High-concept high roller

The life and death of producer Don Simpson is a classic tale of modern Hollywood. By Kevin Jackson
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Some pundits and pop-culture spotters have nominated 1976, annus mirabilis of punk, as the year when the Sixties finally died. If there is any sense to this way of talking, then there may be a certain morbid timeliness about the otherwise grimly premature death of Don Simpson on 19 January 1996, at the age of 52, exactly six years after the end of the Eighties. In partnership with his considerably less extroverted buddy Jerry Bruckheimer, Simpson - motormouth, multi-millionaire, maverick movie producer and self-proclaimed toxic substance abuser and womaniser on a massive scale - was regarded by many commentators as a walking embodiment of Hollywood in the Eighties. Others, like the noted American journalist John Taylor, went further still: in Taylor's entertaining book Circus of Ambition (1989), Simpson is depicted as one of the handful of key players, like Ronald Reagan or the financier John Gutfreund, who helped define the spirit of the whole decade.

That spirit, or Simpson's part in it, can be summed up in the single brutal phrase for which he became famous: "Losers are boring." Or, to quote the maestro himself at slightly greater and more mollifying length: "By and large life is separated. There are people who are successful and who win. They have moments of pain but they are winners. Then there are losers. Jerry and I side with the winners. We aren't interested in losers. They're boring - to us."

This philosophy, if that is the appropriate term, was at once the plot- source for each of Simpson & Bruckheimer's biggest hits and the means of making them front-rank winners themselves. Statistics on the S&B productions alone tell a good part of the extraordinary story. Beverly Hills Cop (1984), their Eddie Murphy vehicle, grossed $364m, became the highest-earning comedy ever made and established Murphy as the biggest black star in the history of Hollywood, Top Gun grossed almost as much at $345m, shot Tom Cruise into the A-list and was the biggest box-office hit of 1986. Beverly Hills Cop II, the most successful film of 1987, grossed $270m.

Then there was the income from the spin-offs and merchandising; all of the albums from S&B productions went platinum, and Flashdance became the highest-selling soundtrack ever released, shifting 17 million units. By 1988, just seven years after forming their alliance, Simpson and Bruckheimer were estimated to have raked in some $1.7bn for their patrons at Paramount; by 1991, that figure was up above the $2bn mark. They had amassed considerable personal fortunes into the bargain; unofficial estimates of their earnings from Top Gun alone run to something in the region of $10m each.

Not everyone was happy about this state of affairs, least of all the critics - S&B product was, they carped, at best glossy nonsense, at worst positively vile - the worst kind of high- concept movie. The phrase "high-concept movie" was one of the decade's key terms - it meant a picture you could sell to the studios and thus to the audiences in a sentence or less, usually by linking two known components into a supposedly irresistible new recipe. ("High concept", sometimes also known as "picture cross", is neatly satirised in the endless tracking shot which opens Altman's The Player, in which we eavesdrop on hopeful screenwriters pitching their new scripts in terms of X meets Y: this movie will be Jaws meets Annie Hall, Pretty Woman meets Bram Stoker's Dracula.)

For all that the duo vehemently denied the label, or even protested their ignorance of what it meant, S&B films were indisputably high-concept: Flashdance, for example, could be sold as Rocky for girls, Top Gun as Rocky with jets, Days of Thunder (a rare S&B flop, in relative terms) as Rocky with racing cars. On some accounts the very notion of high concept was born at the original sales pitch for the first S&B collaboration: an agent held up a photograph of John Travolta, a huge star at the time, and said just two words: "American Gigolo". As it turned out, the lead in American Gigolo went to Richard Gere, at the time much less well-known and a lot cheaper than Travolta, but the film was still a major hit. Directed by Paul Schrader and draped, influentially, by Giorgio Armani, American Gigolo was released in February 1980: Don Simpson's decade had begun.

But it wasn't so much the formulaic nature of S&B product as the content of those formulae that tended to appal the critics. Typically, an S&B hero or heroine will be a likeable outsider with a burning dream; friends and enemies alike deride and oppose this dream, but after several painful setbacks, and a great deal of the kind of guitar-driven soundtrack music rock critics describe as "anthemic" ("Take My Breath Away" from Top Gun is a fair example), they win their dream and their lover in the same frame. Cue reprise of theme song.

