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Reality show in novel form

Action!: A Novel, Robert Cort, Random House: 392 pp., $24.95

June 15, 2003|Peter Lefcourt | Peter Lefcourt is the author of, most recently, the novel "Eleven Karens." He also writes and produces for film and television.

The film producer Robert Cort will continue to eat lunch in this town because the people whom he paints with a dark brush in his novel "Action!" are either dead (actress Romy Schneider), declawed (Michael Ovitz) or both (Julia Phillips). Some of the other dead people getting rough treatment are Steve McQueen, portrayed as a brooding egomaniac; Sam Kinison, a sexually perverse druggie; and Charles Bluhdorn, an Austrian tinhorn who buys Paramount Pictures so that he can sleep with aspiring young actresses.

This tabloid treatment of real people makes for juicy reading. You read it with the same fascination you watched the Winona Ryder shoplifting case. But you wonder about the ethics of defaming people who are no longer able to sue for libel or, at least, go public with their side of the story. If Cort has firsthand knowledge that Schneider liked sadomasochistic sex or that Kinison sexually violated a young woman, then I stand corrected, but with these types of allegations, secondhand information doesn't cut it.

Cort writes fluently and with an insider's knowledge of the movie business. A producer of 52 films, he knows the turf. There is much interesting film history in the novel. The 1948 antitrust case brought against the major studios by the U.S. government, the economic jeopardy posed by the advent of TV, the 1966 proxy fight for control of Paramount and the Screen Actors Guild waiver permitting powerhouse agency MCA to produce television while representing talent are all well described.

Some of the best writing evokes the larger-than-life personalities of movie moguls, the Machiavellian studio politics, the travail of producing a big-budget action movie on location with a power-crazed director. The serendipity of success and failure, the ecology of power, the intangibility of talent are elements not just in the book's themes but in its brushstrokes. Cort has the wardrobes, the restaurants, the golf courses, the argot of the business down pat.

It is in the fictional elements of the story that Cort's background works against him. He has written a novel that feels like a screen treatment for a Major Motion Picture. It is essentially the story of a man (picture Harrison Ford or, better, Michael Douglas, who has a walk-on role in the novel playing himself) trying to save his soul in the amoral universe of Hollywood. The pitch would be "Wall Street" meets "The Day of the Locust."

AJ Jastrow is a second-generation Hollywood producer whose father, Harry, a studio executive, dies of a heart attack at his son's bar mitzvah reception at the Hotel Bel-Air, keeling over into the swan pond as Bing Crosby croons "Hava Nagila" inside. AJ and his wicked mother, a woman who could give Tony Soprano's mom a run for her money, leave Hollywood and go to Chicago, where AJ goes to law school.

He is eventually seduced back into show business by the roguish charm of producer Mike Todd (who gets better treatment than many of the other real dead people in the book). After leaving the mercurial Todd, AJ becomes a William Morris agent and protege of the late Stan Kamen, and then a studio executive and producer.

AJ's emotional arc, as the screenwriting books term it, is to avenge his father's mistreatment at the hands of a fellow Paramount executive, a vicious infighter who had destroyed Harry Jastrow's career. AJ keeps this mission in front of him, Hamlet-like, while he marries, fathers two children, has the obligatory affair, writes a screenplay, produces it, has a stroke, recovers and rises from the ashes to run his own studio.

But as we know from Hollywood movies, power always has a price. In this case, it is AJ's loss of the love of his own son, Ricky, a problem child who becomes an actor and then, somewhat improbably, a financial mogul who allies himself with his malevolent grandmother to do battle against his father in the climactic final section of the novel -- a denouement that falls somewhere between Turgenev and "Dynasty."

The novel spans half a century, from 1948 to 1998. We watch AJ's career mutate from Young Turk, to successfully produce, to mogul and, inevitably, to dinosaur as Hollywood's tastes change and the food chain becomes more slippery. Throughout the novel, Cort's subtext is the manner in which the film business has lost its soul over the years and degenerated into a vertically integrated business run by multinational corporations whose only interest is the bottom line. This is an old story; the movie business has always been about making money.

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