High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess

High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess

4.0 1
by Charles Fleming
What Hit and Run was to Hollywood financial impropriety, and what You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again was to sex, drugs, and self-destruction, High Concept is to the evolution of today's driving business philosophy and simultaneous back-lot grotesqueries of the contemporary entertainment industry.

Using the life and career of


What Hit and Run was to Hollywood financial impropriety, and what You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again was to sex, drugs, and self-destruction, High Concept is to the evolution of today's driving business philosophy and simultaneous back-lot grotesqueries of the contemporary entertainment industry.

Using the life and career of producer Don Simpson as a point of departure, High Concept takes readers on a riveting journey inside the Hollywood of the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout the period, Simpson and his partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, were the most successful independent producers in the history of moviemaking, responsible for the hit films Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Bad Boys, and The Rock. Widely credited with the genesis of the "tentpole," or "event," business strategy, which could make a studio's year in a single shot, Simpson had an uncanny ability to boil down a movie into an easily salable product. His films generated billions of dollars at the box office, and today his business philosophy continues to drive the fortunes of the major studios, where $100 million blockbusters are now the norm.

But at the same time that his vision was driving the Hollywood bottom line, Simpson's lifestyle epitomized the pervasive dark side of the industry's power base. Through intensive research and interviews with sources throughout the film community, Charles Fleming chronicles how Simpson made his mark as a young executive at Paramount, gradually gained entry into a small circle of friends, and gratified himself beyond recognition. His legendary consumption knew no bounds. This unrestrained excess killedhim and sent a warning cry throughout the industry.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Contemporary Hollywood takes it on the chin in these two books, written from widely different perspectives. Fleming, who has written extensively on Hollywood for Variety, Newsweek, and Entertainment Weekly, tells the sordid story of producer Don Simpson, who helped create a string of blockbusters (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun) and whose box office figures gave new meaning to the phrase "gross receipts." Simpson died in January 1996 at the age of 52; his heart gave out after years of crash dieting, drugs, alcohol, and disfiguring plastic surgery. Fleming spares few of the gory details of Simpson's decline, and he's quick to tie his lifestyle up with that of other Hollywood miscreants like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Farley. The book needs a better sense of Simpson's longtime relationship with partner Jerry Bruckheimer, as well as some perspective; Fleming barely acknowledges that the film business has always harbored and even encouraged hard-living dynamos like Simpson, as long as they were successful. Grey, described by his publisher as "once a Hollywood insider," offers a collection of brief essays and interviews about the state of films. Grey's chats with directors John Waters (Hairspray) and Wes Craven (Scream) highlight what's best about the book; the author's essays range from the provocative to the puerile. A discretionary purchase for most collections. [Fleming's book was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/97.]Thomas J. Wiener, Editor,"Satellite DIRECT"
Eric P. Nash
Don Simpson was everyone's idea of a movie producer from hell, with volcanic temper tantrums and Elvis-sized appetites for alcohol, pills, cheeseburgers and Heidi Fleiss's hookers. High Concept, Charles Fleming's biography of the late co-producer (along with Jerry Bruckheimer) of mindless masterpieces like "Flashdance" and "Top Gun," at times reads like a Jackie Collins novel with footnotes. -- Eric P. Nash, New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Lots of sex, lots of drugs, and even a little rock 'n' rollþthereþs something for every scandal lover in this rollicking, dirt-dishing account of the life and times of Hollywood producer Don Simpson. Movie insiders credit Simpson with inventing high-concept moviesþthe action-packed, loud, flashy, simplistic, but tightly structured films, that crowd the multiplexes every summer. With his producing partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, he certainly hauled in great gusts of money with films such as Flashdance, Top Gun, and Crimson Tide. Simpson's life was as big and in-your-face as his creations. He hit Hollywood as a junior studio executive and quickly climbed the corporate ladder. But his increasingly public drug habit eventually got him fired. Financially, this was the best thing that ever happened to him. He and Bruckheimer teamed up as independent producers and began to crank out the movies that would make them feared and loathed and celebrated. If anything, success upped the ante of Simpsonþs misbehaviorþfrom even more drugs to a constant stream of hookers to epic mistreatment of subordinates. But the powerful absolution of success kept him working until his heart gave out when he was 52. In his first book, Fleming, a former staff writer for Variety and Newsweek, is not so much interested in Simpson the man (in fact, in strictly biographical terms, this book is a failure), but Simpson the poster boy for '80s excess. This leads to long, tell-tale digressions on Hollywood seaminess. This oft-told tale features the usual suspects (Heidi Fleiss, Charlie Sheen, Jack Nicholson), but Fleming does manage to dig up enough juicy, original tidbits to slake all but the mostjaded prurient appetites. A tale full of sound and fury but signifying little beyond gossip.

