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Made in Hollywood, crafted from American angst

Michael Tolkin follows `The Player' into an era fraught with fear.

September 05, 2006|Matthew DeBord | Special to The Times

Michael Tolkin, who has been working in Hollywood for almost 20 years, believes movies are dead -- at the least the kind of grand American movies that delivered satisfying spectacle to viewers. Character has fled to television. The audience is distracted. Novels are the only form left that he thinks will never go out of style. And so he has revived his best-known literary creation, Hollywood dark prince Griffin Mill.

The new novel, a sequel to 1988's "The Player," is titled, fittingly, "The Return of the Player." It showcases one man's escape from the entertainment-industrial complex. Tolkin himself is a dying breed: among the last of those in Hollywood who move comfortably from big picture to small project, from screenwriting to directing to novel-writing. Coming back to Griffin after 18 years, only to have him leave Hollywood for what he thinks is bigger quarry, reveals that Tolkin is trying to carve out a paradoxical position for himself as someone in Hollywood but not entirely of it.

Accordingly, he plays his cards close to his vest, when asked about the end of Hollywood. "The book is what I think," he said. But he also points out that most people in Hollywood now see their movies on DVD, and that Hollywood is being forced to confront technological change. "You can get a great home theater now for twenty thousand."

As successful as "The Player" was, Tolkin had not been actively considering a follow-up. "I hadn't thought about whether Griffin was still alive," Tolkin said recently while sitting at one of two desks in his bookshelf-lined studio over the garage behind his house, a shambling Spanish affair populated by his wife of nearly 30 years, writer and psychologist Wendy Mogel, a high school-age daughter (he has two, the other is away at Haverford College), and a pair of dogs. "However, in the spring of 2002, while sitting there" -- he gestured to a leather club chair with a paperback copy of Samuel Beckett's "Molloy" on the table next to it -- "the first sentence popped into my head."

That sentence -- "Griffin Mill was broke, he was down to his last six million dollars" -- sets the tone for the sequel to what many consider the best Hollywood novel ever written.

Even those who haven't cracked the first novel probably saw the 1992 film version, which resuscitated the career of director Robert Altman. In the movie, Tim Robbins plays Griffin, a producer who murders a screenwriter, seduces his girlfriend but, like a Tinseltown Raskolnikov, gets away with it.

Now 52, Griffin is still a producer, but he's in an agonizing rut. Divorced and remarried, he's supporting three children. He's impotent. Plus, he's convinced that the world is going to end, and the only way to preserve his family is to make enough money to buy a private island and stock it for the apocalypse.

Tolkin explained that "The Player" was written because he noticed a change in Hollywood culture in the late 1980s. "The executive bureaucracy had overtaken the creators at the studios, which were starting to look more like the rest of American business than the world of the Hollywood moguls of the 1930s. In a sense, it was a yuppie novel."

While talking, Tolkin paused often, carefully weighing his delivery. Tall, tan and fit -- a black physio-ball peeked from a half-closed closet, implying sit-ups between scenes of a new screenplay -- he wore a patterned polo shirt, pinstripe pants and white Asics trainers.

"By 2002, political history had changed," he said. "I decided that I didn't have to write a Hollywood novel. Griffin Mill is still a producer, but he's really an American dad in a panic about the collapse of all the systems, and the only fantasy he can come up with is his escape plan."

Griffin's scheme involves the acquisition of "savage wealth," perhaps the most brutally resonant concept in the novel. He plans to aid a gay Hollywood multimillionaire who is humiliatingly shy of a billion to get over the hump -- to become a member of an elite super-moneyed class that can access unmapped canyons, drink secret wines and, of course, purchase private South Pacific islands.

Fans of Tolkin will instantly recognize the end-of-days trope. His 1991 film "The Rapture" took on the topic explicitly, through a religious lens (at the movie's conclusion, in a stunning twist, the Rapture actually takes place).

The man is intimate with gloomy prophecies, and this carries over to his view of the entertainment business. "The last great American movie was 'Apocalypse Now,' " he said, unequivocally -- at least until he remembered that he was "knocked out" by the final installment of "Star Wars," in which Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. "George Lucas showed us the monstrosity within that character."

Otherwise, there's nothing to cheer about. "Comedy and children's adventure movies are the only places left where the story of the hero still works. There's no possibility of victory anymore. Myths that have stood up for thousands of years are breaking down."

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