In 1941, the visionary German dramatist and poet, Bertolt Brecht, newly arrived in Los Angeles, where he hoped to make his fortune as a screenwriter, wrote these lines:
Every morning, to earn my bread,
I go to the market, where lies are bought.
I join the ranks of the sellers.
" Hollywood: A Third Memoir" is the distinguished writer Larry McMurtry's delightfully episodic account of his long, profitable and generally rather enjoyable engagement with the movie industry — or, to borrow Brecht's phrase, his time among the sellers. The subtitle notwithstanding — and a writer this accomplished with a Pulitzer and an Oscar to his credit is entitled to call his work whatever he damn well pleases — McMurtry's 44th book might better have been styled Hollywood sketches. It's less a fully realized third volume of his memoirs than it is a series of terrific vignettes, some of them less than a page in length. (The author has a bit of forgivably sophomoric fun with his penchant for brief chapters, which he attributes to age.) Whatever the form, we're reminded that fine American writing is always reliant on storytelling and that McMurtry stands among our best not only because of his uncanny ability to compress a cogent narrative arc, but also because his eye for the moving detail is infallible.
The standard-issue storyline of literary writers in Hollywood casts the industry as a kind of celluloid Moloch into whose flaming maw talent is cast for no better purpose than ritual sacrifice. Sift through the ashes and something more complex emerges. To start with, there's nothing unique about the way — or, for that matter, the reasons — Hollywood consumes writers. A financially distressed Henry James, after all, spent most of the 1890s churning out eminently forgettable but remunerative dramas for the stages of London's West End, which was to that era's theater what the industry is to today's cinema. More recently, the late film historian Tom Dardis has pointed out that William Faulkner — and the numerous relations he supported — survived the war years entirely on checks from Warner Bros. (At that point in his career, not a single one of Faulkner's novels was in print.)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the prototype for all great writers ruined in Hollywood, was heavily in debt and living off hand-outs from his agent and editor when he landed his first screenwriting contract in the 1930s. Once America's highest-paid short story writer, he hadn't been able to sell a line in years and borrowed money to pay for his mad wife's hospitalization and his daughter's school. That first contract paid him $1,250 per week; not a bad sum in the depths of the Depression, when taxes were negligible. Within a relatively short time, he'd paid off the more than $40,000 he owed to, among others, Maxwell Perkins. Fitzgerald lived well and, more or less, happily on his Hollywood income until his untimely death.
McMurtry's engagement with the film business has been similarly profitable. The unexpected sale of his novel, "Horseman, Pass By" — made into the 1963 movie "Hud" — brought him $10,000 in 1962, enough to escape teaching world literature to bored kids from the oil patch at Texas Christian University. "I had nothing to do with the filming of 'Hud,'" he writes. "Similarly I had nothing to do with the filming of the fine CBS miniseries of my book 'Lonesome Dove.' The same holds for 'Terms of Endearment.' I just wrote the book! … The fact that 'Hud' was made from my book had one extremely important effect: somehow through the illogic of show business it enabled me to get work on scripts for no better reason than that I was from the West — cowboy country … I will always be grateful to Hollywood for … well … it's essentially financed my fiction, my rare book business and, to a huge degree, my adult life."
Summoned a year later by producer Alan J. Pakula to write his first screenplay, McMurtry also discovered there was a lot he liked about Hollywood — particularly first-class air travel there and, later, private jets. He also loved Hollywood and Los Angeles because traffic wasn't yet a problem, and good book shops were numerous and open late. "I must mention that I liked Hollywood from the moment I first visited it, and I like it still, even though it must be said that the traffic now is a serious problem. … As Jack Kerouac aptly said, Los Angeles is still the West Coast's one and only golden town. Say it's glitter all you want; at least it's real glitter, applied at a level that for me never fades."