Memo from David O. Selznick
Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment
“You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand. It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.”
—Cecelia Brady in The Last Tycoon
To the extent that The Last Tycoon is “about” Hollywood it is about not Monroe Stahr but Cecelia Brady, as anyone who understands the equation of pictures even dimly or in flashes would apprehend immediately: the Monroe Stahrs come and go, but the Cecelia Bradys are the second generation, the survivors, the inheritors of a community as intricate, rigid, and deceptive in its mores as any devised on this continent. At midwinter in the survivors’ big houses off Benedict Canyon the fireplaces blaze all day with scrub oak and eucalyptus, the French windows are opened wide to the subtropical sun, the rooms filled with white phalaenopsis and cymbidium orchids and needlepoint rugs and the requisite scent of Rigaud candles. Dinner guests pick with vermeil forks at broiled fish and limestone lettuce vinaigrette, decline dessert, adjourn to the screening room, and settle down to The Heartbreak Kid with a little seltzer in a Baccarat glass.
After the picture the women, a significant number of whom seem to have ascended through chronic shock into an elusive dottiness, discuss for a ritual half hour the transpolar movements of acquaintances and the peace of spirit to be derived from exercise class, ballet class, the use of paper napkins at the beach. Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf was an approved event this winter, as were the Chinese acrobats, the recent visits to Los Angeles of Bianca Jagger, and the opening in Beverly Hills of a branch Bonwit Teller. The men talk pictures, grosses, the deal, the package, the numbers, the morning line on the talent. “Face it,” I heard someone say the other night of a director whose current picture had opened a few days before to tepid business. “Last week he was bankable.”
Such evenings end before midnight. Such couples leave together. Should there be marital unhappiness it will go unmentioned until one of the principals is seen lunching with a lawyer. Should there be illness it will go unadmitted until the onset of the terminal coma. Discretion is “good taste,” and discretion is also good business, since there are enough imponderables in the business of Hollywood without handing the dice to players too distracted to concentrate on the action. This is a community whose notable excesses include virtually none of the flesh or spirit: heterosexual adultery is less easily tolerated than respectably settled homosexual marriages or well-managed liaisons between middle-aged women. “A nice lesbian relationship, the most common thing in the world,” I recall Otto Preminger insisting when my husband and I expressed doubt that the heroine of the Preminger picture we were writing should have one. “Very easy to arrange, does not threaten the marriage.”
Flirtations between men and women, like drinks after dinner, remain largely the luxury of character actors out from New York, one-shot writers, reviewers being courted by Industry people, and others who do not understand the mise of the local scène. In the houses of the inheritors the preservation of the community is paramount, and it is also Universal, Columbia, Fox, Metro, and Warner’s. It is in this tropism toward survival that Hollywood sometimes presents the appearance of the last extant stable society.
One afternoon not long ago, at a studio where my husband was doing some work, the director of a picture in production collapsed of cardiac arrest. At six o’clock the director’s condition was under discussion in the executives’ steam room.
“I called the hospital,” the head of production for the studio said. “I talked to his wife.”
“Hear what Dick did,” one of the other men in the steam room commanded. “Wasn’t that a nice thing for Dick to do.”
This story illustrates many elements of social reality in Hollywood, but few of the several non-Industry people to whom I have told it have understood it. For one thing it involves a “studio,” and many people outside the Industry are gripped by the delusion that “studios” have nothing to do with the making of motion pictures in the 1970s. They have heard the phrase “independent production,” and have fancied that the phrase means what the words mean. They have been told about “runaways,” about “empty sound stages,” about “death knell” after “death knell” sounding for the Industry.
In fact the byzantine but very efficient economics of the business render such rhetoric even more meaningless than it sounds: the studios still put up almost all the money. The studios still control all effective distribution. In return for financing and distributing the average “independent” picture, the studio gets not only the largest share (at least half) of any profit made by the picture, but, more significantly, 100 percent of what the picture brings in up to a point called “the break-even,” or “break,” an arbitrary figure usually set at 2.7 or 2.8 times the actual, or “negative,” cost of the picture.
