My wife and I were recently guests at the Hollywood gala celebrating the publication of LEADING LADY, our friend Stephen Galloway’s biography of pioneering producer and studio head, Sherry Lansing.
As one of those whose contributions to the book Stephen acknowledges in a postscript—my name is there right alongside Jerry Brown’s, I approached the party with trepidation, fearing I might be overwhelmed by a hoard of people seeking the pleasure of my company and the bragging rights that would go with it.
Those hoping to be able to tell their friends and neighbors that they spent most of the evening in conversation with Dan Bronson!
I needn’t have worried.
It was a bit like high school when everyone was afraid to ask out the prettiest girl and she ended up without a date for the prom.
People, intimidated at the prospect of introducing themselves to me, seemed to gravitate to lesser lights like Angelica Huston, Christine Lahti, Judge Judy, Adrian Lyne, and the heads of Fox, Sony and Universal.
It was a relief, frankly, to have been spared the crush of the crowd.
I did, however, end up in a long conversation with Nick Meyer, whose list of minor credits—things like The Seven-Percent Solution, Time after Time, Sommersby and the even numbered Star Trek films, emboldened him to approach me.
Though our resumes are somewhat different (he’s famous, and I’m not), it turned out that, as certifiable film fanatics, we did have something in common—a boundless, obsessive love of the movies.
We chatted about all things film, finding ourselves in agreement, for example, that Carol Reed’s three best films were The Third Man, Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out. This led to talk of James Mason, whose death, Nick pointed out, was virtually ignored by the press.
I said, “Well, his real death couldn’t have compared to his death scene in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Nick responded with my favorite quote from this, one of my favorite films: “I am dying…” And I joined him in chorus to complete the line: “…and the Nautilus is dying with me”
“I am dying, and the Nautilus is dying with me.”
To this day, these words, which I first heard at the age of thirteen or fourteen, send chills up my spine.
(Mason was terrific at death scenes. Just as good…his departure in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born, where he commits suicide by walking into the sea.)
Nick and I were lucky to have come of age during a great blossoming of film artistry.
We were there to witness the last, occasionally great gasps of a studio system weakened by the Paramount Consent Decrees and the competition of television.
And we were there to experience first-hand the rise of the independents, what Peter Biskind has called the era of easy riders and raging bulls.
Hardly a week went by that we did not see a film so breathtaking, so original that it stood us on our heads.
The dance of death at the end of The Seventh Seal.
Slim Pickens, riding that bomb like a bucking bronco at the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove, shouting in triumphant celebration of the end of the world.
The dazzling cut in 2001 from that thighbone tossed into the air to a nuclear satellite circling the earth—from the first, most primitive weapon to the most recent and most sophisticated, tens of thousands of years of evolution in a split second on the screen!
The magnificent film fugue of Godfather One and Two—which, together, are an offer I can never refuse.
The twenty-three characters tracked with dazzling editing and overlapping dialogue in Nashville and the unforgettable death of Barbara Jean, which still worries me.
Week after week.
Year after year.
Masterpiece after masterpiece.
It is no wonder that Nick and I and countless others, fired by our love of these wonderful films, found our way to Hollywood.
Love brought us here, and love sustained us…even in the face of the almost insurmountable obstacles of the system.
But I have to admit that, of late, my love has faltered.
A glance at the cover of the latest Entertainment Weekly, with its summer movie preview, provides a quick answer.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Pirates of the Caribbean
Would that God could spare us more.
But even He seems to be no match for the corporations that have engulfed and devoured the studios, handing the bean-counters and the marketing gurus the reigns of power, pandering to their “target audiences” of fifteen year-old kids and uneducated third-worlders, turning out of steady junk-food diet of remakes and sequels, comic book fantasies, teen sex comedies, and horror films.
These are not the sort of films likely to inspire the next Nick Meyer or even the next Dan Bronson.
They are, instead, the sort of films that led Sherry Lansing to say goodbye to Hollywood.
The turning point for her, as Stephen reports in Leading Lady, came with Lara Croft. It was, from a story-telling point of view, an absolute disaster—a film about nothing at all.
But her top marketing executive told her not to worry—he could sell it in spite of its flaws. He advised her against spending any more money to improve it because it wouldn’t make any difference at all at the box-office.
He was right.
Lara Croft made $275 million dollars worldwide.
Sherry—who loved dramas about serious issues, who was proud of films like The Verdict, China Syndrome, Fatal Attraction and The Accused—was disturbed by the increasingly corporatized environment in which she was working, where quality no longer mattered, where “clever sales strategies could redeem all but the most abysmal of movies…”
And so she left.
Her departure came not long after my own.
Hers was voluntary.
Mine was not.
In my case, the work dried up…simply because there was no longer a market for the sort of stories I loved to write.
When I left the business, my enthusiasm for the movies left me. I—who used to see every movie that came out (and the good ones two or three times), who built everything in my life around what was in my opinion the greatest of all the arts—found myself seeing fewer and fewer films.
It’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for pictures like The Fate of the Furious or even the mindless but mildly entertaining Kong: Skull Island.
I was convinced that my love had died, but a chance encounter not long ago brought it back to full-blooded life.
Sonja and I were staying at a friend’s house in Morro Bay, and we headed into San Luis Obispo to catch a screening of The Zookeeper’s Wife, a movie we hoped would break the corporate mold of today’s films.
But we got there early and discovered that the local multiplex was showing…
Are you ready for this?
I was not.
The local multiplex was showing…North by Northwest!
One of my favorite films of all time.
A film I’d not seen on the big screen since it’s release in 1959.
It conquered me all over again and reignited my love of the movies, the love I was able to express in that conversation with Nick Meyer.
It’s not a love likely to be fulfilled in theatres featuring today’s studio films–like Snatched or the umpteenth remake of The Mummy.
But there are the occasional cable wonders like Downton Abbey and Feud.
And there is TCM.
And so, return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…