In the early part of the century, before the movie business outgrew its seedy origins, it was one of the rare fields where an ambitious woman could hope to make a professional mark. Women wrote and directed; some stars had a measure of control over their movies that a Julia Roberts can only dream of today.
Among the most influential early film women were Mary Pickford and Mae West. In 1909, when she landed her first movie job, Pickford was just scraping by; in 1915, she was one of the world’s best-known women. Despite her winsome on-screen persona, she became the first actress to produce her own films, a cofounder of United Artists, and a major shaper of film acting. In “Pickford” (Univ. of Kentucky), a knockout of a biography on sale next month, Eileen Whitfield shows a rare gift for making sense of acting styles, and for bringing to life the world of silent movies.
Mae West was Pickford’s on-screen opposite, a sashaying cartoon of a woman of the world, appraising (and enjoying) men with self-mocking relish. Behind the scenes, she was Pickford’s match in tenacity and nerve; her producers never thought they were making anything but “Mae West movies.”
In her zesty “Becoming Mae West” (Farrar Straus Giroux), Emily Wortis Leider points out that by the time she barreled into movies, West had 35 years of theater and vaudeville behind her. She liked prizefighters, cross-dressers and stealing credit from collaborators. She wrote a lot of great comic lines (“I like restraint — if it doesn’t go too far”) and gave them all to herself. But by the mid-’30s, Pickford had stopped acting, the business was aspiring to respectability and West’s freedom was curtailed. Since then, few actresses have managed to wield their measure of creative power.
The biggest surprise when “Nixon in China” opened in 1987 wasn’t the music: the opera’s composer, John Adams, had been moving away from minimalist purism for some years. It wasn’t the production’s staging, either. By 1987, on-the-cusp culture buffs had already learned to enjoy the mix-and-match irreverence of director Peter Sellars. It wasn’t even the way the opera proposed viewing near-current events as legitimate material for grand opera. “Nixon in China” — now acknowledged as having kicked off a brief trend for “CNN operas” based on topics torn from the news — asserted its authority quickly. It seemed not just funny but natural to be watching a story set in the very recent past, featuring characters with names like Henry Kissinger, Chou En-lai and Madame Mao. After all, what are the creatures who inhabit our media world if not figures of modern myth?
No, what was most startling for the culture-class was the opera’s rounded, even sympathetic portrayal of Richard Nixon. Act I may have begun with a pop-art-style recreation of the famous descent from the Presidential jet in Peking. But things soon moved in more unfamiliar directions. In Act II, Pat Nixon rushes onstage during a performance of a Madame Mao opera to protest the cruelty of some of its characters; Dick follows her and sweetly comforts her. And in Act III, we’re given a Nixon indulging in wistful reflection. Recalling a day during World War II that he thought he wouldn’t survive, he sings, “I felt so weak / With disappointment and relief / Everything seemed larger than life.” Here was something unfamiliar — a Richard Nixon capable of tenderness and dreams.
We in the audience went into the theater eager to witness an art-gamble: could BAM-style post-modernism deliver an experience that would command our attention on a scale commensurate with grand opera? What we left with was a bonus — a shift in our perceptions of one of the country’s most controversial figures. If Peter Sellars, John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman could let themselves conceive of Richard Nixon as something other than a cartoon ogre, maybe the rest of us could, too.
By 1987, more than a decade had passed since Watergate, Vietnam and the resignation, yet feelings were still raw. One of the main reasons was Nixon himself, who, in his disgrace, hadn’t exactly hidden under a rock. Legendary as a fighter who would never give up, he’d set about rehabilitating himself soon after leaving office. He wrote and wrote, issuing several books, including a nearly 1,200-page-long memoir. The first of his four interviews with British broadcaster David Frost in 1977 was watched by 45 million viewers. He traveled overseas and connected with world leaders. He offered himself up to the media and to other politicians as a wise old foreign-policy expert. He was the public figure we’d never be done with — like it or not.
But Nixon had been a flash point for the country since the U.S. emerged from World War II. The startling aggressiveness of his campaigning had won him early attention, and his conduct during the investigation of the Alger Hiss case had made him a Congressional leader during his first term as a Congressman. His successes highlighted the emergence of the West Coast, and especially California, as a national power-center, confidently asserting itself in the face of the old Northeast.
Nixon never failed to stress his humble origins as the son of a grocer. A huge class of never-before-seen voters — inhabitants of the new suburbs, lower-middle-class and middle-class car owners striving to do even better for themselves — responded. They identified with Nixon’s embattled, Horatio-Alger-versus-the-elites self-image and cheered him on. Within only a few years of setting out on a political career, Richard Nixon became one of the nation’s youngest-ever Vice Presidents.
Has anyone ever had such an up-and-down career? After the early triumphs, Nixon lost the 1960 Presidential election to JFK by a whisker, then fell to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California governor. The entire country seemed willing to write him off; ABC entitled a news program about him “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.”
Yet by 1965 — with race riots breaking out in many cities and Vietnam emerging as a quagmire — the liberal consensus that had seemed so all-powerful in ’64 was crumbling. Soon, the country was tearing itself apart. Faced with the craziness, most people wanted nothing more than a return to stability. And the unlikely character who rode that wave into the White House in 1968 was back-from-the-dead Richard Nixon — the first Californian ever to occupy the office. In 1972, less than a decade after he’d been declared politically done-with, Nixon was reelected to a second term, winning everywhere but in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. He may have been “Tricky Dick” to the left, but in one poll 75 percent of the electorate said they found him “more sincere and believable” than George McGovern.
Then, a mere twenty-one months after this triumph, Nixon himself was gone. In ’72, he’d taken more than 60 percent of the popular vote; by August 1974, 65 percent of the public wanted him impeached. For the right it was a hard-to-digest disgrace. The Library that opened in Yorba Linda in 1990 in honor of his presidency was denied public sponsorship and had to be financed by private subscription.