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Broadway Books
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5.53(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.86(d)

Read an Excerpt

It was Monday night at Morton's, and everyone was there. To this famed West Hollywood watering hole, where every Monday night of the year the show business community's leading citizens gathered to dine, do business, gossip and gawk, Hollywood's most powerful men and women had come this wintry 1996 evening to pay their respects to a friend. Sipping Chardonnay or Perrier, Armani-clad in charcoal and black, were Michael Eisner and Michael S. Ovitz. Eisner ran Disney and was at that moment concocting an $18-billion scheme to merge it with CapCities/ABC. Ovitz had been Hollywood's most powerful agent before joining Eisner at Disney, but would soon be evicted from the Magic Kingdom, leaving with a golden parachute valued at more than $100 million. Across the room were the diminutive, casually dressed David Geffen, the billionaire mogul, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney Wunderkind who had recently teamed with Geffen and filmmaker Steven Spielberg to create the new entertainment giant DreamWorks, after himself failing to achieve the partnership with Eisner that Ovitz was now finding impossible to forge. Barry Diller, the steel-hard executive who had run Paramount and 20th Century-Fox and was now building his own independent entertainment empire, was talking with Joe Roth, who had run Fox's movie division under Diller and now ran Disney's under Eisner. His counterpart at Paramount, the glamorous Sherry Lansing, chatted with Robert Daly, cochairman of Warner Bros., and with Jeff "Ice" Berg, the legendarily tough International Creative Management executive who, in the wake of Ovitz' move to Disney, was now the most powerful agent in the film business.

These weregiants. Between them they shared control of the entire entertainment industry, an empire of movies, television shows, records, books, merchandise and theme parks that generated hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and that constituted America's number one export product. The meetings they took, the memos they wrote, the decisions they made every day determined what title was playing at the local Bijou from Kowloon to Kathmandu, what the citizens were watching on television from Rio to Reykjavik, what was playing on radios in Manila and Moscow, what titles Americans were taking home from their Blockbuster and Wherehouse video stores and what characters appeared on the hamburger wrappers when they ate at McDonald's and Burger King. A thumbs-up or thumbs-down from these men and women could make or break a career in an instant. They were here, this Monday night at Morton's, to honor one of their number, surrounded by some of the glittering personalities who helped them sell all that popular entertainment product. The man they were honoring had made many of them rich, many of them powerful and many of them famous.

Warren Beatty was there, as were Michelle Pfeiffer, Don Johnson, Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss, Will Smith and dozens of other celebrities. Producers Dawn Steel and Lynda Obst, each of whom had trained at the honoree's knee and each of whom had written scathingly of what Hollywood can do to humanity, were there, too. Glittery Hollywood hangers-on like Tina Sinatra and Alana Stewart, the former Mrs. George Hamilton, spoke in hushed tones about the guest of honor. Powerhouse attorney Robert Shapiro, who had helped defend O.J. Simpson in his trial for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, nodded with powerhouse attorney Howard Weitzman, who had years before helped defend famed auto manufacturer John DeLorean in his felony cocaine possession case. To their side was private investigator Anthony Pellicano, who had come to Los Angeles to work on the DeLorean case and, finding an entire community of rich and powerful people who needed help skirting the law, never left.

The guest of honor would have been impressed. But he wasn't there. The guest of honor was Don Simpson, and Don Simpson was dead. This Monday night at Morton's was a memorial service to mark his passing.

As autopsy reports and pharmaceutical records would later reveal, Simpson through the summer of 1995, the summer before his death, was on a regimen that included multiple daily injections of Toradol, for pain; Librium, to control his mood swings; Ativan, every six hours, for agitation; Valium, every six hours, for anxiety; Depakote, every six hours, to counter "acute mania"; Thorazine, every four hours, for anxiety; Cogentin, for agitation; Vistaril, every six hours, for anxiety; and lorazepam, every six hours, also for anxiety. He was also taking, in pill and tablet form, additional doses of Valium, plus the pain relievers Vicodin, diphenoxylate, diphenhydramine and Colanadine, plus the medications lithium carbonate, nystatin, Narcan, haloperidol, Promethazine, Benztropine, Unisom, Atarax, Compazine, Xanax, Desyrel, Tigan and phenobarbital. (Simpson's pharmaceutical records for July 1995 show billings of $12,902--from one pharmacy, through one psychiatrist, at a time when Simpson was using at least eight pharmacies and several doctors, receiving medications using the aliases Dan Gordon, Dan Wilson, Don Wilson and Dawn Wilson, in addition to his own name. A law enforcement source who investigated Simpson's pharmaceutical records estimated his monthly prescription medication expenses at more than $60,000. One ten-day period in August 1995 shows Simpson's pharmacy expenses at $38,600.) Police and coroners' documents also show that Simpson was experimenting with prescription doses of morphine, Seconal and gamma hydroxybutyrate, or GHB. These medications were being ingested, autopsy reports would show, in addition to large quantities of alcohol and cocaine.

