Monday, August 13, 2007

Pulling Away the Curtain to Reveal the Little Man Behind the Movie Screen

Honest, uncensored accounts of the movie making process are rare. Ones marketed as non-fiction are rarer still. Since Tinseltown's formation some 100 years ago, there have only been a handful of instances where journalists have been allowed unfettered access to every aspect of a film's production (from the creation of the script through the first few weeks following its release; where they were allowed to travel among the cast and crew, taking notes as well as names while documenting the egos, the insecurities, the heartbreaks, the stupidity, the well-meaning disasters and the kaleidoscopic shifting of false blame and unearned claims of credit being made). Among these, two reign supreme: Picture, by Lillian Ross, and The Devil's Candy by Julie Salamon. Reprinted below are reviews of both, written by two of the Hollywood's own -- one a well-known screenwriter and novelist, the other an uncredited scribe for Entertainment Weekly magazine.

November 23, 1952
What Makes Hollywood Run?
By Budd Schulberg

By Lillian Ross.

Miss Ross has anatomized Hollywood," S. N. Behrman has said of "Picture," describing it as "the first blow-by-blow account of what really goes on" and "the funniest tragedy I have ever read."

It is a book with many morals. Perhaps the first and most obvious is that, if you value your privacy, if you do not want to be caught with your clich├ęs down or your pretensions showing, Miss Ross is not the lady to ask into your home. She has explored Hollywood with a camera eye and a microphonic ear. The result is "Picture," which is hardly the "impartial" and "tactful" treatment of Hollywood Miss Ross' publishers claim. (The quality of Miss Ross' impartiality and tact already are well known to The New Yorker's readers of her gentle profile of Ernest Hemingway in 1950.)

I find myself reviewing "Picture" in double vision because in a sense I have already reviewed it: when it appeared in a number (too large a number, it seemed to me then) of New Yorker installments, I reviewed it for my wife and children and friends and anybody else within earshot. Maybe it was what David O. Selnick once described as my "producer's blood" that reacted, but whatever the nature of that fluid it was boiling all the same. I knew it was not good for my soul to fall in with the Hollywood powers, but I found myself echoing their cries of anguish and protest. (In Hollywood a certain trade journalist, with the tolerance for which he is known, closed his column with: "I leave you with two dirty words--Lillian Ross.")

Now that I have read the articles in book form, I find myself wondering whether Hollywood hasn't once more gone off the deep end, an acrobatic feat my home town has perfected through years of practice.

For "Picture" presents Hollywood's more heroic attitudes as well as its more foolish and familiar ones. Never blind to Hollywood's persistent creative effort, it is sharply observant of the business mechanism that blunts the points of some of the industry's sharper talents. It plays back with an unfailing ear some of the wise things that are said in that keyed-up, pent-up industrial town, as well as the wise-cracking, the bathetic and banal.

It was either a lucky or an ingenuous choice that led Miss Ross to "The Red Badge of Courage" as the picture to follow step-by-step from the first ritualistic rumors of High Priestesses Parsons and Hopper to the New York reviews and the box-office returns two years later. The "Red Badge" was the ideal hook on which to hang a study of the classic conflict between serious artistic effort (well, fairly serious and the cold, economic logic of box-office, stockholders and the hierarchy of Loew's, Inc. John Ford knew this conflict when he took a risk with "The Informer" and "The Long Voyage Home," and did his obeisance with "Wee Willie Winkie" and "What Price Glory." For years King Vidor balanced such artistic successes but commercial flops such as "The Crowd" and "Our Daily Bread" with less ambitious box-office winners. Hollywood is not always a Garden of Eden where writers and directors sit by their pools and dream of bigger salaries and bigger pools. A surprising, and largely frustrated, number of them dream of better pictures. For all their insecurity, their compromising, their posturing, these choose--occasionally--to face into the riptide of public opinion and high finance.

John Huston, the director of "Red Badge," and Gottfried Reinhardt, his producer, may remind you of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in modern dress, this time in Hollywood slacks and English tweeds. They are ludicrous, devoted, ingenious, ennobled, funny when they are being serious and somehow impressive even when Miss Ross catches them (and oh how she loves to catch them!) saying "I always wanted to direct a picture on horseback," or "The titles are just marvelous. . . . Piccolos under your name, strings under mine. You will go out of your mind."

