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The Big PictureWho Killed Hollywood? and Other Essays
By William Goldman
ApplauseCopyright © 2001 William Goldman
All right reserved.
I'm Going to Put Your
Head Between Your Ears!
The reason this book exists has nothing to do with Hollywood--it's a jagged line, half a century long, beginning with an uncle's passion, an afternoon with Bronko Nagurski, two phone calls, a divorce, and here we are.
Nothing comes from nothing and trying to write this, I went wriggling back through time and who should be waiting there for me but Uncle Victor. What a surprise to see him again, because he has been dead for many years, and we were never close. He was loud and when I was six and seven and eight, frightening. Usually when we met in those years he would grab my head and shake it, shouting 'I'm going to put your head between your ears!' and for the longest time, I wondered if anybody could be brave enough to survive such pain. The day I realized my head was between my ears was the first step toward my realizing that for all his noise and bluster, I could put away my fears. He was, at heart, a dear, sweet man.
But that is not necessarily a formula for worldly success. School didn't interest him so he didn't stay in it very long; business caused problems too, and for awhile, he came to live in my mother's house with me. By now, disappointment was wallpapered on; his energy level, always so high, was only an occasional flicker. For all our proximity, we did not bond. He drifted away, we lost touch, I came to New York, he died. But by then the seed was planted.
Because Uncle Victor was a sports nut. (Please do not throw the book across the room--I promise we'll eventually get to Southern California.)
This is Chicago now, starting around the late thirties and my father, a distant figure in my life, crucial, of course, but not warm, had sons, my late brother Jim (The Lion in Winter, fabulous) four years older, and me. Victor had a lot of drive in those years, enough to pull my father along, to get him out of the house with his children. And so, from when I was very young, I got to tag along, saw such wonders.
DiMaggio lining a winning double off Comiskey's left field wall and I still remember the wide-legged stance. (I was six that day and he was all of twenty-two.) I saw Louis old and Robinson when he was still young enough to be the greatest fighter who ever lived. The phrase 'pound for pound' was invented for him.
And of course, I saw the Bears. Uncle Victor had season tickets starting (I think) when the Bears started, mid-twenties. Later, we got tickets too, and I got to watch the Monsters of the Midway, starting in 1940, attending faithfully till I left for college, a decade later. This, the first great football dynasty, popularized the T formation, had many great players, Luckman and Turner and 'One play' McAfee.
Plus, for a single season only, the mighty Bronko, Nagurski himself.
And when I die if you ask me the single most exciting thing I ever saw in my life on earth I would say it was the afternoon when the ancient Nagurski, six years retired, came slowly off the bench and carried us to the championship. I have written that story more often than any other, I suppose, still haven't gotten it right, but that doesn't mean I'm finished trying.
OK. I became a sports nut too. Everything except hockey. (You don't want to know how much time I spend reading sports sections.) I knew early on I wanted to write and in those years, what I wanted to be was a newspaper columnist, John P. Carmichael, Arch Ward, all my other childhood stars.
Never happened. I think because the urge to report about sports was overtaken by the urge to try and tell stories of my own, even though in those early years, no one who knew me was betting heavily in my favor.
In 1956, at twenty four, I wrote my first novel, The Temple of Gold; Knopf published it the next year so my sports fantasies went into the drawer since I was suddenly, shockingly, a novelist.
The first phone call, referred to at the start, came thirty years later, from Mike Lupica. He was, for me, then as now, the best sports columnist in the business. I followed his work for years before I ever met him. He said this to me that January day: 'why don't we write a sports book together?'
Wait Till Next Year was published in 1988, and no, you haven't heard of it, but it was a wonderful experience. Many reasons--I had someone else along. So I couldn't take all the blame. The book was about sports in New York, from differing points of view, the reporter and the fan. I got to write about my Knicks--I was already a season ticker holder so what could be better than that? I'll tell you--
I got to go to Shea and Yankee Stadium and sit in the press box with real reporters. I was back in my childhood fantasy now, listening to them talk, finding out some of what they knew that of course they could not write.
