By Brad Darrach
Playboy, June 1972
Roaring like a stegosaurus, a yellow monster crashed into a green country store and knocked the front out. A church spire tilted silently and fell off like a hat. Bricks exploded, dust hid the sun. With a flash and a boom, a big brass ball put a hole the size of a cow in a medieval parapet. Then the monster reappeared and, snarling its gears, took down a water tower. “You are witnessing,” a voice intoned, “the death of the back lot at MGM.” I switched off the TV set. I had been in Hollywood less than 24 hours but already I was weary of disasters.
The whole place, people said, was falling apart. Between 1946 and 1971, the weekly movie audience dropped from about 80,000,000 to fewer than 16,000,000 people, and in the same period, Hollywood’s yearly production schedule shrank from 378 to 143 pictures. I had heard that the great studios, the dream factories that Mayer and Warner and Zanuck built, were shattered shells, that booming conglomerates had picked them up as corporate coffins in which to bury profits. I had read that the star system was destroyed, that the foreign market had collapsed, that more features were being shot in Tucson than in Hollywood. One out-of-work actor insisted that on the back lot at Universal, five minutes from downtown Hollywood, somebody had seen a prowling mountain lion. The wilderness, he clearly believed, was closing in.
Hollywood loves to play death scenes. It played a great one when silent films died and another when television was born. But this time, it seemed, the victim was in mortal trouble. The walls had come tumbling down on the movie colony, the day of the locust was at hand. What had caused the catastrophe? What was life like for the survivors? Was any new vitality stirring in the rubble? I was there to find out.
Ulcer time. The rushes were wrong, all wrong! First time out as a movie producer, Tony Bill was facing his first big problem in the first week of shooting. For at least six months, Tony and Vernon Zimmerman, his brilliant young director, partner and close friend, had talked of nothing but Deadhead Miles, the Terry Malick script about a truck driver going around the bend; but as Tony watched Vernon’s first takes of Alan Arkin, he realized with a clenching gut that Vernon was not going to make the movie he thought they had agreed on. “I saw the picture as a country-and-western comedy, funny in a warm, folksy way. Vernon saw it surreal—in the mood of Mad magazine.”
What to do? As a movie actor, Tony had often played angry young men; in real life, he was more inclined to see all sides than to battle for his own. “But I believed in that script and I had to fight for it.
“I don’t know how you feel about those rushes,” Tony told Vernon, “but I want you to know how I feel.”
“I have more important things to think about,” Vernon replied coldly, “than how you feel.” He then shut the door in Tony’s face.
Vernon had a right to defend his vision of the film—and so did Tony. But if Tony insisted, he would have to fire his friend and partner in the first week of shooting and either hire another suitable director or direct the picture himself. Strong measures for a first-time producer, and Paramount might not accept them—the top production people at the studio, Bob Evans and Peter Bart, had seemed quite happy with the early footage. Tony decided to stick with Vernon. It was one of those decisions that make all the difference.
Gordon Stulberg, the new president of 20th Century-Fox, looks like a presoaked Walter Matthau and has a large, vigorous grasp of the whole movie business. In one crammed interview he explained what had gone wrong with Hollywood. “It’s been building for 25 years. In 1948 the Supreme Court divorced production from distribution, and in the early Fifties television broke the movie habit. Since then, we’ve had a galloping disaster. By 1966 or ’67 the companies ran out of fat. The old films had been sold to TV, the real estate had been liquidated. Production was the only way to make money, but it was the era of the million-dollar player and the do-his-own-thing director, so production costs went out of sight. At one point in 1968, the companies had a $200,000,000 inventory of unreleased films.
“And all the while the market was shrinking—for a lot of reasons, one of the most important being the high cost of going to the movies. Counting parking and a baby sitter, an evening at the cinema these days can easily run a young couple $15 to $20. So in ’69 and ’70, the major studios lost 40, 50, 60, 70 million dollars apiece. Naturally, risk capital got scarce. It came to this: Reorganize or die.
“Gable! Swanson! Crawford! There was glamor! Now comes this crummy age when beautiful actresses have dirty fingernails. They’ve wrecked Hollywood!”
“Right off, we scaled production down to the size of the shrunken market. For the first time we decided how big a share of the market we wanted and how much risk that share was worth. I mean, if you’re supplying 30 percent of the film product and getting only ten percent of the gate, you’re too far out on the limb.
“We’ve been trimming everywhere. We’re trying to work with independents as efficiently as we used to work with our own production staffs. Film budgets are smaller—we rarely OK anything over three million—and more carefully supervised. We’re writing tighter deals with talent. If you go over budget you pay for it now. We’ve also cut staffs and merged facilities. Columbia, for instance, is sharing the Warner lot. The idea is to turn these huge production plants, which for years have been white elephants, into profit centers. We’ve also cut back ad budgets and dropped some regional distribution offices. In Europe, where the market is off about 50 percent, companies have merged distribution operations. And all over the world we’re getting tougher on the exhibitor. For years he’s had the benefit of tax practices that predated divorcement. He’s still getting plenty, but we’re getting more.
“Will all this add up to a turnaround? Too early to tell. We’re all trying to diversify into related businesses with greater stability—communications, leisure time. We’re all doing the best we can till we get our next big chance. Cable television.”
All over movieland I heard the wails of the wealthy.
Olivia de Havilland, fresh from a course of beauty treatments at a luxurious spa, called from her suburban mansion and complained in a baritone moan: “I can’t see you. PLAYBOY is partly responsible for the mess we are in. Greed and lust are sweeping the land. We are at the nadir.”
Carroll Righter, the Hollywood astrologer who for 32 years has read the stars for the stars, flapped his pink wattles and fluted nostalgia. “Gable! Swanson! Crawford! There was glamor! Now comes this crummy age when beautiful actresses have dirty fingernails. They’ve wrecked Hollywood!” Was the industry doomed? “Uranus,” said Righter mysteriously, “cut back production. But I have cast the horoscopes of all the major studios and they will survive.”
“When you are up to your eyes in shit, don’t sing.”
Mervyn LeRoy, 71 and resting on his laurels (Mister Roberts, Little Caesar and 73 other movies) in a Bel Air villa the size of a small township, sighed and said: “There’s a lot of people in this town now with bad taste. They think you got to show guys peeing in the streets. But the public wants a real story with a lot of laughs. If it’s got heart, make it, I always say.” What about social life these days? “It’s gone to pot. It used to be such fun on Tuesday night at the Coconut Grove with people like Hoot Gibson and Bryant Washburn and Colleen Moore. Now there’s so many people you don’t know. We stay home a lot. I like TV. We have 12 sets.” He also has a couple of Chagalls, a Thomas Hart Benton, a Van Dongen, two Riveras and a stallion by Munnings. He apologized for cutting our interview short. “We’re having dinner at General Bradley’s.”
George Jessel, after 30 years as Toastmaster General in the Mayer and Zanuck administrations, disconsolately gummed his chicken livers in the Beverly Hills Friars Club. “The recent history of the movie industry,” he rasped, “reminds me of the little bird that got caught in a sudden freeze. His wings froze stiff, his feet froze stiff, his eyes froze open, his beak froze shut. ‘My God,’ he thought, ‘I’m going to freeze to death!’ Just then along came a big old cow and dropped a cow cake on him. The warmth of the cow cake melted the ice on the little bird. He blinked his eyes, he flapped his wings. He stuck his head out of the manure and began to sing, ‘I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive!’ Unfortunately, the song was heard by a big old wolf, who strolled over and gobbled him up. Now there are three morals to this story: Being shit on is not necessarily bad. Being hauled out of the shit is not necessarily good. And when you are up to your eyes in shit, don’t sing.”
Peter Bart was in a fury. “Damn it, Tony, you mean to tell me you just stood there and let him take over your picture? Didn’t even tell us what was going on—out of loyalty to a man who day by day was spoiling your project? Your project, Tony! Because we expected you to be the guiding force! Tony, sometimes I think you’re just a spineless prick!”
“Goddamn it, Peter, I did not just stand there. I fought tooth and nail for my vision. I did not impose it. Vernon was doing it his way, and I figured that was his right as the director. Also, he shot with a consistent point of view. It was only later, in the editing, that he got in trouble. Until today, it was a live possibility that his version might turn out better than mine.”
“Well, you see how it turned out.”
Tony saw. He had just sat through Vernon’s two-and-a-half-hour first cut of Deadhead Miles and, like Peter, he considered it a mess. Unlike Peter, he knew that Vernon had not included some of the strongest scenes he had shot. He knew too that his own confidence had solidified in the long struggle of production. When the crew was rubbed raw by Vernon’s temper, Tony had soothed it. When Arkin threatened to walk out, Tony had simmered him down. When Vernon threatened to punch a Paramount executive who had come to watch him work, Tony persuaded the man to leave. As a manager he had been effective; now he felt ready to be effective as a creator. After a visit with Arkin, he got back to Bart and Evans.
“Alan and I are sure we can save the picture,” he said.
“Save it,” said Bob Evans.
