Missing the story
The Academy Awards is the longest-running reality show in television history. Tonight more than 100 million viewers around the world will wait breathlessly to see who wins, who cries and who looks radiant in their designer dress or ridiculous with their fresh face-lift. The show’s popularity is proof of the timeless fascination people have with Hollywood’s inhabitants. So here’s the paradox: Despite the public’s curiosity and despite the awesome media coverage, the film community and its emotional life are shrouded in cliche, stereotypes and misinformation. Those of us in the movie business are often asked by those outside about what we do, but their questions reveal scant understanding of the way Hollywood works.
It’s unfair to fault the media. They often focus on movie stars, veering from puff piece to scandal. Even when reporters offer genuine insights, their work is ephemeral and its impact limited. Historians and biographers have done a thorough, occasionally brilliant job of recording the history of old Hollywood, but few have captured the modern era, and memoirists’ work is often incomplete, riddled with gaps in memory and access.
So what, then, of the writer whose work is limited only by the imagination? Surely the novelist can take us on a journey of discovery. Unfortunately, few have proved reliable guides to the modern world. As a result, no novel about Hollywood has revealed the truth of its world in the way “The Godfather” did with the Mafia or “The Bonfire of the Vanities” did for arriviste New York in the 1980s.
What has eluded them? First, they’ve missed the complexity of the men and women who choose and make our movies. Second, they’ve failed to portray the unique aspect of the business: the pain, suffering and joy in giving birth to any movie, be it the pedigreed “Gangs of New York” or the mongrel “Jackass.” Third, they’ve ignored the seismic changes in modern Hollywood. Finally, they’ve committed the cardinal sin of movies: They’ve failed to tell great stories.
David Freeman, a screenwriter and the author of “A Hollywood Education” and “One of Us,” once observed that most Hollywood novelists are disgruntled screenwriters bent, consciously or not, on revenge against the system that they believe oppresses them (even while it spends $200 million annually underwriting their art). Unfortunately, these authors have painted a one-dimensional scene. The principal revelation of their work is that Hollywood is a Bosch painting, populated by characters with whom no sane person would spend an evening, much less a week of bedtime reading.
It wasn’t always this way. Near the beginning, there were two classic models for Hollywood novels. In “The Last Tycoon,” F. Scott Fitzgerald chose reality. He chose Irving Thalberg as the inspiration for his protagonist. Monroe Stahr is a genius, one of the few men who “holds the whole equation of filmmaking in his head.” We marvel as Stahr explains why he’s going to make a movie he knows will lose money and then presuades his profit-driven colleagues to go along. But Stahr is a lonely man, mourning the death of his wife. When he falls for a woman who resembles her, we see the curse of his imagination as well as its power. Even though Fitzgerald died before finishing “The Last Tycoon,” the book provides more insight into the studio system and the people who run it than any Hollywood novel published in the 60 years that followed. Its drama and humor emanate from its humanity.
The alternative model, Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?,” opted for hyper-reality. Sammy Glick travels from a newspaper copy boy to president of Worldwide Pictures, demonstrating raw ambition and uninhibited amorality, unmitigated by talent. Hollywood has suffered its share of Glicks who have served as heads of production. (Such men have risen in corporations everywhere.) But even the worst of our breed have more dimensionality, or they’d have been disposed of long before reaching the corner office. Opinions to the contrary, the town is seducible, not stupid. And the impact of the Glicks on the movie industry has been minimal and short-lived.
Compare, for a moment, Schulberg’s fictional Sammy to the real thing. Take the mogul captured in Scott Berg’s towering biography, “Goldwyn.” Born into the same poverty as Glick, Sam Goldwyn is equally ambitious, but he also has a keen eye for talent, the courage of his convictions and a wonderful ability to mangle language. Or look at David Begelman. His fall from grace as former president of Columbia Pictures is the subject of David McClintick’s brilliant analysis of self-destruction in Hollywood in “Indecent Exposure.” Begelman’s lies matched Glick’s, but as McClintick noted, he masked them with marvelous charm. In “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” Bob Evans’ self-described rise to power -- as unbelievable in its details as Glick’s -- affects us more because the man understood his own bluff.