Excessive doses also have deadly potential. Overuse of Atarax, Benadryl, Compazine, Venlafaxine, Haldol, lithium carbonate, Narcan, Phenergan and Tigan--any one of these medications--can cause seizures and convulsions. Overuse of Ativan can lead to confusion, depression, hallucinations and delirium. Among the side effects listed for overdosage of Desyrel are priapism, arrhythmia and "unexplained death." Overdosages of Narcan can cause tachycardia and "cardiac arrest," also a potential risk with abuse of Vistaril. According to the Physician's Desk Reference, the sleep aid Unisom, which Simpson had used for years, "should not be taken longer than two weeks [or] concurrent with alcohol or other drugs."

More ominously, Simpson was using heroin. Sometime in 1993 one of Simpson's prostitute friends had introduced him to a heroin dealer who worked under the name Mr. Brownstone. (Heralded in Hollywood song, he is the subject of the Guns N' Roses tune "Mr. Brownstone," a nickname based on the particular brown-hued Mexican heroin the dealer sold.) A frightening character whose eyes burn bright with paranoia, he has long dealt drugs to the record and movie crowd, and even suspects it was his dope the young actor River Phoenix ingested on the night he collapsed and died in front of the Sunset Strip's Viper Room.

Simpson had been a dying man, literally, for at least six months prior to his actual death. Few in the room that night at Morton's knew that. They could easily have rattled off a complete list of Simpson's hit movies, and most had a private Simpson anecdote involving Simpson misbehavior, but few concerned themselves with the degree to which Simpson had corrupted and destroyed himself living those anecdotes and making those movies.

Fewer still knew that, in New York, the mother of Simpson's only apparent blood heir was grieving all on her own.

Victoria Fulton Vicuna, a dark Chilean-born beauty, had been introduced to Simpson at Manhattan's trendy Canal Bar in 1988, at a dinner party attended by Simpson, Bruckheimer, a group of bright young socialites and the novelist Jay McInerney--whose best-seller, Bright Lights, Big City, Simpson and Bruckheimer wanted to turn into a movie. (The subsequent screen version was produced by Sydney Pollack and directed by James Bridges.) A twentysomething brunette with an appetite for high times and royalty--she was then involved with the Prince of Lichtenstein--Vicuna began dating Simpson, seeing him when she was in Los Angeles or when he was in New York. Vicuna became pregnant in 1992 and believed Simpson was the father. By then, however, she was involved with another man and was afraid to tell Simpson he had a daughter. When that relationship ended, she contacted Simpson, by telephone and by mail, and gave him the news. Simpson never responded, though he did blurt out to a friend who also knew Vicuna, "You think you've got troubles? Victoria had a baby, and I'm the dad!" Though Vicuna pressed her claim for several more years, Simpson never took or returned her calls, never admitted or denied that he was the father. After his death, and falling on hard times financially herself, Vicuna went to Simpson's brother, Lary, who with his parents grieved that night at Morton's. It would be two years before the family would respond to Vicuna's claims and offer her a financial settlement in the child's name.

Simpson and his partner, Bruckheimer, were once asked to describe their personal and professional differences. Bruckheimer said their differences were most evident in "the way we handle situations. If there's a huge blowup, I'll be sent in to tame the lion, whereas Don will come and shoot him, although he'd decided beforehand that the lion should be left alive. Don comes in and there's blood all over the wall." Simpson immediately countered, with the typical Simpson bravado that was sensitive only to perfecting the pose and the sound bite, "The lion shouldn't have fucked with us." In the end, Simpson was the lion tamer and the lion he should not have fucked with. His only victim was himself, and there was blood everywhere.

If Simpson can ultimately be seen as representing anything, if his life can be taken as a cautionary tale, the caution is this: Beware a life devoid of negative consequences. Beware what writer Eszterhas described as Simpson's "terminal isolation." Simpson for most of his adult life, thanks in large part to his brilliant conception of the high-concept movie, but also to the indulgences of the industry in which he worked, was able to explore in his personal life the most brutal of excesses with an absolute absence of damage to his professional life. In another industry, his excesses would have resulted in a firing, a suspension, a forced stay in rehab, intervention by his superiors or abandonment by his peers. In another industry, Simpson's behavior would have made him an outcast and ensured his expulsion from the club of the powerful. There would have been negative consequences, and those consequences might have forced him to hit a bottom from which he might have rebounded.

In Hollywood, though, because his movies kept making money, as the tales of his drug use and hooker habit became more and more sordid, Simpson simply became another show business character. "That's just Don," his associates would say, and shake their heads in wonder.

Hollywood fiddled while Simpson burned, and after his final self-immolation, fiddled on.

Meet the Author

Charles Fleming has reported exclusively on the business of Hollywood for more than ten years--as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Variety, and Newsweek.  As a freelance reporter, he has written extensively for Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, and TV Guide.  He lives in Los Angeles.

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