Monthly Archives: March 2017


March 24th, 2017 9 Comments


I’ve always mistrusted critics.


Truth be known, there’s a part of me that subscribes to the old saw that those who can’t, criticize.


I was, however, forced to reconsider all of this when my son—my own son—proved himself a gifted critic!


It was a completely unexpected development.


He had, after all, begun his adult life as a stuntman, dying conspicuously in a number of Steven Segal films—most memorably when Segal threw him backwards through a window in what became the signature image of the movie.


He was, in other words…how shall I put it?


He leaned more heavily toward the physical than the intellectual, and his interest in the arts was best described as minimal.




Let’s be honest.


It was non-existent.


And so it was that his wife decided to civilize him.




By dragging him (kicking and screaming, I’m sure) to L.A.’s MOMA and exposing him to resplendent examples of contemporary art.


It was in a gallery dedicated to installation art that his talent first manifested itself.


The installation in question, which I myself was never privileged to view, sat on the floor.


Steven studied it carefully.


Then stood over it.




And began to grunt and groan like someone suffering terminal constipation.


His wife was, for reasons that will forever elude me, mortified.


I, however, when I learned of the incident, swelled with pride—genuinely dazzled by his critical insight.


I had a critic in the family!


Henceforth, I did my best to banish my memory of such things as the L.A. Times art critic’s commentary on “Rusty Pipe.”


It, like the piece Steven reviewed, was an installation at L.A.’s MOMA—in this case, a length of rusty pipe removed from a demolition site and suspended from the ceiling of an alcove in one of the museum’s galleries.


The Times critic was so impressed with it that he wrote two full pages of analysis, employing words and concepts far beyond my humble capacity to understand.


To be honest, I have to admit that everything in me cried out, “It’s just a piece of pipe, for God’s sake.”


In fact, I felt the commentary deserved much the same response as my son gave that other piece of sh…




I meant to say, that other piece of installation art.


I have to admit that the “Rusty Pipe” review sorely tested my resolve to admire critics now that my son was one of them.


But I persisted until just the other day when I stumbled upon another Times reviewer and his evaluation of Terence Malick’s Song to Song, which recently debuted at Austin’s SXSW Festival.


Now, you should know that I was blown away by Malick’s first two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven—both examples of stunning poetic realism, both examinations of characters driven by forces they can neither understand nor control.


I was not alone.


Hollywood was abuzz with talk of this remarkable new filmmaker.


Michael Eisner, my boss at Paramount, had done more than just talk about him–he had given him a generous contract, renewing it year after year even though Malick had disappeared and delivered nothing for years on end.


It is, I’m convinced, unwise to declare any artist a genius.


The danger is, of course, that he or she will believe what people are saying, take it so completely to heart that they lapse into total self-indulgence.


When, after twenty years, Malick finally reappeared on the scene, the artist in him had gone missing in action, replaced by a poseur— pretentious, contemptuous of the members of his audience, uninterested in entertaining them or telling them a coherent story or creating compelling characters they could care about.




…when I came across Justin Chang’s rapturous review of Malick’s latest effort—a review that refers to the writer-director’s incoherent, uninvolving The Tree of Life as a “masterwork” and even manages to praise his deliberate disregard of the rules of linear storytelling, his inability to write dialogue that sounds anything like real speech, and his reduction of the ever so distinctive Austin, Texas to a familiar “Malickian landscape…


…I wanted to criy out, “Horseshit!”


But that would have been unfair both to horses and to the fragrant deposits they are known to make.


I remain faithful to my son and proud of his insight, his remarkable critical intuition, but I have to say that I’ve once again lost faith in critics in general.


Time after time, they look upon a naked, fat, flabby old man and praise his new clothes.


Time after time, they look upon an empty landscape and miraculously discover a breathtaking skyline.


Number me with the little girl who tugged at her mother’s sleeve to protest the emperor’s lack of clothes and with Gertrude Stein who looked at the Oakland of her day and clearly saw that there was no there there.


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March 17th, 2017 2 Comments


First of all…


…an apology.


In a recent blog, I vowed that I would banish seriousness from my posts—that in the future, I would revert to the irony, the self-mockery, the smart-ass tone that characterized my work in the past.


I lied.


It’s to be expected, of course.


As I pointed out in my irresistibly funny memoir Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, it’s what we do in TinselTown: every player knows it’s one of the requirements for the job.


