An essential reading list for understanding Hollywood — from David O. Selznick to the raging bulls of the '70s.
The other night, I made a New Year’s resolution: to re-read my favorite film books.
We spend too little time watching the masterpieces of the past, and even less reflecting on what went into them. It’s good to know that things were just as difficult back then, and that even if the past (as it’s been said) is a foreign country, sometimes they do things the same there, too.
The following ten books offer a window into Hollywood’s history. Not only do they delve into the stories behind many of the greatest pictures ever made, but they also allow a deeper understanding of Hollywood itself.
Inevitably, this is a subjective list. There are fine film books that I haven’t included because they never touched me personally (Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio and Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock/Truffaut), and others that touched me deeply but don’t reveal as much about the business as a whole (Aljean Harmetz’s superb Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca, William Friedkin’s terrific The Friedkin Connection and Robert Evans’ mesmerizing The Kid Stays in the Picture).
Still, anyone wanting to understand an eco-system would do well to look at these books, ranked in order of preference.
“Have gone over and carefully thought about Gone With the Wind,” Selznick telegraphed his longtime story editor Katharine Brown on May 25, 1936, shortly after she had obtained the manuscript to Margaret Mitchell’s unpublished novel. “Think it is fine story and I understand your feeling about it. If we had under contract a woman ideally suited to the lead, I would probably be more inclined to buy it than I am today, but I do feel that its only important showmanship values would be in either such star casting or in a tremendous sale of the book.”
A day later, as we discover from this peerless compilation of the mega-producer’s letters and telegrams, Selznick changed his mind about the subject that would make his name — just one of the multitudinous revelations in this rich and fascinating collection. “Want you to know that I have thought further about Gone With the Wind and the more I think about it, the more I feel there is an excellent picture in it, especially if they can [give] the very colorful man’s role to Gary Cooper,” Selznick cabled. “Were I at MGM, I believe I would buy it now.”
“I hated being poor. Hated being a peasant. Hated being a scrounging newskid trapped in the sleazy Sicilian ghetto of Los Angeles.” Thus begins the director’s gut-wrenching autobiography, initially published in 1971, but as powerful today as it was then.
I first read this book as a teenager, before I’d even seen most of Capra’s films (It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life), and it’s never left my mind. I still remember being swept up in the raw emotion of Capra’s family as they make the journey from Sicily to America; the heartrending death of his father, chopped up in a farm machine; and the searing migraines Capra experienced — a lesson to all of us — when he agreed to make a movie he didn’t believe in. Not even Joseph McBride’s magisterial biography (Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success), which takes aim at the less savory aspects of Capra’s personality, was able to dislodge this book from my heart.
It’s hard to imagine that a near-600-page business account of the greatest financial scandal to rock Hollywood — written by a stranger to the business — can be as riveting as any work of fiction. But from its very first page, McClintick’s novelistic account of what became known as the Begelman affair (the story of a top Columbia Pictures executive who defrauded the company, and the fallout that ensued) is a page-turner as compulsive as it is deeply reported.
David Begelman was charming, talented and crooked, a character rich enough to fuel this inside look at the industry that, alas, was written years before the sad coda to Begelman’s story: In 1995, knowing he had no money and no prospects, he shot himself dead in a Los Angeles hotel.
Kazan writes with such emotional power and apparent authenticity that you have to force yourself to ask: how much is fiction, how much the truth?
This dazzling account tells of the director’s upbringing in Constantinople, his emergence with the Group Theater and Actors Studio, his revelatory work on such plays as Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, and of course, his handling of such classics as On the Waterfront and East of Eden. Crucially, it also discusses his experiences in the McCarthy era and his decision to name names, which made him persona non grata in Hollywood for much of his later career. I’d have ranked this book number one on my list, if I didn’t have nagging doubts about its veracity.
There’s no original reporting in Otto Friedrich’s compendium of Hollywood stories from the 1940s, all drawn from previously written accounts, and yet there isn’t a single moment when you don’t scream with laughter or roar in outrage at stories you’ve never heard before, one more outrageous than the other.
