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Labor vitriol’s an old story

When it comes to crafty labor relations, Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers head Nick Counter should study the work of an old master -- MGM czar Louis B. Mayer.

In 1933, with panicky investors emptying banks across the country, Mayer summoned his contract players to a summit. Distraught and on the verge of tears, Mayer beseeched his talent to accept a temporary 50% pay cut. Moved by his entreaties, everyone willingly agreed.

After the meeting, Mayer seemed to quickly regain his composure. One of his production executives saw the studio pasha wink slyly at an underling, asking, “How did I do?”

Like everyone else, I’ve been following the acrimonious negotiations between Counter’s AMPTP and the Writers Guild of America, wondering if there is any hope of a settlement before this week’s strike deadline. Truth be told, I look forward to reading another story about the fight over a piece of DVD profits about as much as a new round of name-calling between Kobe Bryant and Lakers management.

The only real sparks have been provided by the harsh rhetoric from both sides of the table, which has inspired a wealth of “WGA, Producers Trade Barbs” headlines. Counter has blasted the WGA, calling the sessions “the most futile attempt at bargaining that anyone . . . has encountered in guild negotiation history.” The WGA negotiators have returned fire, claiming Counter’s team is “still stuck on its rollback proposals,” saying its members “will not stand for that.”

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Last Thursday, before negotiations could begin, a bitter squabble reportedly broke out over how many chairs could be placed at the negotiating table.

Continuing animosity

As it turns out, the vitriol is deeply rooted in Hollywood cultural history. It’s a timely reminder that the current labor dispute is only the latest example of an age-old feud between screenwriters and their studio masters. As it happens, Marc Norman, who won an Oscar for writing “Shakespeare in Love,” has written an engaging new book about many of these very struggles. “What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting” offers a fascinating portrait of Hollywood history, with a special focus on the contentious relationship between writers and the studio establishment.

If today’s negotiations have been especially acrid, it’s because of a mutual disdain that has poisoned relations between the two parties for generations. No one has described it better than critic David Thomson, who likens the Hollywood writer to “a divorce lawyer or a private eye: When you want them you have to have them, but later you despise them.” This wariness dates back to the early days of sound, when the studios were forced to import large numbers of sophisticated New York playwrights and novelists to provide clever dialogue for the new talking pictures. The studio bosses resented the East Coast writers’ prickly personalities and lefty politics, while the writers laughed off the moguls as vulgar buffoons.

“Basically it was a marriage that got off on the wrong foot,” Norman told me the other day, taking a lunch break from the negotiations, where he serves on the guild’s negotiating committee. “Being a writer in New York in those days meant something. But in Hollywood, the writer meant nothing. They were paid well, but the moguls never saw any real difference between their writers and the carpenters who built the sets.”

One of the most intriguing revelations in Norman’s book is that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was concocted by the studio brass as a company union to keep labor disputes inside the studio doors -- the Oscars were simply an afterthought. But the writers were too rebellious, especially after seeing unions flexing their muscles across the country.

In 1934, with talk of a strike by a budding writers guild in the air, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg laid down the law to a group of Metro writers. “If you proceed with this strike,” he said, “I shall close this studio, lock the gates and there will be an end to MGM productions. And it will be you -- all you writers -- who will have done it.”

By 1936, hundreds of writers resigned from the academy, forcing award organizers to pack the banquet with studio secretaries. Dudley Nichols won best screenplay for “The Informer” but refused to collect his statue.

The studio chiefs, who viewed themselves as beneficent patrons, were enraged by their unruly writers’ activism. Addressing his scribes, Jack Warner said anyone who joined a union full of “radical bastards and soap-box SOBs” would find themselves out of work forever, adding with a classic Warner-esque flourish that “it wouldn’t be a blacklist because it would all be done over the telephone.”

Willing to compromise, the activists allowed a more conservative group of writers to join its leadership. But it turned out to be a trap, the result of a clandestine alliance between studio chiefs and favored writers. The union collapsed while key guild organizers were fired from their studio jobs. It wasn’t until 1941 that the studios finally recognized the guild and agreed to allow writers to arbitrate credit disputes.

To be fair, it’s hard to imagine a more difficult group to negotiate with than Hollywood writers, who despite their considerable talents have a reputation for Olympian feats of troublesome, self-destructive behavior. From Herman Mankiewicz to Billy Wilder, from Paddy Chayefsky to Robert Towne, it’s hard to say who qualifies as the biggest pain in the neck.

A personality type emerges. Roman Polanski says Towne drove him nuts during the writing of “Chinatown,” “fighting for every line of dialogue as if it were carved in marble.” During the making of “The Goddess,” Chayefsky so unhinged actress Kim Stanley, demanding more smoke when she lit a cigarette, that she threatened to quit unless he left the set. No one said it better than the policeman who, having arrested Mankiewicz after one of many drunken escapades, described the writer as “insulting, sarcastic, impolite and talkative.”

Surely it’s no coincidence that most movies about screenwriters, including “In a Lonely Place,” “Barton Fink” and “The Player,” involve intimations of murder and mayhem. I suspect this combative behavior became so enmeshed in the screenwriter DNA that it became hard to separate the fights over script maulings from the brawls over guild rights. Howard A. Rodman, a two-term member of the board of directors of the WGA, West, whose latest film, “Savage Grace,” is due out next spring, recalls his father, Howard Rodman, also a one-time guild executive, as a “fearsome figure” at union meetings.

“He yelled and screamed so much it was a little scary,” Rodman says of his father, who wrote such films as “Madigan” and “Charley Varrick.” “He was so unhappy about what other people did to his work that he probably has a pseudonym on more scripts than his real name. In our house the expression went -- the script isn’t finished until the name comes off.”

A clash of cultures

Even today it’s hard not to imagine a connection between what happens at the negotiating table and in script meetings.

“Your frustration builds up,” says Rodman. “Perhaps metaphorically, when you’re at the negotiating table, you get a chance to strike back at the big corporations who’ve come to represent your biggest frustrations during the script process. It’s not unusual to see writers going around full of impacted rage or sullen self-pity. Shrinks in L.A. have built entire practices around it.”

Norman isn’t especially optimistic about the future, believing that the old studio patriarchs have been replaced by executives who think they’re more in touch with the public taste than most writers. As he puts it: “There’s now a generation of executives who wonder why the writer couldn’t be more like a court stenographer who can just put the executives’ ideas into writing.”

It’s almost inevitable that a labor war would erupt when the two sides see their medium in such a radically different light -- one largely as commerce, the other as creative expression.

It’s the oldest dysfunctional relationship in Hollywood. Jack Warner and Herman Mankiewicz would be right at home hurling insults across today’s negotiating table, once you taught them how to work a DVD player and replaced all that mineral water with a good fifth of whiskey.

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“The Big Picture” appears Tuesdays in Calendar. Questions or criticism can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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