Keith Williams, president of Local Number 47 of the Los Angeles Musicians Union, is a short, square-faced man with a chronic case of negotiator’s face. Honest and progressive, he spoke frankly about the current state of the movie unions.
“The position of labor in this town is impossible now,” he said softly. “Using a 1960 base, unemployment in most of the film trades is running better than 60 percent. People are forced to take what they can get, and as a result the town is loaded with scab productions. We do what we can to police the situation—in a two-day blitz I turned up 144 violations—but you can’t keep that up. Let’s face it, we’ve lost control of our members. Does this mean that union labor has priced itself out of the market? I don’t think so. You check what carpenters make in this business against what carpenters make in straight construction—you’ll get a shock. But it’s true you just don’t need the big crews, and what’s more nobody can afford them.
“Nowadays, there’s a spirit of accommodation in the movie unions. People realize that if they ask for more than there is, there won’t be anything for anybody. Helping the industry now is the best way of helping ourselves. So we want to negotiate creatively, but who are we negotiating with? Management’s negotiator used to represent the big studios. Now he’s talking for hundreds of small companies. Suddenly both sides are rank and file. Our question is, will the contract be binding? Will all these little companies actually do what their negotiator agrees to do?”
Chaplin called Hollywood an asylum run by the inmates. I’ve always found it a place where you can rest from reality.
Billy Hunt, the hardhanded steeplejack turned movie lawyer who handles the industry’s labor relations, gave a straight answer to that: “There’s always been a problem of enforcement, and it’s harder now—on both sides. Both sides are in flux. We’re rejiggering institutions and ways of dealing. The rigid studio structure has already changed. The rigid union structure is beginning to change. Movie unions are craft unions and there are more than 40 of them. Kind of thing where the guy who puts nails in can’t pull them out. Also, the contracts require a producer to overhire—in some jurisdictions by as much as 50 percent. All this slows production down and makes it damned expensive. Relax the work rules, we say, and runaway production will come home again. You’ll also get a massive inflow of capital that will benefit everybody. For our part, we’ve got to provide retraining and other ways of protecting displaced workers. It’s a time for statesmanship and the union leaders seem to understand this.”
“Statesmanship,” said Norman Stevans, president of the Screen Extras Guild, “as usual comes a little too late.” Tall and nobly domed, Stevans exudes a subtle aura of prime minister, but he has been a lowly extra for 29 years. “Last year the average extra’s income dropped more than a third,” he told me. “Year before, it dropped 25 percent. Now the FCC has cut 30 minutes a night out of network prime time. That will cut our income another 30 percent. So we’re off more than 80 percent in three years. At $35.65 a day, you can’t make a living as an extra anymore. Nowadays we’re lucky to get one day a week. There are 12,000 actors in Hollywood, but most of them make less than $1000 a year. Everybody’s moonlighting—I sell real estate, a friend of mine is a bartender. It’s either that or go on unemployment.”
I checked the unemployment office in Hollywood that handles most movie people. “Unemployment’s still serious in the industry,” a Miss Rasmussen told me. “We’re still giving the Federal extended benefit—a maximum of 13 weeks at $65 a week—in addition to the maximum normal benefit of 26 weeks at the same figure. But I think the worst is over. In March of ’71, about 7900 movie people were picking up checks at this office. At the start of this year we were down to 3570.” As I left the office, I saw John Phillip Law arrive. When The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was released, he was hailed as the new Gary Cooper.
Chaplin called Hollywood an asylum run by the inmates. I’ve always found it a place where you can rest from reality. My last trip out had been restful indeed: A year ago, half the people here were stoned. So far this visit, nobody had offered me a joint. What had happened? Nothing dramatic. Hair was still long and only a few top executives wore suits. Streets were still full of beautiful blonde girls in faded blue jeans running you down in shiny Ferraris. But it struck me that I was seeing entirely too many clear eyes this time and hearing altogether too much intelligent conversation. Seeing sanity in Hollywood is like meeting your psychoanalyst at an orgy. It’s unsettling. I hurried out and collected reassurance.
“The movie colony has gone all out for cosmetic surgery,” said Dr. John Williams, a well-known plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. “Fewer jobs, more competition. Everybody’s trying to look his best.”
In a Hamburger Hamlet, I met Jim Mitchum sitting with a friend. Last time I saw Jim, he was a roaring radical. Last time I saw his friend, he was high on a mountaintop in Peru. “Hey, man,” Jim said dreamily, “did you hear what Nixon said about China? Far out. I really hated that man, but I gotta admit I was wrong. He’s really getting it together for all of us. He’s changed my life.” Eyes shining, his friend agreed. “Right on, man. He’s really quelling the demons!”
An actress told me she went to a party given by a screenwriter and noticed that the seven or eight guests who were sitting down didn’t move. She spoke to one. He didn’t answer. She touched him. He was a store dummy and so were all the others, carefully dressed in party clothes to look like real men and women. When she mentioned them to the host, he looked startled. “I was afraid they’d come,” he muttered.
“The movie colony has gone all out for cosmetic surgery,” said Dr. John Williams, a well-known plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. “Since the slump, we’ve had our hands full. Fewer jobs, more competition. Everybody’s trying to look his best. Doing a lot more men now, face lifts and eyelid surgery. An eye job, all four eyelids, costs $750 to $1500.” How do out-of-work actors pay for such operations? “Oh, BankAmericard.” Breast implants, Dr. Williams explained, are more expensive: “About $1500 for both breasts. Three for $2000.”
At Frank Inn’s menagerie (“Trained Dogs, Working Cats and Clever Critters”), a trainer named Bob Blair said business had been off. When I asked if he had an unemployed dog I could interview, he introduced me to a small whiskery mutt named Josephine. “Been out of work two years.” When I asked how it felt to be unemployed, Josephine instantly rolled over and played dead.
Joe Seide is a 40-year-old ex-heavyweight who looks like Henry VIII from behind but when he turns around it’s Al Capone. In 6 years as an actor’s manager, he has brought to a rare perfection the fine art of living high while scraping bottom. In 1966, when he met a talented young baritone named Grant Griffin, Joe had $800 in the bank and a Diners Club card, and Grant had an 18-year-old cow pony. With Grant, Joe formed a company called Grantissimo Records and applied for a $50,000 loan at a well-known Los Angeles bank. For collateral he offered the horse. “Is it a thoroughbred?” the bank officer asked. “Yes, indeed,” said Joe, reciting an impressive pedigree. He got the loan and later another $25,000.
Sam Peckinpah, the Mozart of violence (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), has the eyes of Genghis Khan in a Johnny Carson face.
Joe spent most of the money promoting Grant, and by 1968 Grant was pulling in about $50,000 a year on the night-club circuit—not bad, but hardly enough to keep them both in the style to which Joe aspired. So he took in some more partners and raised another $150,000. He also kept his eye peeled for another client, and one day he found her in an unlikely place: in junior high school, teaching his 14-year-old son.
Dark, pretty, intelligent and traffic-stoppingly voluptuous, Anna Grazziella Boccaccio said she’d love to be in show business. So Joe scouted up some more stockholders, sent Anna to a singing teacher and late in 1968 introduced her to the public as Poupée Bocar in a series of full-page wolf whistlers that appeared in the trade papers. In a few weeks, Poupée began to get TV and picture offers—she’s in The Last Movie and Pocket Money and has appeared in many prime-time series. Grant’s career has been coming along, too. Last year, Joe produced a successful Grant Griffin TV special—costarring Milton Berle, one of Joe’s stockholders.
For about two years now, Joe has been living real well. So have Grant and Poupée, who last year, at Joe’s suggestion (“It’s a tax break for everybody”), got married. All three have accounts at all the better restaurants and give five-dollar tips to parking-lot attendants. Grantissimo Records hasn’t done all that well by its stockholders, however, and for the banks it hasn’t done much of anything. Though his total debt is $285,000, Joe has angled and wangled so shrewdly that he pays interest on only $50,000.
Sam Peckinpah, the Mozart of violence (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs), has the eyes of Genghis Khan in a Johnny Carson face. Reeling back from a four-hour lunch, he arrived for our appointment with two handsome black girls jabbing their big breasts into his ribs and taking turns swallowing his tongue. “Later!” Sam murmured torridly. Pushing them away, he snatched a wicked-looking hunting knife and hurled it full force at the opposite wall of his office. The blade drove deep into a cork target as the phone rang. Sam answered it and listened for about 20 seconds. “Fuck off!” he roared. “This is the guy I want and you fucking find a way to get him!” One of the girls began to rub against him and whisper pleadingly in his ear. I figured it was time to be going. Sam slammed the door behind me. “Listen, you cocksucking bitch!” I heard him yell as I crossed the parking lot.
One night Tony Bill was driving Liza Minnelli home on his Honda 350. By a brilliant swerve he avoided a car that had gone out of control; but his bike ran off the road. Liza suffered minor injuries and Tony escaped with a concussion and slight permanent damage to his left arm. To Tony’s friends, the incident adds to an impression that he bears a charmed life. “He’s truly fey in the old Celtic sense,” one of them says. “He walks between the raindrops.”
