Books: Latest Readings — Women in Hollywood |
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Women in Hollywood

ONE OF THE encouraging developments in Hollywood in recent times has been the rise to influence of women behind the camera. Hollywood will always be a sinkhole of cupidity, but there are some respects in which justice pays, and women were unlikely to be held back forever in a context where talent can be translated into cash. (A big difference, there, between Los Angeles and Saudi Arabia.) In Hello, He Lied the producer Lynda Obst gives us a lesson in what intelligence and sensitivity can do when combined with the near-military practical sense needed to organize a movie. This is the second time I have read her book and I enjoyed it even more than the first time, perhaps because by now the trend she helped to inaugurate looks like part of the atmosphere, instead of just another rebellion that might wither and die. (The career of Ida Lupino used to be cited as a trend, until it was sadly realized that the trend consisted of one person.) Especially in the television branch of the filming world, women’s names are now everywhere among the leading credits; and in the film branch, even though it is still a jungle, not everyone behind a powerful desk is a male gorilla; some of them are female gorillas, and much more fastidious in their habits. Obst is very good on the subject of the diligence required to take meetings and phone calls all day long. Sleepless in Seattle is one of her projects: the movie stays good, but one of the reasons is that she was good at phone calls.

Similarly, in the film world a meeting is a civilized battle, but there is no point to being civilized if you can’t fight in the first place. To that extent, she is not ladylike; but only if you think that ladies should sit still to be overruled. The only element missing from her gift for the useful rule of thumb (“Never go to a meeting without a strategy”) is that she is not especially funny. Lighthearted, yes: but not hilarious. Julia Phillips, who pioneered the format of the female executive vade mecum with her brilliantly entertaining You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, was hilarious. Reading it again, I find that her book still is, though more than ever it generates too great a sense of waste. The producer of Taxi Driver, The Sting, and Close Encounters could have done even more: run studios, run for president. But the cocaine got her. Sometimes I think I might have been a Puritan all along. I drank too much, smoked cigarettes and cigars like an idiot, and at one period I was the kind of pothead who looked like a small cloud being propelled by a pair of legs. But even in my present condition I still tend to draw myself up to my full height and denounce all users of hard drugs. They are such an unequivocal attack on the brain. Julia Phillips was brilliant and funny and could write a book. She was Nora Ephron and Elaine May rolled into one. How dared she throw all that on the fire? In her book she talks quite a lot about her sad proclivities, but the more she confesses, the less confidence the reader has in her when she touches on other topics. Would you buy a movie about aliens from somebody whose idea of solving her personal problems is to cram Peru up her nose?

Despite the ruinous consequence of Julia Phillips’s coke habit, women have gone on to something like equality in Hollywood, and sometimes, intermittently, to something like dominance. In 2008 a remake of George Cukor’s 1939 movie The Women appeared, based, like its predecessor, on the stage play by Clare Boothe Luce. Diane English, who wrote, produced, and directed the remake, spent fifteen years of her life setting it up. The movie not only is the brainchild of a woman, it stars nothing but women, and even the extras are all women. Unfortunately, the result is utterly unwatchable. Feminism is an ideology, and like any other ideology it can easily transmute a necessary perception into an indulgent madness. The studio heads sat on the movie, on the sensible principle that nobody except an idiot would want to see it, but finally their nerve cracked and they released it. What was wrong with the idea? A world without men doesn’t look like the world, however desirable the notion might sometimes seem. For once, the studio bigwigs should have stuck to their conservative instincts.

Still, Hollywood tales of fallibility add up to a field of interest that can never lose its charm. I reread a few pages of David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure, which recounts how the film executive David Begelman embezzled ten thousand dollars belonging to the actor Cliff Robertson; and I soon found myself rereading it all. Begelman didn’t need to embezzle money: he earned millions. He embezzled because one of his many talents was a talent for the shortcut, and he thought that if Cliff Robertson’s bank account was open for pilfering, then it ought to be pilfered: it was practically a duty, an act of morality. Robertson was a wealthy man beyond his high fees for stardom, but he also had the strange characteristic of honesty. The collision of Robertson’s strange characteristic with Begelman’s strange characteristic made for a story begging to be told, and McClintick tells it well, with the proviso that he is the kind of writer who can’t tell “flaunt” from “flout” and who must therefore feign the literacy that he would like to embody.

