Category Archives: Thoughts

CONFIDENCE MEN

March 6th, 2015 2 Comments

 

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Memory, like Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross, is a jokester.

 

It enjoys playing tricks on us.

 

For thirty years now, I’ve been telling friends about an amazing passage from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon.

 

It turns out that my recollection of that passage is rather different from what Fitzgerald actually wrote, but no matter: my version makes my point much better than Fitzgerald’s does, so I’m going to continue to tell it my way.

 

Monroe Stahr, who heads up a Hollywood studio and is the tycoon of the title, is on a commercial flight from the east coast to the west.

 

Fascinated by flying, he pays a visit to the cockpit, and one of the pilots asks him how you go about running a studio.

 

Stahr looks down at the mountain range they’re crossing and says something like this: “Suppose you’re an engineer, and you’re given the job of building a tunnel through those mountains. There are three or four possible routes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, but no one of them clearly superior to the others. What would you do?”

 

The pilot has no answer.

 

But Stahr does.

 

“You arbitrarily choose one of them and announce, ‘We’ll go that way. That’s the best way.’”

 

And that, my friends, is not just the way you run a studio.

 

It’s the way you direct a picture.

 

A good director is decisive, even when there may be no particularly sound basis for his decision.

 

Confronted with hundreds of questions every day of prep, production and post, he has to provide immediate answers to every one of them.

 

He is, in reality, a confidence man.

 

He must project such confidence in himself and his judgments that he inspires confidence in everyone around him—his actors, his crew, even the studio executives charged with supervising him and his film.

 

In the best directors, this confidence is real—they quite simply know everything there is to know about their project: what it’s about, the look it should have, the motivations of each and every character, the style of editing, and on and on and on.

 

They make decisions on matters large and small, and they stand by them.

 

I think of my friend Robert Ellis Miller.

 

Early in the preparation of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, he decided that there was one actor, and only one, who could play the part of his deaf-mute protagonist, Singer.

 

That was Alan Arkin.

 

Jack Warner, convinced that the film needed a star, wasn’t buying:   Arkin, though well-established on Broadway, had never made a film.

 

No, Warner wanted a big name from Europe—someone like Marcello Mastroianni. He argued that it wouldn’t matter that he had an accent since Singer couldn’t speak.

 

Robert held out for Arkin, and the film spent a year or two in limbo.

 

Then…a miracle.

 

Arkin broke through big time with The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

 

Once it was apparent that the film was a huge hit, Arkin contacted Robert, asking him to tell Jack Warner that he’d gone to a lot of trouble to become a star so Warner would cast him in Heart.

 

Arkin gave what, I’m told, he still considers the best performance of his career, and the film is now recognized as a masterwork.

 

There are, of course, other kinds of directors—those whose confidence is just a sham. They may not make great movies, but they will get the job done.

 

There is, unfortunately, a third category.

 

These are the ones who have much in common with Olivier’s Hamlet.

 

Do you remember the opening of this famous film?

 

It’s a voice-over that concludes, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

 

An indecisive director is hardly a tragic figure, but he often spells trouble and frustration for everyone working with him.

 

One of my screenplays was assigned to such a director. He was so uncertain about the direction the story should take that he couldn’t make up his mind how it should end.

 

It should have been an easy choice.

 

One of the endings he was considering made the picture a vendetta in the manner of Death Wish, reducing the protagonist to the level of the villain.

 

The other (mine) made it a moral drama about a good man gone wrong but redeeming himself at the end.

 

The director should have known which film he was making from the moment he signed on, but this individual wavered throughout production until he was, at last, brought to his senses by one of his talented but badly miscast stars, who argued strongly in favor of my ending.

 

A member of the film’s editorial team tells me that he demonstrated the same sort of indecision in the editing room.

 

No surprise, then, when a few years later, he did a big-budget tent-pole picture and one of its critics declared its direction was by “autopilot.”

 

 

A Postscript: I’ve called this piece “CONFIDENCE MEN,” and I have no doubt some among you are asking why I didn’t add “AND WOMEN.”

 

To be honest, the real reason was that the title I chose was a familiar phrase with lots of associations. The alternative seemed clumsy. But my decision to stick with it raised a question I can’t really answer.

 

Why are there so few female directors?

 

The flippant response would be to remind you of my description of directors as ruthlessly manipulative, obsessed, monomaniacal control freaks.

 

In other words, most women are just too damned nice to succeed as directors.

 

Unfortunately, my own experiences in Hollywood would suggest otherwise.

 

My immediate boss at Paramount was Dawn Steel, and I can assure you, she had all the requisite qualities…and more. It was no accident that she became the first woman to head up a major studio.

 

That was thirty years ago.

 

Since then, women have made major strides in Hollywood.

 

While their numbers may not yet reflect their share of the general population, they hold prominent positions throughout the industry: studio heads, producers, writers, editors, and so on.

 

In only one field do they lag shockingly behind, and that, of course, is direction.

 

Oh, there are some extraordinarily talented women directors—Katherine Bigelow comes immediately to mind, but the percentage of female members of the Directors Guild has actually gone down in recent years.

 

Some may say that Hollywood is still an old boys’ network, but I have to question that argument.

 

As early as 2002, women ran half the studios in town.

 

Many of the most successful producers today—producers who, like studio heads, are in the position to hire and fire—are female.

 

Why are they not hiring more of their own?

 

 

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MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIONS

February 26th, 2015 5 Comments

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Let’s see.

