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NONFICTION

Lynda in Wonderland : HELLO, HE LIED: And Other Truths from the Hollywood Trenches. By Lynda Obst (Little, Brown: $23.95, 256 pp.)

September 08, 1996|Jeff Silverman | Jeff Silverman is a screenwriter and former Hollywood denizen who writes from Chadds Ford, Pa

If we can begin by postulating that there's an actual order to the Hollywood universe, then its first law of personal dynamics would go something like this: for every action--which, of course, includes inaction--there is an equal and underlying self-interest.

Like the old question about the sound of the tree falling in the forest if no one's there, the law's corollary seeks to explain the principal principle behind anything that resembles a Hollywood memoir: Is there a reflection in the mirror when the eyes are looking away?

In the case of producer Lynda Obst and her generally witty foray into the arena, the answer is yes and no. Which is both the strength and weakness of "Hello, He Lied: And Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches." There's a definite there there--engaging, ironic, clever and insightful--and the paradox is that its image is most vivid when she turns away from looking at herself and casts her glance instead at the business she's surrounded by. When she focuses on the adventures of Lynda Obst, Woman Producer, she gives us just another High Concept variation on the order of "The Perils of Pauline" meets "Jaws" with a couple of dollops of "Tootsie" (in reverse) thrown in.

Obst's credentials--an editorship at the New York Times magazine; Hollywood apprenticeships with Peter Guber and David Geffen; and credits on movies like "Flashdance," "The Fisher King," "Sleepless in Seattle" and the upcoming "One Fine Day"--are certainly impeccable, and she's not at all timid about dropping them constantly into her narrative. She's more timid naming names and digging dirt. Her experiences, then, seem interchangeable with those of any of a host of fine producers today who happen to be women.

Anecdotally, they are about as interesting as, say, Dawn Steel's, who ventured into this territory with a self-serving, ho-hum homage to herself between covers a few years ago. She's nowhere near as much fun, or as revealing as Julia Phillips was in her rip-and-coke-snorting, give-'em-the-finger "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again," but that's not Obst's purpose here. She isn't out for revenge. She wants to keep playing the game, and if that means making reservations at the restaurant du jour, so be it. The fun of "Hello" is more generic.

It can be summed up in a sentence--one of the best observations in the book--but I'll go back a few to help give it its full impact. "I fear," Obst writes, "for the loss of the qualities a person needs to stay in tune with the human race--empathy, and worse, more expendable, sympathy. Does it all get diffused into abstract political causes? Does the impulse to loving-kindness in Hollywood become teaching a UCLA Extension course?"

Billy Wilder would have been proud of a line with the bite of that last one. The difference is he would have just left it there, its teeth glistening. Obst, on the other hand, turns "Hello" into the manual--albeit a good one--for that course. Thus, if I've got my logic right, we can only assume she is in tune with the human race and teeming with loving-kindness. That's a hard scenario to sell--and swallow--in today's market.

Indeed, if I were a producer and this were a story meeting, I'd fire up a Cohiba, pour a glass of whatever Scandinavian water is most impressive these days, lean back in my leather chair and tell this writer she's got a genre problem. She's got two threads weaving--one personal but not revealing enough, the other a clever guide to the business geared particularly toward mentoring young, idealistic and hopeful women who want to make a place for themselves at Hollywood's table--and they don't always work together.

Go with your strength, Lynda. Lose the autobiography--do we really need to know about your gymnastics class?--and lose the pretentiousness of "My job as the producer was to breathe life into the movie" and "I arrived with a reporter's eye and an anthropologist's distance."

Just cut to the chase, because once the solipsism and self-adulation have been culled, what Obst has come up with is the most useful insider's how-to to the movie business since William Goldman's bible for scriptwriters, "Adventures in the Screen Trade." Granted, the result would be a substantially thinner volume, but is there another port of call anywhere in the galaxy that covets thinness as such a virtue?

Her how-to is both subtle and brash and generally on the nose as it navigates through meetings, development and production. Her mantras--"hitting the bull's-eye," "ride the horse in the direction that it's going" and, especially, "putting it on the roof" (Obstian for "table it")--are sound, and the advice contained in them worthy. Her occasional rules of Hollywood conduct can be wickedly on the mark.

What sets "Hello" apart, though, is a genuine shift in attitude. Whenever the word "producer" requires the third-person pronoun, Obst always provides the feminine, a wonderfully confident affectation exuding the assurance that however much a struggle Hollywood can be, hard work and tenacity can level the sexual pits on its playing field. If today it seems like an affectation to call attention to that fact, well, so what? One day it may not. And when that day comes, a generation of young women--and men--will have producers like Lynda Obst, vanities and all, to thank for it.

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