to explain what the women find attractive about the male leads. In particular, Bluto’s love story with Mandy Pepperidge (Mary Louise Weller) seems nonsensical. Bluto’s only interactions with Mandy involve him watching her without her consent. In the two main examples, he looks up her skirt and watches her masturbate through an open window. At the end, Bluto basically kidnaps her from a parade. However, the next scene presents them blissfully driving away as a happy couple. A title card reveals that they later got married.

Although Animal House helped shape comedy for years afterwards, seeing women in the way Animal House presents them is unhealthy.

‘Wired’

In 1984, journalist Bob Woodward wrote a book called Wired: the Short Life and Times of John Belushi. Everybody who knew Belushi (and who Woodward interviewed) personally hated it.

Nearly 30 years later, Tanner Colby wrote an article in Slate about everything Woodward got wrong in the book. Colby had written a book about Belushi with Belushi’s widow titled Belushi: A Biography. For that book, Colby had to do research and re-interview everybody involved. According to Colby, Woodward would get the story and events right, but mangle the meaning and context.

It also overemphasized Belushi’s drug use because Woodward would put in any drug story if he could find a source for it. This includes an 8 page story about a limo driver describing Belushi doing coke. While this might have happened, it does not really mean much to the life of Belushi. SNL writer Tom Davis described the book as if somebody wrote a book about your college experience titled Puked and it was all about people puking instead of the human parts of college.

15 years later, comedian and improviser Chris Farley would meet a similar fate. A lifelong fan of Belushi, Farley read Wired. While many took away sadness at how Belushi had died, Farley took away that he wanted to emulate Belushi, even down to his unhealthy habits.

Chris Farley

In the 1990s, Chris Farley became a household name for his tenure on Saturday Night Live and his appearances in movies like Tommy Boy (1995) and Black Sheep (1996). Offstage, Farley was a known alcoholic and drug addict who would be in and out of rehab for a good portion of his career.

In December 1997, Farley died of an overdose at the age of 33. While no one person or social interaction caused Farley’s death, Farley mythologized Animal House and the unhealthy parts of Belushi throughout his life. When Kevin Nealon told him that he had to scale back his partying, Farley told him that Belushi did a lot of drugs and he was really funny. That hero worship of Belushi (along with many other factors) contributed to his death.

Creative Side

Throughout his life, Farley did lots of things to please other people. Many decisions he made centered on pleasing his father. He acted in absurd ways to impress women. Above all, he performed many acts to make people laugh. Like in real life, Farley became known for doing outrageous things for laughs on the show. However, doing anything for a laugh proved damaging to Farley’s health and psyche.

A Fat Guy Falls Down

While not a great writer, Farley became known as a great performer. The character of Matt Foley came from Farley’s time at Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. Farley came up with the name and mannerisms, but Bob Odenkirk came up with the idea of a motivational speaker who used himself as an example of what not to become. Odenkirk also contributed the “van down by the river” line.

When the character moved from UCB to SNL, Robert Smigel made a major change that he “somewhat regretted later.”  He wrote in Chris Farley falling over into a table as a big topper because TV tends to flatten what works onstage. This led to a trend of sketches where Chris Farley fell over or got hurt. Farley felt that the audience loved it when he fell down and behaved clumsily.

Effect on Farley

Over his tenure on the show, Farley became a punching bag of sorts. His bits on Saturday Night Live tended to revolve around him getting rejected, humiliated, and knocked around. Unlike Belushi, many of the jokes about Farley focused on Farely as a fat or unappealing presence. SNL co-star Chris Rock disliked a Chippendale’s sketch because it had Farley auditioning for a job at Chippendale’s, only to get rejected for his physique.

According to Tom Farley and Tanner Colby’s book The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts, Chris Farley felt that he could not physically keep up this act forever. SNL Writer Fred Wolf recalls Farley trying to discuss his deeper career aspirations in a restaurant. As they talked, fans kept coming up to him and asking him to do bits from Tommy Boy and SNL.

On top of all this, Farley got blamed for all the shtick. After walking out of Black Sheep, film critic Gene Siskel called Farley a “bad actor” on national television. Siskel stated that “he just runs around, screams, and rolls on the floor like a fat man.”

Farley and Women

Throughout his life, Farley had a complicated relationship with women. Women could find him charming and attractive, but father Matt Foley also said that did some pretty inappropriate things with women. Foley also describes Farley as not knowing which women he felt he could trust.

Throughout The Chris Farley Show and documentaries about him, people talk about Farley wanting to settle down and have a family, but not knowing how to do it. Unlike Bluto’s relationship with Mandy Pepperidge, Farley could not magically end up with a woman. They also describe Farley as wanting to do this to please his father.

