BOOK REVIEW / A lark with the lads in the smoking seats: If You're Talking to Me Your Career Must be in Trouble - Joe Queenan: Picador, pounds 5.99

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ELTON JOHN was once appearing on a television chat show to defend himself against some unpleasant tabloid libel. The trouble is, he said, you look at what they say about you and it's so absolutely unbelievable, so outrageous and made-up; and you wonder who on earth could possibly believe anything so ludicrous. Then you see a little item on the next page about how Elizabeth Taylor slept with a gorilla and you think, God that's amazing, and off you rush to tell your friends.

Yes, rudeness sells. And if you can do funny-rude, you're made. Joe Queenan's hard-jabbing essays on Hollywood have earned him a warm reputation in America among those who like taking potshots at the stars. The introduction to this new collection explains that Queenan wrote to 75 famous actors and actresses asking for interviews and received just two replies (both saying no). This is presented as a complaint - proof of Hollywood's neurotic sensitivity to criticism. But we can sense Queenan's pride in being the guy they dare not talk to. He insists that his letter was polite, but he would have been stymied if anyone had agreed to meet him. You can bet your bottom dollar the letter had a subtext: If You're Thinking of Replying to This, Your Career's Gonna be in Big Trouble.

Filmstars are what satirists call an easy target. And Queenan's taste is hardly exceptional (we like Jessica Lange, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Melanie Griffiths; we hate Oliver Stone and Barbra Streisand). But

anyone willing to describe Born on the Fourth of July as a 'wheelchair buddy movie' can be forgiven an awful lot.

Queenan has a good line in sharp titles. The essay about Hitchcock, which catalogues the awful deaths that mysteriously keep befalling his blonde leading ladies, is called 'The Man Who Did Not Love Women'; the one about horrendous accents (Laurence Olivier's German is the prime exhibit here) is called: 'If You Can't Say Something Nice, Say it in Broken English'.

But last things first: the book has one of the finest indexes you could wish to see:

Reeves, Keanu

desire to appear in Evil Dead III, 244

etymology of word 'Keanu', 239

role of hair in rise to stardom, 236

standing on corner, confused, 246

unbelievable articulateness of, 244

Roberts, Julia

Lack of resemblance to Eighth Avenue whores, 47

unwise decision to cut hair, 171

Rourke, Mickey

as challenge to God's existence, 53

chemotherapy-patient look of in Year of the

Dragon, 38

dependence on the word 'motherfucker', 16,

ideal casting as retarded third-grader, 78

inability to speak Portuguese of, 78

jalapeno peppers and, 48

Sarandon, Susan

remarkable breasts of, xiv, 161, 165

The extensive entry for Mickey Rourke is not an accident: Queenan can't quite decide if he loves or hates the man, but he has a lot of dangerous fun not making his mind up. In one essay he spends 24 hours impersonating Rourke: he grunges up, dresses in black, whacks people, smokes pack after pack of cigarettes and re-creates unusual scenes and mouths some of the worst low-life lines from the films. He even slips into the overcooked Irish brogue that Rourke adopted in Angel Heart: 'Fodder, we are fundamentally aloon . . . Top o' the mornin' to you, cocksucka.'

Some of the laughter here, as in all the best satire, has a little blood on its hands. There is some good, unclean fun. Anyone appalled by Oliver Stone can have a cruel smile at 'It's a Man's Man's Man's World', where Queenan lets the crude machismo of Stone's films have it with both barrels. At the end of Wall Street, he recalls, Hal Holbrook puts a fatherly arm round Charlie Sheen and says: 'Man looks in the abyss. There's nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that's what keeps him out of the abyss.' Queenan adds a stinging coda: 'Actually, man looks in the abyss and Oliver Stone is staring back at him. And that's what keeps him out of the abyss.'

One of the nicest things about Queenan's wisecracks is that sometimes, when he thinks no one's looking, they turn into clinching near-epigrams. 'Great art and incredible stupidity frequently make comfortable bedfellows,' he writes. Woody Allen, he reckons, is 'one of the most accomplished hypocrites of our time, earning his living by pillorying the social milieu in which he is clearly most comfortable, eviscerating people who are obviously his dinner companions.'

It would be nice if Queenan stopped to sniff at these thoughts a bit, but he seems almost embarrassed: it's so uncool to be serious. We can see, though, why he might not wish to pursue the idea of a two-faced sense of humour: Queenan himself pillories films like a man who spends most of his time lost in a dream of movies. His own jokes seem like an attempt to get his own back, to exact a price for his devotion. He blames Barbra Streisand merely for having so many fans (a mystery, admittedly, but not really her fault).

Indeed, after a while you can't help noticing that Queenan is skewering pretentiousness from a very odd angle. The greatest satirists are lofty: they peer down from some Olympian place and expose triviality and pettiness from above. But Queenan's reductive, cut-the-crap style is not, in the end, so inspiring. It comes at its targets from below: stop kidding yourself, it implies - just admit it: the point of Melanie Griffiths is her remarkable behind, just as the point of Susan Sarandon is her remarkable front. It's a tiny bit wearing. Perhaps it is inappropriate to read these pieces (originally magazine items) all at once. After a bit you feel as though you've had enough larking around with lads in the smoking seats (or smirking seats); perhaps you'll just settle down quietly and watch the film.

But what the heck - it's a pretty funny book, even if it isn't really about films or even about film stars. It's a series of lively excursions into celebrity: a great American subject, and a good one to mull over around Cannes week. Queenan sometimes appears to be more interested in how people manage their bank accounts than in what they do on screen. The essay on Jessica Lange is actually called: 'Is This Any Way to Run a Career?'

But even celebrity is inclusive: in some deep way it tolerates and perhaps encourages sharp-witted wags like Queenan; somehow it takes the joke and shrugs it off. At the end of the day, no matter how much fun Queenan has at Barbra Streisand's expense, she's still shooting films, singing Wembley and knocking up with Agassi, while Queenan - the bad kid at the back, flicking ink blots at the teacher with his ruler - goes home and rents one of her videos, like everybody else.