The American dream? American nightmare, more like. In an Academy Awards special, Britain's most eminent cinema writer reveals `20 Things People Like to Forget About Hollywood', and then takes a `skittish' look at this year's line-up for the Oscars

David Thomson
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:41


MORE THAN ANY other society on earth, picture people are into health. And that is only proper, because they are a lot of very sick bunnies. Don't be misled. Hollywood obits are regularly in the high eighties - these are people who live a long time, which is what happens if you don't smoke, you work out every day, you get your body fat awesomely low, and you do only the best cocaine. But illness is rife. It comes in the form of maladies of the ego and afflictions associated with conflicted interests. Despite the healthiest regime money can buy, most people in Hollywood feel at least several degrees under. People in clinically good health feel headachey, sad, precancerous. Why? To hold attention, to excuse bad or no work, to support the burden of being paid too many millions a picture. Take basic narcissism, add a vulnerable point of view, and you get neurotic un-health. Health practitioners in Hollywood have it made as long as they never threaten their patients with a cure. An Aids cure might make for so much depression, the town would need a new generation of Austrians to deal with it. For above all, the invalid is the centre of his or her own universe. And when ego rules, everyone's in pain.


The "there" isn't here any more. No pictures get shot in the district that is officially Hollywood. The place is really just another drab, tacky stretch of mid-America, except that so many of the stores and local forms of prostitution are more lurid and inventive. But just because the mine seems to have been abandoned, and a ghost been left behind, you should not be deceived. Think of what happened as an explosion - a very dirty bomb. The explosion occurred years ago, and the toxic stickiness on the surfaces in Hollywood is the residue of that blast. But the fallout went into the air and has drifted all over the world, surmounting foreign political creeds and varieties of language to put everyone into its dream of LA (Lies Allowed). They're all dreaming now, their heads filled with the haze, their outer eyes turned off. Sleepwalkers, ghosts, dead men walking - call them what you will, the members of a sad, collective delusion in which we all believe we are alone with our hopes and dreads, alone with the camera. The jazziest ghosts still haunt Hollywood. They know the art and business are dead, as dead as Norman's mother. But that's not the same as defunct. The dead have their magic.


If someone told you tomorrow a technology had been invented, out of nowhere, that let the people who had it stare at you with impunity, without mercy or pity, smothering their giggles at seeing you so naked, so unaware, you would say, That's indecent, it would never be allowed. But it is. Hollywood's like a huge, secret smoked glass with invisible people behind it, watching you walk up close, to see if you have a zit on your cheek. There are buildings and limos with people inside studying those outside as a rather pathetic species of wildlife - aberrant, untidy, uncool. In the movies, it's us in the dark, them in the light - voyeurism, a way of being substanceless while watching. But they are the ultimate voyeurs; they're seen only on their own terms, in a flattering light, yet stare freely at you without a trace of shyness, like monsters eating you up, inhaling you.


This happens all the time in Hollywood: you are walking in the breezy afternoon sunshine when a van packed with alarmed faces suddenly cuts across the street. Two or three people only steps away from you are nearly knocked down. Brakes howling, the van lifts half off the street, veers, steadies and roars up a side street. As you marvel at the reckless driving, two cop cars, sirens blaring, come racing toward you, and go right by the side street. Someone on the sidewalk steps out and waves them back, and the cops reverse with a fury and take the side street. You notice: one of the cops was smoking a cigar. For colour? A strange air hangs over the scene. Was this real, or were you all being filmed? You can' t see a camera. But the cop with the cigar looked just like Brian Dennehy. And you've heard the soundtrack before - the brakes and the sirens. Will you have to sign a release? It's an old joke that if you ever need to murder anyone in LA (and most people do) you only have to take along a camera crew, shoot a murder scene, and then do the deed on the second take. Everyone will understand that filming is going on and agree not to look at the camera. It's like that moment in Heat when Pacino and his cops follow De Niro and his gang to a dead-end industrial site and wonder what the hell is going on, until Pacino gets it - they're being watched by the guys they thought they were tracking. Everyone in the town is on candid camera, and knows it, and has his motivation down.


