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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

They Don't Make Psychos Like They Used To

June 05, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

I got a phone call the other day about Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor, from a woman I know in her 20s who believes that God created three truly beautiful things--the earth, the sky and Leonardo DiCaprio.

"Did you hear Leo might do 'Psycho?' " she asked, breathlessly.

I hadn't.

"It's in today's paper!" she said, as if I'd missed a bulletin about Pearl Harbor or Three Mile Island.

I hadn't read it yet.

Before looking up the story, I tried to picture it in my mind. Leonardo DiCaprio as Norman Bates. Hmmm. I liked it. I'm a fan of Leo's. I could picture him in a remake of that Alfred Hitchcock film. I could see Leo running the Bates Motel, practicing taxidermy on an owl and on his mom.

Then I found the story.

It turns out DiCaprio wasn't considering a film of "Psycho" after all. He was considering a film of "American Psycho."

I called the woman back.

"Did you read 'American Psycho?' " I asked.

"No," she said.

"Don't," I said.

*

I believe it is possible that I have read 1,000 books in my life. Perhaps even 3,000; I've never counted. I have read literary classics. I have read pulp fiction. I have read Kafka and Kierkegaard. I have read Garfield the cat.

The worst book I ever read was "American Psycho," by Bret Easton Ellis.

There is no close second-worst.

(This includes the time a teacher made me read a story about a girl who goes to a county fair and loses her prize pig.)

Ellis is best known as the author of "Less Than Zero," a novel about young, wealthy people and life in the fast lane. It was quite a popular book. A movie of it was made starring Robert Downey Jr. as a young man of privilege with a frightening drug habit, a film that practically turned out to be a true story.

It wasn't the best book I ever read by a long shot, but it was an absorbing story, cutting edge and intense. It made me curious about what Ellis would come up with next.

A few years later, he came up with "American Psycho."

Let me tell you the plot.

I won't spoil anything for you, should you be thinking of buying this book--caveat emptor--due to the publicity being generated by DiCaprio's reported interest in the film. I will, nevertheless, reveal the entire text, subtext, plot, subplot, story and back story.

Ready?

A guy kills a woman.

He buys dinner and describes it.

Then he kills a woman.

Then he buys a shirt and describes it.

Then he kills a woman.

Then he buys something else and describes it.

Then he kills a woman.

The end.

"American Psycho," ladies and gentlemen.

It closely resembles the great works of literature of the ages, inasmuch as all of them are printed on paper in ink. Otherwise, this is one sick book.

I had mercifully not heard much about "American Psycho" in the years since it was published. The only time I thought of it at all was when a fine author, Paul Theroux, produced a novel called "Chicago Loop" on virtually the same subject, a young guy who, for no reason, murders one woman after another after another.

Snuff fiction.

Now, I don't mind a grim fairy tale when it's done right. A couple of the best thrillers I ever read were Thomas Harris' books, "Red Dragon" and "Silence of the Lambs," both of which featured that very violent non-vegetarian, Hannibal Lecter.

Nor do I mind a creepy little film from time to time. Art is art. For everybody who likes "101 Dalmatians," there is somebody who prefers "Reservoir Dogs."

Movies show us tough stuff. We all remember Janet Leigh in that Bates Motel shower.

In "American Psycho," that kind of scene appears every few pages.

*

I would like to reserve judgment on the proposed film version of Ellis' book. From what I read, a script has been written by two women, one of whom would direct it, that tones down the misogynistic savagery of the book.

Hey, throw in some music, maybe it could be a musical.

I gather everybody's waiting to see whether DiCaprio agrees to play the lead. Some say he already did; others say he didn't.

"Would you like to see Leo do a film where he murders women your age?" I asked the one who called me.

"I'd watch Leo do anything," she said, so I shut up.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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