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Missing the story

March 23, 2003|Robert W. Cort | Robert W. Cort is a producer whose films include "Three Men and a Baby," "Mr. Holland's Opus," "Jumanji" and the forthcoming "Against the Ropes." His novel, "Action!" will be published this summer.

The Academy Awards is the longest-running reality show in television history. Tonight more than 100 million viewers around the world will wait breathlessly to see who wins, who cries and who looks radiant in their designer dress or ridiculous with their fresh face-lift. The show's popularity is proof of the timeless fascination people have with Hollywood's inhabitants. So here's the paradox: Despite the public's curiosity and despite the awesome media coverage, the film community and its emotional life are shrouded in cliche, stereotypes and misinformation. Those of us in the movie business are often asked by those outside about what we do, but their questions reveal scant understanding of the way Hollywood works.

It's unfair to fault the media. They often focus on movie stars, veering from puff piece to scandal. Even when reporters offer genuine insights, their work is ephemeral and its impact limited. Historians and biographers have done a thorough, occasionally brilliant job of recording the history of old Hollywood, but few have captured the modern era, and memoirists' work is often incomplete, riddled with gaps in memory and access.

So what, then, of the writer whose work is limited only by the imagination? Surely the novelist can take us on a journey of discovery. Unfortunately, few have proved reliable guides to the modern world. As a result, no novel about Hollywood has revealed the truth of its world in the way "The Godfather" did with the Mafia or "The Bonfire of the Vanities" did for arriviste New York in the 1980s.

What has eluded them? First, they've missed the complexity of the men and women who choose and make our movies. Second, they've failed to portray the unique aspect of the business: the pain, suffering and joy in giving birth to any movie, be it the pedigreed "Gangs of New York" or the mongrel "Jackass." Third, they've ignored the seismic changes in modern Hollywood. Finally, they've committed the cardinal sin of movies: They've failed to tell great stories.

David Freeman, a screenwriter and the author of "A Hollywood Education" and "One of Us," once observed that most Hollywood novelists are disgruntled screenwriters bent, consciously or not, on revenge against the system that they believe oppresses them (even while it spends $200 million annually underwriting their art). Unfortunately, these authors have painted a one-dimensional scene. The principal revelation of their work is that Hollywood is a Bosch painting, populated by characters with whom no sane person would spend an evening, much less a week of bedtime reading.

It wasn't always this way. Near the beginning, there were two classic models for Hollywood novels. In "The Last Tycoon," F. Scott Fitzgerald chose reality. He chose Irving Thalberg as the inspiration for his protagonist. Monroe Stahr is a genius, one of the few men who "holds the whole equation of filmmaking in his head." We marvel as Stahr explains why he's going to make a movie he knows will lose money and then presuades his profit-driven colleagues to go along. But Stahr is a lonely man, mourning the death of his wife. When he falls for a woman who resembles her, we see the curse of his imagination as well as its power. Even though Fitzgerald died before finishing "The Last Tycoon," the book provides more insight into the studio system and the people who run it than any Hollywood novel published in the 60 years that followed. Its drama and humor emanate from its humanity.

The alternative model, Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?," opted for hyper-reality. Sammy Glick travels from a newspaper copy boy to president of Worldwide Pictures, demonstrating raw ambition and uninhibited amorality, unmitigated by talent. Hollywood has suffered its share of Glicks who have served as heads of production. (Such men have risen in corporations everywhere.) But even the worst of our breed have more dimensionality, or they'd have been disposed of long before reaching the corner office. Opinions to the contrary, the town is seducible, not stupid. And the impact of the Glicks on the movie industry has been minimal and short-lived.

Compare, for a moment, Schulberg's fictional Sammy to the real thing. Take the mogul captured in Scott Berg's towering biography, "Goldwyn." Born into the same poverty as Glick, Sam Goldwyn is equally ambitious, but he also has a keen eye for talent, the courage of his convictions and a wonderful ability to mangle language. Or look at David Begelman. His fall from grace as former president of Columbia Pictures is the subject of David McClintick's brilliant analysis of self-destruction in Hollywood in "Indecent Exposure." Begelman's lies matched Glick's, but as McClintick noted, he masked them with marvelous charm. In "The Kid Stays in the Picture," Bob Evans' self-described rise to power -- as unbelievable in its details as Glick's -- affects us more because the man understood his own bluff.

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