There was no malice aforethought. I truly believed I had put sobriety behind me forever.


However, as I pondered my latest subject, I found myself following the example of Herman Melville and his famous meditation on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” the whiteness that “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe.”


Melville’s goal was to punch through the blank mask of God and the universe.


Mine: to comprehend the complexities of a white suit worn by one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite movies.


(Okay, okay, so there’s a little bit of a difference in scale, but I’m serious about this, folks. I really am.)


The movie in question is my late friend Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.


Heart stars Alan Arkin as a deaf-mute named John Singer. Isolated in a world of silence, Singer seeks to relieve his loneliness by reaching out in friendship to those around him. He transforms their lives. But they—inadvertently, unwittingly, unconscionably—fail him, and in the end, he takes his own life, unaware of the love and respect each of his friends feels for him.


This intense, profoundly moving film opens at night in a Southern town, with Singer’s friend and fellow deaf-mute, Antonopoulis, rolling a hoop down a sidewalk, playing hopscotch on a court chalked on the walkway, and then breaking a bakery window to get at the goodies inside, unable to hear the burglar alarm that summons the police.


Singer’s first challenge is to get his only friend out of jail.


Robert’s first challenge was to get the film made.


He wanted Arkin to play Singer, but Jack Warner insisted that he wasn’t a star.


Besides, because the character never speaks a word, Warner wanted to use a big-name French or Italian actor in the role, thinking that it would enhance the European box-office.


Robert held out for Arkin.


Warner refused to budge.


The film did not go forward.


Then The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming hit big. Alan called Robert and said, “I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to become a star, so I want you to call Jack Warner and tell him he can go ahead and cast me now.”


Once he had the green light, Robert had to find an unknown to play Mick, the gawky but sensitive teenager who is befriended by Singer and who dreams of a life outside the confines of her impoverished family and her small town with its small-minded values.


He placed a small ad in the local classifieds, and a young woman named Sondra Locke showed up in a beat-up van and bare feet. She read for him and simply blew him away.


The next big challenge was casting Antonopoulis, who is obese, developmentally disabled, driven by insatiable appetite for food and drink.


Antonopoulis’ very size made the casting a challenge—very few actors fit the physical description of the character, and it was, for a while, an open question whether Robert and company would find anyone right for the role.


The answer to that question came out of the mouths of babes—or rather, Alan Arkin’s eleven year-old son Adam, who suggested Chuck McCann, a local television clown he’d discovered while on location with his father.


There remained the question of the white suit Antonopoulis wears in most of his scenes, the suit that reflects his innocent, childlike nature.


(There it is, finally—that white suit that I announced would be the subject of this column! Back in my days as a college professor, my students loved leading me off on tangents—it was, as you may have guessed, an easy task.)


The problem?


The film had virtually no budget.


Robert’s costume people couldn’t find a white suit that would fit McCann and couldn’t afford to have one specially tailored for him.


This time, it was Robert’s wife Pola who rode to his rescue.


She remembered the white suit that Sidney Greenstreet wore in The Maltese Falcon and had the costume designer call Warners to see if it still existed. It did, and Chuck ended up wearing Greenstreet’s white suit…twenty-seven years after it was created for the Huston film.

The irony is, of course, that the suit itself was ironic in The Maltese Falcon.


The white fabric—the embodiment of innocence in most people’s minds, like the extreme politeness of Greenstreet’s Gutman, like the cliché of the jolly fat man, stood in striking contrast to the reality of the ruthless, rapacious figure it clothed.


The suit, in its second screen appearance, played it straight—an innocent color for an innocent character.


My point?


Yes, there actually is a point to my ramblings on these pages.


In fact, there are several.


Film is a collaborative business.


Yes, the director is in charge…sort of.


He (or she) is in charge if he can manipulate the studio into giving him what he wants.


He is in charge if he can communicate his vision for the story to all of his collaborators—if he can put everyone on the same page.


He is in charge if he’s open to good ideas whatever their source—be it a child, a spouse, or even (God forbid) a screenwriter.


A last point?


Costuming plays a more important role in filmmaking than most people realize.


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March 11th, 2017 4 Comments



Back in the day when I enjoyed the safety and security of a tenured Associate Professorship at DePauw University, I was thrilled to learn that Jack Kennedy was coming to visit our campus.


