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The Gambler

HIGH CONCEPT: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess. \o7 By Charles Fleming (Doubleday: 294 pp., $23.95)\f7

April 26, 1998|PETER BISKIND | Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood."

There is an argument to be made that Don Simpson did more to change the face of American movies in the last few decades than anyone else, save George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Critic David Denby, in a cri de coeur over the marginalization of reviewers and the death of film recently published in the New Yorker, wrote that what today's soulless movies lack is emotion. Or, as he put it, "many big-studio movies are consciously fashioned so as to take involvement out--the entire range of emotions [is] jettisoned in favor of one emotion, physical excitement."

If postwar movies reached their peak in the early '70s, a key moment in what would become a growing contempt for the emotional valence of movies and the attendant devolution of film was surely Lucas' remark to his wife,Marcia, circa 1972. Evoking emotion was easy, he said, on the order of wringing a kitten's neck; anyone could do it, and he would make "American Graffiti" to prove it. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, but once he made his point and got human beings out of his system, the director who was himself emotionally blocked in his personal life, turned toward his true love, what he called "pure cinema": the effects-laden, emotionally impoverished comic book movie, "Star Wars." Spielberg followed suit, streamlining his films by getting rid of the inconvenient story elements and quirky performances that made "Jaws" such a great movie (and an anomaly in Spielberg's action oeuvre), and the '70s were history. Stunning examples of personal filmmaking such as "Raging Bull" were left high and dry like beached whales, the ocean of audience support that buoyed "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" receding all too rapidly around it.

Enter Don Simpson. Born in 1943, Simpson came up in the same drug-drenched, anti-authoritarian countercultural atmosphere that nourished the rest of the so-called movie brats in late-'60s Hollywood. Working in publicity at Warners, at a time--under Ted Ashley and John Calley--when it was by far the hippest studio in town, he experienced up close the explosion of filmmaking that constituted the directors' decade. But by the time he arrived at Paramount as a junior executive in 1975, "Jaws" had sounded the death knell for the kind of personal filmmaking that defined the so-called New Hollywood, and Simpson eagerly embraced the TV values of the new network team that would take the studio into the '80s.

Smart, funny and ambitious, Simpson rose quickly through the ranks to become Paramount's head of production under Barry Diller and Michael Eisner. The changes wrought by "Jaws" and then "Star Wars" were transforming the industry into a risky, marketing-driven, blockbuster business. Whereas in the early '70s studios were often reduced to merely distributing the films of high-profile auteurs, by the late '70s they were reasserting their power. "This was a period in which studios took charge of their movies," said Craig Baumgarten, who was also an executive at Paramount. "It wasn't like, 'Gee, we like it, or we don't like it, or why don't you try this or why don't you try that?' We began to issue blueprints. We came up with our own ideas. Don redesigned the way studios related to the material they produced." It was Simpson who told the talent what to do. He began the practice of deluging writers with script notes, which they were expected to follow slavishly.

Simpson was also preternaturally attuned to the twitches of the culture. The late '70s--the era of disco, of Studio 54 in New York--was dominated by the newly confident, out-of-the-closet gay sensibility. Paramount was known as the gayest studio in town; its big films were "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease," both starring John Travolta, then a considerably more androgynous figure than he is now, at least in his portly Clintonian incarnation. The same gay subtext interpretation for "Top Gun" that Quentin Tarantino offered in a cameo in a film called "Sleep With Me" also works for "Grease," produced by Allan Carr and now in re-release. Like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," faced with a choice between the "astrophysicist" Kelly McGillis and the suggestively erotic male fliers led by "Ice Man" Val Kilmer, in "Grease" Travolta is faced with a choice between the insipid Olivia Newton-John character, representing straight culture (marriage, family, etc.) and the leather-jacketed greasers representing gay culture. At the end, however, a cross-dressing Newton-John, herself decked out in black leather, makes the choice for him, leaving the obvious conclusions up to viewers.

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