My favorite: Louis B. Mayer’s discovery that the starlet he’d shipped to Paris, where he planned to ditch his wife and propose to her, had secretly brought her lover in tow. When L.B. found out and knocked at her door, “he was white and shaking, with a large envelope in his hand,” recalled the starlet, Jean Howard. “It was from a detective agency in Hollywood and told him all about Charlie and me. Suddenly he picked up a bottle of Scotch, poured out a whole glass and gulped it down. He never drank and it made him drunk. He went wild. He roared around the room and then, suddenly, made a move to throw himself out the window. The three of us needed all our strength to hold him back. We got him down on the floor, where he wept and moaned. I went straight back to New York, and Charlie and I were married.”
Many books have been written about film theory; few are as original and influential as Schrader’s, written following his days as a student at UCLA and the AFI, and before he became the celebrated writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. You’ll never see those movies the same way again after reading this study of filmmakers whose style seems the very opposite of Schrader’s colleague, Martin Scorsese’s.
This book, admittedly, won’t teach you anything about Hollywood; but it will show you what unites three of the most original directors in the history of film, whose work still laps up against that of Scorsese, James Schamus and other master filmmakers.
“Yasujiro Ozu in Japan, Robert Bresson in France, to a lesser degree Carl Dreyer in Denmark, and other directors in various countries have forged a remarkably common film form,” writes Schrader. “Although transcendental style, like any form of transcendental art, strives toward the ineffable and invisible, it is neither ineffable nor invisible itself.”
While I might quibble about Harris’ central thesis — that 1967 marked a cultural watershed in Hollywood history — I have no quibbles about his skill as a writer. I’ve now read the book three times; it easily merits a fourth. This exquisitely researched book interweaves the stories of the five movies nominated for best picture at the 1968 Oscars — Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Dr. Dolittle, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — to reveal a Hollywood in transition, maybe even in crisis, along with the stars, writers, directors and producers who found themselves sucked into the vortex.
“It wasn’t just that we were sick of the system,” says director Arthur Penn. “At that point, the system was sick of itself.”
One of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) tells his version of how those movies got made. Along the way, he also gives the most memorable advice ever ladled out by someone toiling in the Hollywood trenches: “Nobody knows anything... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess — and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
Heaven’s Gate is starting to look an awful lot like ancient history, but the reverberations of the 1980 picture are still being felt in Hollywood today.
Michael Cimino began work on the film after finishing his masterpiece, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, and the latter’s success at the Oscars (where it was named best picture and Cimino best director) allowed him unfettered freedom to do what he wanted next. The massively over-budget western he embarked on spun so horribly out of control it almost sank the studio that financed it, United Artists — and certainly sank the idea of director-as-king. Never again would they have the clout they had before; never again would a studio permit a director to challenge it for power.
Steven Bach tells us how this came about from the inside, as the UA head of production who had to deal with a movie that was then disparaged, but is now considered by many to be a classic.
For a close-up view of the 1970s, the last golden age of Hollywood — at least as we see it through a rose-tinted rearview mirror — and an appreciation of all its pain and anguish, its hope and glory, look no further than Biskind’s insanely gossipy tale. The characters are larger-than-life, their battles epic, their hubris (and achievements) beyond compare. Delicious as his work is, even Biskind acknowledges the fog of war may have clouded some of his subjects’ memories.
As Joseph McBride noted in a dyspeptic review when the work first came out, “in the kind of popularized pseudohistory Easy Riders, Raging Bulls exemplifies, anecdotes are valued above all else, bitchy gossip is privileged, dysfunction is automatically more fascinating than artistic success, aggrieved former friends and former lovers are granted the license to settle scores (sometimes anonymously), documentation is disdained and historical analysis must be squeezed into the narrative quickly, so as not to disrupt the dishing.” Ah, but what dishing.