No, not that Jack Kennedy.


Our Jack Kennedy—I can call him that because he was a distinguished graduate of the University—was a novelist and a screenwriter who had changed his name to Adam Kennedy in order to distinguish himself from the late President and who was returning to campus to talk about his work.


His most recent achievement?


A screen adaptation of his own novel, The Domino Principle, as a Stanley Kramer film starring Gene Hackman.


As a certifiable film fanatic, I was beside myself with excitement when Jack and his lovely wife Susan arrived on campus. I got to know both of them well in a short period of time and reveled in their stories of TinselTown, where I myself desperately wanted to be.


I remember two of those stories in particular.


The first had to do with Jack’s credited work on a now-forgotten movie called The Dove.


Jack attended the premier with Susan. After watching a few minutes of the film unreel, she turned to her husband and asked, “Jack, did you write any of this?”


His reply?


“God, I hope not.”


Now, it was my secret hope that I would one day join the ranks of Hollywood writers (and directors—yes, like everyone in the world, what I really wanted to do was direct).




…in spite of this obvious “trigger warning” which should have sounded in my mind like the tocsin on a battleship under attack…


…Jack and Susan’s story merely strengthened my determination to find a magic carpet and ride it to the glamorous, beckoning capital of the film world.


Their second story was more personal.


It was actually Susan’s story.


Her mother, you see, was Carmel Myers.


Who? you ask.


Well, as a crazed film freak, I was possibly the only person among the DePauw faculty and students who could answer that question.


Carmel Myers was the female star of the silent version of Ben-Hur.


How did I know?


Well, my other obsession was F. Scott Fitzgerald.


I had done my graduate work in American literature at Princeton simply because Fitzgerald had gone there.


The subject of my doctoral dissertation?


Scott Fitzgerald, of course.


I knew who Carmel Myers was because she had also been the inspiration for Rosemary Hoyt in Fitzgerald’s masterful Tender Is the Night.


I just about did a backflip in my excitement to know that I was sitting there talking to…CARMEL MYERS’ DAUGHTER!


Now Susan did tell me that in spite of the fact that her mother’s career had ended forty years before and that she’d been completely forgotten by the American public, she saw herself as a queen and expected to be treated like one.


Susan’s story should have been a flashing red light.


An alarm.








The tocsin sounded…


But once again, I…


…I failed to hear it.


Nothing could change my mind.


I ignored the lessons buried in the Kennedys’ stories.


I ignored the warning of a colleague who’d done time in TinselTown and who said, “DON’T DO IT! You’re not tough enough.”


The latter part of his advice, of course, made me all the more determined—“Godammit,” I said to myself, “I’m plenty tough enough.”


And so I did it.


Henry Higgins probably said it best: “What an infantile idea. What a wicked, brainless thing to do.”


I did it, and that’s how, a few years later, I found myself working with Bruce Willis, who taught me a few lessons about star ego and the powerlessness of writers in Hollywood.


Let me quote me in Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody—a frightfully entertaining book I couldn’t recommend more highly.


(Okay, so there might be just a tinge of the aforementioned ego in that last comment, but what can you expect? I did, after all, spend a quarter of a century in Hollywood.)




…let me quote me describing my first meeting with Bruce, a meeting that took place in his mobile dressing room on the 20th Century Fox lot.


“Big as the motorhome is, it seems claustrophobic. I’m having a hard time getting my breath, and I feel crowded, like a commuter in a crowded subway car.


“Then it hits me.


“It’s just star ego.


“It fills the room and leaves very little space for anyone else.”


(For further detail, consult Chapter 90, “What Price Hollywood?” You won’t regret it. I guarantee it.)


All of this is by way of saying that I have great expectations (the working title of my book—a book you really don’t want to miss) for FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” Ryan Murphy’s look at the rivalry between two fading stars who took show biz ego to dizzying new heights.


Though I know very little about Crawford, I do have two stories about Davis.


The first came from A. C. Lyles, who saw Wings as a film-struck Florida teen, wrote Paramount founder and head Adolph Zukor a letter asking for a job every day for four years, was rewarded with a position in the mailroom and eventually worked his way up from office boy to publicist, producer and ambassador of good will—the official greeter of Paramount for decade after decade.