As in that seminal game of the 1980s, Trivial Pursuit, what matters in Hollywood is not knowledge but irrelevant, obscure, cute "facts", like the numbers on Independence Day (momentous, unprecedented, but subject to instant oblivion, like a tape in Mission: Impossible), or who is sleeping with whom. At Hollywood occasions, one must be thoroughly prepared with information so recondite as to be absurd. The talk should be vivid, grabby, tasteless and superior, pertaining to no known level of reality, consequence or philosophy. Like lines an actor says, every remark should be designed to be immediately disowned, trashed and dismembered. People in Hollywood never speak from the heart; they speak from the script, with the slightly apologetic wryness that comes from having expected a late polish which did not arrive in time. Taken to its highest level of nullity, this pursuit of the inane can turn into a decision to vote for Bill Clinton (or not) entirely on the question of whether he ever actually fucked Sharon Stone. And whether she was there at the time.


The only time that exists in Hollywood is the Present. The Civil War was Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable; Pearl Harbor was Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed. All of those scenes are what pass for History. There is no reason to regard Time as a process of cause and effect, or of progress, or of anything that would require anyone to be responsible for it. There is only the Present, in which stories are getting told all at once, and everything is happening simultaneously. The actor working out on the stair machine is also learning his lines on his earphones. The young development executive at a party is drinking and attending to the asshole producer in front of him, and also listening to what the suit from CAA is saying to the VP at Warner Bros, and at least getting the gist of what the late, great Michael Ovitz is saying to Warren Beatty. You'd think all this data- processing would drive people crazy, but the actual, unfailing effect is that it just makes people eerie - which is a major thing to be. Now, the obvious result of this simultaneity is duplicity (a technical term). That young development executive is negotiating concurrent, conflicting contracts with different entities in serene good faith, straight-faced, without one smear of guilt. Soon he'll be into the big time: direct lies, multiple love affairs, secret lives. Actors come by this naturally - lying is the magic in great acting. There are people who won't hire or even read an actor until he's a proven, expert, drop-dead, unageing liar. This talent for lying is the key to the true fragmented soul. There are 12-week courses on it all over town, though they have cover names, like "Building a Role" or "Getting Back to the Self".


The holly and the wood, the new girls and the scripts in development, have to flower and flourish, no matter that Los Angeles is a parched shore and desert-scrub valley without moisture of its own. The freshness has to be brought in so that the gardens on the steep slopes of Bel Air can have the springy carpets of grass, the suffocating sweetness of jasmine and the clenching of crimson plants that hold daring architectural achievements to the dry-cake crumble of the earth. Every last drop of water must be traded and piped down from Owens Valley, the Sierras, the Rockies, to make the showers in which those shat upon by the System can erase humiliation and feel precious loss of memory. And Hollywood people must be able to contemplate the flawless water in glasses at Morton's and in their own lap pools, without imbibing or entering, as "a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable" (that' s Joan Didion).


I like to think of drugs as part of the defiant, ongoing and really rather miraculous spiritual life of Hollywood. After all, we know that drugs are bad - they destroy brain cells, warp the individual's sense of order, reason and responsibility, undermine the family and unravel the social fabric, not to mention what happened to River Phoenix. Plus, drugs put you in the company of lowlifes in deals in which you have no protection, and they're humiliating and they never last long enough. In the end, they are not even photogenic, so if they boost a career for a while, they end up cutting it short. On the other hand, just between vous et nous, drugs are to-die-for sublime, which the drug czars never mention. Why in the world do we have to lose our sense of humour and ignore that, bottom line, drugs make you feel good now? And now is nice, as well as near, and now can keep happening. Drugs are easily the best way to handle the paranoia God invented, and sooner or later in Hollywood everyone ends up doing paranoia in a serious way. I mean, suppose the Bomb is 16 minutes away - are you going to read the new Joan Didion novel, or do the smack you've been hoarding? What is Joan going to do? I don't ask.


