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Life and Art

David Berger

I first became aware of Bill Cosby when I was 14 and Gregory played me his first record, Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow, Right! We loved the routine about Noah. Gregory memorized it. We became fans. Over the past 30 years I’ve worked with Bill a number of times and was always impressed by his comedic genius (not a word I use lightly.) Needless to say, I was distressed and disappointed to learn of his alleged sex crimes. Should I never re-watch the TV show I made with him? I’ll admit that I haven’t watched it since it aired on PBS 8 years ago. I doubt it will ever be shown on TV again.


Now, I’m not saying that we should give Bill a mulligan (like the Religious Right consistently gives Donald Trump). If Bill is convicted of these crimes, he should go to prison. What I’m addressing is that bad people sometimes create great art and good people usually produce bad or mediocre art. Genius is rare. Should we throw out the baby with the bath water?


Woody Allen has been accused of awful things. I dated a cute young actress 40 years ago who told me that she got a callback from Woody. When she got to his apartment, he put the moves on her. She said no, and left. You’ll be surprised to learn that not only did she not get the part, but also I’ve never seen her in any movie since. Should I not watch that movie—Manhattan? Interestingly enough, in Manhattan Woody’s character is having an affair with a high school girl. Man, if that isn’t art imitating life! I have to admit that it’s a bit creepy.


I remember the big to-do about Lolita when the book came out and later with the release of the move. Sue Lyons, who played Lolita in the movie, was not allowed in the theater at the premiere because she was underage. I never heard anything bad about Nabokov’s personal character, so although the subject matter was dicey, it was OK for him to write about it—not unlike other types of crime novels. We don’t boycott Agatha Christie because she was obsessed with murder. But if a corpse is ever dug up from her basement, her books will be banned for sure.


It just strikes me that many, if not most, of the artists that we revere behaved badly during their lifetimes. Many were wife-abusers, cheaters, brawlers, bad parents, drunk drivers, racists, anti-Semites, you name it. Should we remove their paintings from museums, their books from libraries, their movies from theaters and TV? Do we want to lose the likes of Wagner, Hemingway, Pollack, Hitchcock, et al?


I was involved in making a movie for the Weinsteins. It didn’t do well at the box office, but I re-watched it last week and really liked it. Harvey sat about 15 feet away from Denzel and me during the filming of the scene I was involved in. Does his bad behavior off the set negate Denzel’s excellent acting and directing? It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with my work other than providing the money for me to be paid.


When Jim Boutin wrote Ball Four and exposed the lives of his Yankee teammates, a lot of people got upset. Ballplayers were icons to our youth. How dare he tear them down to human size?


And why are two of the greatest baseball players of all time not in the Hall of Fame? In 1919 Shoeless Joe Jackson accepted money to throw the World Series (in which his performance was flawless), and Pete Rose was caught gambling on games, but never bet against his own team.  Actually, their motives are beside the point. The Hall of Fame should be about performance and not character. Many of their members were ardently and outspokenly racist and anti-Semitic, among their other socially unacceptable behaviors. I never saw Jackson play, but I can tell you that Pete Rose was the guy you wanted on your team because he hustled 24/7 and inspired every single teammate of his. Is he a sleazy character? Sure, but no one will ever get more hits than him, or run harder to first base on a walk. They didn’t call him Charlie Hustle for nothing.


There’s a great line near the end of My Favorite Year where the young TV comedy writer tells the aging drunk movie star that we need our heroes to be larger than life. Now that I think about it, this movie addresses our love and even adoration for flawed (and very flawed) people. I’m not excusing Roman Polanski, and I’m not sure if he shouldn’t be in an American prison now, but Chinatown is a masterpiece. Again, is it creepy that pedophilia is central to the plot of the movie, and Polanski’s crime was  the statutory rape of an underage girl? Is this art imitating life? Unlike Woody Allen, who was never charged with a crime, Polanski took a plea deal, which the government reneged on. Would a non-celebrity have even been offered a plea deal?


What is it about sex? It just doesn’t go away. It brings out the best and the worst in us. And it certainly brings out our tendencies toward being judgmental. We love humor about sex maybe because it makes us a little uncomfortable.


