2018 Reading Challenge
Challenge #: Read 2 books that were recommended to you by a friend
Book: Easy Street (The Hard Way): A memoir by Ron Perlman.
Thanks to a personal recommendation my 2018 Reading Challenge is off to a great start. I have discovered a new favourite book! Or at the very least my new favourite autobiography/memoir. Although confining it to a sub category seems unnecessary in the moment, I happened to love it that much.
There is little question in my mind about why I loved the Perl’s Easy Street (The Hard Way) as much as I did. It managed to check off most of my favourite boxes, painting a vivid picture of growing up on the streets of New York, offering me an intimate look at the inner workings of Hollywood, inviting me to consider what it means to truly wrestle with faith and doubt in an industry that is as rewarding as it is difficult and, in a rather remarkable and genuine fashion, celebrating film as one of the great art forms.
How could this not grab me. The only thing missing is an element of time travel, but in its own way, as a memoir, it even offered me a bit of that. And truth be told I found it really hard to put down.
With that said, it is the fact that the book is also so much than simply a checkbox of my favourite things that really caught me off guard and exceeded my expectation, and this owes much to Ron Perlman’s knack for storytelling. There are moments in this book that genuinely brought me to tears, others that had me laughing out loud in the middle of a Starbucks, and many more that had me riveted to the page in anticipation. There are sections that function as a sort of call and response, molding itself into a biting social commentary that manages to shed light on the divide that exists between the haves and the have nots in Hollywood, while using his life story to extend this light into the reality of every day life.
I have to imagine that if one was to seek out this book you likely have some level of a pre-determined interest in or connection to Perlman’s list of films/television series. And if you are like me you will find yourself heavily anticipating the chapters that touch on those specific movies or shows that connect with you personally. This is where it might be fair for me to forewarn but not deter. The way you read this book might depend on the particular show or film that you are especially passionate about, which means your experience of the narrative could be very different than the next. But I think this lends much to the books accessibility and charm.
To offer an example, I was especially interested in Perlman’s relationship to Del Toro given that he is one of my favourite directors (and hopefully the subject of a planned research project in 2018). And so I found myself waiting in eager anticipation for these chapters, only to find that Del Toro doesn’t really show up until well near the end and gets very little page time. Some of the films do get more attention than others, but this is primarily because of the ways in which certain films or shows overlap with important periods in his life.
However, this doesn’t mean I felt Del Toro’s films got shortchanged, even as the brief moments we do get with Hellboy are stellar and absolutely eye opening on their own. Rather, it is the insight we are given into Perlman’s life that told me more about his relationship to Del Toro and his work on his films than an actual synopsis of his filmography ever could on its own. The same goes for Sons of Anarchy, which is arguably given the fewest words in the book. Knowing who Perlman is and where he is at in his life during his time on this show sheds more light on the nature of his on-screen character than talking about the show ever could. I have a new respect of his character during these seasons, especially as it mirrors his real life arc.
The structure of the book essentially follows three threads:
- Perlman’s own history from childhood to present day
- The gradual development and growth of his acting career
- The odd excerpt from an outside voice who was instrumental in shaping his life (beginning with Del Toro who penned the forward).
This structure allows the book to meander in a sort of free flowing way, moving backwards and forwards between periods of reflection and recreations of his past. The structure also manages to mask the trajectory of what is, in actuality, a very clear and very intentional narrative. I’ll be honest. I was getting so lost in the different moments of his life and getting so much joy from reading his perspective of his experiences with the different film productions, actors, producers directors (I get giddy picturing him running around as a young kid in a shared playground with a young Al Pacino) that I failed to catch on to the trajectory of the narrative until I was nearly halfway through the book. And this is in large part because he is as genuinely funny as he is serious. The chapters on Marlo Brando (spoiler, he really LOVES The Godfather) and the making of The Island… were particularly memorable, especially in the way he recounts his interactions with Brando himself. This was one of those big laugh out loud moments for me. And the very short descriptive of Alien: Resurrection helped me to make some sense out of why that film remains one of my favourites of the franchise in spite of its overall lack of reception.