Tony’s looks are fey. You can never quite get a fix on him. His dark eyes blur and clear. His features seem rugged one moment and evanesce the next. When he walks he moves subtly, like water. He dresses subtly, too, in odds and ends that quietly agree. In a town that adores aggressiveness, Tony seems a little vague. “But he’s more forceful than people think,” says his secretary. “He just operates unobtrusively.” Things happen when Tony is around, but most people never realize how intense and talented he is. “A beautiful guy” is the usual summation and in fact Tony is natural, kind, witty. “He is also angry,” says another moviemaker, “but he doesn’t seem aware of it. If he could get hold of that anger, it would drive him to a big achievement.”
“It’s a throwaway culture,” Paul Newman told me with the look of a man who has had it up to here, “and we’re disposable celebrities.
Tony’s talent showed up early. As a boy in San Diego, where his father was a real-estate agent, he was a prize piano pupil. At 14, he was a glider pilot and a skillful painter. At Notre Dame, where he went on scholarship, he flowered as an actor and a poet. At 20, he won a Fulbright for writing, but before he could use it he became a movie star. On a visit to Hollywood, he dropped in to read for the juvenile lead in a Frank Sinatra picture, Come Blow Your Horn—and got the part.
Seven years later, seven years of ups (Castle Keep) and downs (Marriage on the Rocks), Tony was 30 and bored with acting. So he dreamed up Deadhead Miles, got Malick to write it, sold the story to Alan Arkin and then took his package to Paramount. Even before Deadhead started shooting, Tony had more projects in mind than any man could handle. So last year, after the Arkin-Bill revision of Deadhead Miles led to a final break with Vernon, he struck a partnership with a shrewd young New York lawyer named Mike Phillips and Phillips’ wife, Julia, a witty, ambitious girl who had been a film executive in New York. The arrangement works well. “It’s a swim-together, sink-together sort of thing,” Tony says. “More like a literary community, not so lonely. We balance one another out. Mike has this terrific hard legal mind and Julia brings a background in movies and publishing and a complex feminine thing. They pull me up when I’m down and I do the same for them. We widen one another’s circle of experience and opportunity. I tend to question myself more than I need to. I’m a classic fallen Catholic and I have a real hard time finding something to take its place. My partners and my wife make me hang in there, substantiate, stay to the end. I never learned to argue till I had partners. It’s a great step forward.”
So you want to be a movie star?
“It’s a throwaway culture,” Paul Newman told me with the look of a man who has had it up to here, “and we’re disposable celebrities. Wayne, me, McQueen and a few others hang on, but where do you go from here?” He finished a tiny can of Olympia beer in one contemptuous gulp.
We were sitting in a sound truck 40 miles south of Tucson, where Newman was doing his last scenes in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean for First Artists, the independent production company he had formed with Steve McQueen, Sidney Poitier and Barbra Streisand. There was more white than gray in his hair now, but the blue eyes were still as blue and cold as a trout’s.
“I used to care about the money and the acclaim,” Newman went on, “but now all I care damn-all about is making the picture. The act itself. At First Artists, we’ve got complete creative autonomy. Plus”—he raised a forefinger—“an accurate accounting. Brother, when you deal with a major studio, you just try to get an honest statement of what you’ve spent. Hire an actor for $1000, it never costs you less than $1250. But we’ll know what this picture costs. No goddamn tampering, no questions asked.”
Director John Huston, looking like a Rembrandt grandee with the sunset in his sideburns, tried one more shot, but the day was too far gone. “Forget it,” he said, “we’ve lost it!” Newman grunted. The delay was costing him, but at least he would know how much. He hollered for another can of Olympia.
Burt Reynolds has a problem—we should all have his problem. He longs to be a comedian, but he is doomed to be a sex symbol. “What I really like,” he told me at his unpretentious pad just off Sunset Strip, “is sitting in for Johnny Carson. But most of the time I’ve gotta act. Frankly, I’m a lousy actor. I’m one of those failures who has failed up.”
Dinah Shore came in from the kitchen with a tray of hot hors d’oeuvres. “Cut it out, Burt. You did pretty well in Deliverance.” Burt grinned and dispatched three large meatballs. He works out with weights every morning and looks dangerously healthy.
“I’m a lousy actor. I’m one of those failures who has failed up.”
“Deliverance is the first really interesting part I’ve had. People have always taken me for an animal, and it’s really my fault. First big audition I had out here, the phone rang in the middle of it. So I ripped the phone out of the wall and went on reading. Another time I threw an assistant director in a lake. And I’ve got this bed.”
While Dinah fixed more meatballs, Burt showed me his bed. The four posts were as thick as tree trunks and shaped like phalluses, and the mattress was about five feet above the floor. “Once I get ’em in,” Burt explained happily, “they can’t get out.” How did he feel about appearing naked on the centerfold of Cosmopolitan? He shrugged. “Stirred up the star-fuckers. But what I’d really like to do next is play It Happened One Night, that sort of thing. I mean, since Mitchum, how many actors with balls can be funny, too?”
He wouldn’t tell me his real name. “I was a star,” he said with shy pride when we met by appointment in a Mexican restaurant. “They called me the Pat Boone of hardcore. I look a little bit like Pat Boone, don’t you think?” He didn’t, really. He had blond hair and a country face that looked wasted. He said he came from Minnesota.
“We had a farm, but when Pa got the kidney trouble, we couldn’t meet the store bills. So I come out here figurin’ to work in an airplane factory and send money home.” He wound up working as a bus boy and sending about five dollars a week home. One night he made it with a waitress who told him, “With that thing there, you could be a star in pictures.” An agent had “some glossies of it” made; within a week, the young man was making his first picture.
A star overnight, he soon was shooting every day. “Them directors kept yellin’ at me to get it off, get it off!” After losing 30 pounds, he came down with a bad dose, but was soon hard at work again. “I was bringin’ in $100 a day by then,” he explained, “and I couldn’t afford to quit. Finally it went up to $200 a day.” Riding high, he rented an eight-room split-level back of the Strip and bought a Pontiac Grand Prix. “It sure was great,” he said wistfully, “to walk down the Strip of an evenin’ in my stretch pants showin’ everything I got an’ two chicks either side of me an’ everybody sayin’ that’s him, he’s the star of the pornographic movies!”
In less than a year, the glory faded. After many reinfections, he was costarred with “this Filipino girl with the strong jaw.” Her action in fellatio was so powerful, he explained, that “she could make me shoot six feet straight up in the air and the directors liked that.” He soon developed what he called “a varicose vein in my pecker. It hurts real bad every time I get hard. I had a operation, but it came right back.”
In the past year, he said, the market for hardcore films had fallen off sharply, so now he was working as a bus boy again while waiting to make a comeback. “Hell,” he said, “I’m only 22.”
On the whole, my experience of Hollywood suggests that it’s better to be behind than in front of the camera. Moviemakers seem to have more amusing miseries.
“A producer is everything!” Ross Hunter exclaimed almost ecstatically. “God, psychoanalyst, stud!” Being everything obviously suits producer Hunter just fine. He is inordinately proud of his last picture, Airport, which grossed better than $44,500,000; and the mere thought of his next picture, a musical version of Lost Horizon featuring ten stars and the year’s biggest budget (over $6,000,000), plunged him into a paroxysm of lunch.
“The real trouble is, the studios don’t bother to make stars anymore and everybody else has forgotten how.”
Financially, Hunter has not suffered from the industry’s decline. In his pink flush of affluence a million tiny blood vessels sang of contentment, and he was wearing a sports jacket you could mortgage. Professionally, he was outraged. “The industry has let the public down. People are starved for entertainment. Cinéma vérité and underground films are a pile of shit. We need stars, glamor! Let’s get back to glass cages, where people can see but not touch.”
Isn’t the public today too sophisticated to be taken in by glamor? “Not at all. The real trouble is, the studios don’t bother to make stars anymore and everybody else has forgotten how. On top of that, it’s hard to be a star and the young actors and actresses just don’t want to work that hard. But I treat my stars like stars. They get fresh flowers in their dressing rooms every day. Limousines pick them up and take them to pee. And I give them their wardrobes!
“The secret of producing,” Hunter summed up, “is really caring. I get so involved that I cry when I see the rushes and I just have to run over to the set and tell everybody how wonderful they are! You’ve got to care if you want to make a have-to-see picture!”
“Why are kittens cute?” Francis Coppola wondered. “So stronger things won’t kill them. The defense of youth is energy, and right now a young moviemaker needs all his energy.”
Energy beamed from Coppola like light from the sun. His body was full as a ripe fruit, his face was warm and free, he spoke with easy force and intelligence. He was without doubt the healthiest spirit I had found in this maladive community. At the moment, he was also the most successful director in town. The Godfather, which he filmed, was about to become the biggest hit of the year.
“Studio executives,” he was saying, “are fixtures of the surface. When the shit hits the fan, they always scuttle. They back projects. They lack the courage to back people, to back a body of work for ten years. Look what happened to me in San Francisco. On the strength of commitments from Warner Bros., I went over my ears in debt and built a studio for young directors. When the crunch came, Warner’s dropped eight feature projects and left me to die.
