When Faber & Faber were looking for a diarist to document the Hollywood year, they wanted someone who would tell it like it really is. So they asked screenwriter James Toback
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
James Toback may be best known for his viciously funny, comically violent screenplay for Bugsy (1991), which turned the career of Ben Siegel and the founding of Las Vegas into a show-business story as well as a criminal epic. It is Toback's unique talent to mix and confuse the world of crime with that of art, education and respectability. He moves with startling ease from intellectual concerns to anecdotes about bookmakers, gangsters and assorted low-lifes. Nowhere has that disturbing mixture been more appreciated than in Hollywood. Toback's first credit was the script for Karel Reisz's The Gambler (1974), in which James Caan plays a college professor whose chronic gambling incurs the wrath of the underworld. While in Fingers (1978), his remarkable dbut as writer and director, Harvey Keitel plays a mob enforcer who longs to become a concert pianist. Of Russian descent, Toback was born in New York in 1944, the grandson of a tycoon in the furniture business. He went to the best private schools and to Harvard. He was married, briefly, into the English aristo-cracy. But he also spent time hanging out with Jim Brown (one of the great running backs in the history of the National Football League). That exper-ience made for Toback's book, Jim (1971), the candid portrait of a great sports star and an eerie harbinger of the OJ Simpson affair. Toback's other films as writer and/or director include Love and Money, Exposed, The Pick-Up Artist and The Big Bang. In writing this journal for 1994, Toback allows the reader to witness his struggle to get something new made. The diary may seem neurotic and rootless, yet that is true to Hollywood life where the artist and businessman alike must be opportunist, hustler, "gambler" - and, above all, patient. David Thomson

1 January 1994

Phone talk throughout the day with my three movie regulars and great, dear friends: the beloved Warren Beatty; the smart, witty, talented Barry Levinson; and my agent of 16 years, Jeff Berg, the chairman of ICM (it never hurts to be close to a chairman). I could in fact make this movie journal little more than a compendium of the conversations I have with these three Hollywood stars, all of them more powerful in the industry - according to any of those "hundred most" lists so favoured by glossy magazines this past decade - than your humble diarist, but I'll go for variety instead. Besides, increasingly, the substance of my talks with each of these communicants has become well-intentioned queries and (excepting Barry) pressures on the two scripts I should have finished already and started shooting: Shrink and Harvard Man. (Harvard Man, I should note, is a script which, unlike Shrink, I am writing on speculation. For a writer- director, particularly one with a constitutional inability to hold on to money, this is akin to a high-wire walker performing without a net.)

When Warren, Barry and I made Bugsy we were, for about a year, physically and psychologically all but inseparable. Since then, Barry has made two movies: Toys and the terrifically funny, skilful and engaging Jimmy Hollywood, several versions of which I have seen in the past month as his post-production journey comes to a conclusion. Warren has written, produced and starred in Love Affair, an elaborate and stylishly elegant remake of An Affair to Remember and the earlier Boyer-Dunne Love Affair. Jeff Berg has set and shepherded the deals of 40 movies. I, on the other hand - while I did write some scenes for Love Affair - have achieved, as of this moment, nothing to speak of since Bugsy. I do have Shrink and I do have Harvard Man. But a movie is more than a script in the hands of its author. One moves, analogically speaking, from masturbation to romance to orgy in the conception and execution of a film. I am still a step away from romance on both projects.

17 January (The Earthquake)

Lying in my large and comfortable bed in the Peninsula Hotel, I wake up to the rumblings and shakings of . . . the second Big Bang. I've been in previous earthquakes, six or seven of them, but the cumulative impact of all of them put together doesn't come close to the cataclys-mic effect of this bomb. It's as though the shaking won't stop. And although one is later to find out that the actual duration was 45 seconds for the first blast and 15 for the second, since one doesn't know how long each blast is going to last, each feels as though it is going to last until the destruction is complete.