The bond Nixon had with the white middle class caused the left immense frustration in an era when good liberals defined themselves by their devotion to civil rights. For lefties, raging against Nixon became something like a competitive sport. In 1971, Philip Roth’s political satire “Our Gang” featured a main character named “Trick E. Dixon,” who destroys Copenhagen and has an operation to remove the sweat glands from his upper lip. Gore Vidal, in his 1972 play “An Evening with Richard Nixon,” used Nixon’s own words to portray the president as a man with “no conscious mind.” In 1977, Robert Coover one-upped everyone with “The Public Burning,” in which Nixon has an affair with Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg and is raped by Uncle Sam. “To the cosmopolitan liberals,” writes the historian Rick Perlstein, “hating Richard Nixon … was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.”
For the right, Nixon had always been an ambiguous, even disruptive, figure. Nixon’s politeness, his determination, his endless repetitions of how he’d come from good but humble beginnings — even his physical awkwardness — spoke eloquently to his fans. But Nixon also unnerved many established factions on the right. The Northeast Republican patricians looked down on him as a sweaty, hustling, West Coast prole. His enthusiasm for ambitious government programs and a dynamic foreign policy put him at odds with the heartland small-government/isolationist types known as Taft Republicans.
Culturally, Nixon’s presence was felt in such right-wing works as the popular movie “The Green Berets,” in Bob Hope’s tours, in the hippie-taunting of “Li’l Abner” creator Al Capp, and in the square pop music of the time — from the Carpenters to many defiantly patriotic country songs. His law-and-order presence helped shape one of the key, and most popular, movie forms of the era, the mad-at-the-damn-liberals, vigilante-movie genre epitomized by “Dirty Harry.”
Robert Altman’s 1984 film about Nixon, “Secret Honor” — from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone, and featuring a great performance by Philip Baker Hall — represented something new. In the film, Nixon is alone in his office, in exile, downing Scotch after Scotch as he dictates what he has told himself will be his last will and testament. Produced for a pittance and using only one set, it’s one of Altman’s best movies — experimental, graceful and shrewd. What was fresh in its presentation of Nixon was that it wasn’t just harsh and funny. It also delivered a fully embodied portrayal of the man; watching the film was like watching a David Levine cartoon take on three-dimensional life. Altman may have been a liberal and a media-biz person, but he’d grown up in the heartland, and he knew his subject’s type: “‘I will be a winner because I was a loser’ — this was Nixon’s credo,” Altman explained. He even admitted that he felt more sympathy for Nixon than he did for Reagan.
But moviegoers, right and left, weren’t ready yet for such a treatment. Though the film was a hit at festivals and appeared in many end-of-the-year best-of lists, it never won a large audience. Altman reported that the only people who gave him a hard time for the film were lefties who thought he’d accorded Nixon too much humanity.
Several years later, though, “Nixon in China” could successfully propose an attitude of reconsideration. We were now ready for it. Perhaps the Nixon years had encompassed more than just Vietnam and Watergate. (Watergate is never even foreshadowed in Adams’s opera.) Opening up diplomatic relations with China was an immense achievement, after all, as well as a real showstopper: here was Nixon, the legendary Red-baiter, making peace with Communists. Librettist Alice Goodman shrewdly captures Nixon observing his achievement: “Though we spoke quietly / The eyes and ears of history / Caught every gesture,” he sings. Nixon had a mental habit of watching himself take his place in history.
Did “Nixon in China” trigger off this new attitude, or was the opera merely one manifestation of its era? And why were so many — on both the right and the left — so unwilling to let go of the man? The legacies of Eisenhower and LBJ were sorted out soon after they left office. The assassination left John F. Kennedy frozen in amber as the glamorous swaggerer cut off in his prime. Nixon, though, has proved to be a loose tooth unlike any other. Perhaps it’s because — despite all his victories, and all the years he spent in office — there remained something unrealized about him. Americans love battlers and strivers, people who won’t quit. So someone like Nixon — a man of potential and drive, a paranoid who wrecked his chances yet never gave up the fight — transfixes us. A failure on an epic scale, he’s the kind of outsized “He had so much going for him” case that irks and fascinates Americans. How can such a figure ever be nailed down?
Whatever the case, the success of “Nixon in China” seemed to free others to venture out of over-familiar partisan ruts. New thoughts were being entertained. Perhaps Nixon had been an effective President, and not in entirely awful ways. The Environmental Protection Agency … the SALT agreements … the “triangular diplomacy” that his visit to Peking was part of … was it a terrible record? In 1988, historian Francis Russell, while allowing that there is indeed “a repellent quality to Richard Nixon,” argued that Nixon was our most underrated President. Liberal columnist Tom Wicker — during Nixon’s Presidency a staunch critic — pointedly entitled his 1991 book about Nixon “One of Us” and admitted candidly to one interviewer that it was “more favorable to Richard Nixon than some people would wish for it to be.”
By the time of his death, in 1994, Richard Nixon was occupying center stage in real life once again. The praise and nostalgia got so thick that Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, observing the occasion as a commentator for ABC, marveled, “To everyone’s amazement, except his, he’s our beloved elder statesman.”
The following year, a more modern kind of monumental recognition came Nixon’s way — an Oliver Stone movie. With his knack for exploiting hot-button topics and his eagerness to write his own version of recent history — the director had already put his touch on Vietnam, JFK and Wall Street — Stone now settled on Nixon. This time, though, he chose to forgo his usual fevered-madman treatment. It’s a dignified movie, made with full Greek-tragedy solemnity. Perhaps this was because Stone (like many boomers) saw some of his own father in Nixon and found that moving. In any case, the director dedicated the film to the memory of his father.
The film is a long, ponderous watch, as well as monotonously overemphatic in the Stone way. “He’s the darkness, reaching out for the darkness,” E. Howard Hunt tells John Dean about Nixon, in case you hadn’t noticed the way that Stone has Nixon literally inhabiting a Rembrandt/Godfather-esque darkness. And how convincing a Nixon did Anthony Hopkins make? Quivering with unease and anxiety, pulling his facial muscles around to convey the idea that Nixon was both puppet master and his own puppet, Hopkins didn’t even try to capture Nixon’s confidence, his drive or his victory-lust. (Watching old tapes of Nixon, I was struck by how much he loved campaigning and how happy he was when connecting with a crowd.)