 

So far, we’ve concluded that directors are control freaks who like to play God—both on the set and in real life.

 

They are also ruthlessly manipulative, willing to do whatever must be done to get what they want.

 

What else?

 

Oh, yes.

 

They tend to be a bit obsessive.

 

In reality, it’s a requirement for the job.

 

A director must live, eat, breathe nothing but the film he’s working on.

 

Totally immerse himself or herself in the project to the exclusion of everything else.

 

Lamont Johnson used to tell a story that casts some light upon directorial obsession.

 

Lamont himself was no slouch in the obsession department—his films took absolute possession of him during the making of them.

 

But his monomania was dwarfed by that of David Lean.

 

Here’s his story.

 

Lamont was making a wonderful film about an attempted escape from a German prisoner of war camp in Scotland. It was called The McKenzie Break, and he decided to shoot it on location with Ireland standing in for Scotland.

 

As he led his convoy of actors and crew up the coast of Ireland to shoot his movie, he passed David Lean’s company shooting the storm scene for Ryan’s Daughter.

 

Months later, after completing his own film, he led his people back down the coast, past David Lean and company, still shooting the storm scene for Ryan’s Daughter!

 

Think of it!

 

Lamont managed to make an entire movie in less than the time it took Lean to shoot a single sequence.

 

Was it worth it?

 

If you’re a Lean fan (and I definitely fall into that catergory), the answer is an easy and immediate YES!

 

It resulted in one of the greatest sequences in film history.

 

If, however, you’re a studio executive—say, the head of MGM, which was financing the film—your answer would be a resounding NO!

 

The film almost bankrupted studio and was a significant factor in the subsequent sale of its legendary lot.

 

So…

 

…directors are, almost by definition, obsessed.

 

Monomaniacal.

 

But they can’t be too obsessed, or they run the risk of playing Ahab, going down with their ship and taking every one around them with them.

 

Think of D.W. Griffith and his grand folly, Intolerance.

 

Erich von Stroheim and Greed.

 

Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now!—which ultimately paid off but just about broke him financially and emotionally.

 

Or to choose a recent, happy example, Iñárritu and Birdman.

 

I can’t begin to imagine the years of obsessive planning required to make a film in what is essentially a single shot, a feat beyond the reach even of the great Alfred Hitchcock, who attempted it in Rope.

 

So there you have it.

 

Directors are ruthlessly manipulative, obsessed, monomaniacal control freaks.

 

My only question?

 

Why did I fail in my repeated attempts to direct?

 

I clearly have all the qualifications for the job.

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RUTHLESS PEOPLE

February 18th, 2015 3 Comments

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In my last diatribe, I offered The Stunt Man’s Eli Cross as the epitome of the Hollywood director.

 

He is, in his own mind at least, bigger than God.

 

Omniscient.  Omnipresent.  Omnipotent.

 

In control of everything and everyone around him.

 

Of course, in order to retain this control, he sometimes has to resort to trickery and manipulation.

 

He is a merry prankster who takes delight in toying with his actors.

 

His female star is Barbara Hershey at her loveliest and most charming, and he has some concern about her being able to handle an up-coming scene in which she has to feel shame and humiliation.

 

What does he do?

 

Well, her parents have come to visit the set, and while she’s off in hair and make-up, they join Noah for the dailies. One of them, which he arranged to include “by accident,” has her stark naked in bed with one of the other actors, casual, relaxed, joking with the crew.

 

Her parents are, of course, shocked and appalled. Always the gentleman, Noah apologizes profusely.

 

But he makes sure they’re on the set when he shoots the big scene, the one in which their daughter has to show shame and humiliation.

 

She isn’t getting it, but hey, no problem.  Noah simply lets slip the fact that her parents accidentally viewed that shot of her in bed.

 

You want shame and humiliation?

 

Well, he gets it!

 

He’s like Lola.

 

Whatever Eli wants, Eli gets.

 

Directors are, or sometimes have to be, ruthless people.

 

Even my dear friend and mentor, Lamont Johnson, was guilty.

 

Perhaps his finest film was The Execution of Private Slovak. It’s the story of the only American soldier executed for desertion during World War II, and the big scene is, of course, the execution itself.

 

The firing squad—under orders to kill one of their own—lines up, aims and fires.

 

Slovak drops.

 

But he does not die.

 

And while he lies there mortally wounded, Lamont slowly pans the faces of the men on the firing squad who wait, knowing they’re going to have to shoot Slovak again.

 

Shock.

 

Devastation.

 

Horror.

 

It’s an unforgettable moment, and for many of the cast and crew, it was an unforgiveable moment as well.

 

Why?

 

Well, before shooting the scene, Lamont pulled Marty Sheen, who was playing Slovak, aside and told him that when the rifles went off, he wanted him to drop to the ground, roll around and shout, “I’m hit! I’m hit!”

 

Sheen followed Lamont’s instructions.

 

He went down.

 

Everyone on the set assumed that one of the rifles had contained a live round.

 

They went nuts when Lamont insisted on keeping the cameras rolling!

 

He had hold back Ned Beatty, who was playing the chaplain and was shouting, “You son of a bitch! You son of a bitch!” as he tried to get to Sheen to render aid.

 

It was while this was going on that Lamont panned the faces of the actors on the firing squad, actors who thought they had just killed Marty Sheen.

 

It’s one of the great moments in film history, but it came at considerable cost.

 

Directors do what must be done to get what they want.