The second phone call was from Ed Kosner, then the respected and funny editor of New York magazine--it's 1989. He asked what I would think about writing for New York and I said that I had never done magazine work, what would I write about and he said well, did you like writing about sports and I said sure and he said, you could write about that for us. Then he added this: "You could write about Hollywood too. Whatever you want, the Oscars maybe, stars, what's going on Out There." I thanked him, and said I would think about it, but in truth, the odds were against accepting. Until he said these magic words:
"I can get you press passes."
So back I went, and for years to come, to the ball games and the writers and the food--neither team's worth a star but so what, I loved it, and you don't know why--I wasn't alone.
Because during this time, my in all ways splendid wife of thirty years couldn't take it anymore, (never blamed her) and I was suddenly just another middle-aged bachelor in the city who had not dated in a very long time. The best stat I could come up with was this: I had not dated since before the Beatles went to Germany.
And I was scared, don't you see, how the world had changed since the Eisenhower era and the loneliness lurking out there in the dark, but when the clouds began to gather, I had my fix--subway to the Bronx, taxi out to Shea.
This book exists then for primarily one reason: it helped me to keep the demons at bay.
What you have here is a chronicle of the worst decade in movie history. If you were to ask me what were the ten best films of the 90's my first thought would be of the old joke 'the girls in my town were so ugly that once we had a beauty contest and nobody won.'
Shawshank Redemption, that I know. And Unforgiven, Babe, and Hoop Dreams. Fargo, absolutely. What's Eating Gilbert Grape? Think so. Yes to Four Weddings and A Funeral. Have to see Groundhog Day again. I'm sure there are others but it's tough sledding from then on. For me, anyway. I hope you had a better time.
The book is primarily about what Hollywood is primarily about--stars, money and for one night only (Oscar night) quality.
Going backwards, as you will find, I am one of those who feels these two things about the Oscars: the show is always too short and, more importantly, it is nuts they don't let us know the votes.
I always enjoyed those articles because, as we all know, there is no 'best' anything, only what we favor.
But you cannot imagine what it would have been like for me to write about the awards of 25 years ago. These are the 1975 Best Picture Nominees:
Dog Day Afternoon
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Not a fluke. Let me go back twenty-five additional years. Here are ten flicks that did not get Best Picture nominations for 1950.
Annie Get Your Gun
No Way Out
Panic in the Streets
The Third Man
The point is not that these got robbed. (I could easily throw in ten others.) It's just to show what Hollywood was turning out once. It's not the number of glories, it's the overall depth of quality. (To put you out of your misery, the best flicks were:)
All About Eve
Father of the Bride
King Solomon's Mines
Two out of five masterpieces, not so terrible.
Have there been that many this entire decade?
Not to drive you nuts with names, but sure, '50 was a swell year. But not in a class with the year that followed. Here are best pictures, 1951:
An American in Paris
Decision Before Dawn
A Place in the Sun
A Streetcar Named Desire
Three greats out of five. Three flicks they still show today that thrill audiences. Houston, Kazan, Minnelli, Stevens and Wyler got directing nominations.
But Hitchcock didn't and he had Strangers on a Train, and Wilder didn't and all he gave us was The Big Carnival.
Talk about actors? Arthur Kennedy got nominated, Bright Victory. Fine fine actor, got five nominations in all, never quite won. Frederick March got nominated for Death of a Salesman. March, great on both stage and screen, won two best actor awards. Know who the other three guys were? Three of the greatest performers of the century. Bogart, Brando and Clift. In three of their greatest performances, The African Queen, A Place in the Sun, A Streetcar Named Desire.
How great to write about that year, those guys.
(I realize I've just segued from Oscars to stars, but before I get there, a quick word about money.)
These are terrible times in the movie business. Hard to believe that because, as I write this, the summer of '99 has been so big at the box office. Wild Wild West, for example, has passed a hundred million. Good for Warner Brothers, the studio that financed it, right? Maybe, maybe not. Because there are rumors--hotly denied as they always say--that this baby may have cost close to two hundred million dollars. Scary.
But it's not out there all by it's lonesome. Costs are out of control, and getting increasingly so; the studios are slashing producer deals in an effort to save money. It costs twenty-five million dollars just to open a picture that first weekend nowadays. (And that's on the low side.) Paramount was recently derided when it wanted co-financing. Just about everyone is doing it now.
Ask anyone in the movie business that isn't a flack or a hack and they will sing the same song, and it's not some sappy ballad. In Hollywood right now, the Blues have control.
