When I was in my early twenties, I was astonished to learn that “One,” “Coconut,” the soundtrack to The Point, and “He Needs Me”—as sung by Shelley Duvall in Popeye and, much later, in Punch-Drunk Love—were all written by the same man, who also sang “Everybody’s Talkin'” from Midnight Cowboy. (This doesn’t even cover “Without You” or “Jump Into the Fire,” which I discovered only later, and it also ignores some of the weirder detours in Harry Nilsson’s huge discography.) At the time, I was reminded of Homer Simpson’s response when Lisa told him that bacon, ham, and pork chops all came from the same animal: “Yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.” Which is exactly what Nilsson was. But it’s also the kind of diversity that arises from decades of productive, idiosyncratic work. Nilsson was a facile songwriter with a lot of tricks up his sleeve, as he notes in an interview in the book Songwriters on Songwriting:
Most [songs] I find you can write in less time than it takes to sing them. The concept, if there is a concept, or the hook, is all you’re concerned with. Because you know you can go back and fill in the pieces. If you get a front line and a punch line, it’s a question of just filling in the missing bits.
And given Nilsson’s diverse, prolific output, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I encountered him in so many different guises before realizing that they were all aspects of a single creative personality.
Of course, not every career generates this kind of enticing randomness. Nilsson occupied a curious position for much of his life, stuck somewhere halfway between superstardom and seclusion, and it freed him to make a long series of odd, peculiar choices. When other artists end up in the same position, it’s often less by choice than by necessity. When you look at the résumé of a veteran supporting actor or working writing, you usually find that they resist easy categorizations, since each credit resulted from a confluence of circumstances that may never be repeated. A glance at the filmography of any character actor inspires moment after moment of recognition, as you realize, for instance, that the same guy who played Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street was also the dad in Rachel Getting Married and Tars in Interstellar. A few artists have the luxury of shaping careers that seem all of a piece, but others aren’t all that interested in it, or find that their body of work is determined more by external factors. Most actors aren’t in a position to turn down a paycheck, and learning how and why they took one role and not another is part of what makes Will Harris’s A.V. Club interviews in “Random Roles” so fascinating. When you’re at the constant mercy of trends and casting agents, you can end up with a career that looks like it should belong to three different people. And as someone like Matthew McConaughey can tell you, that goes for stars as well.
It’s particularly true of actresses. I’ve spoken here before of the starlet’s dilemma, in which young actresses are required to balance the needs of extending their shelf life as ingenues for a few more seasons with the very different set of choices required to sustain a career over decades. In many cases, the decisions that make sense now, like engaging in cosmetic surgery, can come back to haunt them later, but the pressure to extend their prime earning years is immense, and it’s no surprise that few manage to navigate the pitfalls that Hollywood presents. I was reminded of this while leafing—never mind why—through the latest issue of Allure, which features Jessica Alba on its cover. Alba has recently begun a second act as the head of her own consumer goods company, and she seems far happier and more satisfied in that role than she ever was as an actress: she admits that she tried to be what everyone else wanted her to be, and she accepted roles and made choices without a larger plan in mind. The result, sadly, was a career without shape or character, determined by an industry that could never decide whether Alba was best suited for comedy, romance, or action. I don’t think any of her movies will still be watched twenty years from now, and I expect that we’ll be surprised one day to remember that the founder of the Honest Company was also a movie star, in the way it amuses us to reflect that Martha Stewart used to be a model.
So how do you end up with a career more like Nilsson’s and less like Alba’s, given countless uncontrollable factors that can govern a life in the arts? You can begin, perhaps, by remembering like an artist, like any human being, will play many roles, and not all of them are going to be consistent. When you look back at what you’ve done, it can be hard to find any particular shape, aside from what was determined by the needs of the moment, and it may even be difficult to recognize the person who thought that a particular project was a good idea—if you had any choice in the matter at all. (When I look at my own career, I find that it divides neatly in two, with one half in science fiction and the other in suspense, with no overlap between them whatsoever, a situation that was created almost entirely by the demands of the market.) But if you need to wear multiple hats, or even multiple personalities, you can at least strive to make all of them interesting. Consistency, as Emerson puts it, is the hobgoblin of little minds, and it’s an equally elusive goal in the arts: the only way to be consistent is to be dependably mediocre. The life you get by staying true to yourself in the face of external pressure will be more interesting than the one that results from a perfect plan. It can even be easier to have two careers than one. And if you try too hard to make everything fit into a single frame, you might find that one is the loneliest number.