PHILLIPS, JULIA, film producer; b. Bklyn., April 7, 1944; d. Adolph and Tanya Miller; grad. Nicolet high sch.; B.A. Mt. Holyoke, 1965; m. Michael Phillips (div.); 1 dau., Kate Elizabeth. Former prodn. asst. McCall’s Mag.; later textbook copywriter Macmillan Publs.; editorial asst. Ladies Home Journal, later asso. editor; head Mirisch Prodns., N.Y.; founded (with Tony Bill and Michael Phillips) Bill/Phillips Prodns., 1970; films include Steelyard Blues, 1973, The Sting (Acad. award for best picture of yr.) 1973, Taxi Driver (Palme d’or for best picture), 1976, The Big Bus, 1976, Close Encounters of the Third Kind; dir. Estate of Billy Buckner, 1974. Recipient Phi Beta Kappa award for ind. work, 1964. Mem. Acad. Motion Picture Arts and Scis. Democrat. Home: 2534 Benedict Canyon Beverly Hills CA 91210 Office: 1201 Producers 2 Columbia Pictures Colgems Square Burbank CA 91505.
Who’s Who in America
Those were the last days when Julia Phillips seemed to have the world on a string, dancing to her tune, the Oscar for The Sting and the follow-up successes of Taxi Driver and Close Encounters not yet consigned to ancient history, the final days before cocaine and freebasing and dealer boyfriends and hanger-on boyfriends and gigolos and too many insults and too many enemies and too little money and too much back taxes and lawyers and suicides and lousy advice and bad deals and rotten men finally took their toll. I knew her in those days, and she was then and is now the quintessential pain in the ass, which in an odd way is the source of her sometimes considerable, more often infuriating, charm.
We were her neighbors in Trancas, at the outermost edge of the Malibu, the older gentile couple in the house on the palisade. The first time we had Julia and her husband Michael to dinner, she got drunk (blaming it of course on the size of my drinks—actually drink; it was one Bloody Mary). She threw up in the bathroom, then checked out the prescriptions in the medicine cabinet, “the most thrilling medicine cabinet I had ever seen, every upper, downer, and in-betweener of interest in the PDR, circa 1973.” All prescribed (in vain) for the migraine headaches with which my wife and I were both afflicted, but to a junkie it is comforting to think everyone else is a junkie, too. The next day my wife sent her some chicken soup to get her through the hangover. “Shiksa chicken soup,” Julia called it, ready with a putdown even in extremis.
A few years later when Julia and Michael were noisily breaking up, and equally noisily getting back together again, they came by the house one day for a script meeting about a novel of mine they were interested in making into a movie. She was heavily into drugs by that time, which only exacerbated her pointlessly aggressive style, a style compounded by a voice that could cut metal. Unfortunately when I am confronted, I have a tendency to push back in kind, especially when someone not a writer tries to tell me what I had actually meant when I wrote something. We sparred edgily, with what I would like to think was a certain amount of humor, then suddenly she got up and left, alone, for what she said was another appointment.
Later that morning I received a call from Michael, in marriage, marital discord, and now in divorce always enormously protective of Julia. He said that she was not used to having people talk to her that way, and that I would have to apologize. What way? I said. I did not think that our conversation had gone beyond the bounds of normal script conference give-and-take, but Michael insisted that an apology was in order. So against my better judgment I did call her at home, and she in her tropistic way began to push and I in my tropistic way pushed back and one escalation led to another, until finally I told her to go fuck herself and hung up. Later that same day I sent her flowers; at the least I thought that the apology I sent with the bouquet would allow me the last word. Not quite. Many years after, she told me the real reason she had left our house that day was not because of our argument but because she had a date down the beach with a novelist with whom she had been having an affair, and who not coincidentally was as heavy into the blow as she was.
With some of the punctuation missing, and without the postscript, these are two of the less racy stories Ms. Phillips now tells in her first book. Masquerading in its Library of Congress catalog listing as autobiography, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again is in fact the prototype of the classic big Hollywood novel. Most books about Hollywood (I could even argue all), especially those ostensibly based on autobiographical fact, are essentially fiction, so selectively are they recalled and filigreed and their sets dressed. Like most show people, Ms. Phillips tends to prefer, and with reason, anecdote to fact. Facts are unforgiving, but anecdote is essentially selfaggrandizing. Nuance and subtext are purged in the interest of placing the subject in the most favorable light. In this context, truth is an acceptable casualty. The plot never varies. The protagonist, whether it be Monroe Stahr or Julia Phillips, is always presented as the nobler citizen brought down not by his or her own faults or hubris or misdeeds, but by the philistines and the pharisees in charge, to whom this finer sensibility must pay professional obeisance. Billy Brady, Cecilia’s father, was Monroe Stahr’s demon, “with a suspiciousness developed like a muscle” and little more “than a drummer’s sense of a story.” For Julia Phillips, the ogres are names for the most part unknown outside the Hollywood community, “Mike Ovitz, Jeff Katzenberg, and Mark Canton,” three whom she blames “for the decline of the movies.” These three, and their clones, she poses darkly, are responsible “for the real poverty of vision abroad in the land.” Vision, of course, is what the protagonists of these fairy tales always have.