Ok, on to the good stuff, stars.
One of the exercises you'll find in these essays is trying to figure out just who is the biggest star in the world. What I found fascinating was everything seems so sure and solid concerning stars, if we read the media. In truth, all and always quicksilver.
So now, dear reader, on this, the afternoon of the 16th of July, 1999 I am going to ask you this question: who is the biggest star in the world?
Take a second and think about it. There is, obviously, no right answer but you can circle in on certain names. It is no longer Arnold. Not Kevin. They are both very much around, will be in many more hits; but I doubt even their agents would claim their guy was numero uno.
Here's a guy who has to be named first: Will Smith. Last three flicks, Enemy of the State, Men in Black, Independence Day. Wherever Wild Wild West ends up, here's a stat for you: these four flicks will average a box office gross over 200 million dollars per picture. Hard to argue against Will Smith.
Excuuuuuse me? This from the Carrey camp. The last five years, these: Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, The Cable Guy, Liar, Liar, The Truman Show. (For which he was now and forever robbed of an Oscar nomination. And while I'm here, let me say that giving the Best Actor - actor is the word folks--to Roberto Benigni for his mugging in Life is Beautiful is for me, a sin, a disgrace, and removes forever the argument from those who felt DeMille's Greatest Show on Earth was the worst Oscar winner ever. I was at Cannes when Benigni got an award there and you know that cute/bullshit/what language is that? speech he gave at the Oscars? He's got a patent on it.) I have also read Jim Carrey's summer movie, Me Myself and Irene, by the Farrelly Brothers, and it is going to be as big as anything Carrey's ever done. (And leave us not forget Man in the Moon, directed by double Oscar Winner Milos Forman, due later this year.) I think it's impossible to argue against Jim Carrey.
But what about the older (joke--read more mature) guys like Mel Gibson? Braveheart, Ransom, Lethals '94 and '95? Among others hits. Nobody beats Mel.
Unless it's TC. Last five Tom Cruise flicks:
A Few Good Men
Interview With the Vampire
I think that is a Hollywood record--five consecutive films each grossing more than one hundred million dollars. No star ever did that. It is inconceivable to go against Tom--and he's nice and he's just 37.
But Tom Hanks is star of the decade.
A League of Their Own
Sleepless in Seattle
You've Got Mail
Saving Private Ryan
Not just hits, not just terrific flicks, but most of them Oscar contenders and none of them huge special effects summer stuff. Here's something I know you soon will--Hanks' next may be his best, The Green Mile. I have read Frank Darabont's script and it is sensational. The word on the movie is already big and building.
Ok. Reader, time to suck it up. Here they are again, this time billing alphabetical.
Remember again, no right answer. But look at it logically. Then decide. Got your guy?
Well you are wrong!
At this time in world history, we all inhabit a planet in which the biggest star is ... wait for it ... yes I'm serious, ... Adam Sandler.
I talked to a top studio guy today and he said this: "You can absolutely make a case for Adam Sandler being the star. His movies cost next to zero and bring in a ton. Huge profits. Isn't that what a star's supposed to do?"
The point of this is just to say to remind you how fast it changes.
This year has been remarkable in that four new stars have exploded in the first six months: Reeves and Fraser and Myers and Sandler. First time since '94 anything like that happened. (And this year's only half over.)
I want to talk about the new stars of '94--not so very long ago, let's remind ourselves, and track what has become of them. Remember always that studios need stars. And that a star is not held responsible for the ultimate fate of a film, but only that first weekend. A star must open a picture.
Hugh Grant came first in '94. March of that year, Four Weddings and A Funeral. Seven years in pictures, starting with Maurice in '87. Full disclosure: I know Grant, like him, have worked with him. But the biggest hit he has had since '94 was this summer's Notting Hill. My feeling is he is still very much a star, probably now the most sought after romantic comedy lead, along with Tom Hanks. But the public has not embraced him in other roles. So he is what he was; certainly has not fallen, probably has not climbed.
Keanu Reeves came next, June, in Speed. But he was never quite believed Out There, and some of his ensuing choices--A Walk in the Clouds, Feeling Minnesota, made few hearts go pitty-pat. He was suddenly gone again. It was almost as if '94 hadn't happened. Then Devil's Advocate did business. And now with The Matrix, he is a locomotive. Much bigger than he was. And the feeling is, apt to remain so.