The film nonetheless delivers an intelligent and plausible — and very un-cartoonish — Nixon. Here’s a man who isn’t just obsessed with greatness in others; he came very close to greatness himself. Where Altman and Hall gave us a small-town go-getter who was out of his depth as President — someone who had always been so eager to succeed that he never developed a central core of his own — Stone and Hopkins’s Nixon is a driven, skillful grownup, brilliant in many ways and unquestionably a master politician, but crippled by inhibitions, as well as prone to projections and paranoia.
In the years since, treatments of Nixon have become even more variegated. A young woman named Monica Crowley, who had worked for Nixon during his final years in Saddle River, New Jersey, brought out a memoir in 1996 of her time with Nixon that included long passages in his voice. Her Nixon comes across as brilliant, thoughtful, vulnerable — and unexpectedly kind on a personal level. Unable to let Nixon (or his rage at him) go, Philip Roth launched another anti-Nixon attack in his 1998 novel “I Married a Communist.” Zack Snyder’s 2009 film of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” uses Nixon as an icon of looming fascism.
But the more resonant works in recent years about Nixon have tended to be many-faceted ones. Margaret Macmillan’s 2007 “Nixon and Mao” shifts around between points of view and leaves you in no doubt about what an impressive bit of diplomatic engineering the real-life subject of “Nixon in China” was. In “Watergate in American Memory” (1992), sociologist Michael Schudson makes the case that even Watergate is no easily-encapsulated phenomenon. For some it was a scandal, for others a constitutional crisis, while for a third set it was simply politics as usual. Cultural historian Daniel Frick’s “Reinventing Richard Nixon” is a cool survey of the Nixon stories, images and iconography that have flowed past us through the decades, from campaign posters to plays to New Yorker cartoons to the gift shop at the Nixon Library.
Perhaps the most magisterial reconsideration of the era is historian Rick Perlstein’s 2008 “Nixonland.” In it, Perlstein proposes Nixon as the crucial politician of the 1965–’74 era — the figure who most embodies and sums up those turbulent times. For Perlstein, it’s important to understand Nixon as a “brilliant and tormented” man who struggled “to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s.”
For oldies, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that one of the country’s most august authorities on the era was barely a child himself when Nixon was actually in office. But youth can confer virtues; although a left-liberal himself, Perlstein has a perspective that those of us who were around at the time can’t achieve. He doesn’t, for example, flinch from suggesting that the left’s fury kept them from understanding Nixon and his fans. “There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left,” he told one interviewer.
The most recent major pop-culture portrayal of Nixon is Ron Howard’s 2008 movie “Frost/Nixon,” adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play about the 1977 Frost–Nixon interviews. The movie — genuinely thoughtful if, perhaps, surprisingly square — generates a lot of suspense, as well as a lot of sympathy for both its protagonists. We spend the movie watching the two contrasting characters joust — the overeager Frost trying to pull off a media coup and establish his personal bona fides as a journalist of substance, the cagey Nixon eager both for the money and to present his own version of events. But the main effect of the movie is to humanize Nixon, who by the end feels almost like an old, if slightly sketchy, friend. Frank Langella’s performance as Nixon goes much deeper than a mere impersonation of the man; it earned Langella an Oscar nomination. What better proof could there be that Nixon — no matter whether you take him as villain or hero, victim or creep — has now been accepted as one of our most enduring national characters? In the year before “Frost/Nixon” was released, the Nixon Library was incorporated into the National Archives and Records Administration, there to take its place next to all of our other Presidential libraries.
At Nixon’s funeral, Bob Dole proclaimed post-World War II America “the age of Nixon.” That’s a judgment that’s very hard to argue with where popular culture goes. What other president has left such a sizable legacy of iconic moments and images? Can we summon up more than half a dozen images of JFK, as popular as he remains? Does Ike, despite being a two-term President of fairly recent vintage, qualify as a pop-culture figure at all? For sheer quantity of memorable images and moments — from the triumph in China to the V-for-Victory gesture, from “I am not a crook” and “the silent majority” to the Checkers speech, from the farewell wave before the helicopter to the way we still append the suffix “-gate” to any and all scandals — Nixon is unmatchable.
If there’s no longer any doubt about “Nixon in China”‘s artistic stature, the opera’s revival at the Met raises an interesting question — namely: What will the audience make of Nixon now? My hunch is that the Nixon era has been sufficiently sifted through for the moment, and that the discussion will now move on to Nixon the man. Though the facts of his life are well known, he has always been an enigma, a labyrinth beckoning friends and enemies alike to lose themselves in his mind’s twists and paradoxes. Twenty-three years after “Nixon in China” opened, and nearly seventeen years after the man’s death, we aren’t yet done with Nixon — and he isn’t yet done with us.
* A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters by John Kisch and Edward Mapp. Long before Spike Lee, directors and producers like Oscar Micheaux were making films for what was called the “race-movie circuit.” A fascinating place to begin learning about this tradition is this book by Kisch and Mapp; its introduction by film scholar Donald Bogle covers a lot of ground in 20 pages. Here are posters for Westerns (“Harlem on the Prairie”), comedies (“House-Rent Party”) and musicals (“Reet-Petite and Gone”), nearly all of them featuring an “All-Star Colored Cast.” The posters themselves have a distinctive splashiness and pizzazz that can remind you of the work of the some of the performers they feature: Ethel Waters, Buck & Bubbles, Josephine Baker.
* Another Life by Michael Korda. The editor-raconteur profiles writers and celebs; a canny insider’s look at the book business.
* Asafo! African Flags of the Fante by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard. This visual book is like a parade and a festival between covers. On display are flags made by West African warrior groups that were so taken by the visual splendor of European armies that they started making flags of their own, to their own taste. Spirals, crocodiles, wiggles, arrows and fish are some of the main elements — some of the flags have fringe on the edge. Adler and Barnard report that the Asafo have no written language, and that many of the flags convey oral proverbs, most of them commonsensical. My favorite: “If you shoot at a leopard and do not kill it, it is better not to have shot at all.” The designs have a retina-searing ferocity; the Asafo themselves consider the flags so potent that each new one must be approved by the chief of the elders and displayed before all companies to ensure no one is offended.