 

I, who have never directed, am guilty as well.

 

Some of you may know singing sensation Jenny Stewart.

 

She started not as a singer but as an actress and was cast as a featured player in a telefilm I wrote.

 

It was called Talk To Me, and it was the story of a television producer, an idealistic young woman who thinks she can bring talk show back from the sleazy exercises they’ve become, back to what they were in the days of Phil Donohue.

 

She mounts a show in which her guest is a drug-addicted prostitute played by Jenny Lewis, and the producer’s biggest job is trying to keep the lost young woman clean for her appearance on the show.

 

Unfortunately, Jenny’s character backslides, starts using again, and manages to get herself arrested, so our producer has to go the local jail to see if she can somehow bail her out.

 

There is a confrontation between them in the jail interview room.

 

Jenny’s character, in agonizing withdrawal from a heroin high, begs the producer to get her out of jail.

 

It’s an emotionally shattering scene, and Jenny, a fine actress who is sometimes very slow to find her performance, just isn’t getting it.

 

I’m sitting next to the line producer as the director does take after take to no avail. I whisper to the producer that he’s got to do something. What? he asks. What can he possibly do?

 

I tell him the story of how Lamont got that amazing performance from the actors on the firing squad in Slovak. The director’s got to manipulate Jenny in the same heartless way, and if he won’t do it, the producer’s going to have to do it for him.

 

Take six.

 

Jenny still isn’t there.

 

The producer hangs fire.

 

Increasingly desperate—after all, this is the big emotional moment of the film, I tell him about the scene in Stunt Man in which Peter O’Toole coldly humiliates Barbara Hershey to get the performance he needs.

 

You’ve got to shame her, I tell him. Make her angry.

 

Take nine.

 

She still isn’t there.

 

Take ten.

 

We still haven’t got what we need.

 

The director tells the crew, “All right, let’s move on.”

 

And the producer, to his everlasting credit, shouts out, “No, goddammit! We’re going to do it until she gets it right!”

 

Take eleven.

 

Jenny, weeping with humiliation and rage, is electrifying, taking the scene beyond anything I had imagined.

 

It’s possibly the worst thing I’ve ever done to another human being, but the result is the highlight of a dazzling performance—one that should, in a just world, have earned this talented young woman an Emmy.

 

I did what needed to be done.

 

Postscript: Those of you interested in the full, behind-the-scenes story of Talk To Me might want to peruse Chapter 91-100 of Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody.

 

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“BUT WHAT I REALLY WANT TO DO IS DIRECT”

February 13th, 2015 4 Comments

images Scratch anyone who works in Hollywood, and what will you find inside?

 

Nothing, you answer.

 

Well, that’s not really fair.

 

In many cases, you’ll find ruthless ambition.  In others, unbridled arrogance.  In still others, an ego of monumental proportions.

 

It varies from individual to individual.

 

But the one thing you’ll almost always find is a desire to direct.

 

Interview a star, a big-time producer, a hot screenwriter, or even the craft services person who serves coffee on the set, and at some point you’ll hear that familiar refrain: “But what I really want to do is direct.”

 

I myself have been guilty of a single-minded pursuit of that ever elusive goal—foiled in one instance, by food poisoning; in another, by an earthquake; in yet another, by the sudden rise of reality tv.

 

What, you ask, is the appeal?

 

Why does everyone is Hollywood want to direct?

 

The best answer is to be found in an overlooked masterpiece of filmmaking known as The Stuntman.

 

It’s the story of a Vietnam vet on the run from the law, who takes refuge with a film company shooting a World War I melodrama. Forced to replace a stuntman whose death he inadvertently caused, he risks his life again and again in a series of impossible stunts for director Eli Cross.

 

It’s an existential comedy which portrays man as utterly alienated, life as a chase with death nipping at your heels, and the world as a trap where nothing is what it seems, no one is what he appears to be, and free will is an illusion—a world presided over by a jokester god who takes great pleasure in manipulating his creations.

 

That god, of course, is the director—Eli Cross played by Peter O’Toole in a performance that equals his Lawrence of Arabia, a performance he claimed he modeled upon David Lean.

 

Eli is omnipresent.

 

He lurks in darkened hallways, descends and ascends in his helicopter, swoops down out of nowhere in the bucket of his camera crane.

 

He is also omniscient.

 

Nothing escapes him. Whatever his actors think or say or plan or do, he knows.

 

And he is omnipotent.

 

When, at the end, the stuntman decides to defy Eli and take charge of his own life, Eli manipulates him into doing precisely what Eli wants.

 

No one, not even a studio executive, can challenge him. If the suits try to cut his picture, “I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them and eat them. I hate to waste anything.”

 

Eli is God.

 

No, he’s bigger than God.

 

As he himself so eloquently puts it, “If God could do the tricks we can do, he’d be a happy man.”

 

So there you have it.

 

The director as God.

 

Is it any wonder that most Hollywood types want to direct?

 

But, you insist, Eli Cross isn’t real.

 

He’s a fictional character.

 

All right, you want real, I’ll give you real.

 

A friend of mine is a writer for a major Hollywood journal. He recently did a profile of one the biggest, most successful, most acclaimed directors in town.

 

The day after the profile was published, he received a six-page, single-spaced typewritten letter from the director listing the changes he wanted the writer to make…in this article that had already been published!

 

Directors are control freaks, and they try to exercise the same control in their daily lives that they do on the set.

 

It often doesn’t work out.

 

I wonder.