“I didn’t,” he said, and chuckled at the amount of him that had survived. “Neither did the studio. But it’s been a hard three years. The point is, I endured—a lot of us endured together. We had goals and we kept to them. We stuck together and we helped each other hang on to what we believed in. That’s been the trouble. There’s a business community in Hollywood, but there hasn’t been a strong artistic and intellectual community. That’s what I’ve found in San Francisco…. It’s important for the creative people to get out of Hollywood, with its incessant gossip about deals and disasters and who’s making what for how much. Out into places where reality can touch them and awaken their work.”
“It’s The Lower Depths as a light comedy!” Tony told his partners excitedly. “It’s a Marx Brothers movie with balls!” Julia came right back. “Let’s buy it!” Mike decided. So they bought Steelyard Blues from David Ward, a laughing young lion who at 26 is one of Hollywood’s most promising screenwriters. But between the words on paper and the first image on film, there is a long and sinuous road to travel.
Getting the Package Together is the name of this game and Tony began to play it while he and Alan Arkin were still recutting Deadhead Miles. Opening gambit: Tony sent the script to Donald Sutherland, who agreed to play the male lead. Next move: At Tony’s suggestion, Sutherland asked Jane Fonda to take the female lead. “I’ll do it,” said Jane. “How about Alan Myerson to direct?” (Myerson had directed the F.T.A. Show that she and Sutherland and Peter Boyle had taken to the Army camps.) Myerson was willing and Peter Boyle accepted the third main role. Now came the crunch: Would the three principals agree to take a severe reduction in salary and gamble on a percentage of the profit? They would, and what’s more they agreed to take the same amount as the crew members in expense allowances: about $90 a week. “It was sort of a triumph,” said Tony, “that a small independent outfit could make such a deal with stars that major studios were willing to pay top dollar for.” Tony took the package to Warner Bros. and two days later the deal was on: $800,000 for labor and materials and a delivery date of April 15.
But Tony knew now that a deal is no better than the director involved. He heard with some trepidation that Alan Myerson—who, like Vernon Zimmerman, had never made a movie before—was suggesting a substantial rewrite of a screenplay that everybody else had flipped for. “Jane’s part,” he insisted, “isn’t long enough or strong enough and the other characters need humanizing—they’re too much like comic-strip figures. There’s a danger that these people, who are revolutionaries in a very personal and wonderful way, will seem like radical bumper stickers, just a few frayed labels. I want to show them as complex individuals, all very different but all brave and crazy and funny and free.”
Myerson knew about revolutionaries—he had gone early to Haight-Ashbury, and his calm brown eyes had looked across barricades. Tony was impressed. So was David Ward. David began to rewrite.
Adolph Zukor, one of the founders of Paramount, is 99 years old. He travels by wheelchair these days and at a public gathering not long ago Jack Benny, who is 70-what?, went up to pay his respects. “How do you do, sir?” Benny asked, bending over to shake hands. “Who’s that? Who’s that?” the old man demanded testily, peering through the mists of time. “Why, it’s me, sir. Jack Benny!” The old man looked startled. “Benny! Well, hello, boy! You still around?”
After two weeks in town, I was still having the Zukor reaction. So much had changed in the movie industry that it was amazing to find anything the same. The dinosaur had been chopped into a thousand small pieces: film labs, acting schools, special-effects services, camera-rental agencies. “Once I could find out what was happening in this town by making six phone calls,” an executive told me. “Now I have to make a hundred.” But the more I looked around, the more certain I became that the central power structure had survived dismemberment. It was true that almost all the major studios had changed owners in the last six years. It was true that in the process they had let the heavy scepter of creation fall into the eager hands of several hundred independents. Nevertheless, the studios still held the key to the main vault. Through their special relationships with banks, they had a lock on most of the money flowing into production; and for their money they demanded safeguards that amounted to creative control.
“Once I could find out what was happening in this town by making six phone calls,” an executive told me. “Now I have to make a hundred.”
The day is done when the head of a major studio, remembering the awesome grosses of Easy Rider, could press $1,000,000 into the icy hand of the nearest speed freak and tell him to go out and make any movie he damn pleased. Harder heads are back in style, and men like Lew Wasserman at Universal, Bob Evans at Paramount, Ted Ashley, John Calley and Dick Zanuck at Warner’s, Jim Aubrey at MGM, Stan Schneider at Columbia and Gordon Stulberg at Fox have very hard heads these days. It is these men and their close associates, along with a few strong independents and a handful of ingenious and powerful agents, who really run Hollywood now. There are 30-40 executives in this group. I met perhaps 15 of them. All were demonically bright and energized. Here are some of the more striking.
Bob Evans was driving for a deadline. Two years ago, the Evans production of Love Story, starring his wife, Ali MacGraw, made $50,000,000 by offering America a treacle fix. Now he was completing his production of The Godfather, which figured to make an even larger sum of money. For about an hour, I watched him work. Pale and small and keen, he lay cranked up in a hospital bed that had been wheeled into his private screening room. “Back’s been out for five months,” he explained with a wince, then with fierce attention he began to structure the titles for The Godfather. “I work differently from other studio heads,” he told me later. “I get involved in all the technical details.” Though Evans made a fortune in Manhattan’s garment district before he moved into show business, he is anything but idle rich. “I work every night till at least 11. Ali and I have no social life. I’m not sure how much longer I can keep it up.”
Ned Tanen leaped up as I entered and hobbled toward me on crutches with frightening vitality. He was tall and lean and bearded and burning, Rasputin in a sport shirt. “Goddamn shoulder!” he said at top speed. “Just got the wires out yesterday.” The phone rang. A blonde secretary rushed into the room, followed by a male nurse, who fed the patient a pill. While Ned took the call, a three-year-old toddled up, looking like a Goya princess. A pretty Jamaican nurse snatched her away. The secretary gave him three messages. “Back in two hours,” said a spectacular brunette in a black-silk slack suit, lounging allure in the doorway. “My wife,” Ned explained, and as the phone rang again he lifted his cast-encased leg and plopped it onto the hassock in front of his chair. “Don’t mind the pain,” he said. “Can’t stand the inactivity!”
To Ned, a vice-president of MCA, activity means “running about 30 projects at once,” among them a film unit that produces four to six pictures a year and a subsidiary that handles Jesus Christ Superstar. “I built up so much momentum,” he said, “that I couldn’t stop. My brakes had gone. When the brakes went on my Yamaha, it was symbolic. I’m 40, you know. Got to slow down a little, pace myself.” Whereupon he talked for six hours at high speed and vividly about his middle-class California childhood, his stint in Korea, his start in the mail room at MCA. “I don’t want to be just a filmmaker. MCA is in a lot of businesses. Besides, I’m totally and singularly without talent. I just like to stick my neck out. Asserting myself is my vocation.”
Sue Mengers, an agent with Creative Management Associates, is not much over 30, but already she is known as the most powerful woman in Hollywood. Her list of clients is formidable (Barbra Streisand, Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal, Peter Bogdanovich, Rod Steiger, Candice Bergen, Ann-Margret, Dyan Cannon, Gene Hackman, Dick Benjamin, Paula Prentiss) and she wields them like bludgeons to get what she wants. When bludgeoning doesn’t work, she has other tactics. Stumpy, dumpy and rumpy, she has been known to stand suddenly in the middle of a conference, hike up her skirt, scratch her crotch in full view of all present, sit down and go on talking business with startled opponents as though nothing special had happened. Born in Hamburg, Sue grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and settled for a job as an agent’s secretary because she couldn’t afford college. She arrived in Hollywood three and a half years ago and took the town by storm with her mad muumuus and feisty style. “Agents used to be flesh peddlers,” she says. “Now we’re idea brokers, too.”
“You’re on the firing line all the time. It’s like facing a machine that’s pitching shot-puts at you every few seconds. If you don’t keep catching them, there goes your head.”
Barry Diller is the most productive production chief in Hollywood; as boss of ABC’s film division, he turns out 51 movies a year, most of them for Movie of the Week and Movie of the Weekend. At 30, he is the youngest and statistically the most successful mass producer; in 1971, 15 of the 15 top-rated television movies were made by his division. Short and supercharged, Barry is as pale as marble from overwork and in profile looks startlingly like a bust of Julius Caesar. Though born rich, he dropped out of college and learned show business by working in a mail room. Like most of his peers, he is intense about his success and feels that there is something magical about it. “In a life like this,” he told me, “you don’t have the advantage of much sit-back. But I’d rather not analyze too much. I’m not going to mess in the matrix that has put it all together.”
Mike Medavoy, at 31 the head of International Famous Agency’s motion-picture department, is an outspoken and remarkably calm young man with a large view of the industry and its melancholy state. Born in Shanghai in a family of White Russian émigrés, he grew up in Chile and studied law at UCLA. Then he started in (you guessed it) the mail room at Universal, turned agent and went looking for fresh talent to grow up with. He had a great eye for it. In short order, he found Tony Bill, John Milius, Monte Hellman, Michael Crichton, Donald Sutherland, Irvin Kershner, Carol Eastman, Terry Malick, Jerrold Freedman, Henry Jaglom and a dozen others—all unknown at the time, all now names to conjure with in Hollywood. Like no other agent I met, Mike fights for the film business as hard as he fights for his clients. “If the young leaders don’t get together and save this industry,” he said, “we may find there’s no industry to save.” In the past few months, Mike has helped raise more than $20,000,000 to develop new productions.
