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The Gambler

<i> Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."</i>

There is an argument to be made that Don Simpson did more to change the face of American movies in the last few decades than anyone else, save George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Critic David Denby, in a cri de coeur over the marginalization of reviewers and the death of film recently published in the New Yorker, wrote that what today’s soulless movies lack is emotion. Or, as he put it, “many big-studio movies are consciously fashioned so as to take involvement out--the entire range of emotions [is] jettisoned in favor of one emotion, physical excitement.”

If postwar movies reached their peak in the early ‘70s, a key moment in what would become a growing contempt for the emotional valence of movies and the attendant devolution of film was surely Lucas’ remark to his wife,Marcia, circa 1972. Evoking emotion was easy, he said, on the order of wringing a kitten’s neck; anyone could do it, and he would make “American Graffiti” to prove it. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, but once he made his point and got human beings out of his system, the director who was himself emotionally blocked in his personal life, turned toward his true love, what he called “pure cinema”: the effects-laden, emotionally impoverished comic book movie, “Star Wars.” Spielberg followed suit, streamlining his films by getting rid of the inconvenient story elements and quirky performances that made “Jaws” such a great movie (and an anomaly in Spielberg’s action oeuvre), and the ‘70s were history. Stunning examples of personal filmmaking such as “Raging Bull” were left high and dry like beached whales, the ocean of audience support that buoyed “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” receding all too rapidly around it.

Enter Don Simpson. Born in 1943, Simpson came up in the same drug-drenched, anti-authoritarian countercultural atmosphere that nourished the rest of the so-called movie brats in late-'60s Hollywood. Working in publicity at Warners, at a time--under Ted Ashley and John Calley--when it was by far the hippest studio in town, he experienced up close the explosion of filmmaking that constituted the directors’ decade. But by the time he arrived at Paramount as a junior executive in 1975, “Jaws” had sounded the death knell for the kind of personal filmmaking that defined the so-called New Hollywood, and Simpson eagerly embraced the TV values of the new network team that would take the studio into the ‘80s.

Smart, funny and ambitious, Simpson rose quickly through the ranks to become Paramount’s head of production under Barry Diller and Michael Eisner. The changes wrought by “Jaws” and then “Star Wars” were transforming the industry into a risky, marketing-driven, blockbuster business. Whereas in the early ‘70s studios were often reduced to merely distributing the films of high-profile auteurs, by the late ‘70s they were reasserting their power. “This was a period in which studios took charge of their movies,” said Craig Baumgarten, who was also an executive at Paramount. “It wasn’t like, ‘Gee, we like it, or we don’t like it, or why don’t you try this or why don’t you try that?’ We began to issue blueprints. We came up with our own ideas. Don redesigned the way studios related to the material they produced.” It was Simpson who told the talent what to do. He began the practice of deluging writers with script notes, which they were expected to follow slavishly.

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Simpson was also preternaturally attuned to the twitches of the culture. The late ‘70s--the era of disco, of Studio 54 in New York--was dominated by the newly confident, out-of-the-closet gay sensibility. Paramount was known as the gayest studio in town; its big films were “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease,” both starring John Travolta, then a considerably more androgynous figure than he is now, at least in his portly Clintonian incarnation. The same gay subtext interpretation for “Top Gun” that Quentin Tarantino offered in a cameo in a film called “Sleep With Me” also works for “Grease,” produced by Allan Carr and now in re-release. Like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun,” faced with a choice between the “astrophysicist” Kelly McGillis and the suggestively erotic male fliers led by “Ice Man” Val Kilmer, in “Grease” Travolta is faced with a choice between the insipid Olivia Newton-John character, representing straight culture (marriage, family, etc.) and the leather-jacketed greasers representing gay culture. At the end, however, a cross-dressing Newton-John, herself decked out in black leather, makes the choice for him, leaving the obvious conclusions up to viewers.

Consciously or not, with his music- and design-driven blockbusters of the ‘80s--"Flashdance,” the “Beverly Hills Cops” and “Top Gun,” Simpson (in partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer) mainstreamed gay culture, playing a role not unlike Elvis Presley when he took black music to white teenage audiences in the ‘50s. As the producer of these films, Simpson hired cheap, young, malleable directors (unlike the difficult, ego-swollen auteurs of the ‘70s), often with backgrounds in TV commercials and anointed the era of the auteur-producer, a mantle that would be eagerly taken up by the likes of Joel Silver, Larry Gordon, and Andy Vagna and Mario Kassar. Among them they created and refined the action genre that has done so much to destroy the Hollywood movie as well as making the careers of stars like Eddie Murphy, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With their collective willingness to pay any price to land a star who could open a movie, they played a major role in racheting star salaries into the ether, further fueling the make or break opening weekend syndrome that undermined the ability of small films to open slowly.