When Bill Clinton was being impeached, our country was divided. I personally felt that this was a case of sex involving two consenting adults—an issue between the president and his wife.  There was no evidence of a breech of security. I didn’t see how it affected his job performance. No pun intended.


Around that time, a book came out chronicling the extra-marital affairs of nearly every one of Clinton’s predecessors in the Oval Office including FDR who was in a wheelchair. Again, was FDR less of a great president because he strayed from his marriage vows? Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Lyndon Johnson passed much-needed Civil Rights and anti-poverty legislation while killing millions of Vietnamese citizens based on an attack that never happened. People are complicated. Life is complicated.


When I look at a painting, I don’t think about the painter’s life. When I listen to an Ellington recording, I don’t wonder who Duke was having sex with the night he wrote that piece. Why do we hold actors, directors, writers and producers up to a higher standard? When Woody Allen plays a role in a movie, unless his character’s name is Woody, he is playing a fictional character that is separate from his real-life  self. The same goes for Bill Cosby, and all the other artists. Except Mel Gibson. He’s not a good enough actor that I should make the effort to overlook his repulsive behavior and words. Why should I be denied the right to be complicated?

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  • Nina Schwartz on

    I don’t suggest throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but I disagree with your reasoning. Why do we hold these particular artists to a higher standard? Bill Cosby started out playing the part of a decent, kind, brilliant, hardworking government agent, and ended up playing a decent, kind, hardworking doctor and family man. He pretended to a high moral fiber; he exemplified what an African American man could be, starting in the 1960s, when many weren’t allowed to be. Yes, he was a great comedian—but also a serial rapist. Maybe if you were a woman, the words would have a bit more meaning for you. Woody Allen adopted the persona of a basically decent, bright, talented nebbish for 40+ years—and slept with his OWN teenage stepdaughter, a girl in his care. Tell me, as the father of a daughter, that you weren’t nauseated. We held him to a high standard because of his persona, and because he (need I even say it?) exemplified Jewish men.

  • Marilyn on

    My mother used to quote an old song, “Who’s down now? my friend Sam. Let him up, it ain’t a fair fight. Who’s down now? The other fella. Hit him again, he ain’t got no friends!” Your comment about Mel Gibson made me laugh out loud – we can’t help but see the best in our friends and people whose work we respect, and the converse applies to those folks we don’t favor. I am saddened by the accusations of Kevin Spacey and Woody Allen, and inclined to believe those about Cosby, who I always found somewhat creepy. But I must disagree with your assertion that “good people usually produce bad or mediocre art” – unless you’re holding out on some deep, dark secret life, that certainly doesn’t apply to YOU, Dave! ♥♫♥♫ XOXO – M

  • Roland Butta on

    Whatever happened to due process? Today, people are being treated as guilty before any jury of their peers has judged them. This is mob rule.
    Accusations of long-ago sexual crime have become a sort of industry. People are so horrified by them that they almost always believe them.
    Because the crime is so foul, we stop thinking. To its shame, the law uses our horror to get easy convictions, when they must know that their cases are weak. The less actual evidence they have, the more they stress the disgusting nature of the alleged crime. And they forget to remind us that it is alleged, not proved.
    Whatever happened to “Innocent until proved guilty.”?
    Perhaps equally shameful is the rise of “virtue signalling”.
    How many women were bullied into wearing black for some unimportant, in the scheme of things, event to show “solidarity”. As the bullies were mainly women, this doesn’t seem to matter.
    I certainly agree with most of what you say. I don’t see why I should be denied the pleasure of watching Kevin Spacey, even if he did what he did.

  • Robert Berger on

    That also goes for Ted Nugent, his attempt and creativity leaves everything to be desired. He is a big part of the Dallas Guitar shows and I let them know as long as he is part of it, I will not go. The way I look at character vs. creativity; the work stands on it’s own.

  • Frits Schjøtt on

    Very wise and tolerant viewpoint. Couldn’t agree more. I myself value Woody, Bill C., Roman… very highly as artists. Their human qualities are beyond my judgment.
    Thank you for another good posting.
    Frits from Denmark.

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