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Hollywood: Having Fun
By Joan Didion
Memo from David O. Selznick selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer Viking, 518 pp., $15.00 Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment by Stanley Kauffmann Harper & Row, 296 pp., $2.95 (paper) .
"You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don't understand. It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads." —Cecelia Brady in The Last Tycoon . TO THE extent that The Last Tycoon is "about" Hollywood it is about not Monroe Stahr but Cecelia Brady, as anyone who understands the equation of pictures even dimly or in flashes would apprehend immediately: the Monroe Stahrs come and go, but the Cecelia Bradys are the second generation, the survivors, the inheritors of a community as intricate, rigid, and deceptive in its mores as any devised on this continent. At midwinter in the survivors' big houses off Benedict Canyon the fireplaces blaze all day with scrub oak and eucalyptus, the French windows are opened wide to the subtropical sun, the rooms filled with white phalaenopsis and cymbidium orchids and needlepoint rugs and the requisite scent of Rigaud candles. Dinner guests pick with vermeil forks at broiled fish and limestone lettuce vinaigrette, decline dessert, adjourn to the screening room, and settle down to The Heartbreak Kid with a little seltzer in a Baccarat glass. After the picture the women, a significant number of whom seem to have ascended through chronic shock into an elusive dottiness,
the numbers. ballet class. the recent visits to Los Angeles of Bianca Jagger. "Last week he was bankable." I heard someone say the other night of a director whose current picture had opened a few days before to tepid business. and Warner's. Fox.discuss for a ritual half hour the transpolar movements of acquaintances and the peace of spirit to be derived from exercise class." Such evenings end before midnight. The men talk pictures." and discretion is also good business. the morning line on the talent. like drinks after dinner. and others who do not understand the mise of the local scène. Columbia. one-shot writers. since there are enough imponderables in the business of Hollywood without handing the dice to players too distracted to concentrate on the action. does not threaten the marriage. Quentin Bell's Virginia Woolf was an approved event this winter. grosses. and the opening in Beverly Hills of a branch Bonwit Teller. In the houses of the inheritors the preservation of the community is paramount. "A nice lesbian relationship. Should there be illness it will go unadmitted until the onset of the terminal coma." I recall Otto Preminger insisting when my husband and I expressed doubt that the heroine of the Preminger picture we were writing should have one. . Such couples leave together. as were the Chinese acrobats. Metro. the most common thing in the world. remain largely the luxury of character actors out from New York. "Face it. Should there be marital unhappiness it will go unmentioned until one of the principals is seen lunching with a lawyer. the use of paper napkins at the beach. the package. It is in this tropism toward survival that Hollywood sometimes presents the appearance of the last extant stable society. the deal." Flirtations between men and women. "Very easy to arrange. and it is also Universal. This is a community whose notable excesses include virtually none of the flesh or spirit: heterosexual adultery is less easily tolerated than respectably settled homosexual marriages or wellmanaged liaisons between middle-aged women. Discretion is "good taste. reviewers being courted by Industry people.
" cost of the picture. "Wasn't that a nice thing for Dick to do. more significantly. long before.8 times the actual." about "death knell" after "death knell" sounding for the Industry." or "break. that point occurs. "I talked to his wife. ONE AFTERNOON not long ago. since the studio has already received 10 to 25 percent of the picture's budget as an ." This story illustrates many elements of social reality in Hollywood. They have been told about "runaways.. They have heard the phrase "independent production. or "negative. the "break-even" never represents the point at which the studio actually breaks even on any given production. For one thing it involves a "studio." one of the other men in the steam room commanded. The studios still control all effective distribution." an arbitrary figure usually set at 2. 100 percent of what the picture brings in up to a point called "the break-even." the head of production for the studio said. except on paper. In return for financing and distributing the average "independent" picture." "Hear what Dick did. the director of a picture in production collapsed of cardiac arrest.7 or 2. "I called the hospital. but few of the several non-Industry people to whom I have told it have understood it." and have fancied that the phrase means what the words mean. Most significant of all. at a studio where my husband was doing some work. At six o'clock the director's condition was under discussion in the executives' steam room. but." about "empty sound stages." and many people outside the Industry are gripped by the delusion that "studios" have nothing to do with the making of motion pictures in the 1970s. In fact the byzantine but very efficient economics of the business render such rhetoric even more meaningless than it sounds: the studios still put up almost all the money. the studio gets not only the largest share (at least half) of any profit made by the picture.