It is well to remember that Hollywood, for all its presumed sophistication, is a small company town where all the mills manufacture the same product. Because they know little of the larger world, the toilers in these factories, the people who actually make the movies, tend to confer totemic wisdom on the most ordinary of the community’s citizens (Mike Who, Jeff What, Mark What’s-His-Name; the names are interchangeable, and indeed are constantly changing) only because they run the company stores. The public is a co-conspirator in this lust for the mundane. Agents today are written about in Vanity Fair, leading one to wonder who has ever heard of Ron Meyer or Ed Limato except Tina Brown, and why it is that their ministrations to Cher and Mel Gibson take up so many column inches.
Such micro-inspection encourages self-importance. Just last year I sat at a table in a restaurant in Los Angeles with a studio executive who the previous year had been compensated in the amount of tens of millions of dollars (a figure verified by his company’s annual report). The host of the small dinner party (seven people) was a man with several billion of his own dollars and several billion more family dollars. Throughout dinner, the multimillion-dollar-a-year-CEO never shut up, while the billionaire never opened his mouth or took his eyes off the executive during the evening-long soliloquy. (The executive’s wife could not seem to understand how I had been invited to dinner. A quick whisper: Did I know the billionaire in New York? Yes. Socially? Yes. In Hollywood, as in all rigorously structured colonial societies, the social faux pas of inviting a writer to dinner is rarely made; it is an invitation to anarchy.) It seemed not to occur to the executive that for all his forty or fifty million dollars a year in salary and ancillary compensation, he was to the billionaire still just someone else’s employee, however highly paid, however the local industry gentry hung on his every word.
It should also be remembered that Hollywood is a men’s club that has always treated women cruelly. Even actresses as honored as Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep complain constantly that they are paid but a fraction of what their male counterparts are paid. Nor are they allowed, in their professional lives, to age gracefully, as male stars are; on the screen, men grow older, women grow old. If to prolong their star life, actresses yield to the demands of modern cosmetic surgery, too often the disquieting result is to make them look like quinquagenarian and anaphrodisiacal nymphets. Non-actresses fare little better. Women screenwriters are always being promised a chance to direct, if they will only cut their screenplay, price, but the no man’s land between promises made and promises kept is littered with the bodies of women who believed.
For women with no negotiable talent, who wish “to work in film” or to produce (that refuge for the untalented), the options are even more limited, and coarse. In the Industry, they are commonly called “development sluts.” Meaning those young women with looks (the overweight need not apply nor those with moles), drive, and no discernible talent to whom the studios sometimes give a housekeeping fund for an office and a secretary, and some “development money” to work with would-be or never-will-be screenwriters whose primary virtue is that they are not in the Writers-Guild, and therefore not eligible for minimums or benefits. Occasionally a screenplay might develop, perhaps even a picture put into production, by which time the developer has been removed from the project (via a clause in the boilerplate of the contract she has never bothered to read) and was setting up still another office paid for by yet another studio, all the while realizing but never quite admitting (in her quaint Spanish-style apartment off Laurel Canyon with the Rolling Stone posters on the walls and the Chianti bottle candles and the high-tech sound system and in the garage the BMW 315 whose payments she could not quite manage) that the reason she was being sponsored by her economic and professional betters was that occasionally she make herself available to scratch the itch of someone more important on the pecking order.
Julia Phillips managed to avoid this particular circle of hell because she arrived in Hollywood with a husband, a few contacts from a series of low level magazine and movie jobs in New York, and private means large enough to allow her and her husband both to option film projects and to rent a house at the beach that was a perfect place to call in those social markers that in the movie industry are always professional as well. She also arrived with a full cargo of emotional freight, most of it rather shopworn—there was an adored scientist father, a not-so-adored mother, and a younger male sibling to whom she appears to have stopped talking somewhere along life’s highway.
