Hooray for dishy Hollywood

Schickel is the author, most recently, of "You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story."

The half-life of the atom and the persistence of the cockroach are probably the best examples we have of mindless immortality. But if you were to draw up a top 10 list” of things that nag at the geekier corners of consciousness, surely antique movie gossip would find a place on it.

Over the years, Vanity Fair has developed a nice little line in fresh reporting on old crimes of movie star passion and, a bit more commonly, on retrospective visits to the struck sets and abandoned locations of movies that once preoccupied the press (“Cleopatra,” “Myra Breckinridge”) or have a continuing claim on our historical attention (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “All About Eve”).

We probably don’t need to know that back in the day Burt Lancaster had a propensity to beat up on his girlfriends; that Warren Beatty eventually shot at least 2 1/2 million feet of film (weighing several tons when it was shipped to New York from London) on “Reds”; that Spyros Skouras, the head of 20th Century Fox, could not remember Elizabeth Taylor’s name when he encountered her on the set of “Cleopatra”; or that Gary Merrill claimed to have had an erection lasting 2 1/2 days after meeting Bette Davis, whom he eventually married, on the set of “All About Eve” (hmm, never quite thought of her that way).


But somehow it’s fun to become reacquainted with the dish of yore that “Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood,” edited by Graydon Carter (who also presides over what may be the fattest magazine in human history), is richly supplied with. You will not, I imagine, be dismayed to learn that no generally useful lessons about how to avoid movie disasters emerge from these 13 case studies, by journalists including David Kamp and Peter Biskind. Happy movies are by no means all alike, but, sure enough, every unhappy one achieves misery in its own way.

The production history of the average movie tends to lack reportable drama. Like most capitalist enterprises, they just want to make some money in a hard-to-judge marketplace. They mean no great harm, but neither do they strain to make a lasting impression on posterity. Something like “The Best of Everything,” which is probably the most routine film discussed here, was based on a hottish, bestselling first novel, directed by Jean Negulesco, a womanizing woman’s picture specialist, and featured actresses playing young Manhattan career women (Hope Lange, Diane Baker, Suzy Parker) who were too innocent in temperament, though Joan Crawford was not. She was mostly insecure and drinking heavily, but not unmanageably so. It came out all right, and the most important thing we learn about it in passing is that Brian Aherne was the best lover Marlene Dietrich ever had, although -- slight slippage in the magazine’s know-it-all pretense -- you’ll have to look elsewhere to discover that he was possibly the great love of Brooke Astor’s life.

That’s nice stuff. There is sad stuff here too, most notably the brave, wan hope of some cinephiles that there exists, somewhere in Brazil, the director’s cut of Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons.” His editor, Robert Wise, remembered sending it to him and did not remember getting it back; possibly a studio manager in Rio vaulted it among other films left in his care. Or possibly not. We are left wondering whether it is a lost masterpiece or, more likely, a disappointment that the director distanced himself from by taking a government gig to make a South American documentary, which he also left unfinished, as he began his descent into perpetual disappointment.

But that’s not what we’re here for. We want to know, for example, how a nice little back-lot mini-epic called “Cleopatra,” originally budgeted for around $3 million and possibly starring the likes of Susan Hayward, Stephen Boyd and Peter Finch, became the most scandalously over-budget, overblown epic in movie history, eventually costing $42 million or, in today’s dollars, $300 million ($100,000 of which went for paper cups). And no, folks, it was not all Liz and Dick’s fault. Yes, they were married to others at the time, which meant that sexual hanky-panky (not unknown on movie sets since Griffith’s day) had to be managed more carefully than was possible in paparazzi-ridden Italy. But they did not cause the studio to build all its sets in rain-sodden England, which dictated their rebuilding in sunny Rome. Nor did they schedule a beach battle sequence too near the NATO firing range at Torre Astura, severely limiting the hours when the production could shoot. But they were convenient fall guys for a production that was, before the first camera turned, out of an incompetently managed studio’s control.

And so it goes. Why would a studio entrust Gore Vidal’s “Myra Breckinridge,” a novel for which it had paid $900,000, to a writer-director named Michael Sarne, who had previously made only one modest film, which Vidal described as “40 commercials looking for a product”? Well, perhaps because sometimes apparent risk mismanagement works out just fine -- see the account of Mike Nichols doing “The Graduate.” Or Mel Brooks stumbling through “The Producers” despite gossip that he didn’t quite know where to put the camera and despite the mutual hatred that developed between him and his star, Zero Mostel. Or the tremblingly insecure John Schlesinger somehow driving “Midnight Cowboy” to gritty (and profitable) glory.

The short answer to such questions was provided by Fats Waller decades ago: “One never knows, do one?” The “Cleopatra” example suggests that placing saltpeter in the stars’ food might be a prudent precaution, yet, on the other hand, the sexual intensity between director Nick Ray, James Dean and Natalie Wood doubtless enlivened “Rebel Without a Cause.” Similarly, the faltering Warren Beatty-Diane Keaton romance may well have intensified the tragic subtext of “Reds,” which we might note was as over-budget as “Cleopatra,” but with much more pleasing results: It may be the most intelligent epic-scale movie ever made.

All movies that aspire to something beyond the routine involve a struggle between the front office and the folks trying to make the film. In my particular pantheon, less than a quarter of the films discussed in this book approach masterpiece status, with about half achieving respectability while the rest would probably have best been left undone.

But that’s an ex post facto judgment. Movies, as a business, are about holding your breath and taking your shot. While we await the inevitable next disaster, books like this one deliciously remind us that the only rational aspect of the movie business is finding the popcorn’s proper price point.