 

Do you suppose that this urge to control had anything to do with the fact that David Lean, who was—you’ll remember—the model for Eli Cross, was married six times?

 

I just picked up Lean’s monumental biography.

 

Well, actually, I couldn’t pick it up.

 

It’s too heavy.

 

Requires a forklift to move it around and a steel easel to hold it.

 

When (if?) I finish it, I’ll let you know the answer to the question I raised.

 

In the meantime, trust me, directors are people who want to be in control, and if you’re not one of those people…

 

FUHGEDDABOUDIT!

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CRITICALLY SPEAKING

February 6th, 2015 4 Comments

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We’ve all heard the old saw.

 

“Those who can’t, criticize.”

 

But I doubt any of us have heard it expressed so eloquently or so passionately as it is in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman.

 

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a movie star fallen on hard times after walking away from the leading role in a superhero franchise, is risking everything that he has, everything that he is, to mount a comeback—to prove himself and his talent on the boards of Broadway.

 

It’s not going well.

 

In fact, everything is threatening to fall apart.

 

With catastrophe looming, he takes refuge in a bar off the Great White Way, drinks himself silly, and ends up in a confrontation with powerful, arrogant New York Times theatre critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan).

 

Tabitha tells him she’s going to destroy him and his play, which she has yet to see.

 

Why?

 

Because she resents Hollywood celebrities like him— untrained, unversed, unprepared—filling Broadway’s precious theatre space with nothing but their egos.

 

Riggan turns fire-breathing dragon.

 

In fact, he’s so drunk you probably could light his breath, but the booze has freed him of all restraint.

 

Whatever happens, he asks her contemptuously…whatever happens in a person’s life to make them become a critic?

 

She offers theatregoers nothing but labels, no real analysis, just adjectives and bitchery. None of it costs her anything, he insists.

 

He, as an actor, risks everything for his art.

 

She, as a critic, risks nothing, creates nothing.

 

And I silently shout, “YES!”

 

It’s a bit like All About Eve’s Margo Channing giving Addison DeWitt the shellacking he so richly deserves, or Ratatouille’s Remy dressing down the despicable Anton Ego.

 

It’s a brilliant actor giving voice to the frustration of all the talented performers, writers, artists, composers, choreographers—all the creative souls—who have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous, self-aggrandizing critics.

 

I burst into spontaneous applause, much to the annoyance of my fellow filmgoers.

 

And then…

 

…I remember my own complaints about Hollywood’s invasion of Broadway, and I recall that famous line from Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

 

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

 

I myself, I reluctantly admit, have been guilty of writing film and literary criticism of late.

 

I wish I could offer some excuse.

 

Well, actually, I can.

 

It’s very simple.

 

I couldn’t help myself.

 

I’d see or read something that inspired infatuation or loathing and feel compelled to write about it.

 

Hmmm.

 

I wonder.

 

Is it possible that I need to rethink my position on critics?

 

After all…

 

…if I’m one of them…

 

Perhaps I should start this piece over.

 

Begin again and remind the reader that Riggan Thompson is a Hollywood interloper and Tabitha Dickinson is right to despise him–that Birdman to the contrary, there are, in fact, some good critics.

 

There have even been a few great ones.

 

Take, for example, the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.

 

For decades (decades in which we still considered movies art as well as commerce), she served as the film community’s conscience.

 

We read her loyally, sometimes cheering her, sometimes hissing, but always provoked to serious thought about the medium she (and we) loved.

 

Love, in fact, was the key.

 

Everything she wrote—good, bad or indifferent—brilliant, misguided or outrageous—arose from her abiding love of cinema.

 

It was her review of Bonnie and Clyde, which many of her fellows had dismissed as a shameless exercise in unprecedented violence, that turned the critical tide in favor of the film and helped Warren Beatty talk Jack Warner into re-releasing this masterwork.

 

Or to offer a more personal example…

 

My friend and mentor, Lamont Johnson, directed a wonderful feature called The Last American Hero but quarreled with the then head of distribution at Fox, who recut the film and dumped it on the drive-in theatre circuit.

 

Kael, who loved it even in its butchered form, summoned Lamont to her New York apartment, and when she opened the door to his knock, the first words out of her mouth were “You, my friend, are being fucked!” She became a fierce advocate of both Hero and Lamont.

 

Even when she was wrong (and she often was—she hated Hitchcock and Fellini among many, many others), the opinions she offered us were part of her lover’s quarrel with the world of cinema.

 

It was not an accident that the title of her best-known book was I Lost It at the Movies.

 

She lost her heart to the movies, and it was an affair to remember, filled with dizzying highs and depressing lows, impetuous quarrels and passion-filled nights.

 

Her kind shall not pass this way again.

 

But there are those of us who share her motives if not her skills.

 

So…

 

…if I should venture to criticize a movie or a book as I have occasionally done over the course of the last few months, be assured that it comes from my own love of the medium, be it literature or be it film.

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“AND THE WINNER IS…”

January 28th, 2015 5 Comments

 

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Some years ago, I was sitting in the orchestra section of the Wiltern Theatre, pretending to ignore the barrel of the video camera aimed straight at my head.

 

The occasion?

 

The Cable Ace Awards.

 

The reason for my presence?

 

An HBO film called The Last Innocent Man.

 

It had received multiple nominations from the Cable Academy back in the days when cable programming was not yet eligible for Emmy consideration: Best Movie or Mini-Series, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Art Design, and best of all…

 

…Best Writer.

