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Taking Aim at Every Level of the Industry

August 28, 1996|ERIK HIMMELSBACH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a nearly shaven head, jet-black horn rims, impressively coiffed hair jutting from the sides of his ears, and the obligatory tattoo that slinks up his gym-toned left arm, uncoiling slowly into something elaborate at the top of the shoulder blade, Bruce Wagner could easily slip into his fictional world. He'd be the creepy, brooding writer, no doubt pretentious, who cranks out Hollywood tripe and pawns it off as art. Of course, you can only speculate about his tacky and sordid personal habits.

Or, better yet, read him: Edgy, sledgehammer prose oozes from each page, as every level of the Hollywood food chain, from celebrity shrinks and dermatologists to faded starlets, agents, assistants and porn actresses, tiptoe through the dead bodies, diseases and moral depravity that is Hollywood.

Wagner's vision is cynical, but amid the not-always-connecting thicket of plot and characters, it can also be deadly funny. While his writing provides readers and voyeurs alike with a fistful of vicarious mind candy, you can't help but wonder what kind of serious stuff this guy is working out inside his head, coming from places most of us never want to go.

But we all learned in school that it's not kosher to prejudge. You can't tell a book by its cover, right?

Sure, Wagner is an intense guy, but he is also funny, warm and engaging. And he digs apple pie and ice cream--which he orders from a somewhat spooked waiter at Swingers--though not as much as Hollywood.

Wagner, 42, was raised in the shadow of Hollywood and has had a lifelong obsession with Hollywood as a company town, which manifests in his fictional documents of the Industry's workaday environment, first in "Force Majeure" (St. Martin's Press, 1993), and now in "I'm Losing You" (Villard). He doesn't deny a macabre addiction to its machinations.

"I revel in the fact that there are constantly silent movie stars' obituaries," Wagner says. "I feel weirdly connected to that."

It's a connection Wagner first made as a child. If it wasn't a kid coming to elementary school straight from the set of "Daniel Boone"--in full costume and makeup--it was the view of Babylon from his own neighborhood.

"I grew up a few doors from Broderick Crawford, and I guess it was my introduction to the rings of the Hollywood inferno," he says. "When I was 10, his girlfriend overdosed and died. One day she simply wasn't there anymore.

"I lived right down the street from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I would see Warren Beatty and Julie Christie there all the time. I could see Barbara Hutton wheeled down when she died. That was my youth, so that's why I write so much about this town."

It's apparent, however, that Wagner's Hollywood differs from that of, say, Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg.

"I think my predilection is to write about the devastated, the swallowed," Wagner says, as Dionne Warwick croons "What the World Needs Now (Is Love, Sweet Love)" from the jukebox. Yet, without sounding coy, he can't really explain why he chooses to drive on the dark side of the street.

"I don't know where it comes from, because I'm not a depressed person," he says. "Maybe it's because I get it out and write about it in the book."

*

Because "I'm Losing You" is loaded with sexual deviation, drugs, bodily fluids and betrayal, Wagner worries that it will be considered merely "a catalog of grotesqueries."

"I think there's a lot of redemption that tends to get overlooked because . . . the things that happen, the bad things that happen, are really bad," he says. "But I think there's a lot of nobility also in the characters in the book."

Wagner points to Chet Stoddard, the former talk show host who falls in love with an HIV-positive woman while trying to persuade AIDS patients to cash in their life insurance policies, and Rachel Krohn, who comes to terms with the death of her father, a rabbi, who was murdered years before.

"To me, it's not just about the producer that vomits on his assistant, or the star who is comatose and molests a little girl," he says. "Those things are awful."

Besides, he asks rhetorically, what's shocking, anyway? All you need to do is read the paper, Wagner says, to find real-life horrors on par with the atrocities committed in "I'm Losing You."

"Margot Kidder, totally compelling: mad, holding notes to people, 'I'm dead.' Phenomenal. How can you beat Richard Speck with tits, on video, saying how great prison has been. . . . There's not going to be anything more decadent than that."

Wagner laughs, and pauses, preventing his rant from getting too wild-eyed.

"I start to sound like the executioner who said, 'No, I actually collect flowers and butterflies. I only do this part time.' "

Actually, he only writes novels part time. Wagner is also a card-carrying member of the Industry. His screenplay credits include "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills," "Wild Palms" and "Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors."

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