What I’m watching: a pair of documentaries on creators

Sept. 7, 2021 | G. Michael Dobbs

On Netflix: “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed”

This week I decided to watch two new documentaries about the creative life and process. The first was about the late artist Bob Ross and the second was about author Jackie Collins.

The theme that is common to these two very different stories is about how someone who has achieved success in a creative endeavor protected him or herself from those who wanted to exploit their talent.

“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” explains how an Air Force vet became a sensation on PBS during the 1980s and ‘90s. Ross’s success on TV as a painting instructor in a very particular format was something that Ross himself hadn’t anticipated.  

With his signature permed hair and quiet reassuring voice, Ross became an iconic TV presence during that time.

Ross comes across through archival footage and contemporary interviews as a nice guy who loved painting. His joy came from teaching his technique to people and encouraging the person who may not see him or herself as an artist that they could indeed be one.  

The film is quite cautious in describing Ross’s relations with the husband and wife, Annette and Walter Kowalski, who approached him about managing his business affairs. Director Joshua Rofe references in his film that many people did not want to share their memories for fear of a lawsuit from Bob Ross, Inc. The Kowalskis refused to take part in the film and were not interviewed and they have a track record of litigation against any person or company that challenges them. They did release a statement that is included at the conclusion of the film that asserted they did nothing wrong

The issue, though, with his son and friends in particular, is what has happened to Ross’s legacy. Ross, who died of cancer, was pursued almost daily while he was ill to sign over all of his intellectual property rights to the Kowalskis. He refused, but after his death his wishes were betrayed.

None of the profit from the successful licensing effort in Bob Ross merchandise goes to Ross’s son or estate.

The film does end on a high note as Ross’s son is now continuing teaching his father’s painting technique. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who uses a creative skill to make a living.

“Lady Boss: The Jackie Collin’s Story”

I’ve never read any of the late Jackie Collins’s books and perhaps I’m one of the only people on the planet who have that distinction. Her books were huge best sellers for many years with their stories of strong women, sex and power often set in a show business context.

The documentary directed by Laura Fairrie benefits from the fact that Collins saved everything: photos albums, journals, etc. Fairrie also had access to home movies and videos. The result is an almost first-person account of her life.

Collins, the younger sister of actress Joan Collins, got out of the shadow of her famous sister by writing “The World is Full of Married Men” in 1968. The success of that book led to many others.

Collins was savvy enough to realize she had created a persona as an author of such scandalous tales and carefully nourished the characters of sexually provocative person. In reality she was a mother and a loving spouse to her husband of more than 20 years.

The film’s conclusion is that Collins used her public persona to shield her real private life.

Despite the insecurities of her youth – it wasn’t easy being the kid sister to a beautiful and glamorous movie star – Collins was able to reinvent herself to being someone who had a long and hugely profitable career.

Well-researched and presented, I found this film quite entertaining and I had a new found respect for Collins by the end.

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