Peter Guber, a darkly handsome man of 29 who less than three years after he left NYU’s graduate school of business administration was named vice-president in charge of American production at Columbia, has had no time to set off a firecracker string of hits, but he is plainly marked for an important role in the industry. Son of a Massachusetts scrap-metal dealer, he has a degree in law and describes the life of a movie mogul with the freshness of first acquaintance. “The big thing in these jobs is to stay sane and alive. Anything else is pure gravy. They’re incredibly punishing. You’re on the firing line all the time. It’s like facing a machine that’s pitching shot-puts at you every few seconds. If you don’t keep catching them, there goes your head. It’s the kind of experience you can’t buy and the kind of experience you can hardly live with. You’re hated by the wrong people for the wrong things and loved by the wrong people for the wrong things and rarely, no matter what prodigies you’ve performed, does anybody ever say thanks. So after a day of this, when you lurch into your mortgaged mansion with a carefully prepared smile on your face, and your wife says, ‘Hi, honey, steak or soufflé?,’ you can’t answer. You just can’t handle that big a problem.”
The explosives had been wired in. The actors were on horseback, ready to gallop off. Six cameras stood ready to roll. In the center of a junk yard lay a battered PBY, the last hope of escape for the little band of outsiders the film was all about. “Ready?” Alan Myerson asked his cameramen. Nobody breathed. It was the crucial scene in the picture, the scene in which the plane blew up, the one scene they could not reshoot.
“Ready,” the cameramen called softly.
“Roll ’em!” Alan shouted. The cameras whirred. “Fire one!” Alan shouted. The explosives expert hit the button.
Nothing happened. Then a silly little pop! was heard and a small puff of smoke rose from the plane. And that was all. Cast, crew, director stared at one another, then at the explosives expert, who looked ill. Desperate, he hit the second button. The PBY erupted in a magnificent fireball. The cameramen were so startled that only one camera caught the actors galloping from the scene.
“A producer just can’t have all those nice warm little fixes of approval that an actor gets. All a producer sees when he gets up in the morning is a long cold corridor of decisions.”
“It figures,” Tony thought grimly. Right from the start of shooting, trouble had stalked the Steelyard company. In the first week on location, a cameraman had been hospitalized with an eye injury. Then, through a misunderstanding, two actors had been hired for the same part. Jane Fonda soon came down with pinkeye and started throwing snits. Harold Schneider, a redoubtable but short-fused production manager, said she “needed a baby sitter,” and when Jane heard about it she blew her stack. All the while, the company was harassed by a Third World union group.
Yet as if by magic everything that went wrong came right again. When the cameraman had to leave, Tony got lucky and signed Laszlo Kovacs, the best there is. After Jane’s stack had blown, she hung in like a pro and went back to work. As it turned out, Laszlo even managed to squeak through the PBY fizzle with enough good footage to cover, and after 52 days of shooting the picture came in $75,000 under budget. Tony gives Harold Schneider, the youngest son of Abe Schneider, Columbia’s board chairman, much of the credit for that. “He drove the whole show along and stretched every dollar to the size of a bed sheet. That PBY, for instance, could have cost us $30,000, but Harold put it together with spit, Scotch tape, a few old plane parts and a couple of generator motors to turn the propellers.”
Tony deserves some credit, too. In Deadhead, he had discovered his limits; in Steelyard, he developed them into a style. By encouraging Mike, Julia and Harold to fight most of the daily battles, he saved his energy and authority for the big decisions and found that he could make them better if he stood a little apart. “I was finally getting used to the idea,” he told me, “that a producer just can’t have all those nice warm little fixes of approval that an actor gets. All a producer sees when he gets up in the morning is a long cold corridor of decisions.”
Was this really an industry in eclipse? Everywhere I went, I found action, ideas, struggle, good food, great laughs, spectacular women, colorful furies, the crackle of volted personalities. Nothing in the first two weeks had turned out as I’d been led to expect. The big production lots were dead, but the rest of the place was jumping. If Hollywood was a ghost town, the ghosts were having a ball.
Where was all the organization fodder I used to see, the prosperity types with the bad faces who stood around in expensive suits and laughed heartily because the boss wanted your money? “We took a hell of an enema,” one executive had told me, “and got the shit out of our blood.” What I was seeing now was the densest concentration of energy and brilliance I had encountered since my last visit to MIT. Hollywood today resembles one of those stars the astronomers call white dwarfs. Its collapse has reduced it to a hyperactive core of creative men and women who really care about making movies. Some of the most creative among them are pressing forceful measures to revive the industry.
I discovered that new and ingenious ways of financing films have been worked out. When banks refuse letters of credit, producers go to Wall Street, to industry, to the big pension funds, to the Eurodollar market, to private wealth. One producer told me he had siphoned $500,000 out of an oil sheik. Another claimed he was holding $100,000 from Nevada’s prostitution czar. Once a “nut” is put together, a producer can sometimes persuade a film-processing lab and an equipment-rental service to defer collection of their fees until the film is sold to a distributor. Sometimes a fast-talking producer can presell his product to a big distributor and use the agreement as a letter of credit. Distributor-exhibitors like Don Rugoff are heavy investors in film, and even a few minor exhibitors are getting the habit. All this puts pressure on the studios to compete for projects and gets the independent producer a better deal.
New and more flexible ways of marketing movies have been shaping up, too. When the big studios dismantled, they fired almost all their promotion people. “We led the world in showmanship,” one studio boss said sadly, “and now we couldn’t sell rice in Bangladesh. We just don’t have the bodies.” One of the few top promotion men left, Dick Lederer of Warner’s, told me that young producers and directors are beating his door down with fresh ideas. Graphics are becoming more startling, theater trailers more expensively hyped, TV ads more frequent and more fun.
I was told that fresh patterns of distribution are forming—for The Godfather, Paramount persuaded Loew’s to open the picture simultaneously at five of its top Manhattan houses—and that theater owners are getting some much-needed sass. At a recent meeting, a major independent producer informed them that most of their theaters were “an offense to the eye and a pain in the ass”—badly run down, much too big for the reduced audience and too often located in downtown neighborhoods where parking is nonexistent or overpriced. “The day of the Moorish monstrosity is done,” a distributor told me. “What we need are entertainment centers that express the spirit of the times, architecturally daring, a complex of theaters and cafés and promenades, an experience in themselves.”
All these initiatives, added to some interesting movies, have given a boost to the box office during the past nine months and moviemakers are pushing the money people hard for a boost in production. The “breakaway picture” is what everybody is after. “To get people out of the house these days,” Bob Evans told me, “a picture has to be an event.” After the bath they took with youth films, the money men are buying popular entertainment in the standard genres: big Westerns (The Cowboys), big musicals (Fiddler on the Roof), big best sellers (The Godfather, Deliverance), lusty thrillers (Diamonds Are Forever) and the kind of pie-eyed burlesque (What’s Up, Doc?) Buck Henry writes better than anybody.
Mass production demands a mass audience, and most moviemakers are agreed on the best way to get it back. “If the customers won’t come to you,” Peter Guber told me, “you’ve got to go to them. Get ’em where they live.” Pay TV is the “profit corridor” most executives want to open, and the corridor has several branches. Master antennae systems could reach millions in apartment houses, hotels, hospitals, jails, barracks. Cable TV, already installed in more than 6,000,000 homes, will have an audience of 100,000,000 by 1980. And transmission by satellite could once again put the whole world in Hollywood’s wallet. The day pay TV takes hold in any form will be the day Hollywood reindustrializes.
“The Seventies and Eighties,” one executive told me, “could bring a major crisis for free public television and the biggest boom in Hollywood history. It could bring the cost of seeing pictures back to where it was 40 years ago. The whole family could watch the world premiere of a new movie for a dollar or $1.50. Movies would have the biggest mass audience in their history. Think of it. In one night on pay TV, a movie could make $30,000,000. In three nights, it could beat Gone with the Wind!”
“I feel like Crusader Rabbit,” Tony said with a wry grin as he took a plane to the final preview of Deadhead Miles in Nashville. In Boston and New York, he told me, the previews had thudded—partly because they had been mismanaged. “The picture was shown at the wrong time to the wrong audiences, half the time it was out of focus and the sound was so low people missed most of the funny lines.” As for the computer analysis of the preview cards, it was a farce. “At the New York preview, only three people under 16 turned in cards. One liked the picture, two didn’t. So the computer gravely reported that 67 percent of that age group disliked the picture.”
Nashville was Tony’s last hope. “This picture ought to be a natural,” he told me, “for the country-and-western audience, which is the largest untapped movie audience in this country.” As the lights went down, he sat tense. The pretitle sequence, a truck highjacking, seemed to hold the audience. The sound was right this time and the picture clear; Tony had seen to that. Then came the first gag. They missed it. But three minutes later people began chuckling at Arkin’s take-off of a redneck. “You ever see a man step in a bucket of shit and come up with his shoes shined?” Arkin inquired at one point. They roared. The trouble with women, he announced, is that “they’ve got 55 percent of the population and all of the pussy.” They howled, and from there on they howled at almost everything Arkin said or did. Tony went out of there on a popcorn high.