In retrospect I feel pleased to the point of smug satisfaction that I didn't panic. In fact, even with hysteria and panic just beneath the surface (a line I realise I'm lifting from Rudolph Nureyev's role in Exposed), I responded with near-glacial detachment. I thought, "What must I get hold of before I run outside?" Harvard Man and Shrink. No time for anything else. Un-Xeroxed, non-databased, the only copies being those resting on the hotel desk, I grabbed my notebooks and ran into the hallway. Ten or so frenzied guests in bathrobes or underwear were already screaming and bumping into each other. I, having fallen asleep in jeans, a shirt and a blazer, found the emergency exit and pointed to it as if leading a charge. "This way!" I shouted, feeling consciously like John Wayne. The crowd followed as I opened the door and ran downstairs and outside into the courtyard in front of the hotel. Pandemonium in pitch black, with a few transistor radios in the centre of huddles of people, revealing stabs at news. But the confusion was clearly as overwhelming in the minds of the reporters as in the minds of those hungry for knowledge of their fate.

The effect of celebrity - knowing no bounds, not even those of natural disaster - is operative from the start. Whispers identify Michael Bolton, Elle MacPherson and Gerry Levin of Time Warner (scurrying about with his cellular phone trying to locate a plane). I don't exempt myself. I was quite taken by the sight of Tony Bennett, who appeared to have spent the evening preparing himself for the occasion in full and elegant coif. We looked at each other for a moment, and then I said, "I think we met the night of the Academy Awards with Danny Aiello in the Polo Lounge."

"That's right," he said, "but Danny did most of the talking."

"Well," I said, "it looks as if we'll have a chance to start a relationship now." He laughed and I felt an immediate sense of rapport with this legendary figure, whose singing had reached me and moved me in a way that few if any popular singers had when I was in high school. I launched into riffs on the death of California as a viable state, watching earnest nods of affirmation from the man who, with "I Left My Heart in San Francisco", was probably more responsible for the elevation of the image of the state than any other 20 singers this century. He talked about an earthquake in Japan when he was singing with Count Basie 20 years ago, an earthquake he slept through.

There was something oddly splendid about this sense of being stranded in darkness and space, but not so splendid that my primary conscious thought was other than to find a way to the airport and get out on whatever contraption might be flying. I was struck by how thin and flimsy my allegiance to this second home in fact was. I had, after all, spent half my adult life in the Los Angeles area, had done most of my setting up, much of my pre- production, most of my post-production work there, and had shot one full movie, Love and Money, in the area. Clearly, this was a place of work, not a home, because I did not feel any sense of treachery, abandonment or cowardly flight which, in retrospect, should have been at least vaguely present in my mind.

With dawn, I bribed the parking attendant to get my rented Mustang convertible out of the garage, a feat he had finished only seconds before telling several people it was impossible. (Just because I'm ready to die, doesn't mean I'm willing to be buried alive in rubble.) Who knows what rage he had to face from other ship-jumpers after I sped off unaware of what holes in the earth I might be driving into. Rather than listening to news of the catastrophe on the radio, I played tapes - Brahms's German Requiem, with Otto Klemperer conducting, and the end of the St Matthew Passion - appropriately dirgeful music. If LA isn't a wasteland under ordinary circumstances, it certainly was this morning. The only noticeable faces and bodies on the drive to the airport seemed like extras who had wandered out of Mad Max or its sequel. When I got to the American Airlines terminal, I parked my Mustang - or, more precisely, Budget Rent-a-Car's Mustang - at the curb and rushed in to buy a ticket. Budget would have to find its car in its own way, as I was not to be distracted by the contractual responsibilities of automobile return. The only flight to New York was full, but bribery again saved the day. (Is money, after all, the answer to crisis?) A venal ticket agent accepted a crisp hundred-dollar bill slipped into his palm and escorted me to Flight 1 to JFK. A major aftershock caused the entire terminal to shake violently just before I boarded.

Somehow finding Matthew Modine on board rendered the entire experience reunion-like, as if going back to camp or high school to see old friends. Matthew and his wife, Cari, had fled the Beverly Wilshire which, having been built many decades before, hadn't weathered the storm so well. The deepest fear we seemed to have was that somehow we had violated a certain pact, a certain sense of sportsmanship. But each reinforced the other's justifications, and by the time we landed in New York, the only reason we didn't go to a party to which we had all been invited was that the plane had arrived too late.

29 January

An old friend, a novelist and critic, sends me a script. What is wanted? Advice? Help? What am I going to say if I think the script is worthless or just not good enough to make? He asks for an honest and frank response, but suppose the response is "bury it"? I almost feel like finding an excuse not to read it at all, but by page 5 I'm relieved, and by page 50, thrilled. It's a terrific script and would - will, I hope - make a great movie. When I express all this to the writer on the phone and suggest Nastassja Kinski, whom I used in the lead in Exposed, he is elated.