JANUARY IN the last extant stable society." The studio has. vide John Simon: "I shall not rehearse here the wellknown facts of how the industry started dying from being too bulky." So pervasive is this vocabulary of extinction (Simon forgot the mandatory allusion to the La Brea Tar Pits) that I am frequently assured by visitors that the studios are "morgues. but mainly in Chicago and Las Vegas. "This whole town's dead. More perfect survival bookkeeping has been devised. Still." that they are "shuttered up. and continues to receive. throughout the picture's release. I know that it is January for an empirical fact only because wild mustard glazes the hills an acid yellow. a fee amounting to about a third of the picture's income as a "distribution" charge. and because there are poinsettias in front of all the bungalows down around Goldwyn and Technicolor." that in "the new Hollywood" the studio "has no power. usually paleontological. In other words there is considerable income hidden in the risk itself."overhead" charge. and every January I tell him that people who live and work here do not frequent hotel bars either before or after dinner." He tells me this every January. it is standard for anyone writing about Hollywood to slip out of the economic reality and into a catchier metaphor. the place was a wasteland. toothless. and dated—just like all those other saurians of a few aeons ago…. and the ideal picture from the studio's point of view is often said to be the picture that makes one dollar less than break-even. has received additional rental and other fees for any services actually rendered the production company. On reflection I can think of only three non-Industry people in New York ." one such New York visitor tells me. "I dropped into the Polo Lounge last night. . but he seems to prefer his version. and because many people from Beverly Hills are at La Costa and Palm Springs and many people from New York are at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
367. Days pass. In lieu of contemplating why a venture that cost a million-three and has recovered almost a million remains a million-three in the red. . "$1.112. Ted Ashley. confirmed in their conviction that they have penetrated an artfully camouflaged disaster area. The statement might suggest to the casual subtracter that the picture is about $400. Ted Ashley. and Freddie Fields. The players change but the game stays the same. It has so far grossed $947. and leave. Visitors arrive.389." Cecelia Brady said. James Aubrey is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. and the Directors Company.112.224. Ted Ashley is Warner Brothers.72 unrecovered" is. Jules Stein. Dore Schary.389. The morning mail contains a statement from 20th Century-Fox on a picture in which my husband and I are supposed to have "points"—or a percentage. but not yet on that of James Aubrey. I got this truly beautiful story. and Jean Stein vanden Heuvel. scout the Polo Lounge. I decide to get my hair cut.86.000 short of breaking even. “LISTEN. and that James Aubrey. Jill Schary Robinson. the bottom line. the producer and former production chief at Metro. the daughters respectively of the late screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. but this is not the case: the statement reports that the picture is $1.72 short of breaking even. and Freddie Fields rented a house together in Acapulco over Christmas. pick up the trades.57. learn that The Poseidon Adventure is grossing four million dollars a week. "We don't go for strangers in Hollywood. First Artists.whose version of Hollywood corresponds at any point with the reality of the place. Freddie Fields is Creative Management Associates. The bottom line seems clear on the survival of Adolph "Papa" Zukor. and the founder of the Music Corporation of America and Universal Pictures. The picture cost 1. and they are Johanna Mankiewicz Davis. as agents say.494. that Adolph "Papa" Zukor will celebrate his one-hundredth birthday at a dinner sponsored by Paramount." the man who cuts my hair .
