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Good misfortunes

Toby Young is famous for his failures, which have inspired two books now. Still, he craves screenwriting success.

July 17, 2006|Matthew DeBord | Special to The Times

Hollywood understands failure. The entertainment business needs it, on a fundamental level. That's how it works here: You fail and fail and fail until, finally, you either make it or you give up and go back to a normal life.

Bragging about failure, on the other hand, simply isn't done. When you work in an industry that lives and breathes disappointment, you don't want to be reminded that failure stalks you like a shadow.

The exception to this rule is Toby Young, a 42-year-old British author, playwright, theater critic, occasional actor and self-proclaimed professional failure who came to town recently with a Hollywood memoir to flog, determined to wrench some success out of what's been so far a dismal flirtation with the film business.

"The Sound of No Hands Clapping" is Young's sequel to his bestselling 2001 memoir, "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People," which chronicled his ignominious demise at Vanity Fair magazine in New York, where he was a contributing editor from 1995 to 1999. The follow-up finds Toby moving to L.A. and trying to fulfill a "lifelong ambition" to become a screenwriter.

Things pick up roughly where "How to Lose Friends" left off. It's 2000, and Young is trying to persuade his girlfriend, Caroline Bondy, to marry him. He's scratching out a meager freelance existence. In due course, Bondy says yes, the first book is published, a baby girl arrives, and the Hollywood seduction begins.

Together, these memoirs summarize why Young has become a strange kind of media-world figure, widely (and sometimes justifiably) loathed and mistrusted, but somehow always given semi-respectful attention. It's a reaction to his craven yet unapologetic lifelong pursuit of fame and all its gooey trappings.

So far, however, his stunted celebrity has resulted mainly from screwing up, often in spectacular fashion. Failure is his Elysium. But as he sat poolside at the Standard hotel on Sunset Boulevard last week, explaining his new book and his dreams of coming back to L.A. at some point to take Hollywood by storm -- the current plan involves some kind of small film success in England first -- he was a picture of amiability. Enthusiastically talking about everything from Oscar Wilde to his late father, he nursed an iced latte and adjusted his rimless sunglasses.

As he spoke, a tree pruner hacked dead fronds off a nearby palm, raining dust across the pool deck. Unfazed by the mess as well as the Nathanael West-grade symbolism (dead wood? If it were an omen, could it be so very obvious?), Young vigorously brushed the dust off his laptop.

An Oxford grad and Fulbright scholar at Harvard, Young joined forces with British journalist Julie Burchill in the early 1990s to launch the Modern Review, a publication that sought to tweak the intellectual establishment by focusing highbrow brainpower on lowbrow topics. It folded acrimoniously in 1995, at which point Young, who had gained a following in New York, was invited by Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter to join the magazine on contract. After a series of screw-ups that at times seemed suspiciously calculating, if consistently audacious -- asking Nathan Lane in an interview if he were Jewish and gay, ordering a strip-o-gram for a colleague on Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, harassing celebrities at the Vanity Fair Oscars party -- Young was cut loose, at which point he returned to London. He wrote "How to ..." and later turned it into a play.

In 2002, he received a completely unexpected call from a noted film producer, referred to as "Mr. Hollywood" in the new book (Young refused to name him on the record; he said it was out of fear of physical harm). Mr. Hollywood commissioned Young to write a screenplay for a biopic. Young decided his future lay in becoming a Tinseltown scrivener. He borrowed against his house and in 2004 journeyed west with his exasperated bride and his baby daughter, Sasha.

He lasted three months.

He vows to return. "I love it here," he declared.

Students of Young's enthusiasms know he has long been a champion of what he terms genre entertainments. Not for him the pretentious Euro-flick; he prefers good old Goobers-and-popcorn American fare. Having abandoned -- or assassinated, depending on your perspective -- his hope of becoming a top magazine editor in Manhattan, Young has recalibrated his reckless ambition. His current objective is, despite the humiliations described in "The Sound of No Hands Clapping," to "write, produce and direct" a movie in England, then return to Hollywood and assume his rightful place as a screenwriter in the mode of Ben Hecht and Preston Sturges. "I've learned that the best strategy is to become a big fish in a small pond," he said. The flicker of sunlight off his balding head matched the determined glint in his eyes.

"I'm not going to fail this time," he announced, leaning across the table, jabbing it with his finger.

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