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Michael Tolkin, author of the new novel “The Return of the Player,” is a member of a venerable Hollywood club: the screenwriter- novelist. It makes sense: If you suffer years of indignity writing scripts by committee inside the studio industrial complex, where you have little control over the results but make a handsome living, why not turn overnight into a omniscient novel writer with absolute power over your domain? “The novel is the last place in Western civilization where the writer has complete freedom,” Tolkin says. “You can say more in a novel than you can anywhere else because your imagery is not constrained by the marketplace.”
Novel writing must fulfill a deep need indeed, as several talented screenwriters who could easily earn higher incomes by sticking to scriptwriting for hire have become rather fine novelists. They include David Freeman (“Street Smart”), who made his name with razor-sharp portraits of thinly disguised Hollywood moguls such as the late Don Simpson in his classic short story collection, “A Hollywood Education: Tales of Movie Dreams and Easy Money,” and writer-director Bruce Wagner (“Women in Film”), who has crafted six novels that delicately skewer Los Angeles’ upper classes, including the trilogy “I’m Losing You,” “Still Holding” and “I’ll Let You Go,” a Dickensian tome featuring a homeless man named William Morris.
Top screenwriter Wesley Strick (“Cape Fear”) so enjoyed the experience of holing up in his home refusing to take script meetings while writing his Douglas Sirk-inspired look at the Tinseltown past, 2006’s “Out There in the Dark,” that he’s embarking on another novel that has nothing to do with Hollywood. To write something with “enormous latitude, with no parameters at all” that was not contracted, pitched, rejected or accepted was “an easy trade-off,” Strick says, though “the downside was that there was always a chance that I was wasting a year of my life.”
Writer-director Tolkin (“The New Age,” “The Rapture”) is the best-known of these screenwriter-novelists because he adapted his first novel, 1988’s “The Player,” into a hit 1992 movie directed by Robert Altman. Tolkin’s ruthlessly ambitious Ripley-like production executive Griffin Mill was brought to vivid life by Tim Robbins, while “Player’s” hilarious movie-within-a-movie starred Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts. Rumors circulated around Hollywood about who had inspired Tolkin’s edgy climber who sells his soul by murdering an angry screenwriter ? and gets away with it. While ex-Warner Bros. executive Billy Gerber has been dining for years on being the basis for Tolkin’s anti-hero, the writer insists his model was non-Hollywood Washington insider and Iran-Contra star Elliott Abrams.
In the decade since “The Player,” while Tolkin has written two other novels that have nothing to do with Hollywood (“Among the Dead,” “Under the Radar”), much like Al Pacino in “The Godfather: Part III,” he keeps being pulled back in. For one thing, Griffin Mill was still in his head, demanding his return. “When a novel has come alive in me, I’ve had to write it,” Tolkin says. “It has happened four times and takes precedence over everything else.” So he brought back his novelistic alter ego, much as Philip Roth and John Updike did over the years with their Zuckerman and Rabbit series.
In real life, Tolkin ? who is a profoundly spiritual family man still married to his non-pro first wife, with an oldest daughter already ensconced at a respected eastern college ? is observing Hollywood’s ruling class, not a member of it. The book’s funniest moments happen at an over-the-top bar mitzvah that Tolkin swears is not an exaggeration. “Return of the Player” provides a moral dissection of the values of the entertainment world’s moneyed elite. It’s about how panic, selfishness, greed and fear can “drive you to do things you shouldn’t do,” he says. “It’s about the difference between panic and confidence and social responsibility. I’m writing about real conditions. I don’t think there’s much exaggeration in the book. It’s not satire. To me, that means mocking and parodying things. I don’t think I’m exaggerating or derisive. Read the New York Times, and there’s an article about how to customize a Boeing 767, about redecorating your jumbo jet.”
In his latest incarnation, Griffin Mill at age 52 is still venal and ambitious and has outgrown the confining walls of his studio office. In a moment of crisis, he prays to the God he isn’t sure he believes in, just in case: “I ask you God to give me clarity so that when an opportunity for something real in this town shows up, I can recognize the opportunity and grab that chance, God, grab that chance and make it mine.”
While he is weighed down by the guilty secret of his earlier murder, he is no longer married to the man’s widow, and he is fully capable of killing again, when necessary. His second marriage is in trouble, and he is going broke: He is down to his last $6 million. “Between the collapse of the technology bubble and the attack on New York of Sept. 11, 2001, I felt a feeling of malaise and unreality in Hollywood,” Tolkin says. “The entertainment industry has been unsure of where things are going, how to conduct business, what movies should be or what entertainment is. It is TV, or a download? Everyone was grabbing at what the Next Thing should be. I was interested in that anxiety, fear and panic. That’s what this book is about.”
Only one man can take Mill to the next level so that he can escape his terror of the end of the world by finding refuge on his own island in Fiji. He’s a player on a far grander scale, David Geffen-like billionaire power-broker Phil Ginsberg: “Griffin trembled at the idea of Ginsberg because the man was everywhere and nowhere, now owning the music division of that company, which he sells and then buys an Internet store that he convinces the investment bankers will make a zillion dollars, and he sells the stock at its highest, six months before bankruptcy; having learned the Internet business he buys a cable system in New Mexico and returns to Hollywood and starts a cable channel dedicated to soccer, with English and Spanish commentary. He had also managed to slip between a few best-selling novels and the films made from them. He had started with a little more than nothing and was now worth $750 million but, lacking his first billion, suffered a manic insecurity ensorcelled with his manic confidence, a chemical bond for brutality. He was mean and worked alone like a troll beneath a bridge, demanding of everyone who passed: money, gold, cattle, a first-born child.”
There are really three major players in the book: besides Mill and Ginsberg, the other chillingly memorable character is formidable former president Bill Clinton. “It’s a book about marriage and guilt,” Tolkin explains. “For the problems Griffin is having there is no one else to talk to except Bill Clinton. More than anyone, he’s capable of understanding any action and forgiving it, because he understands that everyone can make mistakes: He’s made them.”
Tolkin sees “Return of the Player” as being about the provincial city of Los Angeles more than the entertainment industry. If the book were to be made into another movie (the author sent a galley to the ailing Altman before he died), Tolkin thinks it could easily be set outside the confines of Hollywood. “The book is about a man who thinks he needs a fortune to survive the coming end of the world,” he writes in an e-mail. “There are only two or three scenes in studio offices, and no movie stars anywhere. It might work just as well in Cupertino.”
Clearly, Hollywood screenwriters are given a close-up look at a group of bigger-than-life characters who fuel their imaginations in ways that their day jobs will never do.
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