Three days later, Bob Evans called and told me soberly: “According to the cards, it wasn’t all that good. Half liked it, half didn’t. Frankly, it looks as if this picture will have a hard time finding an audience.” Tony fought on. He wrote a three-page letter to Frank Yablans, the new president of Paramount, projecting the picture’s potential and laying out a release policy and a publicity campaign to extract that potential. Six weeks later, Yablans sent him a curt reply rejecting all his suggestions.
“So there we are,” Tony said, his eyes bright with anger. “They’re going to bury it.”
One fine Sunday morning in Santa Monica, a small man stepped out of a large Rolls-Royce and got undressed in the middle of the street. Slipping into a pair of trunks, he hailed a passing Meter Maid and asked her for a nickel, which he then put into the parking meter. After running a fast seven miles on the beach, he remounted his Rolls and rode back to Beverly Hills for breakfast. “Aaah!” he sighed happily. “Working under pressure fills you up with poison. Everything looks good after a run!”
Everything looks good to Fouad Said, period. As the inventor of Cinemobile, the most revolutionary development in film production since the start of the studio system, he is a rising power in Hollywood today. At 38, he will soon be one of the richest men in town. Though Cinemobile was established only seven years ago, the company now has units in New York, Toronto, Mexico City, London and Australia, as well as in Los Angeles, and last year it grossed almost $7,500,000.
“A Cinemobile unit is a motion-picture studio on wheels,” Said explained as we sat in his elegant little patio and piled into an enormous gourmet breakfast served by his 24-year-old Austrian wife. In his red Parisian jacket, yellow Italian sweater and gray-flannel slacks by Carmen Lamola, Said was playing peacock for the press and sultan to his charming harem of one. “Most movies nowadays are shot on location,” he explained. “It’s much cheaper than using sound stages. But location shooting has always been primitive and clumsy. With a big picture, you send out ten trucks with ten drivers, a crew of 70 and so much garbage that it takes you an hour to set up and an hour to wrap. With Cinemobile, no matter how big the picture is, you send out one truck and a maximum crew of 14. Ten minutes to set up, ten minutes to wrap. Cinemobile saves 20 percent of the cost of labor and materials on any picture and adds 25 percent to the daily output.”
On the way down to the Cinemobile garage, Said gave me his résumé: “Born in Egypt, had an uncle in the movie business, worked as assistant cameraman on Land of the Pharaohs, enrolled at USC and studied film, became a television cameraman and built my first Cinemobile in a Volkswagen bus while I was doing locations for I Spy.” In the garage there were eight vehicles, ranging in size from a small panel truck to a behemoth double-decker bus. “The little one rents for $300 to $350 a day and can cover most situations that arise on a television location. The big one costs $750,000, and rents for $1500 a day. It’s a loss leader. We made it to break the hearts of our competitors.”
Inside the big bus, there were five dressing rooms, seats for 32 passengers, an icebox for film, an 11-channel mobile telephone and two huge aircraft generators. All around the outside of the bus there were storage closets, 29 in all, and in each closet a different kind of production equipment (camera, sound, electrical, mechanical) was stored. The roof of the bus was fitted for use as a shooting platform. “Our new version,” Said said smugly, “will be a good deal longer and will include a complete kitchen and a rather large restaurant. No more box lunches.”
As we said goodbye, I asked him what Fouad Said meant in Egyptian. “Happy Heart,” he said, and smiled.
Cinemobile is only the leading edge of a new wave of technological change in the industry. While things were going well, the moguls yawned on their bed of roses and got by with that sturdy antique, the Mitchell camera, and a technology that disdained the transistor whenever a gear would do. Now, in desperation, they are contemplating techniques and instruments that may accomplish for motion pictures what rockets did for flight. Here are two more developments I discovered:
CMX, developed by CBS and Memorex, is a monstrously complex device that can collapse the costly five-month job of editing a movie into five working days. It operates like this: A director arrives with an uncut print of his film. CMX transfers the print to video tape and feeds the video tape to a computer. Then the director sits at a console and watches his movie on a small display screen. Merely by dabbing at the screen with a light pen he can instantaneously stop the footage, jump it backward or forward to any point he wants, join widely separated sections of the footage, drop them apart again, add or remove special effects (wipes, dissolves, irises); in short, screw around to his heart’s content with enormous speed and flexibility. And when he’s got what he wants, he can tell the computer to print it on video tape, which is then transferred onto film. “Working with a Moviola,” says Mel Sawelson of Consolidated Film Industries, where the world’s first CMX facility recently went into commercial operation, “an editor can make about six cuts an hour. Working with CMX, he can make more than 15. This one process can cut the cost of editing TV movies and feature films drastically.”
Computer Image is a small independent company with an eerie new process for making cartoons and movies. Put together by a team of computer fiends and far-out electronic engineers, the C.I. system is based on a new kind of interracial marriage between a digital and an analog computer. (“It was about as easy,” one engineer told me, “as getting a duck to marry a derrick.”) The computers are then interfaced with a video system that both records and displays images.
For all its complexity, the system is absurdly simple to operate. If a moviemaker wants to make a cartoon, all he has to do is let the system “see” some drawings of his major characters—a front and a side view of each is sometimes enough. By pushing buttons on a large console, he can make these basic drawings twist, turn, sit, stand, run, jump, laugh, cry, leer, sneer, cheer, disappear, drink beer—anything he can think of. When he wants to replay, he can replay; when he wants to revise, he can revise; when he wants to print it, he can print it on film or video tape. In a few hours, he can do as much animation as a manual animator can do in months, and he can do it so well that few experts can tell the difference between a hand-drawn and a computer cartoon.
But this, say the C.I. people, isn’t the half of it. When they use photographs instead of drawings, they get—that’s right, movies that look remarkably like real live-action movies. “With some hardware that we still have to develop, and with a considerably larger range of programs than we’ve used so far, it’s conceivable we could take a few hundred photographs of faces, figures and backgrounds and use them to make an entire feature film starring, say, Clint Eastwood and Greta Garbo.”
I began to feel really hopeful after talking to the technical people. The new technology will reshuffle the deck and give everybody, bosses and artists alike, new cards to play. But it will take more than technology to solve some of Hollywood’s problems. The social conscience seems to doze in Lotusland.
“Us niggers?” Melvin van Peebles said when I asked him to tell me about the position of blacks in the movie industry. “We ain’t shit.” Then he grinned. “Of course, now that they found out about the black film audience, they gonna bring some of us in from the cotton patch and make us house niggers.” In fact, since the black audience shelled out better than $15,000,000 to see Van Peebles’ third movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, ten movies about blacks have been rushed into production. Some of them—Blacula, for instance—sound like fun; most of them sound like Shaft rebored.
“Blacks still get screwed in movies made by white men. Black people have had the drug problem longer than anybody, but not one of those 15 or 20 drug movies they made was about the black drug problem!”
“What I’m afraid of,” said Janet MacLachlan, a golden-skinned actress with a head like a Benin bronze, “is that they’ll turn the black audience off with that crap. Blacks are hip and they’re getting more selective. I’d like to work and I don’t want a lot of dumb white producers killing off my market.”
The boomlet in black movies has given black actors a fair amount of work in recent months, but for a year before, Janet said, “there was damn little doing. Two years ago, we were in a sort of golden age for black actors, all the producers trying to do the social-problem bit. But then the public got tired of problems, and since blacks were equated with problems, we were all out of work. Even a big star like Jimmy Brown didn’t have a picture for 15 months.” As a black actor-writer named Max Julien put it: “You thought you had your foot in the door, but then you found out they were just using it as a doorstop.”
Most black actors I talked to were cynical about the town, if not downright bitter. They pointed out that in some of the technical unions there wasn’t a single black member. Marlene Clark, a spirited black beauty who looks like a slender Mother Africa, told me coldly: “Blacks still get screwed in movies made by white men. Black people have had the drug problem longer than anybody, but not one of those 15 or 20 drug movies they made was about the black drug problem!”
Max Julien and his actress wife, Vonetta McGee, a classic brown belle with a dazzling over-the-shoulder smile, take the whole town as a bad joke. “If you didn’t laugh at it,” said Vonetta, “this place could get your head fucked up. I’m just working for the bread.” Max is more involved. He wrote a script last year in Rome and a producer named Bill Tennant wants to make the picture. But someday Max wants to live in Rome again. “Over there,” he said, “when I told people I was an actor, they’d say, ‘How wonderful!’ In this town, you can see people thinking, ‘What a gifted guy. Bad luck he’s black.’ And it won’t change, you know. The blacks out here aren’t organized to change it and the whites aren’t about to bother.”