Nonfiction writers communicate the colors of these men, but Hollywood novelists rarely do. Instead, inspired by the commercial success of Schulberg’s work, authors have created even broader, more bizarre and craven players. Consider, for example, just two of the characters in Bruce Wagner’s “I’m Losing You”: Chet Stoddard, the aging TV personality, who purchases life insurance claims from dying AIDS patients, or Zev Turtletaub, the megalomaniac producer who sexually assaults his personal assistant while on the phone wooing Alec Baldwin for his next picture. Their extreme venality encourages us to dismiss them. Hollywood may be a circus, but there’s a lot more to see than the bearded lady.
In addressing this hyper-reality, Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steel veer more in the direction of pulp than literature. Their heroes throb; their villains hiss. If Hollywood men and women played around as much as these authors would have us believe, they’d barely produce a dozen movies a year. Implicit in the pumped-up characterizations in these books is the writers’ inability to trust that their readers would find real-life Hollywood fascinating. They should re-read Fitzgerald.
Certain modern exceptions stand out. Suzanne Vale is not only the generic drug-dependent, narcissistic actress in Carrie Fisher’s “Postcards From the Edge,” but also a daughter, and through her enduring, sandpaper relationship with her diva mom, the reader comes to understand the delicate imbalance of talent and insecurity that regularly afflicts those who make movies.
“Postcards” is unusual in another respect: Large sections play on a movie set. The same is true of Peter Viertel’s “White Hunter, Black Heart,” which is set on location in deepest Africa and takes us beyond the bedrooms, boardrooms or mobile phones of most Hollywood novels to show actual filmmaking. It’s an original concept, seldom played out in any of these books. Imagine how boring police stories would be if cops remained in the station rather than pursuing criminals. Or if spies never left CIA headquarters. To know Hollywood, readers must experience the hell filmmakers go through to create a movie: the 18-hour days, the arguments over scripts, the fear of facing the camera. Otherwise, characters appear neurotic for no reason and to no end. Hollywood novelists scrupulously avoid the challenge of creating a fictional movie, choosing instead to tell us how touching or funny a film is rather than show it. In contrast, in “The Book of Illusions,” Paul Auster describes the works of Hector Mann scene by scene until the reader is sitting in the theater, applauding. The aftermath of this elation, when Hector’s life work goes up in flames, is unbearably tragic because we feel viscerally what has been lost.
The pained vision of Hollywood has been terrorizing us since Nathanael West wrote “The Day of the Locust,” which follows the half-dead lives of characters on the fringe of the movie business. Although still cited as the classic of the genre, it seems today oddly irrelevant. The movie business and America have changed radically since West died in 1940. Yes, there are still those people who come to Hollywood, who fail and descend to the netherworld, like the porn actresses in “I’m Losing You,” but their experience no longer symbolizes the death of the American Dream as it did for West and a country that had suffered through the Great Depression. More intriguing -- but unexplored -- are today’s potential failures: the army of film students with digital cameras and maxed out credit cards.
Authors need to reflect the seismic shifts in the film business if they are to convey today’s Hollywood. Consider, for example, the role of women. Faye Greener in “The Day of the Locust” or Kathleen Moore in “The Last Tycoon” were mere objects of adoration. Others, like the suicidal actress in Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays” who zones out driving the freeways from dusk to dawn, are busy suffering nervous breakdowns. But where are the novels that look at women who run studios, as three currently do?
In movies, nothing substitutes for a good story. That’s equally true for novels about Hollywood. One of the reasons that Sheldon and Steel sell is that their plots turn every few pages. It’s not surprising, then, that the book with the most riveting story, Michael Tolkin’s “The Player,” has proved the most successful and durable entry in the modern Hollywood novel sweepstakes. Griffin Mill enjoys his studio job getting movies made. Then his life is threatened; he tries to find out who’s after him; he commits manslaughter in the process; his colleagues are out to get him; he’s falling in love with a mysterious woman; he may lose the girl who loves him. Despite his misdeeds, the reader cares about his future. There’s real jeopardy in “The Player.” In a way, it could fit the crime fiction genre. But in telling his story, Tolkin makes wicked observations about Hollywood. We pay attention to them because we’re caught up in a story and milieu that feels real.
As Sam Goldwyn might have put it, “We need more of the same, only different.”