* Cracks by Sheila Kohler. Classmates from a South African boarding school meet at a reunion and wrestle with a mystery. An unforced erotic-poetic novella, especially good on the naive sensuality and malice of young girls.
* Cyclops by Albert Watson. Judging from his new book “Cyclops,” the photographer Albert Watson is a post-punk Irving Penn. This is all about style, impact and The New, pitched at an almost worrying level of high-strung artificiality. Here are richly-printed, black and white shots of actors, monkeys, rap stars, prisoners. They’re strikingly, boldly composed and sequenced: figures (a chicken, a dead frog) isolated against the white of the page, set opposite smokey-toned full-page portraits. David Carson, of the avant-garde rock and roll style magazine Ray Gun, designed “Cyclops,” giving it some of his chopped-out, splatter-font excitement. This is a coffee table book for cutting-edge coffee tables, with a bonus: a subtle, luscious nude of Sade.
* Key Ideas in Human Thought edited by Kenneth McLeish etc. It isn’t often that the more you leaf around in a reference work the more engaging it becomes. This book, put together by a team of British scholars, manages the feat. It’s certainly a solid way to bring yourself up to speed on notions from chaos theory to rhythm and blues. But it’s also a wonderful browse—a postmodern database with its own character and wry humor. Idiosyncratic and suave, the entries reflect academia’s freshest thinking. Even the choice of topics suggests a piquant notion of what knowledge is, or may be.
* Merrick by Anne Rice. There’s probably no American fiction writer who’s more review-proof than the New Orleans-based, witches-and-vampire novelist Anne Rice. To her fans, she’s a dark diva of blood, visions and lust. When a new Rice is released, as if on an unspoken signal, they apply the black lipstick, emerge from their dungeons, and buy up every copy printed. Nonfans live in a different dimension entirely. For us, reading her is like listening to incantations delivered in a foreign language—a blur of veils, candles, and horror-movie dialog, interrupted by the occasional sound of veins being punctured. Yet unlike, say, the orgy scene in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Rice’s writing is too trance-inducing to provoke giggles. For the record: her new one, “Merrick” (Knopf), is more of the Poe-meets-heavy-metal usual. A bi-racial heroine and voodoo are the fresh ingredients in the otherwise narcotically-familiar gumbo. Lestat (from “Interview With a Vampire”) makes a cameo appearance. Fans will be thrilled—but then they always are. In interviews, Rice has said that writing “Merrick,” her 22nd novel, brought her out of a depression. We couldn’t be happier for her. Me it left feeling pretty undead.
* Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman. Nominated for a National Book Award, this bio of the great French writer Colette is intelligent and comprehensive. It’s also, unfortunately, a little fussy and overbaked.
* Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana. A suave, anecdote-rich biography of the French filmmaker who was part poet, part careerist, and a compulsive seducer.
* Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. Life in the Hollywood trenches, as recounted by a well-known screenwriter. Smart, shrewd, and more than a little horrifying.
* With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant. These jottings by an actor who was first noticed in the British cult hit “Withnail and I” read as though they were dictated in a rush and edited with a Saladshooter. Yet they’re also sweetly revealing, because Grant seems never to have lost his bewilderment at the life of make-believe and money he has made his way into. He’s gaga when he meets Barbra Streisand; puppy-eager yet shrewd about his directors, such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and unabashedly fond of performers (such as Julia Roberts) in whom he recognizes vulnerability and a spirit of play. Grant himself—an excess of fizz ever in search of some vessel to fill—has plenty of both.
Remembering the feverish moviemaking days of the 1970s, writer-director John Milius said, “The stuff that brought it all to an end came from within. Diller, Eisner and Katzenberg — they ruined the movies.” And here’s what producer Don Simpson said about the end of his own go-go years, the 1980s: “The failing of the present-day system is quite simply based on the fact that the studio executives are by and large ex-lawyers, agents, business-oriented people who are fantastic executives and managers who don’t have a clue about telling stories.” Different decade, same message: The movies are dead, business killed ’em, and things are only getting worse.
A consensus exists among some of the more serious, informed movie journalists and critics that all American moviemaking passion is spent. This judgment is the inevitable consequence of a widely shared interpretation of recent movie history, which goes like this: The spirit of the ’60s came to Hollywood with “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” The public responded to a new mood; the studios, in confusion, opened their doors; for once, talent poured through the system on its own terms. Then the mood of the country turned again, a reaction set in and — here come the ’80s! — the producers took over, delivering vacuous if shiny blasts of energy. In the ’90s, we have …
Well, not much of anything. Some nice performances. A nice movie here, a nice movie there. Video game-style action comedies and tedious indie flicks made by kids who think movie history began with “Pulp Fiction.” So the serious film critics write essays about the end of the era of the cinéaste and odes to the glories of the Iranian cinema. The reporters content themselves with tales of executives and deals.
Peter Biskind and Charles Fleming both write under the spell of this view. Both have new books out (the quotes above are taken from them).
Of the two, Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (Simon & Schuster) is by far the more substantial. An attempt to sum up what was important in ’70s American moviemaking, it’s cast in the form of an anecdotal history of, as the subtitle puts it, “how the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood.”
In some ways it’s a helpful work. Biskind provides some essential historical information — reminding us, for example, how very, very old the people at the top of the studios were by the late ’60s (many of them had begun their careers in the silent days). He emphasizes the roles played not just by the young directors but by such producers and executives as John Calley, Bert Schneider and Robert Evans. And he’s convincing (as well as original) when he explains the importance of spouses, collaborators, lovers and friends in the careers and successes of his chosen directors — Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Schrader, Bogdanovich, Spielberg and Friedkin.