Billy Curtis lives with Blossom, his long-haired Chihuahua, in a tiny puke-green room at the back of a scabby little theatrical hotel in downtown Hollywood. “Come in! Come on in!” he ordered me in a high fierce voice. “You wanna know about midgets? I’ll tell you! We’ve been screwed by the big people, screwed!” He strode up to the couch I was sitting on and glared into my eyes. “To begin with, we’re not midgets. Midgets! The word means little flies! No, we’re people! We’re small people! I am a small man!” He leaned closer for emphasis. “A perfectly formed man!”
He whirled and moved as if on springs to the other side of the room, barely four feet tall but obviously in great shape for a man in his 60s. “OK. So the big people, not content with cheating us of our humanity, have denied us all real participation in their world. Can we join the Army? Can we get jobs in industry? Can we get state, county or city jobs? Just try it! We’re a lost minority! There’s only one thing a small person is allowed to do—be a freak!” He paused and let the word hang in the air.
“So,” he went on in a lower tone, “I’ve worked all my life as a freak. And I’ve been a good one. I’ve doubled for all the child stars.” He showed me photographs of himself dressed up as Shirley Temple. “I’ve even had a few good speaking parts. In a good year, I made $50,000, $75,000. I’ve had two wives, full-sized women. I’ve got children. I’ve got a pension coming from the Screen Actors Guild when I’m 65. It’s true I haven’t worked since last November and my savings are slipping away. But I’m better off than a lot of people my size and age. They’re a proud race, but I can tell you the most miserable thing on earth is an old freak.”
Tony sat very still in the window and stared out at the sun-sprinkled Pacific. He had put in a brutal week at the cutting table. The first cut of Steelyard, which Myerson had made on a houseboat in Sausalito, had left much to be done and Tony had been doing it about 12 hours a day. Mike and Julia had worked with him and now they were all at Mike’s beach house north of Malibu, talking the problems over with the scriptwriter, David Ward.
David, tossing his golden mane out of his eyes: “I know I’m supposed to raise hell, but what you’ve done looks pretty sane….I wonder, though. If we have enough of Jane dancing, I think we should cut to the jail scene.”
Julia: “I’d like to see her dancing expanded just a little, so that we feel Frank’s intrusion more.”
David: “It would also give some pace to her existence.”
Mike: “I think the Jane montage could be intercut with the pickpocket incident.”
David, browsing: “Mm. Well, I happen to think Gary’s big scene is terrible.”
Julia: “You’re noticing all the shit in it, David, and you’re forgetting that the Gary character really gets underlined there.”
“If there isn’t some kind of shared esprit, making films can be a brutalizing experience. We’re trying to find ways to work in which the means are as pleasant as the ends.”
Tony said nothing. His wife came and stood beside him, a slender feminine girl with reddish hair, like Tony hesitant but determined. They were watching their two children play on the beach. Peter was seven and Francesca six. A few days before, they had found a dead bird in their garden and buried it. Then they had sung “Jingle Bells” at the graveside to cheer the bird up. Now they were digging a cave “to live in.” Toni squeezed Tony’s shoulder—her name is Antoinette, they just happen to have the same nickname. “Sandwich?” she asked. “No, thanks,” he said, “I think I’ll take a walk.” He went out.
David, meanwhile, was explaining his feelings: “For me to hold to an original conception of the picture wouldn’t help now. I know that the script has no existence except as a film. There’s good faith between us. If the picture turns out different from the script, that doesn’t imply sabotage. Aesthetic problems are difficult. If there isn’t some kind of shared esprit, making films can be a brutalizing experience. We’re trying to find ways to work in which the means are as pleasant as the ends.”
Tony was sitting alone by the edge of the sea. He looked hunched. Later I asked if he was depressed. “Scared,” he said, looking straight at me. “I’ve been having blackouts. They come on suddenly and last a couple of minutes. The other day, while I was driving, I lost the peripheral vision in one eye and it didn’t come back for about half an hour. So I went to my doctor. He checked and the eye’s all right. He thinks there might be brain damage from the motorcycle accident. So this week I’ll be taking a lot of tests.” He smiled faintly. “Nothing to do but wait and see.”
I spoke separately and at length with two well-known psychoanalysts whose patients come from all levels of the film community. Both told me that the movie people they knew had gone through a tremendous emotional convulsion in the past few years and had come out of it dramatically changed—for the better. One of my informants was Dr. Sidney Prince; the other asked to be unnamed.
“The old order collapsed everywhere in the Sixties, but in the movie community the collapse was especially dramatic.”
Dr. A: “The stereotype of the running Sammy, the cardboard man, no longer dominates the scene. In the early Sixties, the problems were still power problems, all that jockeying in the studio hierarchies. Problems of stress. The Machiavellian thing takes a terrible toll on the emotions. Family problems just weren’t countenanced as such. Whole families were subordinated to social and business success. The women went right along with it, sacrificing the deeper aspects of their domestic life in the service of the same dragon. They suffered horrors. Whole families disintegrated with nobody knowing what the fuck was going on. Because, you see, the real source of the trouble was a vicious social system, the studio system that ran the town. But that was the one thing that couldn’t be questioned. That was the rock on which most lives—and analyses—foundered.”
Dr. Prince: “The old order collapsed everywhere in the Sixties, but in the movie community the collapse was especially dramatic. The big studios, the foundations of the film world, began to break up before one’s eyes. The superego died with Harry Cohn, you might say. The prison fell down around its inmates. They were free, and it was terrifying. It was in this situation that a lot of movie people turned to the counterculture to give their lives a new meaning. The orgy scene, the drug scene were very big here.”
Dr. A: “A lot of movie people were psychedelic. In the early stages, the drug thing was destructive, an attempt to break with the old way of being. People just exploded into pyrotechnic fantasies, and when it was all over a lot of burned-out Roman candles littered the ground. But the anarchy was creative, on the whole. It prompted existential and religious ecstatic fevers that loosened new energies. A lot of people did a lot of growing in those years.”
Dr. Prince: “Most of the movie people I see now are much more interesting than the ones I used to see, the young people especially. Much freer. Many, of course, are still secretly bound by the old patterns, can’t use freedom in an integrated way. The films reflect that conflict, I think—Carnal Knowledge, for instance. And another contradiction: I’ve heard a lot of movie executives proclaim a desire to break with the work ethic, but they go right on working like crazy. We’re in a period of consolidation now. Drugs are much less used, especially marijuana. Cocaine is hot, but I don’t think as hot as the papers say. It’s a period without a cause, but there’s a general movement in the direction of freedom. A lot of successful young executives help support communes and I know of quite a few group marriages—some of them made for economic as well as emotional reasons.
“Homosexuality, by the way, has practically ceased to be a problem in the film world. Five, six years ago, of course, it was a big problem. But the new freedom to express sexuality and a lot of other feelings seems to result in a normally heterosexual pattern with episodes of homosexuality here and there. And nowadays these episodes don’t seem to damage the personality.
“The strongest thing that’s happening is women’s lib. It hasn’t had much visible effect on the movie industry yet; the main thrust of the movement doesn’t seem to be economic out here. But it’s had a terrific effect on people’s private lives. There’s a struggle going on among the young people. The young women are demanding equality, including the right of adultery, and the young men are pushed out of shape. There’s really a revolutionary force in the women. I back them up. It leads to a kind of freedom most women have never experienced, a freedom to tell the truth, to say who they are and then to accept the consequences.”
Dr. A: “I’ve seen some big changes in the way young directors look at their work. For one thing, they aren’t in conflict with Hollywood anymore. That F. Scott Fitzgerald gulf between art and business is all gone. The other day, one of my patients said to me, ‘God, but I’m bored with art. The whole idea of a private statement elevated to a private art is a bore and a waste of time. I know it runs counter to everything I’ve ever felt, but this medium must be a public medium. It must interest others. God forgive me, it must entertain!’”
Dr. Prince: “Of course, Hollywood still attracts people who want an easy touch—passive people who want to be ‘discovered,’ the alienated and dysfunctional. And there is still the same old hierarchy of unhappiness. The less autonomy you have, the worse off you are. Actors are the most troubled. Producers are the least troubled. Directors are somewhere in between. Agents, of course, don’t even know there’s a problem.”
The big day. Tony, Mike, Julia and Alan showed up at Warner Bros. to show a rough cut of Steelyard to the Warner brass. By ones and twos, they wandered into the screening room. Dick Zanuck, David Brown, Ted Ashley, Dick Lederer. A few minutes into the film, Mike heard a peculiar noise behind him. It came from Zanuck and it sounded like a groan. Mike’s heart sank. Twenty seconds later, he heard the noise again. But it wasn’t a groan—it was a suppressed giggle.
Zanuck was giggling!
He giggled and chuckled off and on all through the screening, and when the lights went up, Ashley and Brown were smiling too. “I like it,” Ashley said. “It’s going to work.” Tony felt himself grinning so hard, he said later, that he expected the corners of his mouth to meet at the back of his head. But there were informational gaps in the film as it stood. Tony and company wanted to shoot a new beginning and several internal scenes. Would Warner’s put up the necessary cash? Ashley: “How soon can you start?”
Three weeks later, just before shooting began, Tony walked up smiling and told me that his tests (skull series, brain scan, EEG) had turned up nothing. “Could be I’ve got a little scar in there from the accident, the doctors say. Or maybe I’m suffering from tension. Can’t imagine why.”
