Film Studies: Movie people aren't mad; they just like a good line

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The Independent Culture
Because I write a column on movies and southern California, that vast asylum to the picture business, I often receive troubled queries from friends, and displays of flat-out anxiety from those near me, as to whether or not I'm getting too close to a world in which "They're all mad - aren't they?"

To which I sometimes give the explanation once offered by Jack Warner to John Wayne. The story is that a few of Wayne's films for Warner Brothers were said to be not in profit. This had never happened before with the Duke and he guessed at rigged accounting. There came the night of a grand studio party, at which brazen Jack Warner seized the nettle.

"So, Duke," he said. "I hear you're sour."

"Well, yes, Jack, I am."

"Spit it out."

"You're screwing me."

"Of course we are, Duke," says Warner. "But everyone gets screwed. The lousy thing is being screwed by people you don't know. But we're your friends. We do it nicely, Duke. We show respect."

The taciturn actor was said to be left silent and hurt.

In some earlier cultures, this would have been a shaming story - because the supposedly heroic Wayne "took" it, and because Warner was so cynical.

That the story has passed into legend suggests, however, that there was a raw exultation that went with Warner's candour. He loved the anecdote - the way he had topped a great star and come up with an immortal line. (Do not exclude the possibility that one of his contract writers had thought of it, though.) For this was, and is, a culture that lives by its lines. People here will say anything for effect whether or not they believe, or even understand, it.

Now, you may conclude that it is already an indication of insanity or disturbance when people say things they don't mean, and which may be the opposite of what they intended. Well, maybe so in Britain's stalwart shires and seaside towns. But in Los Angeles it's not just "lies allowed" but "lines, always". And knowing what is a punchline, and how to deliver it, can be taken as a sign of wit, intelligence - and sanity.

Let me give you another example from one of my favourite linesmen, David O Selznick. He loved to have writers around because they raised the level of conversation. Selznick always had several scripts on the boil, and several writers on each of them (whether they knew it or not). One day, hurrying across the backlot, he bumped into one of those writers - English possibly, or East Coast, in tweed, with a pipe - who had delivered a new version of a scene the previous day.

"How'd you like the new scene, David?" he asked.

"Aha," said Selznick, slowing a little as he tried to recollect what the guy was talking about. "Oh, right. Yeah! Tell you what."

"Yes, David."

"I think it needs a re-write first."

"You do?"

"I do."

"What direction would you suggest I take?"

"Oh, I don't know. I haven't read it yet."

If you suppose that that marks Selznick as a madman, I'm not going to get in a fight over it. I have no doubt that you are a model of exemplary grammar and level-headed with it. But allow me to say that you are not for Hollywood. For you are missing the astonishing flair of Selznick's remark, the way in which, at a swoop, it shifts the terrible writing process into limbo, and the airy manner in which it highlights the writer's natural, but rather small-minded inferiority.

You see, Hollywood is crazy only if you retain a sentimental adherence to such things as logic, evidence, humanism, scientific proof and ordinary civil decency. Look around you, and you will soon be compelled to admit that such desirables hardly obtain any longer. Do not underestimate the extent to which the movies have been a deeply influential force on behaviour, attitudes and lifestyle. And can you really say that we don't live in a culture where a knock-out line can blow away reason, morality, law and ... what else was there?

Now, you may change your tack: you may say that it's not so much that Hollywood is a place for lunatics as a cockpit of self-interest, so fierce, so mocking, that cruelty can pass for comedy. It's good that we've come to such reconciliation in so short a space of newsprint.

Hollywood is a community where survival and money are everything, and a place where sanity has a poor track record. But I cannot disapprove of survival; it is a basic human instinct, and we all may come to lean on it. The concentration camps have taught us that survivors may do demented things - but they feel that other options have let them down.

Is Hollywood that bad? It is certainly the place where lessons include the ones that say, "It is not enough that I succeed. My best friend must fail", and "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member". Those lines come not from barbarians, but from Gore Vidal and Groucho Marx. Such lines can raise howls of mirth; they make heroes and they are signposts more to the abyss than the asylum.

These days, there are too many crazies for the scheme of institutions to hold. And so people go to lunch in LA and feed their bodies while uttering lines that dissolve their souls. And some of them, of course, are pillars of society.