The glory days of the ’70s, he shows, were the creation of a larger community of people, working in more capacities, than we tend to imagine. There was a shared excitement about movie art. Filmmakers swapped ideas with writers; resourceful casting directors found new faces in the New York theater world. Friendships were formed on the basis of talent and respect as well as ambition. Francis Coppola plays ringleader; Paul Schrader is the most brazen hustler; Martin Scorsese the purest artist; Steven Spielberg the eager beaver who just wants to please and succeed. At times, Biskind’s book reads like an account of a ’60s commune, with moments of heartbreaking harmony achieved before the inevitable breakdown.
Some of Biskind’s judgments are questionable. Brian De Palma plays only a minor role in his account while Robert Altman plays a large one — yet surely De Palma is more representative of Biskind’s “rock ‘n’ roll generation” than Altman, who is a Korean War-era figure. The book’s major failing, however, is Biskind’s cynical insistence on interpreting his subjects as exclusively driven by money, power and image. He is (in part) celebrating the era, but he seems determined to be tough on everyone (except for Hal Ashby, his martyr-saint figure).
Biskind’s get-the-goods approach ensures that nearly everyone in his book comes across as scum. It leaves him at a loss to account for talent and generosity and incapable of discussing whatever nonscummy side of these people their sometimes wonderful work emerged from. His excessively jazzed-up writing style doesn’t help. In an all-too typical passage, he allows an observer to conclude that, in winning Spielberg from Amy Irving, Kate Capshaw “outmanipulated the most manipulative woman who ever lived.” Bitchily amusing and “smart,” yes. But it doesn’t speak well for Biskind that he didn’t add a sentence of his own to allow for the possibility that Capshaw and Spielberg might have actually liked each other.
Biskind’s most important contribution is to demonstrate that what used to be known as the “movie brats” (Scorsese/Coppola/Schrader, etc.) were responsible for bringing about their own fall from grace. High on their defiant vision of movies as personal expression and determined to take over a system they professed to despise, they consumed too many drugs, allowed their heads to be turned by money, betrayed their friends and helped themselves to too many women. Finally, they lost their audience. They danced on the edge of the abyss, and then they fell right in.
The end of the moviemaking era known as “the ’70s” arrived with the overwhelming successes of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Sayonara art, hello action scenes and happy endings. Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (Doubleday) concerns this post-“Star Wars” period. His book is a guilty pleasure, a garishly written, slapped-together piece of work delivered in punchy Variety-ese. (Fleming was once a reporter for Variety.)
His subject, Don Simpson, was an emblem of the ’80s. Credited with inventing the high-concept movie — imagine that on your tombstone! — Simpson hit his stride with the immortal “Flashdance,” and went on, with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, to produce the likes of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun” — the kind of movie that Biskind in his book, and in his overwrought way, calls “the smarmy, feel-good pap of the coming cultural counterrevolution.”
Simpson created an infamous persona — he’d have hookers flown to his film sets, for example — and eventually established a reputation as “the town’s most notorious bad boy.” He also had, for a few years, a nearly perfect instinct for what the public could be sold and a peerless story sense, manifested in cocaine-fueled, 40-page faxed memos. Still, as tuned in as he was, “Simpson was never the audience. He dominated,” as one source said to Fleming.
Once successful, Simpson repeatedly revised the story of his beginnings in Alaska, feeding credulous journalists accounts of religious-fanatic parents, beatings and jail time, even going so far as to tell a reporter that he’d “hunted moose for dinner” when he was 7. In fact, Fleming establishes, Simpson came from a well-liked lower-middle-class family and was a quiet, foppish nerd — “a nice boy,” as one classmate remembers.
It’s hard to tell where Simpson’s narcissism ended and his insecurities began. He subjected his chunky, 5-7 frame to epic quantities of drugs and booze, to late-night binges on peanut butter and hamburgers, to crash diets and workouts, to testosterone implants and to at least 10 procedures by plastic surgeons, including a butt lift and a penis enlargement. When Simpson died in 1996 at the age of 52, the coroner found 27 prescription drugs in his blood, plus cocaine, heroin and booze.
A quickie movie bio to its core, Fleming’s book is short on insight, full of padding and rich in unnamed sources and careless copy editing. It’s also zesty and likable. Fleming has an endearing taste (and even some talent) for one of my favorite hard-boiled tropes, the two-sentence cliffhanger chapter kicker. “The year to come was to be the best in Simpson’s entire career,” he writes. “It would also be his last.”
Reporting on a world as image-conscious and self-dramatizing as Hollywood is like trying to build a house on quicksand. Movie people are gossip-driven, and they’re also professional dissimulators, so it’s never hard for a movie journalist to turn up delicious anecdotes. (Hollywood exists in part to feed our appetite for them.) But even if you find five people to confirm a story, you can usually only feel certain that what you’ve found is five people who have been amused by the same rumor.
This basic fact about movie-biz reporting isn’t a problem with Fleming’s book, which you read as you do the National Enquirer. Clad in a gaudy silver jacket, it isn’t likely to be mistaken for history. Biskind’s book is, and is likely to become, a standard source for discussions of ’70s movies. So it’s disappointing that he’s often less scrupulous than he might be about passing along implausibly juicy tales. When a concerned party takes issue, Biskind does, to his credit, include the denial, usually in parentheses. He doesn’t, of course, exclude the tale.
The few examples where I have first-hand knowledge of events recounted by Biskind suggest that his book shouldn’t be taken as gospel. For example, Biskind relates that Scorsese and his screenwriter friend Mardik Martin agree that the main problem they had with their botched “New York, New York” was the Earl Mac Rauch script they started with, which was supposedly unfinished and a mess in other ways too. Alas, not true. Years ago, I read that original script. It was a gem, and not just finished, but tightly structured and pungently written. And Biskind misspells “Mac Rauch.”
But even if only half of what these books relate is true, the wildlife on display is still pleasingly horrifying. Both books deliver memorable quotations, the best of them apparently generated at extreme moments of showbiz humiliation and exasperation. One source, describing the Simpson/Bruckheimer negotiating style, says, “It’s not ‘good cop, bad cop.’ It’s ‘bad cop, worse cop’.” Remembering the night his two-timing wife, Ali MacGraw, accompanied him to a party for his greatest triumph, “The Godfather,” the ineffably embarrassing Robert Evans recalls sadly: “She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen’s cock.”