It was a perfect day for the shoot. Blue sky, gold hills. We stood on a flattened hillock in an expensive hunt club and watched two boys run out and stuff live pigeons in a row of traps about 30 yards away. Beyond the traps there was a low fence. The object was to kill the bird before it flew over the fence. Twenty-five shooters had entered. Pigeon shoots are illegal in California, but these were rich people.
“I got into film when I was running wild with a gang of Hawaiians in Waikiki,” John Milius was telling me. “Sheer accident. I’d come out from Malibu to ride the big waves on the north shore of Oahu. I did it but I was scared, and that made me disgusted with myself. I was 18 and crazed for glory. So I ran wild with these Kanaka killers and we beat up sailors. Knocked them down and kicked their teeth out against the curbstones. Then one night I went to the movies and a Jap picture came on. It was Kurosawa. I sat there, stuck to the seat. When it was over, I knew. I knew I would spend the rest of my life making movies like that. And I have. And I will.”
“I know what it’s like out there in America. There’s a lot of sordid people. I do not choose to write about them. I choose to imagine the great beings they might become.”
Milius was a haired-over genius with warm merry eyes and the build of a pro tackle, who had become a Hollywood legend before he was 30. Gun freak, fascist, arrogant bastard, Faulknerian talent—I had heard him called a lot of things, including the shrewd son of a bitch who had made Paul Newman pay $300,000 for his script of Judge Roy Bean. Now he was waiting his turn on the firing line and worrying his favorite subject.
“The epic is what I go for. All these young writers trying earnestly to be real. Balls! They’re writing down about humanity. I know what it’s like out there in America. There’s a lot of sordid people. I do not choose to write about them. I choose to imagine the great beings they might become. What excites me is grandeur, the heroic vision, and the screen is superbly suited to that—Greed, The Searchers, Seven Samurai, anything by John Ford—Jeezuss! Did you see that shot?”
Released from the trap, a pigeon had bolted straight at the shooter—an impossible shot, but the shooter had made it. The bird had exploded about 20 feet in front of him, a sunburst of blood and feathers. Cradling his shotgun, the shooter flicked a feather that had settled on his expensive hunting jacket and turned to nod at the polite applause.
“Judge Roy Bean,” John was saying, “is imagined on the epic scale. I think it’s a great movie. I wrote it to blitz the competition, to show off, to ennoble the medium. You want to see what a great screenplay is like? OK, this is how you do it. Bean is me. Me as I envision my powers. A giant. He never questions anything he does. I never question anything I do. In the surf at Malibu, I mastered the flying-wheel cutback and the back-arched bottom turn. Any man who can do these things has no need to question himself. Bean is a god, a god of vengeance. I love vengeance! ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,’ and He never laid claim to anything else!”
John swelled as he spoke, an epic poet in full song. His eyes were as clear as a child’s, rapt with the tale he was telling, and the sun twinkled mythically in his Homeric beard. Over his shoulder I saw a boy about 12 with a girlish face step up to the shooting strip. He wore a red-white-and-blue cap decorated with stars and stripes and he killed four birds in a row. The two bird boys ran about the infield gathering bloody parcels. One boy, overloaded, threw a dead pigeon at the other boy, who caught it like a baseball. Then they ran to a row of large metal garbage cans, their hands and faces smeared with blood and the pigeons dangling like wet cloth.
“I’d almost rather shoot than write. I once shot a typewriter to death, in fact. And two alarm clocks, one at eight, one at nine.”
“When I start writing a movie,” John was saying, “I’m the last man who knows where it’s going. I start with a gesture. A man walks up to a horse and shoots it between the eyes. ‘Cook it,’ he says. ‘I’m hungry.’ Or like once I heard somebody say, and really mean it, ‘I have torn up your lawn with my car and vomited on your living-room floor and fucked strange girls in your bed. But I assure you, ma’am, I have never to my knowledge pissed in your steam iron.’ They’ll all tell you, Milius doesn’t know what in hell he’s doing. He just blunders through—but the more he blunders, the better it gets. Stretches of plot, whole scenes come to me as I go, and I just write ’em down. No notes, no second drafts. I don’t think of myself as literary. As soon as you get the intellect at work, you kill something. I get totally swallowed up in it, in the people, and I love them forever.”
A handsome gray-haired woman with steady eyes was shooting. She winged the first bird but failed to kill it. It limped up to the fence and made frantic attempts to fly over, but its wings wouldn’t work. Beyond the fence a hawk cruised lazily. Her second bird got away and flew back to the coop, to be used again at the next shoot; but the third and fourth birds stumbled about the infield, walking wounded. As she left the strip, the boy with the red-white-and-blue cap congratulated her on her shooting and she smiled sweetly. The bird boys picked up the wounded pigeons by their heads and twirled them, snapping their necks.
John missed one bird out of four on his round and grinned ruefully. “I should have brought the Grand American. I can hardly miss with that.” John has ten shotguns, including a pair of Purdeys that would bring $12,000 on the open market. “I love a fine gun,” he went on almost reverently. “My Purdeys contain finer craftsmanship than the finest watch, and I’d almost rather shoot than write. I once shot a typewriter to death, in fact. And two alarm clocks, one at eight, one at nine.
“People in Hollywood don’t understand this side of me. There’s a lot of rich flower people here, and shooting scares ’em. I understand how they feel, maybe better than they do. Fine feelings are important, but what kind of fine feelings make a man wince at a few slaughtered birds while he’s ruining somebody’s life with a lawsuit or shooting a movie in which the violent death of dozens of human beings is the crux of the entertainment? Hollywood is grossly hypocritical, that’s the real trouble with movies today. Movie people, maybe more than most people today, have lost natural touch with their instincts, with the subhuman and superhuman sides of life, the elementals—real loving and real anger, fear you can taste and belief that burns you, killing life and bearing life, feeling things in your bones. I want to get back to that kind of life and I mean to make that kind of movie. Now do you understand how dangerous I am?”
Milius and his raptures, though we both knew they were partly strut, lit a flare in my conscience. I’d been rubbernecking, jolted from wonder to wonder like a kid in a fun house, too busy to realize that something I cared a lot about was missing in the new Hollywood. I was glad the cold wind from the market place had blown so much fluff away. I respected the new hardness and practicality. But I found myself quietly appalled at how savagely, in the name of commercial necessity, the town had turned against its most gifted children. Many of the young directors whose first films lost money because movies about the counterculture had become a glut on the market are now coldly considered unemployable. And in turning against this generation, I suspect that Hollywood has turned against passion. The balance has been over-redressed; there is too little John Milius and too much Ross Hunter in Hollywood now. In one day toward the end of my stay, the word entertainment was spoken in my hearing exactly 163 times. In all the weeks I was there, I heard the word passion used only once—by Francis Coppola. “I cannot work without passion,” he said. What creator can? Good entertainment, like all good art, is produced by passionate people: Chaplin, Capra, Bergman, Bertolucci, Kubrick. But right now in Hollywood, the creators as well as the businessmen are running scared. They have been intimidated by numbers—understandable enough in a medium that costs $30,000 a day to use. Nevertheless, what I came to fear most in the new Hollywood was its reasonableness. What I missed most was the sight of that great beast, the enraged imagination, rearing up and clawing the whole world into amazed submission. “But you can’t blame a studio executive for not supporting a genius farm,” Coppola told me, “especially not now. He’d have to be a giant.” I know. But now and then, Hollywood does produce a giant.
The last time I saw Tony, we met in a restaurant. Shooting of the new scenes for Steelyard had started and was going well. He seemed cheerful but abstracted. When I asked him what he was going to do after Steelyard, he said he had commissioned a screenplay based on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood—“Sold my house to pay for it.” Then there was a script about pirates, one about a fat girl, one about hobos, one about sailing that Tony himself was writing. And a screenplay by David Ward about a con man. And….He hesitated, flushing with anger. “Tell you a little Hollywood story. For years, I’ve wanted to do a movie about barnstorming. I researched it in libraries, went to see some old barnstormers and talked about their experiences. I guess I collected a dozen books and 60 pages of research. Well, one night a good friend came to dinner, a very energetic and idealistic young director. I told him about my barnstorming movie. He said it sounded just great and asked if he could take the books home to read. I said sure. Fade out.
“Some months later it struck me that he hadn’t returned the books. So I called and asked if he could send them back. There was this peculiar silence at the other end of the line. ‘Well, uh,’ he said finally, ‘I’m afraid the girl who’s writing the script lost them.’ I still didn’t get it. ‘What script?’ I asked him. ‘Well, uh, the one for the barnstorming movie I’m going to make,’ he said. ‘It’s about this guy who finds an old airplane and goes barnstorming with his young son. It’s really terrific!’ And he started to tell me the plot of the picture, which he later made. Probably be released soon. Well, I hung up before he finished and somehow we’re not friends anymore. Nothing I could do about the theft—you can’t copyright an idea. But that postpones the barnstorming project. Nice, huh? Everybody’s talking about the new Hollywood. Just thought I’d let you know that the old Hollywood isn’t dead.”