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Between the Lines: Hooray for Hollywood
(March 2003)
By David Pitt

I know, I know. You're thinking: what is this guy doing blithering on about books when the Oscars are just around the corner, for crying out loud? Well, I thought you might like these --

Producer (Scribner), by David L. Wolper with David Fisher, is the story of Wolper's half-century career in film and television. This is the guy who was behind miniseries like Roots and The Thorn Birds, movies like LA Confidential and The Bridge at Remagen; documentaries and "spectaculars" (like, f'rinstance, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics); and a whole lot more.

Wolper charts his professional course from his early days selling theatrical films to television stations to his wide-ranging career as a producer; he also dips into less well-known territory, discussing the time he was accused of being a government spy, or his sculpture collection, or his celebrity golf tournament. It's an interesting and well-told tale -- I might be tempted to call it a tad too self-promoting, but if a Hollywood producer can't promote himself in his own autobiography, there's something tragically wrong with the world.

On the subject of Hollywood veterans, here's The Mailroom: Hollywood History from the Bottom Up (Ballantine), by David Rensin. Best known for being the guy whose name appears in smaller print on the cover of books he's co-written with Tim Allen and Bernie Brillstein and Garry Shandling and Jeff Foxworthy (among others), Rensin leaps onto center stage with plenty of razmattaz.

The Mailroom tells the stories of some of the Hollywood notables who got their starts in the mailrooms of talent agencies, living the Tinseltown clichi until something better came along ... or, more appropriately, until they made something better happen for themselves. Here are famous names like producer/director Irwin Winkler, producer Howard West (you see his name at the end of every episode of Seinfeld), studio chief Barry Diller, mogul David Geffen. Here are scads of people you've probably never heard of, too, all of whom make Hollywood come alive. Constructed almost entirely from interviews with these fascinating people, the book is like an oral history of Hollywood. And a darned enjoyable one it is.

Also darned enjoyable, and immensely educational, is You're Only as Good as Your Next One (Atria), by Mike Medavoy with Josh Young. Medavoy, whose career as a studio executive (and, before that, agent) spans four decades, has had a hand in some of Hollywood's most respected films: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Silence of the Lambs, Apocalypse Now, Amadeus, stuff like that. But he's also given us some real turkeys, like Under the Rainbow, or Wilder Napalm.

There are plenty of things to like about this book -- the galaxy of big names who wander through it, the behind-the-scenes looks at some of your favorite movies, the insider scuttlebutt -- but what I like most is Medavoy's honest, unvarnished account of his own moviemaking adventures. He's the first to admit that many of his movies have been, shall we say, unsuccessful, and when he feels the blame is his, he accepts it without hesitation. He's a welcome change from those studio execs whose books seem to discover that someone else is always at fault. Like Wolper and Rensin, Medavoy makes Hollywood seem a bright, rewarding, and mostly happy place to work.

For a look at the darker side of the world's movie capital, check out David McClintock's Indecent Exposure (HarperBusiness Essentials). First published in 1982, the book tells a story that's as head-shakingly baffling as it is infuriating. It's the tale of a studio executive, David Begelman, who was caught forging checks, embezzling from the company that was paying him millions of dollars a year. It's the tale of the company itself, Columbia Pictures, and the inexplicable behavior of many of its high-powered execs, who covered up the crimes and kept Begelman on the payroll.

It's also the story of the man who started the whole rollercoaster ride, Cliff Robertson, an Oscar-winning actor, an honorable man who, because he simply wanted to find out why Begelman forged his name on a $10,000 check, wound up blacklisted, barely able to find work. Impeccably documented, forcefully told, this is a story of greed and deception and cover-up that's as timely now as the day it was written.

So is Fatal Subtraction (Dove), by Pierce O'Donnell and Dennis McDougal, the richly detailed chronicle of the landmark lawsuit between Paramount Pictures, producers of the movie Coming to America, and Art Buchwald and Alain Bernheim, the men who claimed the studio had used their idea without paying them for it. Coming to America was an Eddie Murphy picture, Buchwald was a world-famous and hugely popular newspaper columnist. With two popular leads, Buchwald and Murphy, and a hot story, a David-vs.-Goliath lawsuit against a Hollywood studio, the case was guaranteed to make headlines.

It was also guaranteed, one way or the other, to set precedent. Because, in order to prove their case, Buchwald and Bernheim had to take on the most sacred thing in Hollywood: the studio accounting practices. Written by the plaintiffs' attorney (O'Donnell) and a journalist who covered the case as it happened (McDougal), the book is absolutely riveting, an eye-opening look at Hollywood's ugliest feature: its greed.

For something a bit lighter, pick up My First Movie (Penguin), edited by Stephen Lowenstein. In it, twenty noted film directors -- among them Anthony Minghella, Barry Levinson, the Coen Brothers, Allison Anders, and Ang Lee -- discuss their first movies. The Coens, for example, tell us how they raised money to shoot Blood Simple; Levinson about his move from scriptwriting to directing.

This is the kind of book that would-be moviemakers should keep close at hand. It's chock-full of useful tips, and is a source of endless inspiration. (Oliver Stone, it's worth noting, did not talk about either of his first two movies, the dreadful Seizure and The Hand. Instead, he preferred to discuss Salvador. Anyone care to place a bet as to when this master of revisionist history erases the earlier movies entirely from his canon?)

Also inspirational is Creative Filmmaking From the Inside Out (Fireside), written by Jed Dannenbaum, Carroll Hodge, and Doe Mayer. Subtitled "5 Keys to the Art of Making Inspired Movies and Television," the book's a compendium of information geared to the film buff with a dream of making movies. It takes us step by step through the filmmaking process: finding an idea, researching, putting together a crew and a collaborative environment, assembling the final product.

The authors use the works of a variety of professionals -- composer James Newton Howard, cinematographer Conrad Hall, producer Ismael Merchant, sound designer and film editor Walter Murch, and more. By showing us how these experts go about making movies, the authors, all of whom teach film production at the University of Southern California, give us a sense of the delicate combination of artistic and technical skill that puts sound and pictures on film.
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