the deal dependent only upon the truly beautiful story and the right elements. (A book or a story is a "property" only until the deal.000 option payment for someone else's truly beautiful but (face it) three-year-old property. And so there was one very bad summer there. Here in the grand casino no one needs capital.000 budget. That was the summer when all the terrific twenty-two-year-old directors went back to shooting television commercials and all the creative twenty-four-year-old producers used up the leases on their office space at Warner Brothers by sitting out there in the dull Burbank sunlight smoking dope before lunch and running one another's unreleased pictures after lunch. like everyone else in the community. Comprenez so far?" So far comprends.") True. when nobody could get past the gate without a commitment from Ali MacGraw or Barbra Streisand.says to me. A writer might be an element. summer and fall of '69 when every studio in town was narcotized by Easy Rider's grosses and all that was needed to get a picture off the ground was the suggestion of a $750. As it turned out most of these pictures were shot as usual by IATSE rather than NABET crews and they cost as usual not seven-fifty but a million-two and many of them ended up unreleased. Or maybe if no truly beautiful story comes to mind one needs $500 to go halves on a $1. development money available. One needs only this truly beautiful story. a few chips to lay down. The elements matter. But that period is over and the game is back on. shelved. That is why the man who cuts my hair is telling me his story. The man who cuts my hair. I listen . the game. "We like theelements." they say at studios when they are maybe going to make the deal. the casino is not now so wide open as it was in '69. the hangover summer of 1970. is looking for the action. and this terrific twenty-two-year-old kid director. after the deal it is "the basic material. a low-cost NABET or even a nonunion crew. "Think about some new Dominique-Sanda-type unknown." as in "I haven't read the basic material on Gatsby.
000. not only to the hairdresser but at the grand casino. Every year there are a few such checks around town. A few years ago they were the Midnight Cowboyand Butch Cassidy checks. for the gambler. or. obsessive. Its spirit is speedy. a lowered sexual energy. It is instead the unexpected payoff on dice rolled a year or two before.850. more immediate than politics.because in certain ways I am a captive but willing audience." as if the exact physical location lent the piece of paper its credibility. They are totems of the action. as in all cultures in which gambling is the central activity. "He writes the most creative deals in the business. the client's share of first profits on a picture now in release. who tells me that he has on his desk a check made out to a client for $1. but the actual pieces of paper which bear such figures have." not real money in the sense that a check for a thousand dollars can be real money. an inability to devote more than token attention to the preoccupations of the society outside. this year they are the Love Story and Godfather checks. and its reality is altered not only by the time lapse but by the fact that no one ever counted on the payoff. When I hear of these totems I think reflexively of Sergius O'Shaugnessy. A four-million-dollar windfall has the aspect only of Monopoly money.850.275. in someone's office. who sometimes believed what he said and tried to take the cure in the very real sun of Desert D'Or with . Last week. Many people are shown them. I was shown another such check.000. a totemic significance. I talk on the telephone to an agent." or "on Guy McElwaine's deak." they say. more important always than the acquisition of money. which is never. this one made out for $4. the true point of the exercise. nor is it really disposable income. In a curious way these checks are not "real. more consuming than sex. and is described in aesthetic terms: "A very imaginative deal.000. An agent will speak of such a check as being "on my desk. The action is everything. immaterial. The place makes everyone a gambler." There is in Hollywood. in the community. The action itself is the art form. no one "needs" $4.
" Zukor himself." and in Daily Varietyas a "firm believer in the philosophy that today is the first day of the rest of your life." she says. we stay for four. "Having some fun" is what the scarring is called. "Let's go up and see Nick." appears after dinner to express his belief in the future of motion pictures and his pleasure at Paramount's recent grosses. We came for two days. This ceremonial healing of old and recent scars is a way of life among the survivors.its cactus. My husband and I fly to Tucson with our daughter for a few days of meetings on a script with a producer on location. but on this night there is among them a resigned warmth. We go out to dinner: the sitter tells me that she has obtained. head of production at Paramount. Jack Valenti speaks of the guest of honor as "the motion picture world's living proof that there is a connection between us and our past. It is described by Robert Evans. its mountain. an autographed picture of Paul Newman. who is described in Who's Who as a "motion picture mfr. as is the scarring itself. The winter progresses. as "one of the memorable evenings in our Industry…. for her crippled son. a recognition that they will attend one another's funerals. and the bright green foliage of its love and its money. We rarely leave the Hilton . SINCE ANY survivor is believed capable in the community of conferring on others a ritual and lucky kinship." Hit songs from old Paramount pictures are played throughout dinner. I ask how old her son is." David O. "Thirty-four. the birthday dinner for Adolph "Papa" Zukor turns out also to have a totemic significance. Many of those present have had occasion over the years to regard Adolph "Papa" Zukor with some rancor. There's never been anyone who's reached 100 before. I think we'll have some fun. . Selznick remembered his father saying to him when the elder Selznick was on his way to tell Nick Schenck that he was going to take 50 percent of the gross of Ben-Hur away from him.