When Queen Elizabeth came to town, it was A. C. who arranged a banquet for her at Paramount, a banquet attended by all the studio’s top stars, including Bette Davis.


Lyles himself sat at the same table as “Miss Davis.” (Nobody, not even A. C., dared call her Bette.)


It was the table closest to the dais where the Queen and her entourage were dining, and as the evening wore on, A. C. noticed (it would, he claimed, have been impossible not to notice) that Miss Davis was unhappy.


He turned to her and asked, “Miss Davis, you seem upset. What is it that’s bothering you?”


Miss Davis drew her self up and replied, with appropriately dramatic outrage, “She doesn’t seem to realize that there is more than one queen present this evening.”


She was right, of course.


Hollywood ego does not allow for the presence of more than one queen in any one room, and that, my friends, is, I’m sure, the basis for Murphy’s “Duel”—a series that might be best described by Davis herself in the classic All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”


Bumpy and, I suspect, breathtakingly entertaining.


My second Davis story is tied directly to her rivalry with Crawford. It came to me from my friend Robert Ellis Miller, who lived in the same apartment building as the aging star and who happened to be present when Miss Davis returned to the building after the news of Joan Crawford’s death was reported.


A small army of reporters swarmed her and wanted to know how she felt about Crawford now that she was gone.


Miss Davis once again drew herself up and announced, in a tone and posture that dramatized how dim-witted she knew them to be, “People don’t change just because they die.”


So there you have it…


…my meditations on star ego.


If you should want more (and who would not?), you can find them in that wondrously entertaining tome, Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, where I really put the screws to the impossibly bloated egos of TinselTown.


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March 2nd, 2017 2 Comments



Some of you may know that Jameson Parker—late of the immensely popular television series Simon and Simon as well as many movies on screens both large and small—turned his back on Hollywood to become a writer.


It was an extraordinary step—one with little precedent in TinselTown.


The old joke says it all. The teller of the tale is at a circus parade and is shocked to see an old friend, a once-prosperous actor, following the elephants and scooping up the deposits they make along the route. Appalled, he rushes up to the man and says, “Jack, you shouldn’t be doing this. Tell you what. I’ll make a place in my office for you. Regular hours. Decent salary. Dignity in the workplace.” Jack’s response: “What? And leave show business?”


Well, Jameson did it.


He left show business, and Hollywood’s loss is the literary world’s gain, for when it comes to words, Mr. Parker has a gift. (Those of you who know him know he has the gift of gab as well, but I was thinking of words on the page.)


He has written a remarkable series of novels and stories. I recommend, in particular…


An Accidental Cowboy.   This is an extraordinary account of a man putting himself back together after a shocking assault—restoring himself through sheer physical process in much the same way that Hemingway’s Nick Adams attempts to heal the psychological and emotional wounds of war.


The Horseman at Midnight. A deeply moving story best described as Cormac McCarthy in Steinbeck country. Read it. You’ll thank me for introducing it to you.


“Teaching the Bear To Read.” Quite simply one of the finest short stories ever written.


And today Jameson makes his latest contribution to the literary world: Dancing with the Dead.


Bold. Original. Profoundly moving.


This new novella is the tale of two people from vastly different backgrounds, two survivors caught up in historic forces beyond their control. Stripped of everything that made them who they are, they come together in courage and common humanity. They, like Faulkner’s Dilsey, endure. And so will their story, the most unconventional, unexpected love story of this or any other year.


Do yourselves a favor and buy a copy now. Published by Bear Manor Media, it’s available at Amazon and most of the other usual suspects.

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March 1st, 2017 4 Comments



Some of you may have noticed a certain absence of seriousness in my blogs, an ironic, mocking tone designed primarily to deflate my own sense of importance.




…no more.


I hereby take a vow of sobriety.


You have my promise—my word of honor—that I will renounce irony and wit, that I will embrace seriousness, gravity and thoughtfulness…for today’s blog.


(Don’t expect to see such straight-forwardness in these pages ever again.)


With this prelude, let me turn to the subject of the recent Academy Awards.


The whole town’s talking about the mistake at the climax of the show—La La Land winning the Best Picture award before losing it to Moonlight.


Shocking as this was, it was nothing compared to another mistake the public is unaware of—the inexcusable omission of at least three major names from “In Memoriam” segment.






Charmian was, of course, Liesl, in Robert Wise’s wondrous screen adaptation of The Sound of Music.