As fans of movie history well know, most of the men who manage to become filmmakers conform to the same template: part monster, part charmer, part alpha-male wannabe and (sometimes) part artist. The genuine charisma is overwhelmed in the long run by the need to be a big shot, whether artistic or commercial; Schrader confesses to Biskind that he screwed his own brother Leonard out of screen credits. Movie-book readers will also recognize another pattern: For all the heterosexual coupling that occurs, most of these men are far more interested in other men (their success, their wealth and their fame) than they are in women — hence the predilection for hookers, starlets and bunnies when the company of women is required.
Still, this group of moviemakers seems very different than similar figures in earlier ages. What’s missing is the carefree quality usually present in accounts of Hollywood life. Readers of Biskind and Fleming hoping for glamour are likely to be startled by its absence, and by the excretory fixations that the subjects display. Most only do so verbally; Simpson, fanatically determined to live his fantasies, is drawn to piss, dealing out abuse and shoving dildos where some might think they wouldn’t be welcome.
The characters are often so grotesque they seem to have arrived direct from Transylvania. Basic mood control seems a common challenge. William Friedkin, prone to rages and fits, literally foams at the mouth when angry. Coppola makes absurdly megalomaniacal announcements about the future of cinema, then spends weeks hiding from the editors of the movie he’s actually at work on. As for George Lucas, after years of whining that all he really wants to make is little experimental films, he finally decides that fate has determined that he should produce a “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Those little experimental films will just have to wait a few more years.
Drugs are a convincing explanation for some of this gargoyle-like behavior; so too is the almost religious importance these men placed on being filmmakers — and the visceral aesthetic they pursued. If many earlier Hollywood entertainers offered the equivalent of champagne highs, the boomer filmmakers peddled blow-you-away, drug-style experiences. And where the earlier entertainers reveled in their good luck and their success, the boomer filmmakers pursued art and a place in the history books with earnestness, intensity and a sense of entitlement. Then Don Simpson came along, took their overwhelm-the-audience-with-sensations approach and rammed it home commercially. In fact, when you read both books, Simpson, usually portrayed as the opposite of the movie brats, comes across as the man who pulled it all together — the ultimate boomer auteur.
For anyone who followed movies in the ’70s and ’80s, Biskind and Fleming provide an opportunity to remember and reconsider. Those who weren’t there and who want to catch up could do worse than start with these books. But it may also be time to reconsider the view of movie history that these two authors, among many others, subscribe to. That view is itself a baby-boom phenomenon; in its focus on extremes and creators, it fails to account for a lot, some of which can be summarized in two simple words: “the audience.”
You learn from Biskind almost nothing about the movies most American moviegoers were paying to see in the ’70s. Among the decade’s hits were “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Longest Yard” and “The Groove Tube.” Fleming takes accurate aim at the frantic, never-enough side of the ’80s, but doesn’t hint at the existence of such relatively casual audience-pleasers as “Airplane” and “Tootsie.” As a result, their books are like those histories of the ’60s that leave you with the impression that everyone in the country was a pot-smokin’, free-lovin’ hippie.
Utopian moviemaking passion may indeed be largely a thing of the past in Hollywood, and a certain kind of moviegoing culture may well have died too. But mourning these facts can blind us to the pleasures that are to be found in the modest and the piecemeal; the absence of fevers and trends can itself be savored, frustrating though that may be to journalists. The supposedly desolate ’90s have delivered such varied delights as “Mimic,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “A Little Princess,” “Clueless,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Bound,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Breakdown” and “Before Sunrise.” Too scattershot a group to be called a movement, these works all display a determination on the part of their creators to make coherent entertainments out of the deconstructed bits and pieces the ’70s and ’80s left behind.
Even the success of “Titanic” doesn’t have to leave the educated moviegoer in despair. Inane as the movie is, the audience that loves it is enjoying glamour, thrills, eroticism and romance. Biskind writes about how most of the movie brats wanted to overwhelm with art (“the ’70s”); Fleming shows Simpson making attacks on the nervous system (“the ’80s”). Whatever its scale, “Titanic” isn’t an assault on the senses or the psyche. It also has a comprehensible shape — and its audience is rising to the screen to meet it. They’re identifying, dreaming and weeping (“the ’90s”?). It may be a good time for moviemakers (and for the people who write about them) to recall that part of the job of an entertainer is to give the audience room enough to have its own responses.
In the world of Tom King’s “The Operator” (Random House), a biography of the music and movie mogul David Geffen, and of Kim Masters’ “The Keys to the Kingdom” (Morrow), an account of Michael Eisner’s reign at Disney, the media biz comes across as a pixilated moosh. The artists function like businesspeople, the businesspeople are creative, everyone lives in terror of where public taste will go next, and what comes into being around and because of the movies (publicity, gossip, spinoffs, documentaries) is more entertaining than the movies themselves.
“I’m not Sammy Glick,” Geffen protests, referring to the unprincipled subject of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 Hollywood novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” Yet of course Geffen is Sammy Glick to a T, although a contemporary, gay variation on the standard grasping, vindictive theme.
Born in Brooklyn to an unambitious father who died early and a bossy, enterprising immigrant mother, Geffen was a flop at school, but fell in love with musicals and movies. Hustling a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency (he claimed that he was related to Phil Spector and had a degree from UCLA), he found his niche. Within just a few years he’d won the trust of up-and-coming artists (Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell), and made himself the indulged protégé of powerful men (Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun). Soon he had a record label of his own. Asylum Records was, Geffen explained to the talent he wooed, meant to be an asylum for its artists. He’d care for his musicians personally; he’d look after them. Weren’t they surprised when he sold Asylum and moved on. Some years and a few attempts at moviemaking later, he was head of another new label. At Geffen Records, he explained, the artists came first. And weren’t those artists surprised when he sold Geffen Records, too.