Nothing too surprising here: Hollywood movies have traditionally made money by selling fantasies of power and triumph for the disappointed and powerless. It was the nature of the ambitions displayed in S&B movies that seemed shocking - smug, venal, callous ("losers are boring!"), reactionary. Consider the background against which S&B emerged. The key American films of the late Sixties and Seventies had been about rebels, neurotics, psychopaths, assassins, conspiracies, the hideous abuses of power and the futile, humiliating, obscene mess of the Vietnam war: Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Nashville, Chinatown, The Conversation and the Godfather pictures.

Small wonder that when a couple of young producers - our dreaming heroes Don and Jerry - went to the United States Navy and asked permission to use their facilities for a film entitled An Officer and a Gentleman, the Admirals refused, suspecting yet another bunch of West Coast pinkoes and faggots were out to make the military look like sadistic maniacs.

The Navy could not have been wider of the mark: when An Officer and a Gentleman (filmed, in the end, on a disused army base) was released in 1982, it not only brought in $202m at box offices around the world but briefly boosted enquiries about careers in the Navy by more than 20 per cent. The movie rejoiced in all the old military virtues of discipline, patriotism and subordination, and made uniforms look smart and sexy for the first time since the fall of Saigon.

When the same young(ish) producers went back to the Navy a few years later bearing a script entitled Top Gun, the story was quite different. John Taylor recalls an extraordinary party held in Washington DC on the occasion of that film's release at which admirals in dress whites hobnobbed over champagne with bearded producers in their uniforms of Armani suits, each faction basking in the reflected glamour of the other. It was left to a few ingrates, such as the radical journalist Alexander Cockburn, to pour cold water on such happy reconciliations, collaring Simpson on set and charging him with flagrant jingoism.

"It has nothing to do with jingoism, nothing to do with war," Simpson shot back.

"But Don, it does have to do with war. They're in planes which kill people."

"It's about character," the producer replied. "This isn't a right-wing or a left-wing movie. Jerry and I happen to be apolitical."

It was the great let-out clause: these films didn't glorify war or greed or snobbery, they glorified self-fulfilment. This was just the kind of fare that an audience sick of economic and cultural pessimism was hungry to devour.

Like a lot of the Eighties sprees, however, Simpson and Bruckheimer's glorious upwards trajectory started to falter as the decade turned. After the unexpectedly poor showing for Days of Thunder, the partnership went to earth for a while. They left their old friends Paramount in a blizzard of lawsuits and nasty rumours, and signed a much less agreeable contract with Disney. For a long time, they produced nothing, and the silence was so unprecedented some believed they had simply washed up.

The story wasn't that simple. Last year, S&B made a striking triple hit with Bad Boys (Beverly Hills Cop with two Eddie Murphy characters?), Dangerous Minds (Rocky with grammar books?) and Crimson Tide - the last of these, despite its many Top Gun elements, reverting to pre-Eighties type by featuring Gene Hackman as a dangerously traditional military man, ready and willing to launch World War Three. The screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, in an affectionate memoir of Simpson in this week's New Yorker, reports having been hired and fired on a thus-far unrealised S&B project about a government conspiracy to hush up the existence of UFOs - an almost classically paranoid Sixties movie.

Despite these three successes, the S&B partnership dissolved, largely, it seems, because the quieter Bruckheimer had not been able to cope with Simpson's increasingly ungovernable mood swings, binge dieting and indulgence in narcotics.

Initial examination of Simpson's corpse showed no sign of recent narcotics use, but it is hard to believe that his years of unbridled illegal recreation had not weakened his hyperactive frame. His sudden death, curiously, has coincided with a wave of interesting new Hollywood movies, from Seven to Heat to Leaving Las Vegas, which take a much cooler attitude to life, death and what Simpson once called the "romance of professionalism". But if this is an irony, it is a kindly one. By pursuing his dazzling career arc so much further than Tom Cruise in Top Gun or Richard Gere in Officer, right up to the kind of messy end those films doggedly refused to acknowledge, the triumphalist blowhard Don Simpson starts to look like a more complex, even a more sympathetic character. Because losers are interesting, too.