Film Studies: Lunch will never be the same in that town again

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The Independent Culture

If anyone ever assembles the great anthology of Hollywood writing, it has to include the prelude to Julia Phillips's 1991 book, You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. The prelude is set on April 2, 1974 (Academy Awards day).

Julia will be 30 in a week, but before that celebration there's tonight when she and her husband Michael (both smart, Jewish and from ambitious families) will find out whether their film, The Sting, wins Best Picture. They have a newish baby, Kate, and as Julia nearly retches over the smell of warming formula, she does the day's first line of coke. "Smooth. I do a hit, then another. I roll a joint and smoke it out on the deck. Less than a hundred yards from me, the ocean beats down in heavy waves against the sand. I pace, my heart beating in triple time to the waves." The mail comes as she's doing four Valium halves and there's a note from a friend, guessing they will win: "You are about to have a lot of temptation thrown your way," it warns, "so try not to forget that you are 'nice sweet people.'"

Well, they won, and there was better than The Sting to come. Michael and Julia Phillips would produce Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though Julia, who did most of the wretched line producing on Close Encounters got edged aside because she and Michael were split by then.

Indeed, they let the inevitable break take them in different directions on a Mexican holiday right after The Sting's Oscar night. And now, on the first day of 2002, Julia Phillips is dead in her West Hollywood apartment, from cancer in many parts. I'm sure there were those in Hollywood who looked up at the news and admitted they were surprised she had still been alive.

The New York Times ran a good obituary, with the copy-line: "From inner circle to outcast, thanks to one scathing book about moviemaking." The book, of course, was You'll Never Eat Lunch..., a best-seller, but far from the grand gesture of hara-kiri that legend says. Yes, it was a tough, scandalous book that reported ignominious talk among the great ones. And it was an embarrassment to which the party line responded that Julia had let down the rules of the club, turned on old friends and good, sweet people and ensured that plenty of restaurants would have no table for her.

On the other hand, the book was a smash, very well written and such compulsive, hilarious entertainment that – on the whole – it was better to be named in it, and briefly damned, than omitted. The book was a come-back, for Julia Phillips had been far, far away from the action for over a decade. As far as a line of the allegedly smooth stuff will stretch.

There's another thing to be said about the story, and it's something Ms Phillips was always saying in her best in-your-face, aggressive Jewish bitch manner: it was that you guys (the Hollywood club) don't take women seriously; you like us around and gorgeous and perfectly dressed and fuckable; but you don't like us to fuck around and screw people on a deal and talk back and make anti-Semitic jokes the way you guys do. In other words, we aren't allowed to be players.

Of course, the guys could and did say that that wasn't it at all; that Julia was Julia, out of control, an addict, and a would-be actress who simply couldn't resist saying ghastly, awful (if memorable) things to important people. They'd tell you that Julia was her own worst enemy. To which, I suspect, she would have agreed – why leave a key role to be played by someone else? Not many restaurants closed their doors to Julia Phillips, not in that year or so when she was a hit again. And no one ever claimed that she had got Hollywood wrong in her book. In which case, you have to give a little more credence to the theory that Hollywood is prepared to let the club be run by raving egotists, indictable rascals, desperate addicts of one thing or several others, betrayers, connivers, hypocrites, and foul-mouthed swine. So long as they are guys. And so long as they are guys who honestly believe in the existence of "nice, sweet people", the ones they're proud to call friends – as opposed to relatives. And so long as girls don't get to crack the jokes.

Phillips did a second book, in 1995, Driving Under the Affluence, nowhere near as good. She had lived once on the narrow, nervy white line. And you can't stay there for long. But she had nailed the bastards, and nothing in her own disorder alters that.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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