Commentary: Three Hollywood types offer their own reads on the business of the biz


When I moved to Los Angeles more than a decade ago, New York folks were aghast. "Don't do it," a close friend confided. "The town has the personality of a paper cup." Others suggested conspiratorially that business people mostly spent their time at the beach or lazed around their pools rather than toiling long hours in their offices like Manhattanites.

The worst indictment, whispered witheringly, "In L.A., people just don't read."

Needless to say, little of this is true, especially in showbiz, which has become, if it weren't always so, a 24/7 industry and a keep-up-with-it-if-you-can type of job. Not only do people read books -- OK, admittedly more graphic novels than Dickens -- many also write them.

I'm amazed each week by the number of such tomes that hit my desk, though given the nationwide obsession with celebrity culture, many are about the stars. (I've only been sent one book on the unglamorous but essential domestic syndication business in all these years.)

Right now there's a spate of books about the business of the business. Could it be because entertainment is now recognized as the country's No. 1 export industry? In any case, many boast highly personal perspectives, and a few of them are written by folks I'm acquainted with.

Here are three I took home recently, admittedly because they weren't too long and each approached his subject from an intriguing vantage point: One from a film producer, another from a publicist and the third from a former talent agent.

Each was a treat: one decidedly deep, another dishy and the third determinedly uplifting. I could use all three.

"American Idol After Iraq" -- you can assume 'Iraq' helps define this book as the deep one -- was written by Phoenix Films topper Mike Medavoy together with political consultant/scholar Nathan Gardels. It's the kind of book that made me fumble for a pen to underline passages on practically every page. Its theme: how Hollywood will have to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in the global media age.

Consider this: "Prosperity and the spread of technology has enabled and empowered others to tell their own stories and put their own myths on the silver screen; the digital revolution has democratized global information flow and diversified platforms to include not only TV and the PC, but also the cell phone screen." In short, the authors contend that cultural flows are a two-way street, and the values of bling and celebrity are being challenged by indigenous cultures.

Among the initiatives espoused is a Council on Cultural Relations aimed at raising the global sensibilities of Hollywood storytellers. It could be argued that such a suggestion smacks of didacticism or political meddling and that creativity shouldn't be harnessed in the interest of anything other than itself. However, read the book and you might be convinced otherwise.

After that, I definitely was in need of something lighter, so I turned to Leonard Morpurgo's "Of Kings and Queens and Movie Stars" for an insider's look at past celebrity foibles and studio shenanigans.

A longtime international film publicist, Malpurgo dishes everyone from Cary Grant to the Duke of Windsor, at the same time skewering the decision-makers at the studios who -- more often than most PR types will admit -- are wacky or wayward in their calls.

Never heavy-handed or tacky, Malpurgo provides a reminder of just how fractured the personalities he had to cater to were (and are). His word for them is "guarded," but often he managed to get behind the veil of one or another.

Consider this take on Grant and his May-December marriage to Dyan Cannon: Malpurgo was commandeered by Columbia to facilitate their short honeymoon stay in Paris and keep them out of the public eye. "Grant seemed to be playing various roles all the time, as if afraid to be himself," he writes. "He spent much of his time with Dyan playing the child's word guessing game, Hangman."

It's deft details like that that make the book, plus the conjuring of such old-style studio jaunts as the lavish shoot of the ill-fated "Dune" in Mexico with director David Lynch or Lorimar's film follies at La Costa, which was the genesis of the American Film Market.

The book has texture, and it made me realize how far we've come, or receded, since the heady, spend-thrift days of the 1970s and '80s.

Finally, the uplift: Sam Haskell's "Promises I Made My Mother" is, among other things, a "how to" for making it in Tinseltown without having to check one's values at LAX.

Or, as longtime client Doris Roberts put it on the dust cover: "I've always wondered how Sam survived in Hollywood, a viper's nest that would make any asp jealous!"

Of particular interest in the wake of the William Morris-Endeavor merger are the chapters that detail Haskell's final years at WMA, where he was head of worldwide TV but "promised" the title of agency president.

Although never mean-spirited, he recounts how bilious things can get in this pressure-cooker part of the biz.

At a fractious Thursday management meeting at WMA in 2004, the atmosphere was shattered when one agent threw a plate of pasta against the wall. "Everyone froze," Haskell writes. "I quietly picked up my plate of food, and asked, 'Would you like to throw my plate, too?' "

Rather than injecting a little humor into the discussion, the plate-thrower proceeded to bang his hands on the table. 'I have to have complete control. I have to have complete control.' "

The point of such incidents is not principally to draw the curtain back on agency back-biting but to highlight choices the author had to make to, as he, or rather his mother to him, put it, "stand in the light." Sound too much like "Pilgrim's Progress?" Actually, it's as entertaining as "Entourage."

All three reads are engrossing, and for those who do spend their days on the beach, none weighs a lot.
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