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BOOK REVIEW : Settling Old Scores Upstages Charming Hollywood Memoir : JUST TELL ME WHEN TO CRY by Richard Fleischer ; Carroll & Graf; $21, 349 pages.

September 07, 1993|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What is the sound of one voice talking? In Hollywood, all too often, it is noisy self-promotion. The attractive thing about writing a memoir is that none of the people you criticize for being difficult gets the chance to respond--and if your memories are extensive enough you might even retire the field and preclude some nasty journalist from writing your biography.

Memoirs, save those of the wonderfully frank, are commercial publishing's version of a vanity press. The subject, simply by virtue of being famous, gets to re-create the past in his own image. Which is not to say that there's malice afoot--just that the opportunity to blame everyone but yourself for everything that ever went wrong is too seductive for most mortals.

Director Richard Fleischer is an interesting case, clearly a very bright and resilient fellow, affable and optimistic in an industry that rewards neither. The son of legendary cartoonist Max Fleischer, Dick came to Hollywood in 1945 as a contract director for RKO Radio Pictures Studio, and went on to direct almost 50 features, including "Compulsion," "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," "The Vikings," "Dr. Dolittle," "Fantastic Voyage," "Soylent Green" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

What do we learn from his experience?

That being a contract director prevented him from working on certain memorable films because his uncooperative studio refused to loan him out and he feared unemployment more than he hated frustration.

That Rex Harrison, the reluctant star of "Dr. Dolittle," was a petulant bully married to an unpredictably melodramatic drunk.

That Kirk Douglas was so insecure about his formidable talents that he insisted on being at the center of every shot.

That even Laurence Olivier sometimes worried about making enough money to put the kids through school, and in doing so threatened to add $33,333 to the budget of the remake of "The Jazz Singer."

That Orson Welles was a difficult genius and Edward G. Robinson, a sensitive one.

Some disagreements die hard, and Fleischer, clearly miffed at whatever version of reality Douglas promoted in his autobiography, pushes his interpretation to the point of challenging Douglas'. And he goes to great lengths to cite everything, chapter and verse, that Harrison did to undermine "Dr. Dolittle."

It is instructive, in the case of Dolittle versus Fleischer, to turn back to John Gregory Dunne's 1968 nonfiction classic, "The Studio," written before Hollywood understood the power of denying access. Dunne was in on everything at Twentieth Century Fox; he accompanied Fleischer and the Fox contingent to a sneak preview of the film in Minneapolis, and recorded their on-the-spot rationalizations when audience response fell short of their expectations.

The difference is that Dunne, who had no vested interest in the way his characters come out, has a nicely droll outsider's eye, and ear. No one is singled out as the villain of the piece. People simply do what they do, and the reader gets to draw conclusions.

Next to that, Fleischer's reminiscences are so baldly subjective. Certainly he is entitled to think that Harrison was a childish bore; there is plenty of evidence to support the conclusion. But just as surely, the world is more subtle than that.

Fleischer does know it. We get glimpses of a sensitive nature that even four decades of craziness did not completely stifle. His experience working with Robinson, who was near death when he appeared in "Soylent Green," was a remarkable one, and Fleischer recalls the relationship without ever becoming maudlin. And he fully appreciates the irony of being courted by Walt Disney, the man whose career eclipsed that of Fleischer's father--too often simply because the people who controlled Max Fleischer's bankroll were afraid to take chances.

But his tone is sometimes too easy, too modulated. A close friend, a screenwriter, joked about suicide and then, one lonely afternoon, made good on the joke. The reader is stunned by the revelation, not just because it is sad, but because Fleischer walks right up to it with the same even, open style he uses to talk about temper tantrums.

Fleischer had more than his share of certifiably wacky experiences, working with a rather stellar assortment of actors and producers. He is at his best describing the self-indulgence that so often passes for artistic temperament; the comic timing of his scenes is impeccable, and he has a wicked eye for exaggerated character.

Too often, though, the book reads like a very genial due bill, a preemptive strike against the Kirk Douglases of the world who may intend someday to write down their version of the facts. It's a charming enough guide through more than 45 years in Hollywood, but one wishes for a bit more reflection and a bit less settling of scores.

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