In many Chris Farley sketches involving women, the sketch often ends with Farley getting rejected. In one sketch, Farley asks out married actress Kim Basinger. She tells him that while he cannot date her, she does appear naked in The Getaway (1994), the film she is there to promote. The Splash Zone sketch ends with Janeane Garofalo rejecting Farley in favor of George Clooney. Throughout the sketch, he gets splashed with bacteria filled water.

Business Side

In his movie career, people often made decisions that would benefit Farley the commodity rather than Farley the person and performer.  Many of the movies he made as a star did not work out for the best.

‘Tommy Boy’

Tommy Boy follows Tommy Callahan III (Farley), a character similar to the real Farley. It features a father (Brian Dennehy) who employs Farley, much like his real father. When Tommy’s father dies in the story, Tommy has to go on the road with co-worker Richard (David Spade) to save the business.

As a performer, Farley tended to work best when he had other people to bounce off of. As a platform, SNL tends to favor people who can fit neatly into an ensemble nature. With Tommy Boy, a big part of the movie’s success relied on how he and SNL co-star David Spade worked together.

This chemistry made up a lot for a messy screenplay. According to Spade, he and Farley kept adding bits they did at the office to make something out of a somewhat unengaging premise (two guys on the road selling brake pads). Sometimes director Peter Segal did not know what a bit had to do with the story. Spade would often ask him to let them do it anyway.

Spade saw these bits as throwaway jokes. However, they later become important to the audience who enjoyed the movie. Bits like “Fat Guy in a little coat” and Farley’s clip on tie became favorite lines. With Tommy Boy, the audience engaged with all the stuff they did at the office.

The Success of ‘Tommy Boy’

After Tommy Boy, Farley’s career blew up. Many people wanted to work with him doing the same shtick he did on Tommy Boy and Saturday Night Live. Chris Rock said that business people would get him sober on Wednesday so they could shoot a movie on Monday. Rock describes these people as accessories to Farley’s death.

Farley also did not seem to know what steps to take after SNL and Tommy Boy. Tommy Boy director Peter Segal said that Farley got offered many terrible movies after Tommy Boy. Farley asked Segal to do them with him, but Segal told Farley to hold out for something better. This caused an upset Farley to think Segal did not like him anymore. Segal had to write a seven page letter explaining why these decisions did not work. Farley forgave him, but died shortly afterwards.

 ‘Black Sheep’

According to director Penelope Spheeris, Black Sheep came about mainly because Paramount wanted to hold Farley to his two movie contract. It proved an unhappy or unenthusiastic experience for the many people involved.

For the movie, Farley insisted that they bring on two members of the Animal House cast, Tim Matheson and Bruce McGill. At his audition, Farley would ask Matheson many questions about Animal House. In an interview in The Chris Farley Show, Matheson describes Farley as a little brother compared to John Belushi, who Matheson describes as a big brother. Matheson also describes Farley as being much less aware than Belushi.

Unlike a normal film made to keep the rights to something, this film focused on a real person rather than a property. Chris Farley could make the studio a lot of money if he did the movie, so everybody agreed to make it.

Farley’s later movies

As a star, Farley made two more movies: Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) and Almost Heroes (1998).

With Beverly Hills Ninja, Farley got offered six million dollars. Despite his misgivings about the script, he made the movie because his father told him to take the large sum of money. The film allowed Farley to indulge his love of martial arts. It did not do well otherwise.

Almost Heroes with Farley and Matthew Perry began as ensemble piece with the writers imagining a pre-House Hugh Laurie in Perry’s part. The production hired Christopher Guest to direct. Producer Denise Di Novi said that the humor resembled the British show Blackadder (1983-1989) and that casting Farley and Perry did not really work for that. Over time the ensemble nature of the film got whittled down in favor of making Farley the lead of the story.

Like many failures in life, Farley blamed himself for the way these films turned out. However, most of their failures have to do with cultivating Farley’s image to fit a certain model.

Some Thoughts

While I have never had a drinking or drug problem, I relate to many feelings that Chris Farley went through. As a teenager and young man, I equated a lot of self-worth to being successful or being funny. As I got older, I realized how unhealthy a lot of this was. At the age of 24, I found out that I had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Many of my rituals, behaviors, and problems became more understandable after that realization. That revelation helped me out.

I decided to write about Farley partially because I learned that he also had OCD. In the documentary Chris Farley: Anything for a Laugh (2019), SNL cast members and friends describe his many rituals. These include clapping, licking, and touching things. In a sketch with Steve Martin, one can see Farley touching every picture on the way down a hallway. Second city actor Holly Wortell says that Farley described it as “trying to even everything up.”