 

Me!

 

So there I was…in heady company: Sammy Davis, Jr., Raymond Burr, Ted Turner, Billy Crystal, Hal Holbrooke, Larry King, Bernadette Peters, Rod Steiger, and many, many others.

 

I was there, and I was ready.

 

Speech rehearsed and memorized.

 

Looking relaxed but ready to spring up and bound to the stage.

 

The writing nominees are announced.

 

A pause for the opening of the envelope.

 

The camera moves in close on me.

 

And the winner is…

 

Ted Whitehead for The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

 

Ted Whitehead?

 

For The Life and Loves of a She-Devil?

 

I’d obviously been robbed!

 

I erupted in silent indignation.

 

Did I consider the possibility that I hadn’t deserved the award?

 

Are you kidding me?

 

No, I was clearly the victim of shocking bias on the part of the Cable Academy.

 

They obviously had something against the small but significant minority I represent: former DePauw University Professors of English born in Pomona, California.

 

How did I know?

 

Not a single one of us had ever won an ACE Award!

 

I suffered similar disappointment some eight or ten years later when my NBC film, A Friend To Die For, was overlooked in the Emmy nominations.

 

It had received fabulous reviews.

 

It had attracted the largest television audience of any MOW aired that year.

 

And it had gone totally unrecognized by the members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences!

 

Oh, it had starred Tori Spelling, and the producer had refused to spend a dime promoting it during the awards season.

 

But what difference could that have made?

 

Once again, I’d been robbed!

 

Not only had my film been overlooked, but my heartbreaking work of staggering genius as “The Jogger” had also been ignored.

 

I’d opened and closed my movie in a silent turn so dazzling that every actor who undertakes such a role in the future will, I am sure, have to measure his performance against mine.

 

Never has an extra contributed so much to a motion picture and received so little in the way of recognition!

 

The Television Academy was obviously as biased as the Cable Academy.

 

If you looked at the record, there was only one conclusion possible: former DePauw University Professors of English from Pomona, California simply didn’t stand a chance.

 

Twice the victim of Hollywood’s institutionalized bias against me and my kind, I understand Al Sharpton’s fury at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s failure to nominate the star and the director of Selma in this year’s competition.

 

The only possible explanation for such oversights is, of course, unrepentant racism.

 

Never mind that the President of the Academy is Cheryl Boone Isaacs, a charming, talented black woman I had the pleasure to know back in my day at Paramount.

 

Never mind that last year, 12 Years a Slave received nine nominations from the racially biased Academy members and won Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Supporting Actress.

 

Never mind that Paramount, the American distributor of Selma, failed to get the screener DVD’s out to the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild in time to qualify for their awards.

 

Never mind that the film’s portrait of Lyndon Johnson has been challenged by distinguished historians and by actual participants in the events leading up to Selma and to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

 

Never mind that Jake Gyllenhaal, who gave the performance of a lifetime in Nightcrawler, and that Amy Adams, whose portrayal of Margaret Keane in Big Eyes won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, were overlooked as well.

 

As for those who have made the preposterous suggestion that perhaps the members of the Academy simply didn’t feel director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo deserved nomination…well, that’s simply beneath contempt.

 

Then, of course, there are those who ask how the membership of the Academy could be racist in light of the fact that they did nominate Selma in the Best Picture category even though they overlooked the director and star.

 

Duh-huh!

 

Clearly nothing more than the Academy’s shameless attempt to cover-up its appalling bigotry.

 

No, Al Sharpton is right to call an emergency meeting of his Task Force on Diversity to consider action against the racist Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

 

As the victim of obvious bias from both the Cable Academy and the Television Academy, I say to him, I share your pain.

 

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FROM RITUAL TO ROMANCE: A WRITER’S WORKOUT

January 21st, 2015 1 Comment

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Years ago, I was on the faculty of an innovative school with a fellow by the name of Sam Kean.

 

A mainstay of Esalen, a touchy-feely type who was in many ways the incarnation of the sixties, Sam had written a book called To a Dancing God.

 

His thesis was that Apollo, the god of order and reason, had become too powerful in our society—a repressive tyrant—and that the time had come to overthrow him and put Dionysus, the god of spontaneity and creative disorder in his place.

 

I’ve always wished I could do that, but to be honest, the only place I’ve ever succeeded is on the page.

 

I once wrote a screenplay for Disney called Blood Money. The premise was simple. A tough, by-the-book FBI agent—the first female Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle office—is forced to recruit the services of a drunken ex-cop who quit the force because he hated the goddam rules.

 

She’s a feminist with a broomstick up her ass, and he’s an outrageous sexist. In fact, she first meets him when he’s playing tittywinks, using an opulently endowed barmaid’s cleavage as the cup.

 

These two characters are Sam’s Apollo and Dionysus, left-brain order and right-brain chaos, the outer me and the inner me.

 

When I begin a project, Apollo has the upper hand.

 

My first step is exhaustive, obsessive research—initially in libraries and on the internet and eventually on the scene of the story.

 

Take the example of Juggernaut, the sci-fi epic I wrote for director John McTiernan. The story of an alien machine invading the earth, it required weeks of study in the bowels of the UCLA library, where I read everything I could about NASA’s plans to send probes to other worlds and about the organic machines they planned to use to accomplish the task.

 

This led me to late-night sessions at Jet Propulsion Labs, where some of the world’s most accomplished scientists helped me work out the physics and the chemistry of my story.