Old chestnut: it is not enough for me to succeed, my friends must fail too. Anecdotally, there was the Hollywood wife who, after years of silent suffering, decided to divorce her husband because he kept having affairs. "Darling," he'd told her, "they don't mean a thing - they're only with friends." The day after she began proceedings, she received lavish flower arrangements from several of her lunch and bridge and tennis chums. That's how she found out exactly with whom her husband had had his affairs. Which, incidentally, is one of the reasons floristry is such a blue-chip business in Hollywood.


"Synergy." They're all saying synergy is the thing the business is all about now. The dictionary says "synergy" is "combined action or operation", which in Hollywood supposedly means that you do a picture that also feeds into the theme parks and merchandising outlets owned by the conglomerate that owns the studios. Rides, T-shirts, toys, video games, CDs. The business is working on multiple fronts, screwing the public in every orifice it can find. There's talk about synergy everywhere now, so you know it must be covering a multitude of sins. Put that in your dictionary. Call me conservative, but I look at the people who are talking synergy and I see what I have always seen: thin-faced guys who are into pulling down $500,000 a year and fucking bimbos like shooting antelope in Africa.


It's a mistake to believe that the first generation of moguls, who escaped the cruelty and poverty and tyranny of life under the czar or king or emperor, left that world behind. Rather, they brought that system to the new world and cast themselves - at last, the dream realised - as the monarch, Mr Big. In the land of the free, they fashioned a city-state where medieval powers existed, and to go with it they invented a cult that was close to the idolatrous nature of religions before the age of reason and science. So their Hollywood was intensely un-American, if you're thinking Jefferson and the Bill of Rights and the code of independent intellect. Hollywood was a harkening back to despotism, slavery, and a belief in the divinity of supernatural monsters. Any halfway intelligent politician must realise that the movies are - in their appeal to unreason and unreality, in their excitation of desire and instability, in their worship of power and glamour - the most abiding, virulent virus in the American organism.


It was always said in the grand old days of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that Louis B Mayer was the most chronic actor on the lot. This was often said with fondness, and with respect for Mr Mayer's profound - indeed, helpless - love of movies. But in truth, Mayer was a powermonger who yearned to be regarded as everyone's father so that he could better abuse, degrade and exploit. He acted to outdo the professional actors, those loathed beauties he hired, half-owned, envied and despised. He had his private deals with all of them. The ones whipped from birth, like Judy Garland, feared him; tough spirits like Katharine Hepburn chuckled and jousted with him, man to man. Mayer dramatised all exchanges, day and night, stealing from scripts with an unconscious ease matched later by Ronald Reagan. No professional actor could top him; it was his way of always being right. Professional actors went deeper and deeper in search of Sincerity and Truth, but Mayer exulted in the thing that only amateurs and hysterics know: that acting is the guardian of an absolute, complete falsehood that has crept off the screen and polluted real life, creating an America as delirious as Mayer's childish dreams. We act up to show we are here. And we think that fake orgasms are the truest.


There are tales of the young and tender in Hollywood who have been wounded by something written or said on TV about them. They howl and their personal PR reps and the studio's PR reps agree that what's been said is out of line. The PR people then speak to the offending entity, and sometimes even suspend relations to register their outrage over some quite ghastly revelation that is a fraction of the horrendous truth. There is seldom any deeper disturbance, for the studios and the press and the publicists all need one another. And anyway, bad publicity is an esoteric concept nowadays. After all, every kind of wickedness, frivolity or arrogance that discretion might rather hush up can be read as simply a young, headstrong independence. Revelation is always wondrous and casts a magic light on those revealed. The only real danger is flinching, seeming to notice your own nakedness. If you don't flinch, you're merely nude, which is a classically recognised form of beauty. Smart stars know the trick of being photographed: act as if there is no camera there, no camera yet invented. When they get abused by the press, they play with their hair, think great thoughts. They don't explain, don't complain and never, ever ask to be liked. OJ's problem is that he still wants to be popular. If he were stronger, he'd just keep utterly calm. The point with OJ and with all stars who've been caught in a misdeed is that they must convince us how easily they could do it again.