By the time I realized what he was actually doing with what melds into a very candid work of self reflection and the personal confession of a man formed and framed by the ragged edges of the streets, by his lingering sense of self doubt and his struggle with success and failure, devastating loss, and most notably by his struggle with a mental disorder, I was absolutely taken. He uses his life on the Hollywood stage to mirror his life off of it, demonstrating how the beast and the mask he was typecast with on screen became a means through which he needed to unmask himself and his own inner turmoil. And by the time he brings all of it together in the end in what ultimately becomes a compassionate and compelling call towards reform and accountability in Hollywood at large, the narrative is given the necessary force to truly knock you out of your seat and dare you to step into action alongside him. Action for change.
Perlman is a generation behind me, and it is from this place that he was able to provide me with an up close and personal look not only at his time in Hollywood, but of the Hollywood I grew up with. I can’t count the amount of times that I found myself feeling a bit nostalgic for the world he describes, even if I didn’t recognize it as nostalgia in the moment. Having him fill in some of the details of films I loved and actors I respect was intriguing and revealing. The respect and awe with which he talks about his own favourite films and meeting his favourite stars and being a part of the industry is absolutely infectious, and it helps bridge that line between the cynicism of those who see Hollywood as nothing but a picture of corruption, money and power driven by marketing, studio execs and manufactured stories, and that sense of wonder that has captured those of us who truly have an affection for the magic film can represent as a genuine art form and storytelling community. It would be hard for me to imagine anyone walking away without a greater appreciation for film and Hollywood after reading this book.
Make no mistake, this does not mean Perlman is blind to Hollywood’s struggles or honest about its shortcomings. In one of the most powerful parts of the narrative he helps shed light on just how pervasive mental illness is in Hollywood and offers us glimpses of why he thinks this might be (sharing the struggle himself). He humanizes Hollywood even as he remains in awe of it, and he also lays himself bare in the same process. Perlman is a flawed individual in the long process of discovering redemption and grace, and for as much as he recognizes the trappings of success in Hollywood, he also admits he is as prone to these vices as anyone else, being in so many ways a very broken man trying to accept that he has something to offer in the midst of that brokenness.
And yet he also stands as a picture hope in an industry that should be offering and demonstrating hopefulness. His respect for the power and the strength of art and filmmaking to transform us is a reminder of why Hollywood (and what it symbolizes) is so important, for him and for us. Even as he admits that most will likely look at him on the outside and simply think he is a jerk with a penchant for crass talk and short temper, the testimony of his determination to always be looking out for the little guys, the people working those menial jobs in the background that are so important for helping a film be successful, for the marginalized and the have nots, is what reveals who Perlman truly is on the inside. His willingness to give his all to everything that he does regardless of what others think is the mark of someone who is growing, changing and embracing.
And there is plenty that he offers me through this book as well, simply as a reader and a fan. He is a man who taught me personally what it means to prepare myself for what he calls the second half of life. His depiction of a midlife crisis is one of the most powerful definitions I have encountered, and it really transformed how I look at myself having crossed the 40 mark myself.
He taught me about what it means to see God when it seems like He is invisible, and to wrestle with the mystery that is faith.
He taught me about what it means to come to terms with my own struggle with anxiety and depression.
And he renewed my appreciation of film as an art form. Man did he renew that in ways I didn’t expect. I thought I loved film before. Now I cherish it.
Which brings me to the most important chapters of the book, in my opinion. This is where the trajectory of the narrative gains full force. This is where he turns it all inwards and than outwards towards a biting commentary of where Hollywood is headed in its now modern age. And not in a ‘back in the good ol’ days’ kind of way, but in a we need to be reminded of the best that Hollywood stands for kind of way. We need to be reminded to slow down and appreciate what art is, what good art does, and what it means to be a dedicated artist in a world that needs a way to make sense of a very complicated place.
And we need to be reminded of the ways in which art can speak into our own social context in meaningful ways, something that especially timely in the age of “me too”.
There is a sense of loss that we feel flowing through these pages as Perlman looks back on a Hollywood in motion. It is a loss of Hollywood of old in some ways, but in more important ways it is a loss of that magic that captured so many of us before Hollywood became diluted and unmasked in necessary ways. But there is also a sense of hope, hope in the sense that he sees an opportunity to recapture this magic and to redistribute the wonder that Hollywood is supposed to instill. It is a hope that he channels ultimately into his own aspirations for finishing well in his second half of life in the most practical of ways, by reentering the field, helping others in the way others helped him by reinvesting in the younger generation, and, most excitedly, doing something he has long felt he needed to do… Hell Boy 3.
I can’t wait to see what’s next for Ron Perlman.