She was the sort of bright child that, in her telling, parables were always seeking out. In a Brooklyn grade school she claims to have learned two life lessons: “1) Something about me invites accusation. Best to be rigidly honest as I am likely to be suspected anyway. 2) Friends will turn on you.” The perfection of this prepubescent Thatcherian formulation is presented without hint of irony. Ms. Phillips’s idea of rigid honesty, moreover, usually tended to draw attention to herself. Given oysters in a restaurant when she was four, she proclaimed loudly that they tasted like snot. Such precocity was encouraged, and in fact is a propensity Ms. Phillips has never lost, but while precociousness in a four-year-old is occasionally appealing, the practice, when it continues into middle age, can become tiresome.
The Phillipses’ move to California, in the early 1970s, corresponded almost exactly to that time when the guard was changing in Hollywood. Henry Hathaway was still directing pictures with John Wayne, and Hal Wallis was producing them, and Chasen’s was still the restaurant to go to on Sunday night, at least if you were seated at a banquette just inside the door. The Phillipses’ house in Malibu became a magnet for youthful (and generally talented) Hollywood have-nots desperate to become haves. Weekends one could usually find Steven Spielberg and Brian de Palma wandering outside their house just down the beach from ours, and Martin Scorcese and Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and Paul Schrader and Jill Clayburgh and Margot Kidder and David Ward and the Phillipses’ soon-to-be-ex-partner, Tony Bill. None of them was yet quite famous, all of them were ambitious, and like heat-seeking missiles they sought each other out, their egos locking onto each other so fiercely that Sunday afternoons at the beach were like exercises in Top Gun training. David Ward wrote The Sting, Paul Schrader Taxi Driver and an early script of Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Spielberg directed Close Encounters and Scorcese Taxi Driver, with De Niro starring. As it turned out for the Phillipses, three consecutive hits, both critically and commercially; seldom has “networking” paid off so handsomely.
It seems to be Ms. Phillips’s contention that this was a new guard, and she was on the point, taking movies in a direction they had never been taken before. It was also a time when, as the writer-director Nora Ephron recently remarked, women felt that “to get ahead in Hollywood they had to say ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ a lot in meetings.” The style came naturally to Ms. Phillips. She seemed to see herself as the ugly duckling at the party, and her every instinct was to inflict the first hurt. She was always ready to erupt with rage and hostility, the reasons for which she is never able to clarify in 573 pages. Her style was confrontational, tending invariably to denigration.
She was also an injustice collector, who seems never to have forgotten a slight, real or imagined, and she goes out of her way not only to settle scores but to create new bogeypersons (“bigger tits and fatter lips, from which hardly ever a clever word is uttered,” she says for no apparent reason of the generation of Hollywood women that followed her). She pauses over every physical flaw, every wen and every excess pound, and she seems to credit and comfort herself that because the human contract is a sham, a higher honesty than others practice (and by others, she usually means men) compels her to do so. I am not convinced, however, that calling someone a “slob,” or a “fat slob,” or “dirty looking” or “priapic,” or describing a group of producers as having faces “that looked like female privates” amounts to anything other than an adult example of the four-year-old sensibility that said oysters tasted like snot.
As long as success followed success, however, this was considered wit. The Sting won the Academy Award in 1974, and the first profit check its producers shared was $4.3 million, which made Julia Phillips just about the funniest person in town. Taxi Driver followed, more or less produced by Michael Phillips, and then Close Encounters, Julia’s project. It is always difficult to explain exactly what a producer does, but in the case of Ms. Phillips (and all successful producers), the main task is to act as a heat shield between the director making the picture and the studio providing the money; this means getting more money, and justifying the increase in the budget with studio executives, at both of which tasks she was adept. Ms. Phillips was always considered “a good meeting”; she fought hard and was richly fluent in the lingua franca of badrap in which most of the business of Hollywood is conducted. Nor was her ego ever in short supply. “I am a spotter of trends,” she writes portentously, although what trends she spotted she never makes entirely clear.
Like all producers, she considered herself a writer, a better writer in fact than the screenwriters she usually hired, and tended to confuse “pitching,” that is, tossing out ideas in a story conference, with the act of writing itself. Hers was a mind activated by a thousand such story conferences; she pitched, the writer caught. In her mind, the writer, fellow coker, and putative paramour she calls by the pseudonym “Grady Rabinowitz” (because he obviously refused to sign a release) once told me, pitching was the important part; writing the screenplay was only an incidental afterthought.