As somebody with OCD, I deal with my anxieties every day. I worry all the time that I will disappoint somebody or make a horrible decision. I approach every project with a certain amount of anxiety (including this article). However, I have also learned that bad or mediocre creative decisions often get snuffed out or forgotten about in favor of better ones. Often one bad decision also reflects a set of choices that simply do not work. Life goes on. People keep living and working.

Present Day

What happened to Chris Farley most likely would not happen now. Most of the modern Saturday Night Live Players (except maybe Peter Davidson) have gone onto other TV shows rather than becoming movie stars.

Since theatrically released movies now have to compete with streaming, television, and social media, they tend to focus more on well-known intellectual properties (or IPs) rather than just stars. As an actor, SNL head writer Colin Jost appeared in two IPs in 2021 (Tom and Jerry and Coming 2 America). However, these intellectual properties also bring out some of the worst sides in people.

My Opinion on Franchises

At this point, I find little motivation to get upset about franchises anymore. In my short 27 years on this earth, I have lived through 3 live action versions of Spiderman and 4 live action versions of Batman (soon to be 5). At one point, a film that never got made cast an unknown Armie Hammer as Batman. If a bad superhero movie comes out, I feel like a new version will come out within 5 years, so why bother?

While properties tend to be fairly replaceable by design, the audience cannot replace the health and wellbeing of the people involved. Star Wars has had multiple cast members go through deeply personal problems based on their fan base. After playing Jar Jar Binks, Ahmed Best contemplated suicide when the members of the fan base sent him death threats and accused him of ruining their childhoods. Jake Lloyd left acting altogether because of the bullying and harassment he faced in school. In recent years, Kelly Marie Tran got bullied off social media, but ended up returning. Since then, all of these parts of the franchise have ended. New parts of the series have replaced them. All of this nastiness and bad behavior happened over something that largely faded (or will fade) into the background.

Since almost all the IPs center on nostalgia, a good amount of the criticisms of them boil down to “it was not like that when I was younger.” However, IPs keep getting made because the studio, network, or company knows that an audience exists for them. Making something original remains risky because it relies on selling the audience something they may or may not have a remote interest in.

Passable Movies

Over the past few years, a Nerdwriter video that focused on the “epidemic of passable movies” keeps coming back to me. In the video, Evan Puschak discusses how Hollywood keeps pumping out movies that are just “good enough.” I have since heard this argument a few times.

At a certain point in the video, Puschak defines “passable movies” as movies that see the world through other movies rather than real life. He gives the example of Hitch (2005), Pineapple Express (2008), and The Wedding Ringer (2015) having the same exact scene. However, this conclusion seems faulty.

Considered one of the greatest films of all time, Casablanca (1942) has a rousing scene in which the resistance sings La Marseillaise to drown out Nazis singing their song. 3 years earlier, Casablanca director Michael Curtiz featured a very similar scene in Dodge City starring Errol Flynn.

How the Internet Changes Entertainment

What changed? Unlike the era when Casablanca came out, the audience can now go back to their old favorites much more easily. With the internet and home video, similar story beats get easily pointed out and picked apart unlike before.

But the internet has not just changed the way the audience views movies. It also changed the way filmmakers made movies. In the commentary for the Tom Cruise remake of The Mummy (2017), director Alex Kurtzman said he based a scene on an internet video about the staging for a dialogue scene in Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo (1958). The video Kurtzman is referring to is one that Puschak made on the same subject.

These arguments tend to focus on something feeling disposable and meaningless. With the internet, many things feel this way. In an article for Harper’s Bizarre, filmmaker Martin Scorsese wrote about how the internet treats everything as content. 2 years before he wrote that piece, SNL came out with a skit about Netflix creating an overwhelming and infinite number of options for entertainment by buying up every idea possible.

Conclusion

In many of the nostalgic comedies mentioned, the story exists within a karmic universe. Throughout My Favorite Year, the film makes a point of the universe balancing out. If a boss acts horribly to an employee, they will buy them a new set of expensive tires. With Alan Swan, he says that all his crazy behavior evens out. Animal House ends with an epilogue. The good guys succeed and the bad guys lose. In these movies, characters rarely have to grow, change, or learn. The characters fit neatly into tidy categories so the audience never has to question the framing of the story.

Unlike nostalgic comedies, life does not tend to exist as neat little narrative. Fans can love the work of an entertainer. However, the entertainer exists as a person, not a mythological figure for the audience’s amusement. And as people, they will inevitably disappoint us.