THEATRE / Tales from Hollywood: Plays about Hollywood can open old sores and settle old scores. Especially when they're written by wounded movie people. Sheila Johnston reports

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'I've read a synopsis of every book you've ever written.' Film producer to writer in City of Angels.

'Hey, I believe in the Yellow Pages, Bob, but I don't want to film it.' Film producer in Speed-the-Plow.

'A girl I know, American, asked me the other day what Ars Gratia Artis meant over the gates of MGM. I told her it meant 'abandon hope all ye who enter here'.' Odon von Hovarth to Bertolt Brecht in Tales from Hollywood.

YOU MIGHT say that the movies have an image problem in what Variety calls the 'legitimate' medium of theatre. In David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, a brash Hollywood producer flirts with a project based on a book by an 'eastern sissy writer' about radiation sickness and the end of the world, but ultimately gives the green light to a no-brainer buddy movie. The abused wife of Martin Crimp's The Treatment (currently at the Royal Court in London), sells her story to a couple of sleazy New York 'facilitators' - agents-cum-film-producers - who distort it out of recognition. In the musical City of Angels (now in the West End), a screenwriter of Forties films noirs becomes enmeshed in his own creations and in the meddlings of a cynical studio mogul. Doug Luce's Fashion fields a faded-lefty film-maker who is hired to shoot a Conservative Party political broadcast. In Christopher Hampton's Tales from Hollywood, a group of expat German artists languish in Lotusland during the Second World War. And now Hampton returns to the theme in his book for Sunset Boulevard, the forthcoming musical based on Billy Wilder's 'archetypal story of the misery of the writer in Hollywood'.

The odd thing about all this is that movies about movies (at least, the latterday ones: Barton Fink, The Player) can be just as caustic, but few films about the theatre show it in the same harsh light. Mel Brooks returned the insult fulsomely in The Producers, but he stands almost alone: elsewhere those old let's-put-the-show-on-right-here, you're-going-out-a-youngster-but-you've-got-to-come-back-a-star cliches keep shining on intact.

'I'm surprised that there hasn't been a really savage film about putting on a show in New York,' says Hampton, who is still battle-scarred from the American run of his play Dangerous Liaisons. 'Because the atmosphere of Broadway seems to me much more venal and cowardly and brutal and offhand than anything I've ever experienced in Hollywood. You get memos saying that people's secretaries have been to see the play and think it's five minutes too long.'

Larry Gelbart, the author of the book for City of Angels, suggests one obvious motivation: 'As the writer in our show says, there's a certain pencil envy. The screenwriter looks at the theatre as a haven, although, as I found out recently with the New York production of City of Angels, it's another kind of jungle: so economics-driven that it's a very, very tough place. Plays about cinema, on the other hand, tend to be written by people who have done some movies, come back and filled their fountain pens from their spleen.'

Gelbart should know: his screen credits include Oh God, for which he got an Academy Award nomination, and the TV series of M*A*S*H, but he was also one of numerous writers on Tootsie, which prompted the famous caveat against working with a star (Dustin Hoffman) smaller than an Oscar. This, and other best-forgotten experiences now reside safely, he says, in 'some kind of bad black hairball in the back of my head', although it might be no accident that City of Angels was born during his Tootsie period.

The young British playwright Martin Crimp has had mercifully few brushes with Babylon; he describes his contacts there laconically as 'fairly minimal and not very pleasurable'. But he speculates on another reason why playwrights mistrust and look down on movies. 'Screenwriters are marginalised in the film world - they're not part of the presentation of the end product. It's an actors' and directors' medium. And to me a film script feels like a secondary text; it doesn't have an extended life, in the way that a play has.'

In fact, Crimp's play The Treatment was originally titled the rather less cine-specific Playwright in New York (Broadway Boogie Woogie), and contains no direct dialogue references to movies. 'Setting it in the film world came a little later. I like to make things floating and ambiguous, but in performance you can't leave it at that.

'There is an assumption that, once you show a glamorous and glitzy world, it has to be the movies. And because film and television are a part of our lives in a way in which the theatre isn't, it seemed more universal to set it there.' Once all the world was a stage, now it's a screen. Film is the mass cultural medium and, for writers pressing points about power, corruption and the human condition, it's a more potent metaphor.

It's tempting to see the Broadway plays as an instance of East-West rivalry - Manhattanites sniffing at their illegitimate cousins on the coast. 'There's almost a total separation,' Gelbart says. 'You can have a huge success on stage in New York and few people in California know or care about it; it's another world. Theatre people don't exactly look down on the movies, but they have nowhere near the same preoccupation as west coast people.'

Hampton is of the view that film folk feel a sense of inferiority towards the theatre - even such eminences as Sir David Lean. 'Certainly, when I worked with him (on the never-made Nostromo, now a project for Hugh Hudson) it was quite clear that he was nervous of people in the theatre and expected they would somehow look down on him.' And he concludes from his experience on Tales from Hollywood that the city itself is touchy about its image.

'The Mark Taper Forum in LA called me up and said that 1982 was the 150th anniversary of the founding of Los Angeles. And they were therefore commissioning half a dozen plays set there. But it so happened that all the other plays were either not finished or not liked, so that the season to celebrate the city turned out to be one play saying what a terrible place it was. It dawned on me during the previews that it wasn't an altogether tactful play to be premiering there, and indeed it received absolutely appalling reviews. In a way, it's a very LA story.'

One might have thought that screenwriters today carry a mite more clout, what with the multi-million dollar price-tags commanded by the likes of Joe Eszterhas, but Gelbart believes that not much has changed since the time when Hollywood joked about the starlet so naive she slept with the writer, although, he admits, 'certainly the price of the insult has gone up. And, if you make your deal stiff enough, they don't have enough dollars over to hire someone else for a rewrite'. Since his Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons, Hampton has written seven screenplays - all unproduced.

And spare a thought for Billy Wilder, who may not earn a dime from the new Sunset Boulevard's megabuck box-office. 'I was approached by the English National Opera about 10 years ago to write an opera libretto. I suggested Sunset Boulevard and wrote to Billy Wilder (who was also the film's co-writer) asking him how I would get the rights. To which, more or less by return of post, I received a letter from Wilder saying, 'being a writer yourself, you will not be amazed to hear that I have no rights in this whatsoever. By some cruel boo-boo of the capitalist system everything belongs to Paramount.' So we wrote to Paramount and received an extremely dusty response saying that they did not wish to squander these valuable rights on some poxy provincial opera house. Or polite words to that effect.'

Strange to relate, Paramount is more excited by an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of its property than an ENO opera, but, Hampton adds, 'Andrew has been making some effort to try and persuade the studio to give the writers of the film some money. Wilder wrote to him and said, 'it's really very kind, but you should save your efforts because, after many years of living in Hollywood, I know these people in the studios and they all have rubber pockets so that they can steal the soup'.'

City of Angels and The Treatment continue their London runs (details page 26). Sunset Boulevard opens at the Adelphi Theatre on 29 June.

(Photographs omitted)