"You scratch my back, I'll stab yours!"
There are few things that look as glamourous as the American film industry. Glitz, glamour, girls: it is little wonder that every year thousands of Americans descend on southern California in search of the good life. The real Hollywood is, however, a very different proposition to the public face of the film industry that is to be seen on show at the Oscars and similar award ceremonies. The real Hollywood is a tough place. The citizens of the suburb aren't movie stars (most of those live in remote places like Montana), they're producers and execs: the bullies and shysters responsible for financing films. These men and women aren't interested in art; they're interested in percentage points and profits. When the first producers decided to set up shop in Hollywood in 1912, they did so in order that they could escape to Mexico if they ran into trouble. Eighty years later, scurrilous behaviour is still rife in the City of Angels.
There can be few people better qualified to write about the savagery of the Hollywood system than David Mamet. Besides successfully adapting his plays Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalofor the big screen, Mamet has made a name for himself in Hollywood both as a screenwriter (The Untouchables and Bob Rafelson's 1984 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice) and a director (The Winslow Boy, A House of Games , Things Change, Homicide). Mamet writes at length about the pitfalls of the movie industry. He is particularly scathing about the studio practice of finesssing: a process whereby a producer keeps telling a writer how good he is in order to get him to rewrite his work. As Mamet writes, "In my experience scripts tend to get worse with each successive re-write. When I started out in the industry people were forever telling me how great a writer I was, and how privileged they were to be working with me. It must have been on my fourth or fifth job that I realised that the same guys were giving me the same bullshit. In the end I just said, ‘Guys, I know how good a writer I am. Just let me get on with it and everything will be all right.’ With that, they left me to do my own thing."
Of course, not all writers have the confidence and chutzpah of David Mamet. Hollywood legend is littered with stories of famous scribes who have come to Hollywood only to find the streets laden with dog-shit.
Nelson Algren was one such writer. The acclaimed author of The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, Algren was summoned to Hollywood to adapt his work for the big screen in the 1950s. He later recounted, "I went out there for a thousand a week, and I worked Monday and I got fired Wednesday. The fellow who hired me was out of town Tuesday."
Algren’s experience is similar to that of F Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Vladimir Nabokov and a number of other acclaimed writers who were hired and fired by the big studios. Indeed, of all the authors who worked for Hollywood, only William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying) found a home in California, writing scripts for Howard Hawks. That Faulkner succeeded where others failed had a lot to do with the fact that he never took his Hollywood duties too seriously, It is an attitude people have to adopt in a business as obsessed with money and as devoid of ethics as the film business. As the screenwriter Waldo Salt (The Day of the Locust, Serpico) once remarked, "They [the producers] ruin your stories. They trample on your pride. They massacre your ideas. And what do you get for it? A fortune."
Of course, it is not only writers who are mistreated by the studio system. Likewise, it is not only the producers who dish out the insults. In Hollywood, the put-down is as much an art-form as film-making. Many of the discipline’s best exponents have been professional film critics and gossip columnists. John Simon wrote for many of the major American newspapers and magazines. During his lengthy career, he unleashed his wrath on everybody from Orson Welles (“There is nothing about him to convince me that he has ever felt humility or love anywhere but in front of a mirror”) to Elizabeth Taylor. (“Just how garish her commonplace accent, squeakily shrill voice, and the childish petulance with which she delivers her lines are, my pen is neither scratchy nor leaky enough to convey”).
Simon’s comments are typical of the bitchiness that continues to characterise American film criticism (onetime Empire contributor Rod Lurie was recently served with a law suit after describing actor-director Danny de Vito as “a testicle with arms”). For real bile, however, you have to look inside the film industry itself. If you think outsiders can be cruel, you should hear what Hollywood’s own have to say about one another. After watching Souls at Sea, comedian and Academy Award-winner George Burns was heard to remark, “George Raft and Gary Cooper played a scene in front of a cigar store, and it looked like the wooden Indian was overacting!” Equally unkind words were delivered by the celebrated director D W Griffith (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) after a screening of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Griffith had been out of favour in Hollywood since the introduction of sound film and was, understandably, quite jealous of the artistic freedom and plaudits that Welles had received. Asked what he thought about the film, Griffith replied, “I loved it—particularly the ideas he took from me.” As a good man once said, there is a worse thing than being talked about and that’s not being talked about. This is particularly true in Hollywood, a city about which it has been said, “It is a place where you can be forgotten if you leave the room to go to the toilet.” Of the victim
want of trying, either. Over the last fifteen years, Billy has consistently sought work, with the major production companies. On each occasion, the response has been the same: “Thanks but no thanks.” The most recent set-back to Wilder’s career came when he lobbied for a directing job with Warner Brothers. The multi-Oscar-winning Wilder found himself in a development meeting with a twenty-year-old producer. The fresh-faced exec took one look at the 91-year-old Wilder and told him that he “was a little old to be starting out in the film business.” Wilder took his latest knock-back with characteristic good humour. This is, after all, a man who refused to buy his wife a bidet on the grounds that she could receive the same benefits by performing a hand-stand in the shower.
And yet, for all the crooks and con-men, name-calling and caterwauling, people are still queuing up to get into the movie business. The strange thing about Hollywood is that those that criticise it are also those who have grown fat by it. Stranger still is the fact that those that defend me system include a number of people who have suffered terribly at the hands of Hollywood. And when it comes to Hollywood losers, few come bigger than the aforementioned Orson Welles. Declared a genius on the basis of his debut film in 1941, Welles became a victim of jealousy and the powerful Hearst press (media magnate William Randolph Hearst interpreted Citizen Kane as an attack on his person).
Although he began his Hollywood career with one of the greatest films of all time, Orson Welles would make only four further movies for major American studios before his death in 1985. Although he never had the career he might have had, Welles never grew to resent Hollywood. In a moment of frivolity, he declared, “Hollywood’s all right; it’s the pictures that are bad.” In a more serious mood, he added, “It would be ridiculous for me to be bitter. Anyone who goes to Hollywood can see right away what the setup is. Hollywood is Hollywood; there’s not a thing you can say about it that isn’t true, good or bad. And if you get into it you have no right to be bitter. You’re the one who sat down and joined the game.”
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