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.
That was the summer when all the terrific twenty-two-year-old directors went back to shooting television commercials and all the creative twenty-four-year-old producers used up the leases on their office space at Warner Brothers by sitting out there in the dull Burbank sunlight smoking dope before lunch and running one another’s unreleased pictures after lunch. But that period is over and the game is back on, development money available, the deal dependent only upon the truly beautiful story and the right elements. The elements matter. “We like the elements,” they say at studios when they are maybe going to make the deal. That is why the man who cuts my hair is telling me his story. A writer might be an element. I listen because in certain ways I am a captive but willing audience, not only to the hairdresser but at the grand casino.
The place makes everyone a gambler. Its spirit is speedy, obsessive, immaterial. The action itself is the art form, and is described in aesthetic terms: “A very imaginative deal,” they say, or, “He writes the most creative deals in the business.” There is in Hollywood, as in all cultures in which gambling is the central activity, a lowered sexual energy, an inability to devote more than token attention to the preoccupations of the society outside. The action is everything, more consuming than sex, more immediate than politics; more important always than the acquisition of money, which is never, for the gambler, the true point of the exercise.
I talk on the telephone to an agent, who tells me that he has on his desk a check made out to a client for $1,275,000, the client’s share of first profits on a picture now in release. Last week, in someone’s office, I was shown another such check, this one made out for $4,850,000. Every year there are a few such checks around town. Many people are shown them. An agent will speak of such a check as being “on my desk,” or “on Guy McElwaine’s deak,” as if the exact physical location lent the piece of paper its credibility. A few years ago they were the Midnight Cowboy and Butch Cassidy checks, this year they are the Love Story and Godfather checks.
In a curious way these checks are not “real,” not real money in the sense that a check for a thousand dollars can be real money; no one “needs” $4,850,000, nor is it really disposable income. It is instead the unexpected payoff on dice rolled a year or two before, and its reality is altered not only by the time lapse but by the fact that no one ever counted on the payoff. A four-million-dollar windfall has the aspect only of Monopoly money, but the actual pieces of paper which bear such figures have, in the community, a totemic significance. They are totems of the action. When I hear of these totems I think reflexively of Sergius O’Shaugnessy, who sometimes believed what he said and tried to take the cure in the very real sun of Desert D’Or with its cactus, its mountain, and the bright green foliage of its love and its money.
Since any survivor is believed capable in the community of conferring on others a ritual and lucky kinship, the birthday dinner for Adolph “Papa” Zukor turns out also to have a totemic significance. It is described by Robert Evans, head of production at Paramount, as “one of the memorable evenings in our Industry…. There’s never been anyone who’s reached 100 before.” Hit songs from old Paramount pictures are played throughout dinner. Jack Valenti speaks of the guest of honor as “the motion picture world’s living proof that there is a connection between us and our past.”
Zukor himself, who is described in Who’s Who as a “motion picture mfr.” and in Daily Variety as a “firm believer in the philosophy that today is the first day of the rest of your life,” appears after dinner to express his belief in the future of motion pictures and his pleasure at Paramount’s recent grosses. Many of those present have had occasion over the years to regard Adolph “Papa” Zukor with some rancor, but on this night there is among them a resigned warmth, a recognition that they will attend one another’s funerals. This ceremonial healing of old and recent scars is a way of life among the survivors, as is the scarring itself. “Having some fun” is what the scarring is called. “Let’s go up and see Nick, I think we’ll have some fun,” David O. Selznick remembered his father saying to him when the elder Selznick was on his way to tell Nick Schenck that he was going to take 50 percent of the gross of Ben-Hur away from him.
The winter progresses. My husband and I fly to Tucson with our daughter for a few days of meetings on a script with a producer on location. We go out to dinner: the sitter tells me that she has obtained, for her crippled son, an autographed picture of Paul Newman. I ask how old her son is. “Thirty-four,” she says.
We came for two days, we stay for four. We rarely leave the Hilton Inn. For everyone on the picture this life on location will continue for twelve weeks. The producer and the director collect Navajo belts and speak every day to Los Angeles, New York, London. They are setting up other deals, other action. By the time this picture is released and reviewed they will be on location in other cities. A picture in release is gone. A picture in release tends to fade from the minds of the people who made it. As the four-million-dollar check is only the totem of the action, the picture itself is in many ways only the action’s by-product. “We can have some fun with this one,” the producer says as we leave Tucson. “Having some fun” is also what the action itself is called.
I pass along these notes by way of suggesting that much of what is written about pictures and about picture people approaches reality only occasionally and accidentally. At one time the assurance with which many writers about film palmed off their misconceptions puzzled me a good deal. I used to wonder how Pauline Kael, say, could slip in and out of such airy subordinate clauses as “now that the studios are collapsing,” or how she could so misread the labyrinthine propriety of Industry evenings as to characterize “Hollywood wives” as women “whose jaws get a hard set from the nights when they sit soberly at parties waiting to take their sloshed geniuses home.” (This fancy, oddly enough, cropped up in a review of Alex in Wonderland, a Paul Mazursky picture which, whatever its faults, portrayed with meticulous accuracy that level of “young” Hollywood on which the average daily narcotic intake is one glass of a three-dollar Mondavi white and two marijuana cigarettes shared by six people.) These “sloshed” husbands and “collapsing” studios derive less from Hollywood life than from some weird West Side Playhouse 90 about Hollywood life, presumably the same one Stanley Kauffmann runs on his mind’s screen when he speaks of a director like John Huston as “corrupted by success.”
