Why do Hollywood players keep imagining themselves as dangerous characters? The most striking aspect of has-been bad boy Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter now making something of a comeback with his new memoir Hollywood Animal, is how dated this notion seems now. Eszterhas, you may recall, wrote Basic Instinct and Showgirls and was once such a hot commodity that Mike Ovitz (at the time always referred to as “superagent Mike Ovitz”) famously threatened to have his “foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day” blow Eszterhas’s brains out when the writer said he was leaving Ovitz’s agency.
Despite the violence of the language, the bit about Wilshire Boulevard meant this obviously wasn’t a threat to be taken literally; there’s a reason that the bullet-riddled streets of Beverly Hills haven’t yet entered the crime-scene cliché lexicon. Eszterhas, who has referred to people who rewrite his scripts as “studio assassins,” obviously enjoys exaggerating the riskiness of his business, but he’s hardly the only Hollywood egomaniac to indulge himself this way.
Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart even titled his new collection of short stories about Hollywood backstabbers Dangerous Company. In the ’90s I guess we could buy the media conceit (via the movies The Player” and Swimming With Sharks and countless magazine profiles) of industry types as ruthlessly intimidating. But in a post-9/11 world, it’s hard to imagine being unnerved by some smarmy little agent who screams and throws phones. Is this really dangerous company? Annoying company is more like it.
Now Sammy Glick, on the other hand, was a truly unnerving Hollywood anti-hero. These contemporary versions just can’t compete with the memory of the ferret-faced, cigar-chomping, expensive-shoe-fancying little Glick, who entered the Hollywood scene over 60 years ago in Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run? Here’s some dialogue from the opening chapter, when Sammy’s still a lowly newspaper copy boy.
“Like your job, Sammy?”
“It’s a damn good job–this year.”
“What do you mean–this year?”
“If I still have it next year, it’ll stink.”
Other industry ferrets pale in comparison to Sammy. And unlike today’s so-called dangerous company, Schulberg’s 1941 novel really was seen as dangerous by pretty much everyone. John Wayne considered the book, whose subplot was about the formation of the Writers Guild, a Communist plot. Meanwhile the Communist party, which Schulberg had joined in the ’30s, attacked it for failing to meet their high Stalinist standards.
Although he remained pro-labor, Schulberg became disillusioned with Communism and in 1951 named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Decades later, there are still some people who will leave a room if Schulberg is in it. But he has no regrets. “I don’t feel what some people expect me to feel,” Schulberg said, when I asked him about testifying. “What’s painful is to have believed in something that sounded so right, and that turned out the way the Soviet Union turned out. It’s more the disillusionment that hurts for me.”
The son of B. P. Schulberg, who ran Paramount in the ’30s, Budd Schulberg developed a contempt for Hollywood values at an early age. He wrote two Sammy Glick short stories just after graduating from Dartmouth, and quickly turned them into the novel. The scathing portrait of the furiously ambitious copyboy-turned-screenwriter-turned studio head hit a nerve, and at 28, Schulberg found himself persona non grata in Hollywood. “How dare you!” Hedda Hopper spat at him at a party.
The volatile Louis B. Mayer got up at a meeting and told B. P. Schulberg his son should be deported–to which B. P. replied in exasperation that Budd was not only an American citizen, but had been born in Hollywood. “Where the hell are you gonna deport him?” he asked. “Catalina Island?” Schulberg went on to become the celebrated screenwriter of such films as On the Waterfront, <A href="http://www.nationalreview.com/redirect/amazon.asp?j=B00007G1V8"
>The Harder They Fall and A Face In the Crowd.
I met and interviewed Schulberg in the early ’90s. “My father was a very, very intelligent man, but not as smart as Louis B. Mayer,” Schulberg recalled then, about that long ago incident. “And that remark is one of the things I think helped finish my father in Hollywood.” Sammy, by the way, was originally named Mannie Glick. But B.P. asked his son to change the name, as Mannie Cohen had replaced him at Paramount and he didn’t want to seem involved in a petty act of revenge.
Schulberg, who turns 90 next month, is still bemused by the long shelf life of Hollywood grudges. In October, he told Fox News that he’d seen Elia Kazan (the director of On the Waterfront) the previous month, shortly before Kazan died at 94. His old friend and colleague, Schulberg noted, “was still angry Darryl Zanuck passed on Waterfront.”
Meanwhile, Schulberg himself is still in the game. A film version of What Makes Sammy Run?, starring Ben Stiller as Sammy, is in development at Dreamworks. And Schulberg has been working on a script with Spike Lee, for a film Lee’s directing about boxer Joe Louis called Save Us. Occasionally he does feel like something of a relic. During the Writer’s Guild strike in the ’80s, Schulberg got up to speak at a meeting and began by saying that he was probably the only person on the original Guild council in 1937 who was still on the council half-a-century later.
“I felt this gasp from the audience,” he recalled. “I didn’t mean to scare them that way. It was as Rip Van Winkle had arrived.”
Anyway, I’d say at this point the noirish thrill of the dangerous Hollywood character is gone. Except for Sammy. He’s the real thing, sans benefit of hurled cell phone, and lives on to inspire new generations of real-life Hollywood anti-heroes.
“Young people today seem to admire Sammy,” Schulberg told me. “I do find it rather disconcerting. Once I was speaking at a college, and a young man came up afterwards and said, ‘I just want to shake your hand. I’m a senior, and I’ve been worrying about how I’ll make it in the real world. And now that I’ve read your book, I’m inspired.’” Now that’s dangerous company.
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog “Cathy’s World.”