Commentary: Heads up on Vanity Fair's 'Tales of Hollywood'


Carter conversation: A quick month after Thursday's Oscar nominations we'll find out whose names are in the sealed envelopes, at which point for some it will be time to party.

Those who get to spend the big night celebrating with Vanity Fair and Graydon Carter, its editor, at L.A.'s Sunset Tower Hotel may want to do some reading between now and then, as it will give them something nice to talk about once they've thanked Carter for inviting them.

The just-published book in question is "Vanity Fair's Tales of Hollywood," which I read and thoroughly enjoyed before catching up recently with Carter, who edited the Penguin Books paperback. He has been the magazine's editor since 1992 and also owns New York's ultra-exclusive Waverly Inn restaurant. "Tales" is an inspired collection of articles that Vanity Fair has run over the years about the making of what its front cover appropriately calls "13 iconic films."

As one who's been writing columns about moviemaking for The Hollywood Reporter since 1985, I must confess to having devoured these pieces like peanuts. Good or bad, everything in this baker's dozen of movies is memorable. They provide a window through which those who love film and delight in knowing what really goes on behind the scenes can look back at the process over the years and learn a lot about this very crazy business.

In general, these articles hammer home just how frequently plans change in Hollywood. Stars fall in and out of projects, directors come and go, producers get inspired casting ideas from out of the blue and studio regimes topple sending everyone else's fortunes up or down. Most of these films started out one way and ended up quite differently. Moreover, we have no way of knowing if they'd have enjoyed the success most of them have had if things had actually gone according to plan.

Two of these movies are ones I've long called personal favorites -- Joseph Mankiewicz's "All About Eve" and Alexander Mackendrick's "Sweet Smell of Success." If I'm channel surfing and run into either of them, I'm hooked for the duration despite the fact that I've seen them both umpteen times. The stories of how they managed to reach the screen aren't to be missed.

The other films, most of which I like to one extent or another, may well be on your own list of favorites. All of them are interesting case studies to explore. The list (with their directors and producers in those cases where producers really played key roles) includes Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons," Nicholas Ray's "Rebel Without a Cause," Jean Negulesco and producer Jerry Wald's "The Best of Everything," Joseph Mankiewicz and producer Walter Wanger's "Cleopatra," Mike Nichols and producer Larry Turman's' "The Graduate," Mel Brooks and producers Sidney Glazier and Joseph E. Levine's "The Producers," John Schlesinger and producer Jerome Hellman's "Midnight Cowboy," Mike Sarne and producer Robert Fryer's "Myra Breckinridge," Ken Russell's "Tommy," John Badham and producer Robert Stigwood's "Saturday Night Fever" and Warren Beatty's "Reds."

"A lot of these are my favorite films and they were very much evocative of the time and helped capture that time and place in America," Carter told me. "So over the past 15 years of the (Vanity Fair) Hollywood Issue we decided to put the greatest ones together in a book."

As an example of the haphazard nature of putting films together, he explained, "In the casting for 'The Graduate' Mike Nichols had originally wanted Gene Hackman to play Anne Bancroft's husband (played in the film by Murray Hamilton) and Candice Bergen to play the part that Katharine Ross eventually got." In his article Sam Kashner writes that Nichols didn't find Dustin Hoffman until after Robert Redford and Charles Grodin had already auditioned to play Benjamin Braddock.

In Sam Staggs' article about "All About Eve," he writes that Bette Davis wasn't Mankiewicz's first choice to play Margo Channing. Claudette Colbert was, but after rupturing a disc in her back she couldn't work. Darryl Zanuck, Fox's production chief in 1950 when "Eve" was shooting, had Marlene Dietrich in mind for the role, but Mankiewicz preferred Gertrude Lawrence, who declined because Rodgers and Hammerstein were already busy writing "The King and I" for her to star in.

"Mankiewicz and Zanuck turned to Bette Davis as a last resort," Staggs explains, adding that when Zanuck called to offer Davis the role she actually "thought someone was playing a joke on her."

Vanity Fair's articles are a great way to get a glimpse of Hollywood's studio system days. "They sort of met their match in 'Cleopatra.' I mean, you went through two entire studio regimes on that movie," Carter pointed out. " When you read the story, you feel badly for everybody. The movie, itself, if you go back and look at it is terrific."