July brought The Mask. (Ace Ventura, Pet Detective came earlier that year, but no one quite realized what Jim Carrey was till this baby.) He has not looked back since '94 and Cable Guy, which a lot of media claimed to be a stiff, made money--so did Striptease, another media 'disaster.' Carrey is the comedy star of the decade.
Tim Allen arrived for Christmas. The Santa Clause began his film career, but where has he gone since? Jungle2Jungle and not a lot else. I think, with his TV series gone, he has done the least with his shot at stardom, has the farthest to go to get back. (Unless of course, his next movie is a hit.) A lot of Hollywood folks are surprised by Allen's trajectory--back then, when he happened, the feeling was he was special, and would be with us for a very long time.
Brad Pitt, the fifth star of that year, had a double-hitter, Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall. He had Seven a year later, but his recent choices have been shall we say, commercially shaky. 7 Years In Tibet, Devil's Own, Meet Joe Black. Maybe a quarter of a billion down the tubes with that trio.
Still, he is as in demand as ever. And I promise you his price has not gone down. Why you may ask?
For that answer, we have to enter the world of sex. Sometimes beautiful young men are ordained stars by the studios. Whether their record deserves it or not. Guys who look like stars.
Example, Richard Gere: made a tremendous impression in 1977. Looking For Mr. Goodbar. Gere was anointed. New star. Four straight flops. (Remember please, this is not about the quality of the films or his skill as a performer. This is about opening flicks.) Finally, Officer and a Gentleman. See, the execs said? We told you so. Do we know magic or do we know magic?
After Officer and a Gentleman, Gere went into a truly phenomenal decline. I am going to list his next seven movies over the next six years. Raise you hands not if you saw these, but if you even heard of them.
1983: Beyond the Limit
1984: The Cotton Club
1985: King David
1986: No Mercy
1988: Miles From Home
Then, in 1990, Internal Affairs did some business and Pretty Woman made the executives breathe easy again.
More briefly now, another example, Mel Gibson. Sensational in Mad Max, 1979. The same in the sequel, Mad Max 2, (Road Warrior here.)
Another natural, the execs told us. Gibson had four movies in the mid 80's that will not make anybody's Desert Island list: The Year of Living Dangerously, The Bounty, Mrs. Soffel, The River. Even the third Mad Max was a disappointment. But he was a star, the studios knew it, they kept giving him lead parts in expensive pictures which failed. Then the first Lethal Weapon saved his career.
Point being: no female star would have been given so many chances.
Example: everybody's favorite (she is mine) Rene Russo.
1992: Lethal Weapon 3
1993: In the Line of Fire
1995: Get Shorty
1996: Tin Cup
Granted, she wasn't the vehicle role, but she was pretty crucial to the successes of those films, don't you think? I do. Six straight hits, five of them (I thought Outbreak sucked) terrific entertainments.
OK. 1997 and she finally gets to play the lead. Buddy. Didn't work. Guess what? No more vehicle parts. No breaks like Gere got or Gibson got. She is now co-starring again, The Thomas Crown Affair. And if it's a big hit? I still think they'll be reluctant to give her another vehicle role.
But Brad Pitt sure will get them. His summer picture of this year, The Fight Club, was yanked from the schedule. We'll learn in the fall just why. Was it fear of Littleton because of its violence or were we meeting Joe Black again? Doesn't matter to Pitt's career. He is a star. He looks like one. (I happen to think he's terrific. But that's not what we're talking about.) He will go on getting leads--as long as stays beautiful. Of course, if he gains thirty pounds, over and out.
You may know why there are so few female stars. Best I can come up with is simple: guys run the Hollywood show. And guys don't really want women to be stars.
Closing up shop now. What follows is in chronological order and I would guess I get increasingly depressed as the years went on. I have changed nothing, not a word, so all my errors, omissions, and repetitions will be right there for you to see.
A few final reminders. Remember that Hollywood makes no sense. Remember everybody powerful wants to stay powerful, everybody else is out to kill. Remember that movies began--really--as entertainment for illiterates.
How far have we come this first century?
Over to you ...
Excerpted from The Big Picture by William Goldman Copyright © 2001 by William Goldman.
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