With The Sting, Ms. Phillips now had the means to finance what had become a ravenous cocaine (and later freebase) habit. Her marriage broke up, and as her behavior became more erratic, she was fired, at Spielberg’s insistence, from day-to-day participation in the production of Close Encounters. No matter. Like all cokers, she believed she functioned better when she was flying, and like all cokers she also had a million ideas a minute, although she was sometimes less than discriminating about where they came from. She seemed to think the director Sam Peckinpah had given me an idea I was working into a novel (actually Sam had an off-the-cuff idea about how he might make a movie from a book of my wife’s), and then appropriated the idea herself (and in her version gets it hopelessly garbled) and tried to persuade various studios to put development money into it. From a player she had degenerated into a hustler, “taking meetings” about ephemeral projects and scorning proposed production deals as if she were still important, in one case because her financial sponsors would not build her a personal office bathroom, where she could snort in private.
About the meetings, we learn little other than how awful the people were with whom she had to meet, how fat and stupid and ugly and what their sexual peculiarities were and how wanting they were in their performance of same, and finally how contaminated their motives when they finally passed on her pictures. We also get a rather too extensive look at the wardrobe she wore to these meetings: “…my green Alaïa leather suit…hightoppers and a Joseph Tricot miniskirt…my gold Harriet Selwyn blazer with matching vest and an old pair of poison-green Krizia pants….” She moved her dealers into her house (“I have always depended on the strangers whose kindness I purchase,” she writes with an awkward bow to Tennessee Williams), which allowed her to get her cocaine wholesale, but also brought her an extra ration of violence. One tried to strangle her, another aimed an automatic rifle at her and her daughter; the gun-toter made her pregnant; she freebased right up to the moment of the abortion. At last she was prevailed to check into a rehab at the Mayo Clinic. It did not take; in the three months after she got out, she blew $120,000 on coke. Finally, she had the ultimate Hollywood comeuppance; she was fired by her business manager. “We service rich people,” he told her, “and you are no longer a rich person.”
Careless with her own life, Ms. Phillips is equally careless in the writing of it. Names are casually misspelled, both those of professional acquaintances (the director John Milius becomes “Jon”) and also others belonging to the world outside Hollywood (the Nobel-prize winning physicist I. I. Rabi, a friend of her parents, thus becomes “Raabe”); characters are introduced by only a first or only a last name, and no other identification, as if being known by her is benediction enough. To a Los Angeles Times interviewer, Ms. Phillips recently asserted that she had “a rigidly trained mind…I’m always being told about my incredible memory.” If by “incredible” she means “not credible; unbelievable” (definition 2, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language) then perhaps: for example, my wife and I are presented at a party we did not attend, complete to kisses and false congratulations, and when I read her the entry in our day book that proved we were not there, she asked if she could keep us as part of the mise en scène anyway.
On finishing Lunch, one is tempted to regard it only as a one-woman Masada trip. But with a certain devious skill, Julia Phillips has created of herself something far more calculating, perhaps even pernicious, a Hollywood fabulist in the great tradition perfected by Louise Brooks. As with all successful fantasts, Ms. Phillips has the gift of keeping the focus on herself. She is never peripheral; in her own mind, in every situation, she is always the sun around which the world as she sees it revolves, spreading not only light but also heat. Like Brooks, Ms. Phillips perceives herself as the last principled person, if not in the world, then at least in the Hollywood community that first rewarded her, however fleetingly, with fame, fortune, and awards, and then, in her elaborately gerry-built construct, abandoned her because she was more honest and more uncompromising than the rest of the community, with its tainted history of tainted accommodations, could in fact accommodate.
For Ms. Phillips this is an entirely comforting, and even an engaging myth, predicated as it is on fantastical assumptions of moral superiority. Even addled by drugs, she presents herself as a woman of a higher order of sensitivity and perception than those whose scorn she has now attracted, and the taking of the drugs is only one further proof of this superiority: “My theater is one where I never take gifts and I always pay in cash,” she writes. “I have established this snobbery of never letting any of my dealers feed my nose out of their stash. If such a thing is possible, I command their respect.” As evidence of an elevated moral position, this is demented.
In the theater of her imagination, Ms. Phillips sees herself as a truthteller, brutally frank to the point of self-destruction, when in fact so much is concealed in her book that there is little in this truth-telling that is not shaded to her ultimate advantage. While admitting to willful self-indulgence, she proceeds to convert it as a kind of quirky iconoclasm, to her individualism writ large. Calling attention to shortcomings in such a way that the reader is meant to congratulate her for her honesty in so doing absolves her of the shortcomings themselves. She thus becomes less a real person than the product of her own fevered sensibility, constantly reinventing herself as circumstances and her own psychic need dictate.
