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Hanging Tough in Hollywood : THE PLAYER by Michael Tolkin (A Morgan Book/The Atlantic Monthly Press: $17.95; 161 pp.)

August 14, 1988|David Freeman | Freeman is the author of "A Hollywood Education." and

A player in Hollywood is someone who affects the game--who hangs in there despite the disappointments and pain, able to keep making deals, or getting roles or jobs--someone who counts. Players don't go away. No matter what; they fight or perhaps even kill to stay in the game, to play again. Griffin Mill, the studio executive at the center of Michael Tolkin's wicked and knowing novel, is a player in excelsis , a man who puts the game over everything.

A studio executive as the central figure of a novel is right up to the minute for an era when Hollywood has become a town of famous agents and studio heads. There have been executives at the center of other works about Hollywood--most notably Fitzgerald's Monroe Stahr of "The Last Tycoon" and Sammy Glick of Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run."

Griffin Mill, like many of his brethren, is on the verge of losing his job. As if that weren't enough, Griffin, who is 31, has been receiving angry, anonymous post cards from a screenwriter, chastising him for not calling back--the studio executive's sin. The cards bother Griffin out of all proportion to their actual threat. They seem to suggest to him that he's guilty of more than rudeness. The cards make Griffin uneasy, and they cause him to act precipitously, without proper planning--something a player never should do.

Tolkin puts an interesting twist to the idea of a screenwriter who is angry enough to kill. I don't think it gives away too much to tell that in this tale, Griffin has reason to fear being murdered, arrested for murder or fired from his job, fates that are roughly equal in his mind. He wriggles his way through legal and romantic difficulties, studio politics and police procedures with a film executive's skills--he tends to see it all as the plot of a so-so movie, and he approaches it the way he might approach a story, which indeed it is. The cops aren't without skill, but nobody is as treacherous as a good studio man, a player. Griffin is blessed with a capacity for denial that might not be entirely credible to anyone who has never been around the various Griffin Mill prototypes that abound in our village. Trust me on this one, even at his most mendacious, the man is credibly drawn and even somewhat sympathetic--no easy trick here.

Griffin seeks out a screenwriter whom he imagines, on precious little evidence, to be the post card sender. The suspect has just about given up on screenwriting and may or may not have gone into the drug business. Whatever else he is, the man is disaffected and wary of Griffin's attempt to rectify some forgotten slight. The two of them have a beer or two in a bizarre Japanese saloon in Pasadena. The evening ends--how shall I put it?--unpleasantly for the screenwriter. The post cards don't stop, which means the wrong man is dead. Griffin continues to seek out his tormentor but at the same time finds himself drawn into the fabric of the victim's life, particularly the man's girlfriend. She's grieving, but on the other hand, she now has rich and powerful Griffin Mill pursuing her. This is Hollywood, and she can't believe her good luck. It all keeps the cops guessing.

There are enough surprises along the way to keep one reading, but the true life of this book is in Tolkin's ability to get inside the brain of a studio executive who is able to see the moral murkiness in his actions but at the same time is unable to distinguish among murder, getting away with it and maneuvering through the politics of the film business. Tolkin tells his tale in a deadpan way--an ideal voice for describing the folkways of Burbank.

There are a number of well-drawn subsidiary characters of interest here, the colleagues and hangers-on who trot through Griffin's life, particularly the chief of security at the studio, one Walter Stuckel, a character out of Raymond Chandler. He has a pretty good sense of how the dead screenwriter got that way, but he's the only one, and he works for the studio so he keeps his own counsel--he too, in his own way, is a player.

The scenes in studio meetings and Griffin's reflections on script-pitching sessions give the novel its authenticity and verisimilitude and make the slightly less believable plot easier to take. Tolkin has clearly been around movie studios and knows how they work--he has the rhythms of pitch sessions and the dynamics of story debate down with precision. It helps make the rest of his tale fall in line. A reader is in good hands here, and it makes this short, sharp book enormous fun to read.

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