It’s tough being brilliant. It’s even tougher when you hate your own masterpieces.
1. Tony Kaye: The Forgotten History of American History X
Before director Tony Kaye embarked on his first feature film, 1997’s American History X, he’d already been declared a genius of the advertising world. Kaye was famous for taking months to craft the perfect 30-second commercial, and his meticulousness only bolstered his reputation. Top brands including Guinness and Volvo sought out his services, because he was just that good.
But Kaye was more than a perfectionist; he was an egoist and an eccentric. During a period of unemployment in the mid-1980s, Kaye ran a full-page ad in London’s Evening Standard proclaiming, “Tony Kaye is the Greatest English Director Since Hitchcock.” He also attempted to start his own art movement, which included an “exhibition” of a homeless man in London’s Tate Gallery.
So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that American History X turned out the way it did. Studio execs at New Line Cinema were impressed by the concept behind Kaye’s pitch—to create a film about a former skinhead who tries to keep his younger brother from following in his footsteps. But after shooting 200 hours of footage and delivering a rough cut to the producers, Kaye still wasn’t satisfied with the movie. He wanted to tweak the storytelling, and the studio agreed to give him another eight weeks to complete the project.
During those two months, Kaye did virtually no editing.
Instead, he went to a Caribbean island to consult with poet Derek Walcott, who plied the director with a few vague ideas about how to improve the film. Upon returning, Kaye decided to add in footage of actual neo-Nazis, but he had no idea how long that would take. Exasperated, the studio execs eventually pried the movie out of Kaye’s hands, and New Line released an earlier cut of the film.
At that point, Tony Kaye lost it. He sued the studio for $200 million and demanded that Humpty Dumpty be credited as the director. He also spent $100,000 on print ads that trashed the movie. In interviews, he badmouthed the script and claimed that actor Edward Norton had been wrong for the lead role. Yet in spite of Kaye’s insistence that the movie was horrible, American History X went on to garner terrific reviews—not to mention a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Edward Norton.
2. W.H. Auden: The Poem That Wouldn’t Die
W.H. Auden’s best-known poem, “September 1, 1939,” was written the day that Germany invaded Poland, launching World War II. From the moment it was published in The New Republic that year, the work was instantly popular—but Auden wanted to revise it. He thought parts of the poem rang false. He especially hated its most famous line: “We must love one another or die.” Auden later reflected, “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” So in the next version of his poem, Auden altered the text to read, “We must love one another and die.”
Even after making the change, Auden continued to despise the line. In subsequent versions, he resorted to cutting the entire stanza, and eventually decided he wanted to do away with the piece altogether: “The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped.”
To Auden’s dismay, people kept reading and quoting “September 1, 1939.” The poet was particularly irritated when President Lyndon Johnson used the poem in his 1964 “Daisy” TV spot attacking opponent Barry Goldwater. The ad featured a little girl plucking petals off a flower, as the image of a nuclear explosion emerges behind her. As the mushroom cloud balloons to fill the screen, President Johnson says in a voiceover, “We must either love each other, or we must die.”
After seeing the ad, Auden said, “I pray that I never be memorable like that again.”
3. Frederic Remington: The Way the West Was Lost
Decades before the movies of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Frederic Remington’s illustrations created the mythic American West. During the 1880s and 1890s, readers devoured his depictions of grizzled cowboys and sinewy horses, reproduced by the hundreds in magazines and books. He illustrated Teddy Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail in 1887 and was a correspondent during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
But the artist wasn’t much of a cowboy himself. Born in New York, Remington went to art school at Yale, where he spent more time playing football than studying his craft. At age 19, he headed out West for a few years, visiting Montana and New Mexico and even making a go of sheep ranching in Kansas. However, he found the work difficult and tedious and soon returned home to New York, where he lived for most of his life.
While his experiences on the frontier inspired his most famous works, Remington grew tired of painting crowd-pleasing cowboy scenes year after year. He wanted his work to become more abstract and expressive. He even began branching out into sculpture. But the public wasn’t interested in his experiments in modernism; his cowboy paintings were paying the bills.
On January 25, 1908, Remington became so frustrated while painting a particularly tricky scene that he decided to burn the canvas. He built a bonfire on his front lawn and torched the unfinished painting; then he proceeded to toss his other work into the flames. He ended up destroying more than 100 paintings that night, with millions of dollars in art going up in smoke. “They will never confront me in the future,” he wrote.
Indeed they didn’t. Remington’s sculptures became his most lasting work. Today, one of his bronzes, “Bronco Buster,” sits next to President Obama in the Oval Office.
4. R. Crumb: Drowning His Own Kitten
Indie cartoonist Robert Crumb became famous in the 1960s for his cast of raunchy characters, including Mr. Natural and the “Keep on Truckin’” guys. But his best-known creation was the smooth-talking, sex-crazed Fritz the Cat. Ballantine Books published a paperback collection of Fritz’ tales in 1969, and a copy ended up with animator Ralph Bakshi. An up-and-coming genius in his own right, Bakshi was looking to make an animated movie for adults, and Fritz seemed like perfect source material.
When Bakshi approached Crumb with a movie deal, the cartoonist waffled. He’d lost interest in Fritz years ago, but he also didn’t want to turn down Bakshi. To avoid making a choice, Crumb left the decision up to his wife, who thought both the film and the immediate paycheck were good ideas.
It turned out that Crumb had good reason to be hesitant. Bakshi didn’t feel obligated to stay true to the original work, and he used Fritz as a vehicle to voice his own views—depicting hippies as would-be fascists, embracing toilet humor, and including unexplained violence. Bakshi presented the material as an attack on the 1960s—a decade that had been very good to Crumb.
When Crumb previewed the finished film, he was appalled. The politics were bad enough, but in Crumb’s words, the toilet humor suggested a “real repressed” attitude toward sex. It was too late to change anything, though, and Fritz the Cat was released in theaters. The first animated film with an X rating, Fritz became a hot topic and earned massive amounts of publicity. Bakshi, for his part, was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the field of animation.
But Crumb got his revenge. A few months after the movie’s release, he drew a comic titled “The Death of Fritz the Cat,” in which he killed the character with an ice pick to the head. The cat was finished, and Crumb refused all future adaptations of his work.
5. Ludwig van Beethoven: Turning a Deaf Ear
In addition to being a brilliant composer, Ludwig van Beethoven was a shrewd businessman. He dedicated most of his work to wealthy benefactors, with the hope that they’d keep giving him money. But in the early 1800s, Beethoven decided to shift his strategy and honor the man he admired the most—Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven believed in the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, and he saw Napoleon as a charismatic leader who was making a real effort to reform government. In 1803, the star-struck composer named his third symphony the “Bonaparte” symphony.
Of course, when Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor of France in May 1804, Beethoven was horrified. The composer ripped apart the title page to his symphony, yelling, “Now, too, he will tread underfoot all the rights of man, and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others, and become a tyrant!”
After cooling off a little, the composer decided that the symphony was still good, but he changed the title. He renamed it the “Eroica” symphony, dedicating it to a generic “heroic man.” The passionate work is still one of Beethoven’s most-performed pieces. To this day, the library of Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall keeps an original copy of the composition on display—complete with Napoleon’s name violently scratched out.
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