 

Then it was off to the Central Plains of Montana.

 

Why?

 

Both John and I loved the notion of this highly sophisticated machine from the future landing in a remote part of a state where most of the residents still had one foot in the nineteenth century. We wanted to place the responsibility for stopping this technological marvel squarely on the shoulders of a small-town sheriff more comfortable on his horse than behind the wheel of his patrol car.

 

So…two weeks on patrol with a back-country deputy sheriff, questioning him relentlessly about his job, the scattered communities he served, the world in which he lived and worked—observing him and his friends, the way they talked, the way they dressed, the way they moved.

 

Then back to my study in Studio City, where my left brain continued to work away, preparing outlines, character sketches, notes.

 

Only when I felt I had completely immersed myself in the two worlds of my story…

 

Only when I was convinced that I’d learned everything I could about my characters and the place that produced them…

 

Only then could I let go.

 

I turned my back on Apollo and fell down in worship of Dionysus, giving my left brain a well-deserved rest and placing the burden of creation on the right.

 

How did I achieve this?

 

I isolated myself on the small power cruiser we kept at Channel Islands Harbor.

 

Allowing myself conjugal visitation only on the weekends, I locked myself up, saw no one, and walked the empty beach, waiting for my characters to start talking to me.

 

I’d get up at 5:30 in the morning, jog, shower, and after a quick breakfast fortified by a few quarts of coffee, go to work.

 

Work consisted of reviewing the basics of the scene I hoped to write that day, grabbing my pocket recorder, and heading to the beach where the white noise of the breaking waves let me slip away to the world of my story and encouraged my characters to speak.

 

I always felt that I myself had little to do with it. I was simply observing these people as they lived out their lives, making a record of what they said and did.

 

Once I had a scene on tape, I’d return to the boat and transcribe my characters words and action onto yellow legal pads, revising as I went, amused to find that when I was voicing the female players, I sounded a bit like Norman Bates voicing his mother.

 

I’d ordinarily do two or three scenes this way, and then, at the end of the day, I’d transfer the material on the legal pads to my computer, once again revising as I went.

 

A simple dinner, a book or a movie in the same vein as my current project, and early to bed before beginning the process all over again the next morning.

 

And when I finally finished and returned to Studio City, I would collapse, physically and mentally spent, afflicted with what felt like terminal cold or flu, abandoned by both Dionysus and Apollo, neither right brain nor left capable of functioning.

 

Do all writers work this way?

 

No, certainly not.

 

I am, I suspect, more controlling than most.

 

I give Apollo more than his due.

 

Most, I’m sure, are more like Jameson Parker, possibly the finest writer I’m privileged to know. Oh, he does his homework, but he often begins a story with nothing more than a character and a situation, and has no idea where his tale will take him.

 

Very different from Yours Truly who often knows the end of his story before he figures out the beginning.

 

Every writer develops his or her own “daily ritual,” but most of these rituals have elements in common: a rigid routine, isolation from the everyday world, a stimulant to stave off exhaustion.

 

And the objectives of these rituals are always the same…

 

To overcome the fear of the blank page.

 

To dwell in a world elsewhere—a world where the writer can observe his characters acting out their lives.

 

To meet the overwhelming mental and physical demands of the job of creation, a job that requires the blessings of both the tyrant Apollo and the dancer Dionysus.

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DAILY RITUALS

January 14th, 2015 6 Comments

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

 

…I had respect, job security, and a title—Associate Professor of English!

 

I spent my days reading and discussing great literary works like Moby-Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Sound and the Fury, and The Grapes of Wrath.

 

Then I came to Hollywood.

 

Respect went out the window.

 

I was now a reader—a nameless drone in the hive of Universal Studios.

 

As for job security, that too was gone.

 

In fact, I spent three months unemployed before the Story Analysts Guild allowed me to accept the job that had inspired me to resign my academic post.

 

And my title?

 

Well, let’s just say that “reader” doesn’t inspire the same kind of awe as “ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR.”

 

Frankly, none of this mattered.

 

I was inside!

 

I was where I’d dreamed of being all my life.

 

In my film fanatic’s mind, I had just entered the Kingdom of Heaven,  and I was eager to try my wings.

 

I must admit, however, that I was somewhat daunted when I received my first assignment—a pile of Judy Blume books topped by Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

 

It was, of course, a test.

 

The Story Editor, who had taken a chance hiring me, wanted to start me off with something I couldn’t screw up: the Blume books were born to be “Afterschool Specials” but had no chance whatsoever of making it to the big screen.

 

I passed the test and worked my way up to more serious projects like The Lords of Discipline and Sophie’s Choice, but I’ve always remembered the humbling experience of my descent from Joseph Conrad to Judy Blume.

 

So when I came upon Chelsea Handler’s Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, I was an instant fan.

 

Funny as she is, Chelsea is clearly a woman to be taken seriously, and when I later stumbled upon a Handler interview in which she recommended a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, I had to have it.

 

The book, by Mason Curry, is an account of the working habits of well-known creative talents—writers, artists, composers and the like.

 

It is filled with fascinating anecdotes.

 

Thomas Wolfe fondled his “male configurations” to spur creativity. (No surprise to this reader who has always considered Wolfe’s shameless indulgence in the purplest of prose a form of verbal masturbation.)

 

Proust, who remembered things past while snugly ensconced in his sheets, had many bedfellows—from Edith Stiwell, who was rumored to find inspiration by lying in an open coffin, to Truman Capote, who described himself as a “completely horizontal writer.”

