On The Arts: Pigeonholes Are For Pigeons, Not For People

On The Arts: Pigeonholes Are For Pigeons, Not For People

Sunday, June 18, 2000

By Rebecca Redshaw

If we had pigeonholed Jackie Joyner-Kersee and told her to pick only one event in which to compete in the Olympics, we would have been deprived of witnessing one of the 20th century’s most accomplished athletes.

Luckily, those establishing the competition decades ago saw merit in not only being the fastest runner or the longest jumper or the farthest thrower but also the world’s best well-rounded athlete. This summer at the Sydney Olympics, women will compete for a medal in the heptathlon, the combination of eight track and field events, and men will compete in the 10 events of the decathlon.

What on earth does this have to do with an Arts & Entertainment column? You might note that the grace of finely sculpted bodies in motion, whether center stage at the ballet or on the gymnastics mat, is a thing of beauty. Or you might relate the anxiousness of a sprinter getting ready for the starting gun to the nervous anticipation of a concert pianist before his initial entrance on a concerto.

But far less obtuse an analogy is society’s need to label or pigeonhole an individual. It’s a cut-and-dry process on most athletic fields. Michael Jordan made his mark shooting hoops but was a less-than-impressive baseball player. Similarly, Joyner-Kersee, who tried her hand at professional women’s basketball while on hiatus from the track, faded quickly from the headlines on the court.

In the creative field, artists fare better, for the most part, but not without considerable struggle. Recently in the news, Andrea Thompson, the actress who plays an intense yet sexy detective on the television series “N.Y.P.D. Blue,” has opted to leave the world of acting to pursue her dream of electronic journalism. She’s going to be a TV newsperson in a small market in New Mexico.

There’s much vocal skepticism from newsroom professionals regarding Thompson’s chances of success and her motives. Since in the last few years the line separating news and entertainment divisions at networks has become tangled like a cold plate of linguine, I wonder what the fuss is about. One of two things will happen. She’ll either bomb because she isn’t properly prepared or she’ll succeed because she is. I hope it’s the latter.

Imagine if Andre Previn had been pigeonholed at the beginning of his career? Pittsburgh knows first-hand of his world-renowned expertise at the conductor’s podium, and he recently debuted his opera “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But what if the soundtrack for “Valley of the Dolls” was mentioned in every interview with Previn? Clearly, he’s moved on, not only to another field of expertise but also to an elevated intellectual pursuit.

I love Robert Redford, but not because I’m watching a great actor at his craft. Thank goodness he had the financial clout to step behind the camera. More successful at his second endeavor than most actor/director contemporaries, Redford has proven that his Oscar for “Ordinary People” was not a fluke, following it by directing “A River Runs Through It” and “Quiz Show.”

A few people are truly geniuses in more than one field. Orson Welles scored a triple triumph of director, writer and actor in “Citizen Kane.” Leonard Bernstein’s list of diverse credits is boggling. As composer, conductor, pianist, author and, possibly most important, teacher, his legacy demonstrating a variety of talents in the latter half of the 20th century is unmatched.

Luckily, fear of failure, or success, hasn’t stopped others from at least throwing their hat in a new ring.

Woody Allen or Steve Martin could have coasted nicely in their respective careers bemoaning hypochondria or performing with a plastic arrow on their heads. Skeptics were silenced when Martin penned the play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” Allen has often explored beyond his stand-up roots in his movie making. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” ranks as one of my all-time favorites in its intricate study of human behavior.

Sometimes the success in an alternative field falls short of genius. Beatle Paul McCartney’s foray into the classical music world or singer Tony Bennett’s paintings are works to be appreciated, even though they may not have received attention without their famous creators’ popularity.

There are, of course, countless artists who think that by virtue of their celebrity, they are entitled to dabble in other artistic arenas. As much as I adore the power and presence of mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman, I haven’t been able to listen more than once to her CD where she croons Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Likewise, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, performing an operatic aria at the Grammys last year, sent shivers down my spine, and not in a good way.

Live performance leaves a more lasting impression on me than any other artistic field with the occasional exception of the written word. What a thrill it was to sit in the audience when a “television star” who refused to be pigeonholed in her career, stormed down the aisle of the Broadway theater in the revival of “Gypsy.” Tyne Daly, who continues to perform at a high level of professionalism regardless of the medium, surpassed any preconceived expectations of the audience by knocking them dead every night as Mama Rose. Thank goodness she convinced someone with the power of decision that she was more than a TV cop, albeit a good one.

None of us wants to be told we have one choice in life and that’s it. I’m on either my third or fourth career, I’m not sure. Luckily, for most of us when we try something new or change professions, we don’t have critics reporting our every step, or misstep as the case may be, along the way.

As audience to the performers of the world, we should acknowledge their efforts to try something new with polite applause and not hesitate to give a rousing standing ovation when the challenge is met.