Most significant of all, the “break-even” never represents the point at which the studio actually breaks even on any given production; that point occurs, except on paper, long before, since the studio has already received 10 to 25 percent of the picture’s budget as an “overhead” charge, has received additional rental and other fees for any services actually rendered the production company, and continues to receive, throughout the picture’s release, a fee amounting to about a third of the picture’s income as a “distribution” charge. In other words there is considerable income hidden in the risk itself, and the ideal picture from the studio’s point of view is often said to be the picture that makes one dollar less than break-even. More perfect survival bookkeeping has been devised, but mainly in Chicago and Las Vegas.
Still, it is standard for anyone writing about Hollywood to slip out of the economic reality and into a catchier metaphor, usually paleontological, vide John Simon: “I shall not rehearse here the well-known facts of how the industry started dying from being too bulky, toothless, and dated—just like all those other saurians of a few aeons ago….” So pervasive is this vocabulary of extinction (Simon forgot the mandatory allusion to the La Brea Tar Pits) that I am frequently assured by visitors that the studios are “morgues,” that they are “shuttered up,” that in “the new Hollywood” the studio “has no power.” The studio has.
January in the last extant stable society. I know that it is January for an empirical fact only because wild mustard glazes the hills an acid yellow, and because there are poinsettias in front of all the bungalows down around Goldwyn and Technicolor, and because many people from Beverly Hills are at La Costa and Palm Springs and many people from New York are at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“This whole town’s dead,” one such New York visitor tells me. “I dropped into the Polo Lounge last night, the place was a wasteland.” He tells me this every January, and every January I tell him that people who live and work here do not frequent hotel bars either before or after dinner, but he seems to prefer his version. On reflection I can think of only three non-Industry people in New York whose version of Hollywood corresponds at any point with the reality of the place, and they are Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, Jill Schary Robinson, and Jean Stein vanden Heuvel, the daughters respectively of the late screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz; the producer and former production chief at Metro, Dore Schary; and the founder of the Music Corporation of America and Universal Pictures, Jules Stein. “We don’t go for strangers in Hollywood,” Cecelia Brady said.
Days pass. Visitors arrive, scout the Polo Lounge, and leave, confirmed in their conviction that they have penetrated an artfully camouflaged disaster area. The morning mail contains a statement from 20th Century-Fox on a picture in which my husband and I are supposed to have “points”—or a percentage. The picture cost 1,367,224.57. It has so far grossed $947,494.86. The statement might suggest to the casual subtracter that the picture is about $400,000 short of breaking even, but this is not the case: the statement reports that the picture is $1,389,112.72 short of breaking even. “$1,389,112.72 unrecovered” is, as agents say, the bottom line.
In lieu of contemplating why a venture that cost a million-three and has recovered almost a million remains a million-three in the red, I decide to get my hair cut, pick up the trades, learn that The Poseidon Adventure is grossing four million dollars a week, that Adolph “Papa” Zukor will celebrate his one-hundredth birthday at a dinner sponsored by Paramount, and that James Aubrey, Ted Ashley, and Freddie Fields rented a house together in Acapulco over Christmas. James Aubrey is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Ted Ashley is Warner Brothers. Freddie Fields is Creative Management Associates, First Artists, and the Directors Company. The players change but the game stays the same. The bottom line seems clear on the survival of Adolph “Papa” Zukor, but not yet on that of James Aubrey, Ted Ashley, and Freddie Fields.
“Listen, I got this truly beautiful story,” the man who cuts my hair says to me. “Think about some new Dominique-Sanda-type unknown. Comprenez so far?”
So far comprends. The man who cuts my hair, like everyone else in the community, is looking for the action, the game, a few chips to lay down. Here in the grand casino no one needs capital. One needs only this truly beautiful story. Or maybe if no truly beautiful story comes to mind one needs $500 to go halves on a $1,000 option payment for someone else’s truly beautiful but (face it) three-year-old property. (A book or a story is a “property” only until the deal; after the deal it is “the basic material,” as in “I haven’t read the basic material on Gatsby.”)
True, the casino is not now so wide open as it was in ‘69, summer and fall of ‘69 when every studio in town was narcotized by Easy Rider‘s grosses and all that was needed to get a picture off the ground was the suggestion of a $750,000 budget, a low-cost NABET or even a nonunion crew, and this terrific twenty-two-year-old kid director. As it turned out most of these pictures were shot as usual by IATSE rather than NABET crews and they cost as usual not seven-fifty but a million-two and many of them ended up unreleased, shelved. And so there was one very bad summer there, the hangover summer of 1970, when nobody could get past the gate without a commitment from Ali MacGraw or Barbra Streisand.