Today Geffen is worth around $2 billion. He has produced a variety of movies, from “Risky Business” and “Personal Best” to “Interview With the Vampire,” and has cultivated a wide circle of high-powered friends and enemies. According to King, during his clawing-to-the-top days, Geffen was dismayed by his homosexuality; he formed intense friendships with Cher, Mitchell and a few other women while making compulsive use of male prostitutes. These days he’s open about being gay and is a big contributor to AIDS charities. A shrieker, a liar and a bully for most of his working life, he’s now entered a statesmanlike phase. He’s a partner in DreamWorks and has become a friend of Hillary and Bill’s, advising them on how to spin the press.
Geffen is small, slim and hyper. Michael Eisner, who was once described by the late producer Don Simpson as “a big Gummi Bear,” is a more modern, self-satisfied kind of fat cat. He grew up wealthy on Park Avenue, wearing a jacket and tie to family dinners. Where Geffen is hysterical and pushy, Eisner is self-deprecating and entitled. According to Masters, he has some charm and smarts, and much self-possession; running things suits his sense of himself. He got started doing grunt jobs at NBC and CBS, made his mark at ABC, and together with Barry Diller, Dawn Steel, Don Simpson and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he was part of a famously aggressive executive team at Paramount. When that group fell apart, he got himself (and Katzenberg) hired by the moribund Walt Disney Productions. Together with the lawyer/executive Frank Wells, they worked the Disney brand. Out of their first 17 films, 15 made money, and within eight years, Disney was worth over 10 times what it was when Eisner, Wells and Katzenberg arrived.
Along the way, Eisner has also had some less well-known defeats. EuroDisney got off to a spectacularly bad start, losing over $1 billion in its first two years. A feud with Katzenberg led to a humiliating court battle, and Eisner’s choice of super-agent Mike Ovitz to be his No. 2 was an immediate disaster; after little more than a year on the job, Ovitz was given around $100 million to leave. Masters contends that, since the death of Wells in a helicopter crash and the departure of Katzenberg, who was largely responsible for the rebirth of Disney’s animation unit (and who wound up co-founding DreamWorks with Geffen and Steven Spielberg), Eisner has been floundering.
But along the way he has cashed some awfully big checks. In 1992, his salary and cashed-out stock options totaled more than $200 million, the largest sum the head of an American corporation had ever received. Where Geffen, in his new old-mogul way, actually has some dreams and some taste (he bought and refurnished a mansion that once belonged to Jack L. Warner, he owns art and he tries to make classy movies), Eisner, for all his affability and “warmth,” is professionally interested only in winning — Masters claims that Eisner doesn’t even enjoy dealing with “the talent.” Geffen appears to be more infuriating than Eisner, yet he’s also more appealing — he’s more mixed-up, a tiny part of him may actually love the arts and he has a streak of generosity.
There are some small practical lessons to be learned from these books, the most obvious being that if you can’t stand manic highs and suicidal lows, screaming, back-stabbing, and 24/7 work weeks, you’d probably do well to consider going into another field. It’s remarkable how few people with middle-class (as opposed to lower-working, or upper-middle/upper-class) backgrounds seem to find any success in the movie world. And sometimes it seems that being blessed with an adoring and ambitious Jewish mother is a prerequisite for success in Hollywood. Eisner’s mother was an “iron-willed” woman who regarded Michael as her “young prince” and “helped him cheat at his schoolwork.” Geffen’s mom considered David “a miracle child,” and called him “King David” right into young adulthood.
Both of these books encountered trouble on the way to the bookstore. King began his biography with Geffen’s cooperation — like Geffen, King is gay, and Geffen hoped a gay journalist’s view would result in a portrait of himself as a dignified, empowering role model. (He hoped to come across as a kind of showbiz Warren Buffett.) Partway through King’s research, though, Geffen shut King off without much explanation.
Still, the resulting book is anything but an attack. As a writer, King, a Wall Street Journal reporter, shows calm and intelligence, and he manages the occasional low-key insight. But most readers will probably wish that he’d taken the time to polish his many not-yet-there sentences, and made the effort to move his story along with more zip. Respectful and plodding, the book might have been written by a gentleman’s-butler robot.
Masters’ book has a very different tone — it has the fake urgency and portentousness of a New York magazine cover story. She promises to explain much of significance; “the Hollywood power structure would never be the same” is a phrase that seems to recur every few pages. Yet she never gets around to telling us what the change is. Her book was commissioned by Broadway Books, which dumped it as “unacceptable,” before being purchased and released by Morrow. In fact, it’s competent, pointless and rather deranged.
Masters seems like a classic example of a frantic media broad: “Stop me before I report again” is the subtext of her every paragraph. The same desperation also damaged “Hit and Run,” an account of the Jon Peters/Peter Guber reign at Columbia that she co-wrote with Nancy Griffin a few years ago. Eisner often comes across as a hazy figure; he refused the author’s requests for interviews, so Masters relies heavily on Katzenberg.
Although Masters is a contributing editor at Time and Vanity Fair, and an adequate writer of overheated magazine prose, she seems to have no sense of perspective, and a compulsion to gather and write down facts. A typical sentence: “DreamWorks lost out on the chance to have a Burger King tie-in by moving up the film, because such efforts must be planned many months in advance.” What is it that leaves her so clueless about what readers might actually care to know? Perhaps she just has little to say about the human content of her material, and so relies on facts, facts and more facts to carry her through. But page after page of descriptions of contract negotiations do not make for riveting reading. Geffen pops up on occasion, yet you’d hardly suspect from Masters’ descriptions of him how high-strung and abusive he can be. (King, in his index under “Geffen, David Lawrence, screaming of,” has 22 entries.)
As books, both are juiceless and pitilessly overdetailed. They do, however, leave you wondering: Why do so many articles and books about life behind the scenes in show business get published? My hunch is that it’s because editors of magazines and books see themselves reflected in the movie moguls and businesspeople. But perhaps readers actually like and demand these books and articles. After all, it’s still show business — bigger, sexier and more glamorous than our usual lives. These are stroke books for the power-and-glamour-hungry.
