Do you have to be crazy to make it in California?
This question ties together two excellent films—King Richard and Licorice Pizza—that are nominees for best picture at this month’s Academy Awards.
The movies, while different in style, genre, and setting, are both about over-the-top ambition and relentless fame-seeking in Los Angeles County. And each film features a main character whose goals and entrepreneurial schemes are dismissed as madness, even by friends and loved ones.
Indeed, those cinematic hustlers make statements and demands and behave in ways that go beyond what we consider acceptable in today’s neo-Victorian age. They break and bend the law, they showboat, and they mold the truth to their wills. They also ultimately achieve what they want—precisely because of their outrageousness.
The title hustler in King Richard is Richard Williams, the real-life father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. Played brilliantly by Will Smith, Williams is living in 1990s Compton, the small, famously tough, working-class city south of South L.A. He works graveyard shifts as a security guard, gets jumped by young gangsters at the local park, and drives around in a beat-up Volkswagen van.
And yet, he has a plan to make his two youngest daughters Wimbledon champions. He is confident enough that he drives them through Beverly Hills and asks them which houses they’ll buy one day. And he never stops trying to convince famous coaches and agents in the very white tennis world to help him.
“We’re not here to rob you. We’re here to make you rich,” he says to one of many tennis types who dismisses his entreaties. Williams usually goes too far, and he never gives an inch. He takes “no” as an invitation to increase his demands—for better coaching, or more money, or support to make his daughters champions.
He works Venus and Serena so hard between homework, church, work (they deliver phone books), and tennis practice (even during rainstorms), that a neighbor calls social services. He shouts the caseworkers out of his home. He rarely bothers to sleep.
“Don’t nothing come to a sleeper but a dream,” he says.
All this behavior could be—and has been—framed as awfulness or even abuse. Williams still has a reputation as a crazy, overbearing father. But his ambitions weren’t dreams—they are realities, and his daughters are two of tennis’ greatest-ever champions.
The male lead in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, set in the San Fernando Valley of 1973, also crosses lines that would get you in trouble today. He is Gary Valentine, a 15-year-old child actor (played by Cooper Hoffman, son of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose pursuit of a 25-year-old named Alana Kane (played by the musician Alana Haim) is awkward, inappropriate, and on occasion verges into what audiences today would call harassment.
But in this film, the teenager’s relentless pursuit—of everything—wins over the young woman, against her better judgment.
The film belongs to Alana, the central character, an audience stand-in, who at first is repulsed by Gary and his come-ons. But she finds she can’t resist his utter shamelessness and constant hustles. Soon they are partners in a business selling water beds—which they pitch with such fervor I almost forgot how hard it is to actually sleep in one.
Gary’s transgressions make life more interesting, and soon Alana finds herself, in disbelief, hanging out with him and his immature but inventive teenage buddies. Then, in one of those can’t-watch-can’t-stop-watching extended scenes that are the director’s forte, Alana finds herself driving a moving truck rapidly down narrow, hilly streets in what looks like Encino.
No scene, and no recent movie, so well captures the pure thrill and connection of recklessness and risk-taking. Licorice Pizza is a movie that celebrates hard falls (Sean Penn has a drunken cameo involving a motorcycle jump) and failures (including a sub-plot involving the unsuccessful 1973 L.A. mayoral bid of Joel Wachs, who, undiscouraged, went on to be a councilman and dealmaker).
The argument here isn’t hard to spot: that craziness is a requirement, if you’re a teenager who wants to open a business, win a TV role, or make that 25-year-old your girlfriend. “I’m a showman,” Gary says, by way of explaining one of his escapades. “That’s what I’m meant to do.”
Licorice Pizza and King Richard are imperfect movies. They both indulge in the same self-mythologizing, too common among Californians, that we are underdogs, just because we aren’t from the fanciest neighborhoods. While the film characters in Compton and the Valley see themselves as outsiders with their noses pressed up against the glass of better-known L.A. precincts, who are they kidding? Both the Valley and Compton have produced more than their share of stars in entertainment and sports over many years. (Witness the Super Bowl halftime show.)
But what both films get right, and what makes them entertaining, are their depictions of what it takes to achieve success in a place like California. This state demands that you cross lines and behave unreasonably. Yes, we have more than our share of rules and regulations, but those exist mostly for show, to give the truly ambitious more things to break on their way up.
Indeed, watching these movies got me thinking about one of the richest Angelenos of my lifetime, the late billionaire Eli Broad. Broad’s wife Edythe famously gave him a paperweight with a George Bernard Shaw quote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Broad took heart and lived up to Shaw’s words, often causing chaos and conflict in the arts, philanthropy, and the schools by changing his mind and unapologetically making outrageous demands (in service of creating various cultural, scientific, and educational institutions that survive him). And when it came time for Broad to write a book, he titled it The Art of Being Unreasonable.
You might say that that’s California’s highest art form.