What should have been a moment of jubilation in those interviews, of the tears of joy that attend the moment of hard-won reconciliation, seemed curiously empty and askew, like the feeling that follows the declaration of a mistrial.
One can understand that the writers had just come through a war of attrition, and as one of their representatives said, "In a war, everybody loses." But there was a grimness that had seeped like marsh gas into the proceedings from the first, when it became tacitly understood that the dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers was like a lover's quarrel where the argument is ostensibly about one thing but in reality is about something else.
There's no questioning the validity of the issues--"creative control" and foreign and domestic residuals--but at bottom there was something else that for me came into focus weeks ago when a striker told me of walking the line and picking up a handbill that read, in effect, "We reserve the right to write our own trash. We don't want anybody else writing it for us."
He asked, shaking his head sadly, "Can you imagine the self-loathing implicit in that phrase?"
That had caught it for me. This strike wasn't just about money and control. It was about the writer's self-worth, an enviably rare achievement in the old Hollywood that has become infinitely more unattainable in the new. And on a larger scale, it was about the industry's tacit but fairly thorough abandonment of any pretense towards offering cultural nutrition to America--or the world, for that matter.
I drove west on the Santa Monica Freeway and got off at National Boulevard, turning north for Benedict Canyon. It was a clear day, and the growing shadows of early dusk threw the landscape into cozier and more sumptuous relief as I made what seemed a symbolic ascent from the plainly nondescript single family dwellings near the freeway to the magnificent semi-secluded homes in the hills, so beautiful that you could make a full-time job out of living in one of them. These were the architectural tributes to the reality of the Hollywood myth. I wondered if any writers could afford them.
My friend is a veteran performer who writes screenplays when his career hits a down cycle in the normal ebb and surge of any working show-biz life. He looked grim.
"The writers are considered less than nothing in the pecking order," he said. "(Alliance spokesman) Herb Steinberg said on Bill Moran's KFI show, 'I don't know what the writers want.' Didn't they supply a list of demands?," my friend said, ironically. "Nobody raised an eyebrow when (entertainment lawyer) Ken Ziffren told the assembled guild and producers, 'Sometimes you've gotta rise above your principles.'
"Herb Sargent (an Emmy Award-winning script editor for NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and seasoned pro) came out from New York to help mediate. 'Now I know why I don't live here,' he told me. 'All the talk is about money. Nothing about the spirit.' "
Speaking of the producers' contention, 'We don't see any point in meeting with the writers again, ever.' " a stance considered peculiar at best for any sincere labor negotiation, my friend said, "There's a feeling that they're trying to break the union, which may not be such a difficult thing. This isn't the International Workers of the World we're talking here, or John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers. This town is characterized by a lot of jealousy, envy and spite.
"Nothing gladdens people's hearts more than the failure of their friends. It isn't about what you are here, or your work. It's about where you live, where you eat, and what you drive."
The writer in Hollywood has always been an odd duck, from the days when talkies first came in and alarmed studio officials realized that somebody was going to have to put words in the mouths of their swooning matinee idols. The call went East to Broadway playwrights and famous novelists to come out and put their talents to celluloid.
A certain reciprocal suspicion, if not downright disdain, developed between movie-makers who considered the Eastern crowd snooty and effete, and the literati who looked on Hollywood as the apotheosis of glitzy vulgarity.
"My image of Hollywood," Dorothy Parker once remarked, "is of a block-long limo with a gloved, jewelled hand sticking out the rear window holding a bagel with one bite taken out of it."
Though regional barriers have come down somewhat in the interim, the sense of the writer as anomaly persists. If an early precedent was set where moviemakers had to adapt what were essentially literary and theatrical sensibilities to the specific demands of movies (and later, television), the writer has been treated somewhat like Mama's kitchen helper, doing his or her share to set the table for the dinner party before being scooted upstairs.
"We were mistrusted," said a writer who is now a successful writer-producer at Universal. (Many people I spoke with about the strike didn't want to be identified in print. One even said to me "I wish you wouldn't write an observational piece. The greatest disservice one can do now is to generalize. The wounds are still too fresh.")
"I came to Hollywood in 1950," this man said. "At that time, we weren't allowed to park in the studio lot. We could go to previews of our movies, but not the premieres. We never got the parties, the champagne. Over the years, as television matured and the industry became more like Wall Street, it became clear that a producer had to know how to write because of the tighter deadlines. TV quickly became a writer-producer's medium. The writer per se has always been odd man out."
"Once he crosses over," said another writer-producer in films and TV at Paramount, "a certain mind-set takes over. Inevitably he becomes part of management once he begins participating in the profits. It's not always such a bad thing. Billy Wilder was a writer before he became a director. And what would've become of Herman Mankiewicz's 'Citizen Kane' if he hadn't had the collaborator he did?