What is there to be said about this particular cast of mind? Some people who write about film seem so temperamentally at odds with what both Fellini and Truffaut have called the “circus” aspect of making film that there is flatly no question of their ever apprehending the social or emotional reality of the process. In this connection I think particularly of Kauffmann, whose idea of a nasty disclosure about the circus is to reveal that the aerialist is up there to get our attention. I recall him advising his readers that Otto Preminger (the same Otto Preminger who cast Joseph Welch in Anatomy of a Murder and engaged Louis Nizer to write a script about the Rosenbergs) was a “commercial showman,” and also letting them know that he was wise to the “phoniness” in the chase sequence in Bullitt: “Such a chase through the normal streets of San Francisco would have ended in deaths much sooner than it does.”
A curious thing about Kauffmann is that in both his dogged right-mindedness and his flatulent diction he is indistinguishable from many members of the Industry itself. He is a man who finds R. D. Laing “blazingly humane.” Lewis Mumford is “civilized and civilizing” and someone to whom we owe a “long debt,” Arthur Miller a “tragic agonist” hampered in his artistry only by “the shackles of our time.” It is the vocabulary of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Kauffmann divined in Bullitt not only its “phoniness” but a “possible propagandistic motive”: “to show (particularly to the young) that law and order are not necessarily Dullsville.” The “motive” in Bullitt was to show that several million people would pay three dollars apiece to watch Steve McQueen drive fast, but Kauffmann, like my acquaintance who reports from the Polo Lounge, seems to prefer his version.
“People in the East pretend to be interested in how pictures are made,” Scott Fitzgerald observed in his notes on Hollywood. “But if you actually tell them anything, you find…they never see the ventriloquist for the doll. Even the intellectuals, who ought to know better, like to hear about the pretensions, extravagances and vulgarities—tell them pictures have a private grammar, like politics or automobile production or society, and watch the blank look come into their faces.”
Of course there is good reason for this blank look, for this almost queasy uneasiness with pictures. To recognize that the picture is but the by-product of the action is to make rather more arduous the task of maintaining one’s self-image as (Kauffmann’s own job definition) “a critic of new works.” Making judgments on films is in many ways so peculiarly vaporous an occupation that the only question is why, beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiritingly self-limiting level, anyone does it in the first place.
A finished picture defies all attempts to analyze what makes it work or not work: the responsibility for its every frame is clouded not only in the accidents and compromises of production but in the clauses of its financing. The Getaway was Sam Peckinpah’s picture, but Steve McQueen had the “cut,” or the final edit. Up the Sand-box was Irvin Kershner’s picture, but Barbra Streisand had the cut. In a series of interviews with directors, Charles Thomas Samuels* asked Carol Reed why he had used the same cutter on so many pictures. “I had no control,” Reed said. Samuels asked Vittorio De Sica if he did not find a certain effect in one of his Sophia Loren films a bit artificial. “It was shot by the second unit,” De Sica said. “I didn’t direct it.” In other words Carlo Ponti wanted it.
Nor does calling film a “collaborative medium” exactly describe the situation. To read David O. Selznick’s instructions to his directors, writers, actors, and department heads in Memo from David O. Selznick is to come very close to the spirit of actually making a picture, a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict in which one antagonist has a contract assuring him nuclear capability. Some reviewers make a point of trying to understand whose picture it is by “looking at the script”: to understand whose picture it is one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo.
About the best a writer on film can hope to do, then, is to bring an engaging or interesting intelligence to bear upon the subject, a kind of petit-point-on-Kleenex effect which rarely stands much scrutiny. “Motives” are inferred where none existed; allegations spun out of thin speculation. Perhaps the difficulty of knowing who made which choices in a picture makes this airiness so expedient that it eventually infects any writer who makes a career of reviewing; perhaps the initial error is in making a career of it. Reviewing motion pictures, like reviewing new cars, may or may not be a useful consumer service (since people respond to a lighted screen in a dark room in the same secret and powerfully irrational way they respond to most sensory stimuli, I tend to think most of it beside the point, but never mind that); the review of pictures has been, as well, a traditional diversion for writers whose actual work is somewhere else. Some 400 mornings spent at press screenings in the late 1930s were, for Graham Greene, an “escape,” a way of life “adopted quite voluntarily from a sense of fun.” Perhaps it is only when one inflates this sense of fun into (Kauffmann again) “a continuing relation with an art” that one passes so headily beyond the reality principle.
February in the last extant stable society. A few days ago I went to lunch in Beverly Hills. At the next table were an agent and a director who should have been, at that moment, on his way to a location to begin a new picture. I knew what he was supposed to be doing because this picture had been talked about around town: six million dollars above the line. There was two million for one actor. There was a million and a quarter for another actor. The director was in for $800,000. The property had cost more than half a million; the first draft of the screenplay $200,000, the second draft a little less. A third writer had been brought in, at $6,000 a week. Among the three writers were two Academy Awards and one New York Film Critics Award. The director had an Academy Award for his last picture but one.
And now the director was sitting at lunch in Beverly Hills, and he wanted out. The script was not right. Only thirty-eight pages worked, the director said. The financing was shaky. “They’re in breach, we all recognize your right to pull out,” the agent said carefully. The agent represented many of the principals, and did not want the director to pull out. On the other hand he also represented the director, and the director seemed unhappy. It was difficult to ascertain what anyone involved did want, except for the action to continue. “You pull out,” the agent said, “it dies right here, not that I want to influence your decision.” The director picked up the bottle of Margaux they were drinking and examined the label.
“Nice little red,” the agent said.
I left as the Sanka was being served. No decision had been reached. Many people have been talking these past few days about this aborted picture, always with a note of regret. It had been a very creative deal and they had run with it as far as they could run and they had had some fun and now the fun was over, as it would also have been had they made the picture.
Encountering Directors (Putnams, 1972). ↩