But a few solecisms don’t much hurt the story, which is essentially an illustration of how, in Hollywood, a mighty figure need not fall, even when he is caught with his hand in the bag. Begelman was forgiven by the industry, whose illuminati thought that he must have been sick, or else he would have embezzled serious money instead of just a lousy few thousand dollars. If anyone emerged from the affair with his reputation damaged, it was Cliff Robertson, for making such a fuss.

Essentially all the stories of Hollywood fallibility are the one story, differing only in who tells it best. The interesting news is not so much that weak men, when given power, are still weak, but that whole empires of production have been built up which incorporate human corruptibility, allow for it, and even thrive on it. Books which analyze the durability of the Hollywood imperial systems are thus almost as interesting as books which analyze its frailty. Really the studios have never been frail at all: it might seem that a great brand name can be brought low by a single bad choice—Fox almost ruined by Cleopatra, UA totally ruined by Heaven’s Gate—but in fact the structures underwent decades of early testing and usually could be shaken only when it made business sense to merge or be absorbed.

Hollywood is a scale model of corporate America. Soon I will once again read The Genius of the System, by Thomas Schatz. I can tell I will, because I never really stop reading it. Exhaustively researched in the studio archives, the book shows how the survival of any filmmaking enterprise depended on Poverty Row: there had to be ordinary product to make the money, so that the occasional extraordinary product could aim at prestige, and thus act as a loss leader even when it failed. It was all worked out before sound was invented. And although many of the men who built the system loved the movies, they could just as well have been selling gloves. Most of them were Jews, as Neal Gabler describes in An Empire of Their Own. Good at finance, they used their expertise to move into a business territory that didn’t yet exist. It was a collective act of imagination, which would attain such an all-pervasive reality that we can’t now imagine our lives without it. My own business has always been with serious books, yet I have spent a large proportion of my life—years, when you add it up—watching movies and their television derivatives, and a lot of the books I have read have been about those movies. Some of them felt like a waste of time, but usually I felt as if I was learning something, unless the book was devoted to the kind of film theory that briefly surfaced in the 1960s and struck anyone intelligent as simply begging to be ignored. (The word “semiotics” was always a tip-off: head for the hills!) When I classify film books now, as time gets tighter, I ask myself whether the book is likely to contain anything I don’t know already. I have just read Tom Shone’s lavishly illustrated monograph on Scorsese. Shone writes well, but I would probably not have read his book if I hadn’t been asked to review it; whereas his wide-ranging treatise Blockbuster is a book I would like to read again. Books that give you the cultural scope of Hollywood are valuable right up the point when it is some sub-Frankfurt School pundit writing them, and even then, Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets, written from a lofty European viewpoint, is full of crunchy moments. (It was Friedrich who revealed to me that in California during the Nathanael West period there was a cult fad billing itself as Brain Breathing: The Secret of the Aztecs.) The glossy book in a large format, on the other hand, is rarely worth the effort of lifting it. David Thomson’s Moments That Made the Movies ranks nowhere beside his often-revised Biographical Dictionary of Film, which is even more batso but at least gives you a shower of judgments you can argue with. On that level, film books are a way of quarrelling while alone. They are popcorn reading for people who are glad not to have to share their popcorn. I exempt from this stricture any collection of pieces by a proper film critic such as David Denby or (the incomparable, in my view) Anthony Lane, but I wonder whether the collection of critical journalism, as a form, might not die with the print media. If so, it could live again on the web. As a print journalist who still remembers the sweet smell of hot metal, I would like to think that my principal means of expression will not survive my passing, but the truth is that nothing stops the kids. On my own website I have provided a gateway (in the Web section) to a blog called Self-Styled Siren. Sane in judgment and global in scope, the Siren, whose real name is Farran Nehme, seems to have seen every movie in the world. Even more annoyingly, she writes like an ace. You can cruise her site for a long time before remembering that time is not infinite, even though the love of art might seem to make it so.