The hit Netflix series The Queen's Gambit presented, through the story of the fictional chess wiz Beth Harmon, the dark side of precocious talent. It was equally also a showcase of the extraordinary talent of the actress essaying the role of Beth, Anya Taylor-Joy. Those watching the show could not fail to notice that she is just 24 and already has a dozen credits to her name.
More to the point, watching Taylor-Joy in interviews after watching the series reveals a person so different from the character that one has to marvel at the extent to which she was able to internalize that character and verily become her. All the more difficult when the character is in fact fictional and yet Taylor-Joy etched her in such a wholesome fashion that you almost believe the series is based on a real woman grandmaster from America.
Interviewers could not resist gently posing the all important question to Taylor-Joy – whether performing the role made her reflect on her own journey as a prodigy of sorts. One interviewer even asked whether genius was worth it. Taylor-Joy very patiently and joyfully (pun intended) tackled the questions and did not, mercifully, receive any push back on her answers. One does not want to instil doubt in the mind of a talented artist who appears to be well-sorted and immensely enjoying her work.
Nevertheless, the question is one that has endlessly fascinated lovers of cinema, indeed of the performing arts. Scott Frank, the director of The Queen's Gambit, described Taylor-Joy's ability to know exactly where the camera was as preternatural. Will the role of Beth Harmon turn out to be the breakout one that gives Taylor-Joy many more assignments worthy of her dazzling skills or has she already shown us all that she is capable of (because there isn't much higher to go)? If the latter, will she too, like Beth, feel dissatisfied with her chosen calling?
Pondering over this question made me recall the music industry's own Beth Harmon: the 'diva' Whitney Houston, the pop juggernaut of the '80s and best known for her version of the song 'I Will Always Love You' featured on the soundtrack of Bodyguard (1992). The popular narrative about Whitney's meteoric rise and equally dramatic (and painful) fall is that the industry (and also her mother) stifled her personality and, more specifically, her sexuality, seeking to extract as many hits out of her voice as they could. Those factors indeed played a role in her downward spiral. But what if the issue also was that the young Whitney was already too good for the pop music machine?
Her singing was technically unimpeachable. In terms of expression, she offered both rawness and a sophisticated grasp of craft that would have been expected of a much older and more experienced singer. Her years in modelling had also taught her to command the stage with an authority that, again, defied her age and inexperience. At twenty-two, she was already as close to attaining perfection as a singer could hope to in their lifetime. Perhaps, it is not surprising then that the only way she could go from there was down. And her chosen weapon of self-destruction was the same as Beth's – addictive drugs.
Whitney was not alone in meeting a tragic end in spite of (or because of) being so gifted a performer. The list of pop/rock stars who achieved overnight success only to go astray is long. Some who did not quite achieve overnight success (Jeff Buckley) nevertheless lost their way, perhaps feeling a void within after they had actualised their potential.
As The Queen's Gambit is a work of fiction, it offers a path of redemption (which was either not available to Whitney or one she chose to opt out of):
One: Beth's good friend Jolene (played by Moses Ingram) gets through to her and convinces her to pick up the pieces and sort herself out. In Whitney's case, Robin Crawford's attempts to save her illustrious friend and soulmate failed as Bobby Brown ostensibly perceived it to be in his interest to abet Whitney's descent down the black hole of drug addiction. Perhaps Beth not yet being committed to a relationship at the time Jolene offers help saves her from such a fate.
Two: Beth bites back on her ego to acknowledge that her instinctive style of play, while good enough to beat lesser mortals, will not be enough against reigning World Champion Borgov. She does the grunt work of learning a more disciplined, even mechanical, style of play to match him. In one of her interviews, Taylor-Joy remarked that growth is not easy but it is important. She is seemingly wise beyond her years apart from being prodigiously talented. Whether Whitney was or wasn't we will never know. In either event, as long as she was a popstar, an alternative path of exploring more introspective songwriting with greater emphasis on lyrical interpretation than vocal pyrotechnics was not available to her.
For Beth, what she needs to get to the very pinnacle of her sport is also what will help her grow as a sportsperson. Sport differs from art in this way by being a far more objective arbiter of talent (in fact, sport is one hundred percent objective, though fanboys/fangirls of specific sporting icons may disagree). There is no such clear-cut correlation in art and, often, a path of pursuing more rewarding projects may involve taking a pay cut. How many of us would accept a pay cut in return for the organisation giving us more intellectually stimulating work?
In that light, it is easy to see why precociousness meets a more gory end in the arts than in sport. And while a sportsperson does put hurt and soul into their performance too, the performance is either physical or mental (chess). An artist earns their living by acting out emotions for us. These emotions may sometimes consume them when they do not find emotional fulfilment in their work.
This is perhaps why The Queen's Gambit strikes a powerful chord with viewers. Beth is not real. But the journey she traverses and the quest she is on is all too real, all too familiar. Hopefully, more artists can draw inspiration from the redemptive arc in the series, or imbibe Anya's own recipe for success. Growth is not easy but it is important. Yes indeed.