" What is there to be said about this particular cast of mind? Some people who write about film seem so temperamentally at odds with . other action." (This fancy. At one time the assurance with which many writers about film palmed off their misconceptions puzzled me a good deal. "We can have some fun with this one.Inn. presumably the same one Stanley Kauffmann runs on his mind's screen when he speaks of a director like John Huston as "corrupted by success. London. could slip in and out of such airy subordinate clauses as "now that the studios are collapsing." or how she could so misread the labyrinthine propriety of Industry evenings as to characterize "Hollywood wives" as women "whose jaws get a hard set from the nights when they sit soberly at parties waiting to take their sloshed geniuses home. A picture in release is gone. a Paul Mazursky picture which. whatever its faults. I used to wonder how Pauline Kael. I PASS along these notes by way of suggesting that much of what is written about pictures and about picture people approaches reality only occasionally and accidentally. oddly enough. cropped up in a review of Alex in Wonderland." the producer says as we leave Tucson. By the time this picture is released and reviewed they will be on location in other cities.) These "sloshed" husbands and "collapsing" studios derive less from Hollywood life than from some weird West SidePlayhouse 90 about Hollywood life. . The producer and the director collect Navajo belts and speak every day to Los Angeles. the picture itself is in many ways only the action's by-product. portrayed with meticulous accuracy that level of "young" Hollywood on which the average daily narcotic intake is one glass of a three-dollar Mondavi white and two marijuana cigarettes shared by six people. "Having some fun" is also what the action itself is called. say. As the four-million-dollar check is only the totem of the action. They are setting up other deals. A picture in release tends to fade from the minds of the people who made it. For everyone on the picture this life on location will continue for twelve weeks. New York.
" The "motive" in Bullitt was to show that several million people would pay three dollars apiece to watch Steve McQueen drive fast. Kauffmann divined in Bullitt not only its "phoniness" but a "possible propagandistic motive": "to show (particularly to the young) that law and order are not necessarily Dullsville." Scott Fitzgerald observed in his notes on Hollywood." ." Lewis Mumford is "civilized and civilizing" and someone to whom we owe a "long debt. D. "But if you actually tell them anything. He is a man who finds R. but Kauffmann. like to hear about the pretensions." and also letting them know that he was wise to the "phoniness" in the chase sequence in Bullitt: "Such a chase through the normal streets of San Francisco would have ended in deaths much sooner than it does. extravagances and vulgarities—tell them pictures have a private grammar." Arthur Miller a "tragic agonist" hampered in his artistry only by "the shackles of our time.what both Fellini and Truffaut have called the "circus" aspect of making film that there is flatly no question of their ever apprehending the social or emotional reality of the process. I recall him advising his readers that Otto Preminger (the same Otto Preminger who cast Joseph Welch in Anatomy of a Murder and engaged Louis Nizer to write a script about the Rosenbergs) was a "commercial showman. you find…they never see the ventriloquist for the doll." It is the vocabulary of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. seems to prefer his version. "People in the East pretend to be interested in how pictures are made. like politics or automobile production or society. and watch the blank look come into their faces. Laing "blazingly humane. like my acquaintance who reports from the Polo Lounge. who ought to know better. Even the intellectuals. In this connection I think particularly of Kauffmann. whose idea of a nasty disclosure about the circus is to reveal that the aerialist is up there to get our attention." A curious thing about Kauffmann is that in both his dogged rightmindedness and his flatulent diction he is indistinguishable from many members of the Industry itself.
Samuels asked Vittorio De Sica if he did not find a certain effect in one of his Sophia Loren films a bit artificial. actors." Making judgments on films is in many ways so peculiarly vaporous an occupation that the only question is why. To read David O. but Steve McQueen had the "cut." De Sica said. then. Charles Thomas Samuels [*] asked Carol Reed why he had used the same cutter on so many pictures. The Getaway was Sam Peckinpah's picture." In other words Carlo Ponti wanted it.." or the final edit. Selznick is to come very close to the spirit of actually making a picture. anyone does it in the first place." Reed said. OF COURSE there is good reason for this blank look. In a series of interviews with directors. writers. Selznick's instructions to his directors. for this almost queasy uneasiness with pictures. a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict in which one antagonist has a contract assuring him nuclear capability. and department heads in Memo from David O. "I didn't direct it. but Barbra Streisand had the cut. Some reviewers make a point of trying to understand whose picture it is by "looking at the script": to understand whose picture it is one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo. To recognize that the picture is but the by-product of the action is to make rather more arduous the task of maintaining one's self-image as (Kauffmann's own job definition) "a critic of new works. is to bring an . A finished picture defies all attempts to analyze what makes it work or not work: the responsibility for its every frame is clouded not only in the accidents and compromises of production but in the clauses of its financing. "I had no control. About the best a writer on film can hope to do. Up the Sand-box was Irvin Kershner's picture. beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiritingly self-limiting level. Nor does calling film a "collaborative medium" exactly describe the situation. "It was shot by the second unit.