Quotations. Like Durante, Miss Ross has a million of 'em. Only Jimmy is more human. Just the same, Miss Ross makes good her threat to learn something about the American motion picture industry. And her eavesdropping with a vengeance begins to take on the meaning and unity of a novel. Dore Schary, the new tycoon who is for the picture, wins out over L. B. Mayer, the erstwhile or last tycoon who does everything in his power (which is legendary until he is eased out of the studio he founded) to keep the "Red Badge" from being made. "You don't want to make money, you want to be an artist," Mayer accuses Reinhardt. Mayer, like his satellite Arthur Freed, believes in clean, cheerful, romantic, American entertainment. Schary does too, of course, but he's willing to take more chances on off-beat stuff like Huston's and Reinhardt's "Red Badge." Schary stands by the picture in his fashion, trimming it, simplifying it and removing some of the scenes that made teenagers laugh and that Huston and Reinhardt had considered their best.

When it's all over, the picture gets respectful reviews, but not what Huston and Reinhardt had hoped for when they first shared a dream of "a great artistic picture that would also make money." "Red Badge" opens in New York in a small theater to poor business. The Academy Award for that year is won by "An American in Paris," produced by Arthur Freed, the man more interested in making money than making art. And who has the last word? Miss Ross has chosen her Greek Chorus shrewdly. Not John Huston nor Gottfried nor Dore Schary nor even L. B. Mayer sits in final judgment. It is Nick Schenck, who runs M.G.M. from his office in New York as head of Loew's, Inc.

"Now, three thousand miles from Hollywood * * * I began to feel I was getting closer than I ever had before to the heart of the matter," writes Miss Ross. "I felt that somewhere in the offices upstairs I might find the few decisive pieces that are missing."

So finally, upstairs she finds Schenck. And this Caliph of Caliphs says, "I supported Dore. I let him make the picture. I knew that the best way to help him was to let him make a mistake. Now he will know better. A young man has to learn by making mistakes. I don't think he'll want to make a picture like that again."

Nick Schenck is wrong, of course. For all his wisdom, there is a restless, stubborn creative streak in a John Huston, in a Gottfried Reinhardt, even in a Dore Schary brought-to-heel, that will make him say again what Huston says to Lillian Ross as this book opens: "They don't want me to make this picture. And I want to make this picture."

Play Dough
Entertainment Weekly Magazine (writer Hollywood!)

The Devil's Candy: The Bonfire Of The Vanities Goes To Hollywood
By Julie Salamon

Some books arrive with a buzz. The Devil's Candy, Julie Salamon's exquisitely detailed account of the making of the movie The Bonfire of the Vanities, is such a book. Weeks before it landed in stores, le tout Hollywood had already read it and was talking about it. Bernard Weinraub, the New York Times' new entertainment reporter, had plugged it with abandon. Variety, knowing where its bread is buttered, had taken a preemptive swipe at it. In Hollywood, what everyone seems to be asking is: Why did director Brian De Palma allow someone like Salamon-a bona fide journalist from The Wall Street Journal, not some easily controlled hack-to roam free on his movie set? How could he have been so stupid? We non-Hollywood types, however, are likely to have a different reaction-one of gratitude to De Palma, who, as Salamon puts it in her acknowledgments, ''opened the door, without condition, and then never flinched.'' The question of why good people make bad movies has never been answered more persuasively than in this book. It's a question worth asking because, as a general rule, movies have become increasingly banal as they've become more expensive to make. Bonfire cost more than $40 million, and with so much on the line, the instinct is to play it safe. Bad decisions are the inevitable result. Hence, the role of the judge-a Jew in Tom Wolfe's best-selling novel- is given to Morgan Freeman because, according to studio executives, a black actor could offer some ''likability, empathy, racial balance.'' Bruce Willis is cast not because he fits the role of down-and-out journalist Peter Fallow but because he is a movie star and might draw teenagers to the theaters. On and on the list goes. At one point, Warner Bros. president Terry Semel becomes so agitated by the spiraling costs that he demands that De Palma pay any cost overruns for a scene budgeted at $75,000. De Palma promises to bring it in on budget. Semel's is an act of sheer panic, and it makes you realize why Hollywood's creative community is so contemptuous of ''the suits.''

Not that Salamon participates in this contempt. That's part of what makes her book so good; she lends a sympathetic ear as these smart, likable people explain why they did what they did. She also captures something about the context in which movies are made these days. Throughout the filming, controversies erupted, rumors leaked out about trouble on the set, costs soared. All of this backdrop seeped into the public consciousness, so that by the time the movie was released, its notoriety overshadowed the actual images on the screen. Critically and financially, The Bonfire of the Vanities was a bomb, but it's hardly the worst movie ever made, and what stunned the people who made it was not that it failed at the box office but that it was released to such vitriol. They hadn't heard the tom-toms beating in the background. But Salamon heard them, and so did we. That's one of the reasons we stayed away from the movie in droves. In American culture today, movies also arrive with a buzz.