There are three colours of money in the business: upfront, gross points and net points. Upfront is when maybe 25 per cent is actually upfront and the rest comes in instalments as the job gets done. Most people get their take upfront in studio cheques (minus deductions, which run somewhere over 30 per cent of the 25 per cent, and the 10 per cent their agent is taking. So upfront is, tops, 15 per cent of what they thought they were going to get. Gross points means a percentage of the money returned to the distributor of a film from the first dollars earned. As a gross participant you get, say, 50 cents of every $5 of ticket money if your points are 10 per cent. This is the only real way to make money; net points - points on the profits after everyone with gross points has had his share - never "happen". Now, here are the minimum estimated average annual expenditures for your normal, upwardly mobile VP in the business, with wife, two children and one former marriage:

Mortgage $ 35,000.00 Insurance/property tax 8,000.00 Child support 30,000.00 Children' s education 20,000.00 Agent/lawyer/accountant 15,000.00 Analysts (four or five patients) 25,000.00 Telephone/fax 15,000.00 Automobile 15,000.00 Entertaining 10,000.00 Clothes 10,000.00 Travel 15,000.00 Trade papers 500.00 Books 39.99 Medical 12,500.00 Living costs 50,000.00 Maid/cook 25,000.00 Gardener 10,000.00 Trainers, etc. 10,000.00 Child care 25,000.00 Charities 10,000.00

Total: $ 341,039.99*

* The only way to write off most of the above is to have an independent deal instead of working directly for the studio. Better to be a president in your own hell than a vice-president at one of the majors.

All of which is to say: everybody does it for the money.


The script is the literary form for a society giving up literacy. People in Hollywood don't read them. Not even the writers read them. They write the scenes out of order and seldom need to scan the whole thing through except to check for page numbers. One writer told me, "Reading is an alien rhythm to what happens on the screen. So reading is no help. It has to happen." At studios and agencies, no one with real power has the time or patience to read anything but contracts and deal memos. They buy coverage. Once a movie is in pre-production, a producer gets so many versions of the script there's no sense reading any of them because there will be a new draft by the time they're finished. They stay loose and pick up the "story" of the picture, its mood. They don't worry if there's no ending yet - if there were one, it would just change. Actors read only their own lines; they want to retain their creative space. And they will want to talk to the writer themselves, slip in some lines they like - it's amazing how often those lines come back on paper. In the end, everyone just lets the script breathe, so it can be amorphous and organic. The only people who actually read scripts are Writers' Guild arbitration committee members, and those are some pretty sad people.


Like the script, the budget is there, but no one ever quite looks at it. Most of the time, there's no such thing as "budgetary control". It's possible that, once upon a time, several grim-faced accountants went around the studios keeping score. Now, when $40 million is going out of style as an average cost, who counts? And you, the fannies in the dark, are right when you suspect that as budgets get bigger, movies get stupider. Because, of course, there are scumbags skimming the system if they can find spoons big enough. The bigger the budget, the more leaks out in the way of technical adjustments, per diems, overtime, expenses, petty cash and what is this $555 doing in my pocket? And so, the budget is going to be what it's going to be. The budget is simply what everything adds up to at the end, plus or minus.


Remember the way Warren Beatty in Bugsy is always practising his elocution so he might have a shot at being in pictures? A nice touch, but it would have been sweeter still if we'd seen some movie executives studying the Bug to get their own gangster acts down. The opportunity to wear slick clothes while talking filthy, to exude the sang-froid of men of the world while having your enemies killed, to be the epitome of cool with dames on your arm while being a Hitler - ever since pictures began, the guys in charge of the business have aspired to the manner of GQ mobsters. It was The Godfather that locked the image down. Michael Corleone has been the guiding light of style and stealth in Hollywood for the last 25 years - withdrawn, austere, shy, a dandy, indifferent to the flesh, a beetle on the dung of money, whispering orders for destruction or elimination, all for the sake of the business. There is a rowdier model, too - Joe Pesci in any number of roles, always about to attack, always saying "fuck", always degrading women, always dangerous and unschooled. The only reason to see Casino is to watch the struggle in Scorsese's soul as to whether he most wants to be Pesci or De Niro, the unbridled Kong mobster or Mr Cool, who fusses over every detail of his business and likes to sit in his plush office with his pants hanging folded in the closet so as not to lose their hard crease.