The prevailing wisdom in Hollywood is that Julia Phillips will never eat lunch there again, at least in the sense that lunch is working. (Not, however, because of this book; her bridges were already burned; for years she has been yesterday’s news.) But the fact is that whatever her pretentions and however evasive and indifferently written You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again is, its enormous sales (a number one best seller with a $640,000 reprint sale) indicate that she did tap into something. I propose that its success has nothing to do either with its rather dubious gossip or its tawdry sexuality, but with something far more basic. The movie industry, as already mentioned, is a boy’s club, and women deeply resent it. “I still maintain that if I had been a man I would have been protected for the genius work I’d done.” Ms. Phillips said in a recent interview. Strike “genius work” and she may be right; contemporary Hollywood has always looked less benignly on the malfeasances of women than it has those of men, who routinely get second, third, and fifth chances whatever their felonies, addictions, aberrations, drug tirades, or sexual depredations, and usually without risk of social ostracism or loss of a window table at Spago.
It is entirely consistent with this boys’ club ethic that most of the Hollywood attacks against You’ll Never Have Lunch in This Town Again have been led by men, whereas Industry women, especially young women, while acknowledging the book’s various and unpleasant faults, respond to it in the same way much of the local Los Angeles citizenry responded to the Rodney King videotape: it exposes something they know in their bones, something that represents the reality of their own class situation. Self-serving though she may be, Julia Phillips is only saying what they feel. I doubt that it was her intention, but Ms. Phillips has in fact written a book about class, an inferior class. Women in Hollywood rank even below screen-writers, and that is about as inferior as you can get.
Philip Dunne (no kin) was another Malibu neighbor. The son of Finley Peter Dunne, he went to St. Bernard’s in New York, Middlesex, and Harvard, arriving in Hollywood in 1930, and a job (at $35 a week) at the old Fox Studios, where his charter was to give scripts a “Harvard slant.” In his thirty years at Fox, Dunne was twice nominated for an Academy Award; he also directed ten pictures, and in 1962 won the Laurel Award for lifetime achievement in screenwriting (“more for longevity than for literary excellence,” he noted wryly in his 1980 autobiography Take Two). How Green Was My Valley won the Academy Award for best picture in 1941 (over, it should be noted, Citizen Kane) and four other Oscars, including best director for John Ford (over, it should be noted again, Orson Welles). Dunne’s script was also nominated, one of the picture’s ten nominations, but it lost out to Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller’s adaptation of Here Comes Mister Jordan.
His polished and expert screenplay is published in this short book, but what gives How Green Was My Valley its impact is Dunne’s graceful and witty accompanying essay, only twenty-five pages long, about what it was like to work in Hollywood in the days of the moguls. Every studio in that era had its own character, and Fox was known as “the writers’ studio,” its character molded by Darryl E. Zanuck, out of Wahoo, Nebraska, and as a young man in Hollywood the author of the Rin Tin Tin screenplays. On the Zanuck assembly line, writers wrote and directors directed; writers were responsible only to Zanuck and were discouraged from visiting the set, while only a select handful of directors were ever permitted to offer script suggestions. They were given a completed script, and told to shoot it as written; Dunne, in fact, never even met several of the directors charged with shooting his screenplays. “I can best describe [Fox],” he writes, “as a strict but benevolent imperium, with Zanuck, no Caligula or Nero, its all powerful Augustus.” Notice he does not say that Augustus has a face like female private parts.
Other studio staff writers had failed to make a usable script out of Richard Llewellyn’s novel before Zanuck finally offered the assignment to Dunne. When he read the other scripts, he asked Zanuck what had prompted him to buy the novel in the first place, and only then was sent the book to read. To direct, Zanuck had borrowed William Wyler from the Goldwyn studio; Wyler was an old friend of Dunne’s, and one of the few directors in Hollywood Zanuck would allow to have a hand in the writing. Wyler and Dunne went to Lake Arrowhead and worked out a script. But Wyler’s reputation for extravagance had scared off Fox’s New York money people, and he departed the project. Enter John Ford, another old friend and Irish drinking companion of Dunne’s. “Like many of the upper class,” Dunne writes of Ford (quoting Hilaire Belloc), “He liked the sound of broken glass.”
Dunne takes How Green Was My Valley through production, post-production, and release. His essay ends at a special performance of the picture in 1972, shown at the Director’s Guild for the dying John Ford, who had picked it as his favorite of the hundred or more films he had directed. It is a poignant ending for an elegant essay. To Philip Dunne, working at the writers’ studio was as good as Hollywood could get. I confess to not sharing his enthusiasm for Ford’s pictures (and he had several quarrels of his own with Ford’s direction of How Green Was My Valley) and while I share his distaste for the pretentions of most film directors of the auteur school, I also think he tends to scant the director’s contribution. Still, if you wish to learn how pictures were made in the age of the moguls, read Philip Dunne; if you wish to learn how mischief was made in the Seventies and the Eighties, read Julia Phillips.
May 16, 1991