There is such a thing as a movie-business book that provides some illumination. Although garish and slapdash, such in-the-midst-of-it works as Jane Hamsher’s “Killer Instinct” (about the making of “Natural Born Killers”), Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (a down and dirty biography of Don Simpson), Robert Evans’ breathtakingly shameless autobiography “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and Julia Phillips’ notorious “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again” do give a reader a sense of what life in the movie business is like. You feel that you’ve encountered something authentic.
There are also a handful of civilized books that tell you directly about the business: Steven Bach’s “Final Cut,” for example, about United Artists and the “Heaven’s Gate”” disaster, and Julie Salamon’s account of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” fiasco, “The Devil’s Candy.” The screenwriter William Goldman recently published “Which Lie Did I Tell,” a sequel to his “Adventures in the Screen Trade” — as a writer, he’s tough and self-satisfied, but he does a good job of spelling out what it is the movie business exists to do, and how it generally goes about doing it.
“The Operator” and “The Keys to the Kingdom,” though, are predicated entirely on our (supposedly) pre-existing interest in all things behind-the-scenes. King manages a few passages about Geffen’s taste, Masters almost none about Eisner’s or Katzenberg’s. As character studies, these flattened-out artifacts are just raw material. And as for the impact these men have had on the products their businesses make, or the culture at large? Next to nada. Too long, too sober and too well-vetted to qualify as guilty-pleasure wallows in show-biz outrageousness and misbehavior, these books are likely to please only those readers whose Player Within demands constant feeding.
The Canadian writer John Ralston Saul is an Enlightenment-style provocateur, a cosmopolitan anti-ideologue. Although not a household name in the United States, he’s a considerable figure in Canada and Europe, where his books — “Voltaire’s Bastards” (1992) is his best-known work here — are often best sellers. His new “The Doubter’s Companion” (Free Press) is an eccentric winner — a highly personal dictionary that’s really a compilation of short essays on topics from Air Conditioning to Zealot. He writes with vigor and thunder, firing off epigrams and bons mots. Deconstruction is “a school of light comedy,” orgasm “a workmanlike replacement for a religious experience.”
Readers are most likely to enjoy “The Doubter’s Companion” by opening it at random and following the highlighted connections. The ride almost always yields surprises. In an entry on Neoconservatives, Saul calls them “the Bolsheviks of the right”; in one on Marxists, he writes that “the only disagreement between the Neoconservatives and Marx is over who wins the battle in the end. This is a small detail.” He doesn’t shy from confrontation, either. “There is no convincing evidence,” he maintains in his entry on Voltaire, “that writers can do their job by being nice.”
There’s a fair amount of verbose harrumphing where there ought to be wit. And Saul — like such other freelance lone rangers as Robert Hughes, Paul Fussell, and Camille Paglia — can occasionally seem oblivious to the pleasures of present-day life. But the book is a remarkably thoroughgoing critique of folly, and the spectacle of Saul blasting away at the conventional wisdom of left and right alike has, in intellectual terms, something like the kick of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.” Saul delivers the pleasures of a good argument.
John Osborne’s store of grudges is vast. In his exuberantly bitter “Look Back in Anger,” the 1956 play that gave the staid British theater a kick in the pants, he let fly at what seemed like just about everything: the British Empire, noisy neighbors, boring Sundays. Now, in “A Better Class of Person” (Dutton), his first volume of autobiography, Osborne tears into his mother, relatives, and associates with a fist-swinging vengeance that makes Brooke Hayward’s “Haywire” look like a valentine. The result is a jolly, mean, exultant book.
Osborne has an explosive gift for denunciation and invective, and what he’s written is — deliberately, nakedly — a tantrum. Disguised bile turned the studiously dispassionate “Haywire” sour; bile, straight, is to Osborne high-octane fuel. He can blow meanness and pettiness up so large that they acquire a looming majesty and a spacious, dreamlike sensuality, like a slow-motion movie scene. His relish can be so palpable that you share his enjoyment of the dynamics of rage.
For its first half, the book is a horror story about a boy at war with his mother. (His sweet-natured father, whom he adored, died young.) Like some fairy-tale ogre, Osborne’s barmaid mother — he calls her Nellie Beatrice — scrubbed and washed as if hoping to eradicate all signs of life. “She talked about germs,” Osborne writes, “always as if they were like ants that could be made to writhe in a miserable death, gasping on their backs, in the cauldrons of her fortress home.” The one activity that afforded her furious soul passing relief was packing and moving; Osborne guesses she uprooted her little family — he was an only child — more than 30 times during the seventeen years he lived with her. Nellie Beatrice “liked the drudgery of moving for its own sake,” he explains.
He found no solace with relatives. His mother’s working-class family snarled and gnawed at each other. His father’s prissy, grim mother — a suburban order freak — hectored people and emotions into line with thin smiles and sharp little intakes of breath, daring even to sneer loftily at Nellie Beatrice. (That Scourge of Filth secured her revenge years later, when she planted the old lady in a nursing home.) Writes Osborne: “Comfort in the discomfort of others was an abiding family recreation.”
Sickly with rheumatic fever, Osborne gritted his teeth through a childhood of convalescences, playground bullies, and boarding school. Then he found work as an assistant stage manager and discovered the theater. The gypsy atmosphere unbridled him. He wrote his first plays, dumped a hopelessly middle-class fiancée and formed a troupe of his own. Not yet 21, he capped his season by starring in a scenery-chewing “Hamlet.” He married an actress, lost her to a dentist who had pulled two of his teeth, and wrote “Look Back in Anger” in just over a month. The book ends with the purchase of an option on the play by the English Stage Company for 25 pounds.
Lazy disdain mars this memoir’s last chapters, which are hurried and sketchy, and the unwritten next volume casts a shadow. The plays Osborne has written since the nightmarish, desolate “Inadmissible Evidence” (1964) have been little more than dismissive shrugs, and his defensiveness about this work gives sections of “A Better Class of Person” a beleaguered tone. But the story of his embrace of the theater has the fascination of accounts of wild boys taken from wolves to live in town, and his most bilious passages, as in his great plays, seem to erupt in your own mind. When John Osborne’s blood is up, he can make outrageous unfairness seem a bizarre state of grace.