Frances went to a liberal liberal-arts college where everyone was smart and everyone believed they would grow to become a professional in whatever endeavor they loved best. How could it not happen that this thing you love so completely — writing, sculpture, philosophy, film; in Frances’s instance, dance — would be the thing you would do with your life? But college ends, and then one day Frances is 27 and broke, living a marginal existence in New York City based on tax rebate checks and the goodwill of wealthier friends, still an unpaid apprentice at the dance company in which she thought she would have been a principal by now.
All of which hits me right between the eyes. I went to that school and dreamed those dreams and had those friends, and experienced too the violent undulations of spirit where one day a magazine publishes your poem and you feel like Baudelaire, and the next day your car breaks down and you have no money and you feel like a stupid kid from Michigan who’d better get this administrative assistant job at the office supplies supplier or you are screwed.
Frances barrels through a great many crossroads but the one that made me wince hardest was when her boss at the dance company, in one sweeping gesture, makes clear that she’ll never be in the main troupe, and then offers her the secretarial job being vacated by a woman going out on maternity leave. That is the moment every (non-trust-funded) “emerging artist” must needs face one day or another. The actor who winds up working in the Hollywood prop shop, the musician in the record store, the painter teaching classes at the retirement home, the dancer answering phones for the dance company.
I used to think, foolishly, that lives of artistic endeavor worked like that: It was one thing or the other thing. Either you made it as a musician, or you worked for the office supplies supplier. Time’s taught me better. Specifically, my concept of what it means to “make it” as an artist has gotten considerably more complex. I don’t even remember what I used to think, but I know now that any marker of artistic success you might choose to signify having “made it” is fundamentally arbitrary, because there’s always, always the perception that there are levels beyond the level you’re at, and the belief that only the geniuses on those levels beyond your own are the ones who can truly say they’ve “made it.” Never mind that, as Jean Valentine has it, “the one you wanted to be is the one you are”; now that you are that one, you want to be another one.
My current definition of having “made it” as an artist is pretty simple. First, you have to call yourself an artist and believe it. Second you have to make art. Third you have to put your art in front of people. That’s it. If you’re doing those three things, you’ve — literally — made it.
There’s a lot that’s annoying about this movie. There are a great many whiners, jerks, self-deluded and self-important mediocrities, and other pathetics. But I like the ending a lot. Frances finds a way to eat and “make it” at the same time, and it doesn’t involve being a genius or a prodigy or having an epiphany or getting famous. It comes from work and self-awareness and humility and love. She’s a real artist.