 

W.H. Auden began his day with Benzadrine and ended it with Seconal. Edward Abbey started with uppers and finished with downers.

 

Alcohol was, of course, the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald and, one suspects, for his rivals Hemingway and Faulkner, though both claimed to write sober and drink only in the interval.

 

But by far the most popular drug of choice, it seems, is coffee. For Beethoven, it was precisely sixty beans per cup. For Balzac, fifty cups per day. For David Lynch, a mere six or seven…augmented by heaps of sugar and a chocolate shake.

 

What conclusions can one draw from a reading of Daily Rituals?

 

First and foremost, creative types are eccentrics.

 

They swim outside the mainstream. They are not “normal,” and it is, perhaps, their status as outsiders that inspires them to re-examine cherished beliefs, to question the norm, to look at life from unique perspectives.

 

Second, the vast majority of them adhere to strict routine, to disciplined scheduling of their working lives, and they rely upon some sort of external stimulus to get them through their working day.

 

Why?

 

The creation of anything—a novel, a play, a sculpture, a dance—is hard, physically as well as mentally demanding. Phillip Roth describes it as “a nightmare.” William Styron, as “hell.”

 

So it is that writers go to astonishing lengths to find reasons not to write.

 

The most common solution?

 

Write every day. Write at the same time every day. Write the same number of words every day. And make sure the coffee pot is always full.

 

The third and final conclusion to be drawn from Daily Rituals is that most creative types are loners…at least, while they are involved in the impossible task of creation.

 

They, like Greta Garbo, want to be alone.

 

They achieve this goal by retreating to a place apart.

 

For Robinson Jeffers, it was the remote California coast, Tor House and his “tower beyond tragedy.”

 

For others, it is something as simple as a bedroom, a study, a cabin…with a “DO NOT DISTURB” sign posted outside.

 

Or a swim in the sea.

 

Or a walk in an isolated wood.

 

Writers and other artists want to be alone…alone in the world of their creation, alone with the characters and the images they are creating, undisturbed by the noisy world that constantly threatens to intrude and send their castles in the sky crumbling down to earth.

 

All of these things are, I suspect, true not just of the greats examined in Daily Rituals, but of lesser talents like Judy Blume and Chelsea Handler.

 

I know they are true of me, and while my achievements as a writer are modest at best, I’m convinced that there may be value in an account of my own daily rituals, which will be the subject of my next diatribe.

 

 

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HEMINGWAY: A DISSENTING REPORT

September 24th, 2014 2 Comments

Ernest Hemingway is the Neil Simon of literary novelists.

 

There.

 

I’ve said it, and I’m glad.

 

Well, I may be overstating my case a bit.

 

I have to admit that he did, in fact, change the face of American literature.

 

Taking his cue from Chekhov and Sherwood Anderson, he tossed plot out the window and gave the readers of his stories slices of life in place of conventional narrative.

 

Inspired by his work as journalist, he stripped language bare, cutting away adjectives, adverbs and other modifiers, leaving his readers only the bare bones, or as he himself put it, “the thing itself.”

 

Following the wise advice of that old fool Polonius, he used “indirection to find direction out,” suggesting or implying meanings that he never stated, his words nothing more than the tip of an iceberg with four-fifths of its substance lying beneath the surface.

 

Without Hemingway, there would have been no such thing as a New Yorker story, no Raymond Carver, no. . .well, you get the picture.

Consider “Hill like White Elephants.”

 

No more than four or five pages in length, it is an objective account of an American couple having a beer at a train stop in Spain.   A slice of life without any plot.

 

The style is as bare and unadorned as the hills that give the story its title: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.”

 

The unnamed man and woman are having a conversation that begins with her observation that hills look like white elephants, but it quickly descends into conflict, bitterness, and irony. And although Hemingway never explains their situation, never uses the word “abortion,” it’s clear that she is pregnant and wants to have the baby growing inside her, while he finds the idea of a child and the responsibility it entails abhorrent, as abhorrent as she finds the notion of aborting it.

 

They have gotten off one train and are about to board another. The romance of their relationship is ending. Ahead…nothing but pain and recrimination.

 

And there is, of course, that wonderful dialogue in which the characters appear to be saying one thing but are, in fact, saying quite another. When the man tells the woman he’s never seen a white elephant, she replies, “No, you wouldn’t have.” And in those words, you have a capsule characterization of the man, and you know exactly where their relationship stands at this moment.

 

Then there’s the moment when she decides she’d like to try Anis del Toro, a drink she’s never had before. After a sip, she observes that it tastes of licorice: “Everything tastes of licorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.”   She, of course, is talking not about drinks but about their relationship and what it’s come to.

 

That is the glory of Hemingway dialogue: its indirection.

 

Why, then, is his dialogue so often and so easily subject to parody?

 

Why are there so many “Bad Hemingway” contests around the world even today, more than half a century after his death?

 

Because it is so mannered.

 

And because every Hemingway character sounds like every other Hemingway character.

 

I discovered, during my story analyst and story editor days when I read literally thousands of screenplays, that the best screenwriters, like Hemingway, make their dialogue indirect…but that they, unlike Hemingway, give each character a distinctive voice.

 

No two characters should sound alike. Each should have a voice that reflects their background, their experience, their values. With the best dialogue, a reader needs no character labels to know who is talking: he can hear the character’s identity in his speech.