Los Angeles is best thought of as a set. Plenty of long, scholarly books go on about the "illusory" nature of the city, about the "dystopia" that is always shifting, about buildings that go up and down like sexual arousal - and those books are part of the set decoration, like throw cushions that complement the steel- and-glass coffee table. Of course, the movies are behind this, because in picture-making, everywhere you go is a location or a set, something you can paint as you like, knock down, move around, work until you get it right. In the end, the decor is whatever is "right" for the character. So, on the big set of Hollywood, if you look "right", you have found yourself. It is at this nexus that diction meshes with therapy and shopping. "I thank God for the Northridge earthquake," you hear people mutter, "it was the impulse I needed to re-see the living room." They want the wall colour "right" for them, for their mood, and their designer dropdeads, and their important guests. The breakthrough will come when walls are invented that are actually screens with control panels you can play around with to find the "right" balance, the "right" hues, the "right" themes. Then the ultimate movie experience will be just staying at home and running different dialogue and decor with the "right" people.


Whenever Hollywood does Christ, whether it's Jeffrey Hunter or Max von Sydow or Willem Dafoe, the result is not just ridiculous and embarrassing and tedious and about as atmospheric as a paper cup. It is also the complete expurgation, elimination and eradication of any hint of the spirit. Those kinds of movies are the guaranteed death of religion, the way NBC's coverage of the Olympics would have destroyed sports and patriotism if it had gone on long enough. Such things are sins against photography and deterrents to inner life, eternal prospects and moral being. Now, one shot of Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca wondering what to do, and the whole Ouija board shakes - that's the movies. Movies have been a hundred-year seance called fantasy. But what about God? The terrific thing about fantasy is that you, you are God.


There was a time when movie audiences sighed in rapture because they were seeing, as if for the first time, a sunset in Monument Valley, a pretty girl taking off her clothes, a car crash. By now, we've learnt how fake what's on the screen is, and we've gone blind. We don't care to be naive enough to believe any more. And the movies have given up photographing the real thing. Just think how many pictures of the last 10 years have involved impossible places, and people or creatures who could never exist. Special effects, they call it, and everybody's happy with it, but what special effects implies is that the basic effect - the magic of movies - doesn't work any more. What we have seen in our lifetime is the final abandonment of reality and life as points of reference. The ghost town can only tell ghost stories. Which is why an air of campiness has taken over. Camp doesn't play just because Hollywood is so gay but because it carries with it a faint, superior sneer for all movies, and that is the underlying attitude of so many who make pictures now. You see, no one except maybe Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard - believes any more in a picture for the story it tells. Everyone else has seen so many movies, absorbed so many tropes and rhythms of movie-ness that nothing is ever fresh or authentic. People once loved Hollywood because they hoped that the light on the screen could tell great stories to everyone. We know now that the flicks are only lies told for exploitation. Which is very likely what they always were, only now we are less gullible. We have become the cynics. Hollywood and LA are the shambles of destroyed hope. That was the explosion that left a congealed scum of shame and disappointment on every stretch of concrete. And hope really is all America ever had to offer.

! `20 Things People Like to Forget About Hollywood' is taken from David Thomson's new book, `Beneath Mulholland' (Little, Brown, pounds 20). See offer, below.


"Beneath Mulholland is a stunning collection of essays on Hollywood films - their stars and the illusions they create. David Thomson explores a sort of twilight zone where film actors and the characters they play become part of our reality - as living beings and as ghosts, residing on or buried beneath Mulholland Drive, or wandering among us. He writes about James Stewart in Vertigo, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo. He imagines what Tony Manero, as played by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, might have become in real life; what James Dean's career might have been like had he survived. He examines Hollywood's preoccupation with love, sex, death, money and glory. Beneath Mulholland immeasurably enlarges and enriches our already undying memories of, and pleasure in, the Hollywood movie."

! IoS readers can order Beneath Mulholland (Little, Brown) ahead of its British publication, in hardback, on 2 April, for the cover price of pounds 20 - post & packing is free. To reserve your copy, ring (0181) 324 5515, and mention the IoS.

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