I've been thinking about what seems to be a repeating pattern: artists who distinguish themselves when they are young, and then never can quite reach those levels again. There are many examples, especially in literature, the theater, and of course in film. I think of some of the greats I've admired in my own life: Tennessee Williams, who wrote THE GLASS MENAGERIE and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE when he was in his thirties and then was tormented by critics as well as himself for failing to match those achievements later in life; Norman Mailer, who was twenty-five when he wrote THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, and kept working, reaching ever upward and not quite making it; Joseph Heller, who wrote CATCH-22 in 1961 and never topped it; J. D. Salinger, who wrote his two great books and stories early on and then nothing; and many others, including poets and playwrights who took their own lives rather than face the fact that their creative summits seemed to have passed. Many artists arrive at what seems to be the peaks of their careers when they are quite young, and though they try hard, find that in the eyes of critics, their readers or audiences, and perhaps even themselves -they never match or outdo the work of their youth. Even the great Fellini tormented himself over what he felt were a series of failures beginning with GUILETTA DEGLI SPIRITTI. But there have been exceptions, of course - few but great. Think of Shakespeare, who continually seemed to be able to reinvent himself; and Akira Kurosawa, who made magnificent films throughout his long life despite great periods of depression. Braque never was able to outdo the work of his younger self, but his colleague Picasso did. And when Giuseppe Verdi was eighty years old and considered at the end of a beloved career, he astonished all with the great work FALSTAFF. Why is this? What are the reasons? Is it only that genius at the level of Shakespeare, Verdi, Kurosawa and Picasso is as rare and precious as it would seem, or are there other factors as well? More on this subject will come ....
Without what? What is missing? What could be the reason that the same person, later in life, is unable to compete with himself as a younger artist? Is anything missing at all, or is the answer simpler — that each person is given only one or two truly worthy ideas, like a couple of arrows in a quiver. When such ideas come on the scene in an exciting work of art, it appears like magic; it's news. Critics and journalists require fresh blood for their own professions, and so it's understandable that a new artist with a new idea is seized up and catapulted into fame . This is true, also, for a series of works from one artist: a trilogy or tetralogy. Aren't the fourth books of The Alexandria Quartet or Mishima's The Sea of Tranquility the weakest of the group? Could it be that the ideas and innovations of the first or second book have already been demonstrated and are played out by time the last are written? Originally, I didn't intend to make more than one Godfather film; yet economic forces at the studio were insistent: "Francis, you have the formula for Coca-Cola; are you not going to make more?" But the first film expended most of the arrows in my quiver or, more aptly, the slugs in my revolver. So, the second film had to stretch into new and more ambitious territory to show a few more; otherwise, it would have been weaker than the first. By the time the third arrived, the basic ideas that made the first fresh and excited were all but used up.
New artists sometimes arrive on the scene later in life, and with their one or two ideas burst into celebrity in their fifties with an intensity equal to that of newcomers in their twenties. Such an occurrence is rare, because usually talent of that quality is more commonly discovered early. I think of the novelist William Kennedy as an example, and I am sure there are many more.
Without conscience? The successful artist has to contend with economic issues and questions of fame that the younger artist can only fantasize about. Should I do it to make the big money or because it will make me even more famous? Those are very dangerous questions not often compatible with doing great work. Especially when there are several ex-wives and children needing to be supported by the alimony check. This is usually not a factor that the younger artist thinks much about. So is the difference between mere mortals and the pantheon of the greats I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare, Verdi, Kurosawa merely that the latter were given more than the customary one or two ideas? Or the issues of money, luxury and family were not so all-consuming? More on this subject will come soon...
I've begun to think that the only sensible way to deal with this dilemma is to become young again, to forget everything I know and try to have the mind of a student. To re-invent myself by forgetting I ever had any film career at all, and instead to dream about having one.
Certainly one advantage of 'youth' in the arts is ignorance, to know so little as to be fearless. To not grasp that certain things one may dream up are actually impossible to do. When I finished Apocalypse Now I of course thought 'If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have even tried..." Certainly old age brings 'experience' and that is not to be discounted, but in the arts, fearlessness is a more desirable genie than experience. Fearlessness is cousin to innovation, whereas experience can be the parent of fear. Once you've fallen out of the tree a few times; felt the pain of those bruised knees and suffered the embarrassment of the inevitable ridicule —it's much more difficult to be as daring in what you do, or even what you attempt to do.
So, for myself at any rate, I've decided the best course is to become an amateur and accept that I know next to nothing and love almost everything. Recently I realized that the favorite decade of my life was 50, a wonderful age for a man — at—he peak of his health and experience, yet flexible enough to enjoy and also temper it. So reluctant was I to give up being in my fifties, that I began to call myself 'fifty-ten' or 'fifty-eleven '. Now I'm 'fiftysixteen'. And so today, like some inflated East European currency that gets two zeros lopped off, I've decided to lose the '50' and just be sixteen. Next year I'll be seventeen, which is exactly the age that I was when I very seriously began to direct plays.