 

This is where Hemingway’s dialogue comes up short. All of his characters sound the same. In A Moveable Feast, even Scott Fitzgerald ends up sounding like a Hemingway character when he consults his friend Ernest about the size of his penis. Hemingway tells him he could have consulted a doctor, and Fitzgerald supposedly says, “I didn’t want to. I wanted you to tell me truly.”

 

And that is why I see Hemingway as the Neil Simon of literary novelists. Yes, Neil Simon’s plays are fun and funny. Every character is witty. Every character makes us laugh. And every line of their dialogue is interchangeable. With perhaps the single exception of The Odd Couple, his plays are filled with characters who sound exactly like one other.

 

And so are the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway.

 

 

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING ERNEST

September 16th, 2014 6 Comments

At the age of seventeen, I—not unlike the patients in the brilliant Robin Williams/Robert De Niro film—experienced an awakening.  It was an awakening to the wonders of literary fiction, an awakening brought about by my reading of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.

 

I read it, and then I read about it…in a book by someone named Carlos Baker, a book called Hemingway:  The Writer as Artist.  This led to more Hemingway, to Steinbeck, to Fitzgerald, to Faulkner, and eventually to graduate work at Princeton University, where one of my teachers was none other than…Carlos Baker!

 

Charlie Scribner, one of Baker’s classmates when he himself had been a student at Princeton, had recently invited Carlos to write the official biography of Hemingway, and Carlos, in his turn, had invited me and three or four other graduate students to join him in his researches—in a course called “Hemingway Biography.”

 

I couldn’t believe my great good luck.  First hand contact with the raw materials of the life of America’s great sportsman/adventurer/writer—the man, perhaps more than any other, I’d liked to have been!

 

It began well.  Carlos handed each of us one of the scrapbooks that Ernest’s mother Grace Hemingway had prepared to chronicle the early life of her son—photos, letters, souvenirs.  Our assignment?  To write a chapter of the biography based upon the materials preserved in each scrapbook.

 

I was beyond excited…and nervous as could be.  I told no one, not my closest friend, that I had in my possession one of these priceless artifacts—in my mind, as precious as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

 

It was the first of many assignments and led to extensive work with letters to and from Hemingway, transcribed interviews, and much, much more.

 

It was also the beginning of the end of my infatuation with the man and the myth he had created about himself.

 

I learned that he was dreadful, destructive, a devil of a human being.

 

The first evidence turned up in a letter he’d written to a friend named Ernest Walsh.  Walsh was the editor one of those little magazines that flourished in Paris in the twenties and had been, as I recall, the first to publish anything Hemingway had written.

 

In other words, he’d made the mistake of trying to help Hemingway, and Hemingway was determined to punish him for it.  Why?  To show that he, hard-boiled, hairy-chested Ernest Hemingway had made it on his own.

 

Walsh was dying of tuberculosis and knew it.  Hemingway knew it too.

 

The letter in question begins this way:  “Dear Ernest…Isn’t life wonderful?  I want to live to be a hundred, don’t you?”

 

This became the pattern of the writer’s life.  He would go after anyone who helped him, anyone who befriended him, anyone whose literary reputation threatened to rival his own.

 

There was, of course, Scott Fitzgerald, who helped him edit The Sun Also Rises into the ground-breaking work it became, who recommended him to his own editor Max Perkins and thereby secured him a deal with Scribners, the deal that led to his meteoric career.

 

His public attacks on Fitzgerald began in the magazine version of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” where the dying writer/protagonist is meditating on the rich:  “He remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The rich are different from you and me.’  And how some one had said to Scott, Yes, they have more money.  But that was not humorous to Scott.  He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other things that wrecked him.”

 

Hemingway continued his attack on his former friend long after Fitzgerald’s death, in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his days in Paris.  The chapter in question, “A Matter of Measurements,” purports to be a account of Fitzgerald’s sexual anxieties.  If true, it is beneath contempt—a shocking, inexcusable betrayal of a confidence.  If false, it is nothing short of libelous.

 

And so it went.  John Dos Passos, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein, and many, many others.

 

His destructive behavior was not, however, directed solely at other writers.  He was non-discriminatory.  In fact, he saved many of his best shots for members of his own family, inviting a teenaged prostitute whose services he enjoyed to meet his fourth wife Mary at the Finca in Cuba, bringing his African mistress into the tent he shared with Mary during one of his safaris to the then Dark Continent, or telling the youngest and most troubled of his three sons that the boy was responsible for the death of his own mother.

 

In Hemingway’s best work, the most important human value is emotional discipline—the ability to maintain a tight, if tiny, island of order in the midst of the meaningless chaos of life.

 

He called it “grace under pressure.”  But he himself was utterly incapable of it.

 

My point?

 

Never confuse the art and the artist.

 

For me, it’s been a lesson hard learned, for like Holden Caufield, if a book knocks me out, I wish its author were a terrific friend of mine and that I could call him up on the phone whenever I felt like it.

 

Don’t do it!

 

 

AN AFTERWARD:  Some of you may be wondering what this post about a literary figure is doing on a website devoted to movies.  My defense?  Art of all kinds and artists of every sort share many things in common.  Observations about literature or painting or music often apply to the other arts as well, especially in the case of film, which is an amalgam of all the arts. 

 

So…get used to these tangents.

 

And be prepared for another diatribe against Hemingway, this one to do with the dialogue for which he is famous, dialogue that has influenced not just subsequent writers of fiction but screenwriters as well. 

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