This is a lot to heap on the shoulders of one man. Certainly Simpson had help; in many respects, he was no more than the willing executioner of a system whose quest for profit seems ineluctable and irresistible. And personally, he was extremely appealing. As writer John Richardson put it, “The truth kept jumping out of his mouth.” For all these reasons, Simpson is the perfect subject for a book.

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Thanks to his high-profile and widely dissected death, the overall contours (as well as many of the lurid details) of Simpson’s story are pretty well known. Charles Fleming, a veteran Hollywood reporter, advises the reader in a note that his book was written under “adverse” conditions, namely, that the Hollywood heavy hitters who were Simpson’s friends, people like Eisner, Bruckheimer, Steve Tisch and so on, refused to talk to him and discouraged others from doing so. To a degree, Fleming has been able to turn this to his advantage. With no sources to lose, Fleming doesn’t pull his punches, and indeed he rarely hesitates to take the stick to the rich and powerful he writes about. But with his access to the industry blocked, he has been forced to turn to the underworld of coke heads, dealers and hookers Simpson frequented, virtually the only sources available to him.

Fleming’s tour of the Hollywood inferno is by no means without interest. He has found some gems that will be of great interest to Simpsonologists. For example, Simpson, who hated losing at anything, used to get so upset when he was beaten at tennis that he would pee on the net. He apparently kept an uncashed check for $2 million from “Flashdance” as if to say, “I have so much money I don’t sweat the small change.” It turns out that he may have had a daughter, born to one Victoria Fulton Vicuna, a sometime girlfriend of Simpson’s in the early ‘90s. Fleming has turned up Bonnie Bradigan, the “co-star” of the notorious “Bonnie Beats Mary” home video that scandalized some of his assistants when they discovered and viewed it in his office. Fleming gets to the bottom of the story about the Mafia contract that Simpson insisted was put out on him for insulting Cathy St. George, the girlfriend of Alphonse “Little Allie Boy” Persico, then serving time for his involvement with the Colombo family. Fleming gives the best account to date of why Diller fired Simpson (among other things, Simpson was doing so many drugs and so much booze that he wrecked his cars three times in less than a year), and he fleshes out, so to speak, some of the seedier S & M episodes that surfaced in the notorious Dove Books compendium of hookers tales, “You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again.”

But at the end of the day, as they say in Hollywood, the refusal of the players to play hurts the book. Fleming has to rely too much on the preexisting Simpson literature, too much on laundry lists of barely relevant material documenting the “culture of excess” of the book’s subtitle, and endless stories of Simpson’s wayward peccadilloes. How much do we really want to know, for example, about the mechanics of penile enhancements--both girth and length--with which Simpson apparently experimented--unsuccessfully. (It’s a shame he died before Viagra.) How much do we really want to hear about him peeing on the heads of hookers?

Many of Simpson’s friends, even the women among them, excused such behavior by arguing that it was consensual; the women were professionals, knew what they were getting into and were well paid for what they did, or allowed to be done to them. But there is no question that Simpson shamelessly exploited and abused the iniquities of power and wealth that characterize the relationship between successful white males in Hollywood and everyone else. Fleming is properly judgmental, but when he insists, over and over, that the Simpson saga lays bare the depravity of the movie industry that tolerates, even enables such behavior--unlike any other business in America--one has to wonder. If Hollywood has anything to answer for, it’s the cultural blight it has spread throughout the world, and in this respect, Simpson was not blameless either. But by what system of moral accountancy is the movie industry worse than, say, the tobacco industry?

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By forcing Fleming into the gutter, as it were, the refusal of Simpson’s friends to cooperate with his book not only does a disservice to Fleming, a respected journalist, but to Simpson’s posthumous reputation in the name of which they presumably withheld their help in the first place. Which is a shame, because Simpson’s story has a dramatic breadth and complexity of an almost Shakespearean dimension. If ever there was a man of brilliance undone by the darkness of his own soul, it was Don Simpson. His relationships eerily echoed the values of his films. He was more at home with men than with women, with whom he famously failed to connect. His emotional life was a dead zone, scorched earth, a good deal of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Ironically, after hammering nails into the coffin of the directors’ decade, he died wanting to be a director.

Eventually, the keepers of the Simpson flame will undoubtedly issue an “authorized” biography by a hired gun not unlike the docile directors Simpson employed to shoot his blockbusters. And it will have as little merit. The sad truth is that the great Simpson book--the book that Simpson deserved--may never be written.


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