During the two and a half years that went into making the 1963 epic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose scandalous romance was ignited during production, Fox production chief Buddy Adler died and was succeeded by Fox TV production head Peter Levathes. The article by David Kamp goes on to explain how Fox president Spyros Skouras, desperate after cost overruns sent "Cleopatra's" budget soaring to a then-staggering $44 million that would translate into $300 million or more today, kept the company in business by selling its 260 acre studio in West Los Angeles to the Aluminum Company of America for $43 million and leasing back 75 acres for Fox's continued use. The remaining acres were developed into a complex of office towers, hotels and shopping malls that became known as Century City.

As things turned out, Kamp wrote, "The movie was never the runaway hit Wanger had dreamed of, but a year after its release it was one of the top-10 grossers of all time and in 1966, when Fox sold the television broadcast rights to ABC for $5 million, 'Cleopatra' passed the break-even mark."

Not all of the films the book focuses on were successes. "But, also, it's kind of wonderful reading about a movie that became a great bomb like 'Myra Breckinridge,'" Carter said. In that article by Steven Daly we learn how the ill-fated "Myra" was conceived in the late '60s when Hollywood was discovering the importance of the youth audience and trying to attract it. With that in mind Fox signed an ambitious young British pop singer named Mike Sarne to direct its big screen version of the wildly controversial Gore Vidal best-seller that the studio had just acquired for $900,000. No quick summary here could possibly do justice to the making of "Myra" so you'll just have to buy the book to find out what went on.

In the 1960s and '70s, Carter noted, magazine articles and short stories were an important source of material to the studios. Several of the films covered in these Vanity Fair articles actually originated in periodicals before they were adapted to the screen. "All About Eve" was a short story called "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr in Cosmopolitan's May 1946 issue. "Sweet Smell of Success" was a 1948 Collier's short story by Ernest Lehman called "Hunsecker Fights the World." And "Saturday Night Fever" started out as the article "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" by Nik Cohn in the June 7, 1976 issue of New York Magazine.

Unlike the superficial coverage that so many consumer media outlets give to new movies today, Vanity Fair's articles are as in-depth as one could wish for. "What we do is we tell stories here," Carter explained. "The back story of the making of a movie is usually some great fascinating tale of dead ends and obstacles and if the movie is memorable that's all the more remarkable when you read these things (and see) how easy it is to go wrong in any given area. But I do think that giving that sort of space and the pictures we do in the magazine, it's almost like a documentary on the page."

The book's articles ran in Vanity Fair mostly in the 2000s, but they're about films that are decades old, which continues to be the case. "In the next Hollywood Issue, the March issue, we have a big, big long piece on the making of 'The Godfather,'" Carter said. "These stories do have a beginning, middle and end to them, which is also quite satisfying if you're an editor or a reader. You know how they come out."

And even if you know how events played out, it's still fascinating to read how the filmmakers managed to get there. "I'm assuming that if you are in the movie business, it's either highly inspirational or instructional," Carter added.

There's lots to be learned even about films we think we know very well. I've watched the classic 1957 film noir "Sweet Smell of Success" many times and always enjoyed its scenes at the "21" Club in New York because it's long been my most favorite restaurant anywhere. Nonetheless, despite having dined many times where Burt Lancaster holds court in the movie as ruthless columnist J.J. Hunsecker I'd never realized that those scenes actually were shot on a soundstage and not at "21" as Vanity Fair's article by Sam Kashner reveals.

In writing about how cinematographer James Wong Howe achieved "Sweet's" "darkly dazzling evocation of Broadway nightlife," Kashner says, "It would have been impossible to get the sort of shots he wanted filming inside '21,' so interiors were filmed in Hollywood at Goldwyn Studios' Soundstage 8 -- they spent $25,000 just recreating '21,' with movable 'wild walls' to make way for Howe's camera. Howe smeared the walls with oil so they would gleam."

As to how Vanity Fair decided to cover in such detail the making of memorable movies, Carter recalled, "'Cleopatra' was one of the first. One of the reasons we got started on this was because Tina Skouras, who was the granddaughter of Spyros Skouras, was working in the fashion department (at the magazine) and she started telling us about some of these stories and that sort of really got us going."

In today's world where media coverage of movies mostly means covering celebrity romances, babies and felonies rather than the films, themselves, Vanity Fair's behind-the-scenes pieces are particularly refreshing. "We have a great respect for the durability and romance of Old Hollywood," Carter observed. "I mean, it's harder to find it out there now, as you well know, but it's there. I think that sometimes it takes an outsider to see it whereas if you're there all the time it may just go past you.

"We have a healthy respect for anybody who can tell a story well because that's what it's all about. It's not about camera angles or the rest of it. (With a film like) 'Slumdog Millionaire' you're not going for the lavish sets. You're going because they told you a great story."

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