I remember where I first saw the film.


I remember my date for the evening.


I remember that amazing opening shot with the camera swooping down to meet Maria as she rushes forward into those hills filled with the sound of music.


I remember bits of dialogue, lyrics, scenes.


But most of all, I remember Charmian.


Her beauty.


Her charm.


Her innocence.


Her sensuality.


I fell in love with her that night in that theatre in Beverly Hills.


I’m in love with her to this day.


In fact, when I was privileged to spend some time in conversation with her a few years ago, I was tongue-tied until I finally managed to blurt out, “It’s about time we’ve met. I’ve been in lust with you for almost fifty years.”


How, I wonder, could the Academy have neglected mention of her passing?


Yes, her career in film was brief.


Yes, she is known primarily for one role.


But what a role! What a performance! What a movie!


A movie that shines forever in the memories of those who have seen it.


I’m shocked by her omission from the Academy tribute, and so I pay tribute to her here, in this little-read column,


Thank you, Charmian.


Thank you for lighting up my life and the lives of so many millions.


May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


Then there’s my old friend Robert Ellis Miller.



Robert directed The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Rueben, Rueben—two of the finest films ever made.


He orchestrated what Alan Arkin himself considers his best performance.


He discovered both Sondra Locke and Kellie McGillis.


And yet he was not worthy of inclusion in the Academy’s tribute.


If he had done nothing but The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, he would have deserved special mention.


I discovered Heart while a graduate student at Princeton.


I used it to introduce my students to the vocabulary of the cinema while teaching film at DePauw University.


I went nuts when I eventually met Robert himself at a Hollywood party—“Oh, my God, are you Robert Ellis Miller?!?”


And I went crazier still when he expressed an interest in directing one of my screenplays—an event that, alas, was not to be.


One of the proudest accomplishments of my years in Hollywood was my friendship with Robert.


I tried to express my feelings about him and his work a couple of years ago in an article for CineMontage, and given the Academy’s shocking failure to acknowledge the passing of this amazing talent, I am trying again here.


The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is one of the films that gave me the resolve to turn my back on the security of a tenured professorship and ride the rollercoaster of Hollywood. But it did more than inspire me. It moved me. And that is what all great movies do. The best of them will tear your heart in two.


Robert did that, and so I say…




Shame upon the Academy.


I find it astonishing that Charmian and Robert were not enough for them: they also ignored the death of one of the greatest behind-the-scene figures in town—David Shepard.




His is, I suspect, a name unknown to most of you, and frankly, that’s the way he preferred it, for David, unlike most of us in Hollywood, was an advocate not for himself but for the art of the cinema—especially the art of the silent cinema.


David did things for people.


If Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody had an index, his name would have the largest number of entries. I will simply say that without his support, I would have been nothing more than a nameless casualty of the town.


He did things for people.


He brought people together.


He got things done.


The thing he did best was the preservation of our silent film heritage.


As Curator of Film at the late, lamented Blackhawk films and at the AFI, Director of Special Projects at The Directors Guild, Professor of Film at USC, and head of Film Preservation Associates, he—perhaps more than any other single individual—saved silent film for posterity, finding it, restoring it and reintroducing it to the public.


His friend Leonard Maltin wrote in a recent blog, “If you’ve seen a superior print of a film by Chaplin or Keaton, Griffith or Murnau, chances are David had a hand in restoring it.”


My last conversation with him concerned his friend King Vidor.


I had recently watched Vidor’s The Fountainhead, finding it stunning in its visuals and almost operatic in its storytelling, and I’d hoped to gain some insight into his work by peppering David with questions about him. David, not surprisingly, felt that Vidor’s best work was in silent cinema, and our relatively brief exchange was almost the equivalent of a graduate seminar. He followed it up a few days later with a typically generous gesture: I found an inscribed copy of the oral history he’d done with Vidor waiting for me in the mail.


David knew virtually everyone in town, everyone from George Cukor to Alexander Payne, and he’d done something for everyone he knew.


I think of the narrator’s lament in “Crazy Sunday,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictionalized version of the death of Irving Thalberg: “What a hell of a hole he leaves in this damn wilderness.”


In my case, it’s a hole in my heart.


And so I raise my glass to you, David, and to you, Robert and Charmian.


May you live long and prosper in the hearts of all those to whom you brought so much joy.


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