Everyone I've ever known connected with the movies, myself profoundly included, needs and loves genuine reassurance and approval, particularly in the early stages. Am I on the right track, or have I gone mad? I write everything by hand, so the first person to see what I'm doing is invariably the typist or computer whiz. More often than not, this person has no particular affinity for movies in general or me in particular, and if she or he doesn't respond properly ("My God, what a hilarious, overwhelming, riveting, devastating work of art this is! Whom are you going to allow to finance it?"), I descend instantly into paranoia ("You didn't find that funny? You didn't love the ending?").

When I was preparing Fingers, my production office was part of the Faberg Brut perfume layout in the Burlington building in New York. George Barrie, the head of the company and producer of Fingers, had recently put his friend Cary Grant on the Faberg board. One day, after going over a shot- list with my cameraman, Michael Chapman, I was stunned suddenly to see Cary himself right there in the flesh in front of me. George introduced us. Cary shook my hand, and I came up with the only line I could think of at the moment. "I've always loved you," I said, "on the screen. Everything I've ever seen you in. Whatever else is going on, if you're in it, I'm hypnotised." There ensued what to me felt like a 10-minute silence as our eyes locked. Finally, to break the silence, I added: "I know you must hear this sort of response to you all the time, so forgive me for embarrassing you."

Cary continued looking straight into my eyes and spoke with great passion in a quiet voice: "Not only do I not hear all the time what you just said, I rarely hear anything like it. And far from being embarrassed, I'm immensely pleased and gratified to hear it. And if you want to say it to me every time we meet, I'll be extremely happy to listen." At the time, I thought he was simply being polite, but six movies later I'm more inclined to believe that, to the very end, even Cary Grant needed to know he was admired.

6 February

Harvey Keitel invites me to a gathering at his Malibu beach house. It is one of the accoutre-ments of Harvey's late-found, newly arrived fame that actors and directors pay court to him now - or, more precisely, come to his court. Actors and rock musicians have formed a cult fan club since Mean Streets, but not in nearly the numbers nor with the unadulterated intensity that is now evident. Christopher Penn, Bruce Willis, David Caruso, Quentin Tarantino, Wayne Wang - are all happy to be in Harvey's orbit. Abel Ferrara wonders what I've been doing.

"We miss you," he says. "We need you. You've got to get back in action."

I cruise onto automatic pilot: "I'm doing two things. Harvard Man, which is what I've been obsessed with doing for years - acid flip-out madness, basketball-fixing, sex, crime, orgasm, love, death, oblivion; and Shrink, with Beatty. I'm not sure which one will be first, but both will happen, back-to-back, soon."

He's thrilled and wishes me luck. How many more times am I going to give that little speech before I start one of these two movies?

15 March

Warren calls. It is not one of our nominal, banter-filled, wit-competitive, daily chats. It is rather concern in the form of reprimand or reprimand in the form of concern.

"So when do you think you'll have Shrink in shape for me to read it, typed neatly from beginning to end?"

"I'll read it to you," I say.

"When? Give me a date."

"March 22nd."

"Is that a commitment?"

"Yes," I answer.

"Can we say that if you do not meet that commitment that you no longer consider yourself to be a serious or responsible person?"

"Yes," I respond.

"Can we assume that your desire to make movies will have vanished completely, and that your sense of resignation as an artist will be complete if you miss that date?"

"We can assume it," I say.

"How many years overdue are you on this script?" he asks. "Three and a half?"

"One and a half," I answer.

Warren: "Oh, I'm sure it's more than that."

"No, one and a half."

Warren: "I'm sure it's at least two."

"No, one and a half."

Warren: "You repeat one and a half as if to be only one and half years over is an achievement."

"No. I'm embarrassed. I feel bad about it. I wish it hadn't happened. But when I give it to you, both of us will be glad we've waited as long as I have."

A long pause. "We'll see." Click.

12 June

OJ Simpson. This will be the flash sensation news story of the next five years. My memories of OJ at Jim Brown's house in situations involving a multiplicity of sexual players is that the effect was one of studied enjoyment and forced camaraderie, but that the mind behind it was filled with anxiety and competitive rage.