" a way of life "adopted quite voluntarily from a sense of fun. and he . perhaps the initial error is in making a career of it. There was a million and a quarter for another actor. on his way to a location to begin a new picture.000 a week. At the next table were an agent and a director who should have been. for Graham Greene. the review of pictures has been. a traditional diversion for writers whose actual work is somewhere else. I tend to think most of it beside the point. The director was in for $800. as well.000. A few days ago I went to lunch in Beverly Hills. FEBRUARY IN the last extant stable society. Perhaps the difficulty of knowing who made which choices in a picture makes this airiness so expedient that it eventually infects any writer who makes a career of reviewing. "Motives" are inferred where none existed. The property had cost more than half a million. at that moment. The director had an Academy Award for his last picture but one. Among the three writers were two Academy Awards and one New York Film Critics Award.engaging or interesting intelligence to bear upon the subject. but never mind that). an "escape. the second draft a little less. Reviewing motion pictures. allegations spun out of thin speculation. the first draft of the screenplay $200. There was two million for one actor. I knew what he was supposed to be doing because this picture had been talked about around town: six million dollars above the line. . And now the director was sitting at lunch in Beverly Hills." Perhaps it is only when one inflates this sense of fun into (Kauffmann again) "a continuing relation with an art" that one passes so headily beyond the reality principle. A third writer had been brought in.000. at $6. like reviewing new cars. Some 400 mornings spent at press screenings in the late 1930s were. may or may not be a useful consumer service (since people respond to a lighted screen in a dark room in the same secret and powerfully irrational way they respond to most sensory stimuli. a kind of petit-point-on-Kleenex effect which rarely stands much scrutiny.
" the agent said. It had been a very creative deal and they had run with it as far as they could run and they had had some fun and now the fun was over. It was difficult to ascertain what anyone involved did want. The script was not right. and did not want the director to pull out. as it would also have been had they made the picture. Many people have been talking these past few days about this aborted picture. Only thirty-eight pages worked. On the other hand he also represented the director." The director picked up the bottle of Margaux they were drinking and examined the label." the agent said." I left as the Sanka was being served. "it dies right here. . The agent represented many of the principals. Notes [*] Encountering Directors (Putnams. 1973 Hollywood By Stanley Kauffmann. "Very nice." the agent said carefully. Volume 20. we all recognize your right to pull out. Reply by Joan Didion In response to Hollywood: Having Fun (March 22. The financing was shaky. "Nice little red. except for the action to continue. the director said. "They're in breach. No decision had been reached. always with a note of regret. 1973) . Number 6 · April 19.wanted out. and the director seemed unhappy. . "You pull out. 1972). not that I want to influence your decision.
In the course of her piece. referred to her novel of that name. Stanley Kauffmann New York City .) Perhaps Miss Didion would dislike my writing just as much if I had praised her work.To the Editors: The heading on Joan Didion's article [NYR. and stated my utter loathing of both. and one of them is quoted incompletely. But your readers might care to know about a possible tit for tat. quoting nine phrases.) Figures of Light was published in 1971." somewhat different from the "corrupted by success" that she makes it. I reviewed Miss Didion's film Play It As It Lays. March 22] indicates that she is reviewing my book Figures of Light. I hope so. issue of The New Republic. she makes some adverse comments about me. Why this belated attention? A possible reason: In the December 9. Four of those phrases come from a different book of mine. (On much the same grounds that she substantiates in her article: the film pretended to deal with serious subjects but was patently an industry product. 1972. (I said that Huston is a talent "corrupted—not implemented—by success.
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