It raises and will probably continue to raise the thorniest of questions between the sexes, which is when anger and jealousy become physically expressed in violence, is it always purely the work of a vile bully who should be electrocuted at the stake, or is it at least in analytical terms a seductive, destructive dance of mutual provocation? I'm reminded of how much of the territory once staked out by the novel, then by film, is now held by TV news. The sense of action, excitement and surprise so artificially and feebly played out in contemporary films is not infrequently vivid on CNN.

13 June

Warren, predictably, suggests that I will use the OJ Simpson case as a narcotic to avoid completing Shrink. I am acting out the movie regularly in various locations, often jumping back and forth playing all roles. There is a chance that I will be carted off at some point. One man who saw me yelling at an empty space on the street came over to offer consolation.

"I know how you feel," he said, "It's those demons."

"No, it's just for a movie," I said.

He smiled knowingly.

19 June

Dustin Hoffman sends me Outbreak, a virus script which he's going to do with Wolfgang Peterson. He feels - with justification - that the dialogue can use a good deal of help and insists I'm the only one who can do it. Just what I need! Another opportunity to spread out. Secretly, I know I have to say no. Saying yes would rip the borders of decorum into travesty. But I choose to say no by asking for an outrageous amount of money and by refusing to meet Peterson before receiving a concrete offer matching my demands.

"Why," I ask the producer arrogantly, "should I discuss my ideas, give them away, when that's presumably what I would be paid for? If this were my own movie I would steal to get it done. But you are talking about offering me a job. Make an offer."

"But wouldn't you just come out and meet for an afternoon with Wolfgang?" she repeats.

"I don't think that would be a good idea," I say, and we lose each other on a mobile phone.

Scrutinising my motives, I decide it is actually Das Boot [Peterson's 1981 movie about a German U-boat crew] which bothers me. The fact that Jews all over the world were seduced into paying tribute to this Nazi apologia as a little work of art doesn't, in any way I can glean, lessen its Nazi soul. Here are a bunch of loyal Nazis in uniform just doing their job, some of them good, others not so good, the movie seems to say. Well, thank you but no thank you. Dustin, self-conscious philo-Semite that he is, doesn't seem to see it in that light. It's always fun to talk to him. He's smart, with a truly hilarious and filthy sense of humour. He's totally faithful to his wife and completely obsessed with sex. How many men on the planet Earth can make that statement with a straight face?

4 July

A sad, barren day. The entire American movie community is either in the Hamptons or LA. Everyone must be part of a couple and every couple must have a child or two. Fireworks for the family! No bad news, please. Movies that make us laugh or smile or, two or three times a year, frown. But no shocks, no nightmare, no catastrophe. Schindler's List is about as far as "Hollywood" can go. It is done with forceful technical skill and ferocious emotional impact. Nothing in Spielberg's career would have prepared me, at any rate, for a film of such complexity, seriousness and historical ambition. And any skilful effort at making people see what took place is welcome. But I am seized by a point made by Karel Reisz (both of whose parents perished in the Holocaust): how is one to respond to a movie which addresses the subject of the incineration of six million Jews and yet ends with a feeling of resolution and even celebration that a couple of thousand were saved, as if that slender anomaly were cause for some sense of triumph?

I walk the streets - nearly empty - talking to myself, talking to my dead father, my dead grandfather, my dead former nurse, all the people who made the Fourth of July a real holiday 45 years ago, when I was just beginning to be formed. I flash back to the Polo Grounds where, from the age of six until 12 my father, mother, cousin and I would watch the New York Giants - before their treacherous move to San Francisco - play either the Phillies or the Cardinals, Fourth of July double headers. Stern effort and an overwhelming sense of embarrassment do not stop me from breaking down in tears. I force myself to think of my unfinished work and the crying stops. Nothing like pressure to interrupt an emotional indulgence.

! The full text of this diary appears in `Projections 4: Film-makers on Film-making', edited by John Boorman, Tom Luddy, David Thomson and Walter Donohue. Copies of `Projections 4', the first 200 of which will be signed by James Toback, can be ordered direct from Faber & Faber, Burnt Mill, Elizabeth Way, Harlow, Essex CM20 2HX. Send a cheque for £9.99 (inc p&p) payable to Faber & Faber Ltd; or, for credit-card purchases, call 01279 417134. Please allow 28 days for delivery.