Politics & Policy

Merrily We Don’t Roll Along

David Axelrod doesn’t like the ending of this Obama biopic.

When you take a pitch meeting in Hollywood, you’re generally pretty sure who’s going to be in the room. First, of course, there’s you — or, in this case, me, since “you” don’t have access to Fox or Warner’s the way I do. Then there’s the Exec, also known as the “Suit” or, in plain English, the Guy Who’s Going to Say No to Your Movie. He or she is generally attended by the Assistant, whose job it is to sit there and say nothing unless spoken to and, in any case, to have absolutely no opinion about anything. Sometimes there’s a third fellow, the Junior Assistant Who Writes Everything Down, in case the Exec is too ADD-led to remember anything after the meeting, or was on the phone the whole time you were making your pitch. Sometimes your agent comes along, although most of them have seen enough train wrecks in their lives to forgo the pleasure, and would rather be at Orso’s on Third having lunch, except that Orso’s is now closed.

So imagine my surprise when, on no notice, I got called into a special meeting last week at a studio I won’t name. “What are we pitching?” I asked my manager.

“Beats me,” she said. “It’s their meeting.”

“Why me?”

“Sometimes miracles happen. Just be there at ten. You need the work.”

Next, I called my agent. “What do you know about this?” I asked him.

“Nada,” he said. “You’re flying blind, Dave. Just don’t blow it. You need the work”

I parked in the VIP lot, tossed the Prius’s keys to the envious attendant, and strode into the meeting with confidence. The first person I saw was:

David Axelrod. The media genius behind the Emperor Barack Hussein Obama II, Lord of the Flies, Keeper of the Hoops, Vacationer-in-Chief, and Protector of the Holy Cities of Chicago and Honolulu. “Jake Lingle!” I exclaimed, then nearly bit my tongue off when I realized that I’m the only one who calls Axelrod “Jake Lingle,” my pet name for journalists who work both sides of the street. It’s actually flattering, since I suppose I could call him “Mr. Peachum,” except that nobody’s seen The Beggar’s Opera since the late 18th century.

“I understand you’re the best in the business,” said Axelrod coolly, brushing his comb-over to one side to reveal the sweaty brow beneath, “and not afraid to speak truth to power.”

Always ready to help the party in any way I can,” I replied helpfully.

The Exec, his job safe for another two hours, beamed as he turned to Axelrod, who said: “Peace, bread, and socialist-realist movies, that’s our motto here in Tinseltown. Mission to Moscow, The North Star, The Boy from Stalingrad, Reds —”

I could feel my excitement rising: “Red Dawn.

The room fell silent for a moment. Axelrod glared at me; the Exec stared at his shoes. “Right,” he said. “What we’re interested in is a new kind of subliminal campaign film, one that uses the earlier pro-proletarian cinema classics — did I mention that my mother used to work for PM in New York? — as the touchstones for a new theater of and for the common man —”

“Sorry, Jake,” I heard myself saying, “but no way am I rewriting Barton Fink.”

“Hear the man out, Kahane,” said the Exec. “We’re talking double your quote on this project, with a guaranteed rewrite whether we fire you or not.”

Axelrod continued: “Something that speaks to a new generation, born in this century, almost, with a knowledge of movies that stretches all the way back to just before the millennium. In other words, your usual target audience.”

“In short, a total rip-off,” said the Exec.

I thought for a moment, which is twice the usual amount of time I give to my pitches. And then I had it.

“I’ve got it,” said I.

“Awesome,” said the Exec. “What’s the hook?”

“We appear to tell the story backwards.”

“Like Merrily We Roll Along!” said the Exec, the last Sondheim fan on earth, except for Frank Rich.

“Right,” I said, not wanting to blow my surprise twist just yet. “Exactly like Merrily but without, you know, the music. A screenplay based on the book of a musical that was based on a play —”

“Like Chicago!” exclaimed Axelrod, who certainly knows Chicago.

All I had to do now was ride the wave of excitement and — presto! — I’d sell it in the room.

“First we get the guy who wrote the original to direct. Then, we take the same basic script, which involves a man desperately searching for the truth about his past, and what brought him to his current low estate —”

“I love it,” said both Axelrod and the Exec simultaneously. “Real triumph-of-the-human-spirit stuff.”

“We start with our hero’s moment of maximum triumph, with him basking in the adulation of an adoring crowd. We go the whole nine yards, Corinthian columns, the works.”

“I can see the poster from my house in Trousdale Estates,” said the Exec.

“Then hubris sets in. Like a Hero in a Joseph Campbell story, he wins his heart’s desire — a fundamental transformation of his world — but in so doing, sows the seeds of the adversity that will follow.”

“Which he’ll then overcome, right?” asked Axelrod. “Or already has overcome. Because we’re telling this backwards . . . which means that the adversity really comes first and then . . . I’m confused.”

“That’s why we get Chris Nolan to direct,” I said, hoping they’d get it now. “Sure, he’s done that Batman jazz, but you just know he’d jump at the chance to redo Memento, only this time with a twist.”

Axelrod was staring at me with those basset-hound eyes. The Exec was sitting bolt upright in his chair. The Assistant had become totally invisible. “What’s the twist?” whispered the Junior Assistant Who Writes Things Down, so caught up in the moment that he forgot he wasn’t supposed to even breathe. “I mean, that whole movie was a twist.”

I paused for dramatic effect, then let them have it: “The movie’s not backwards at all,” I said. “We tell it straight: The Hero springs fully formed from the head of his media adviser, then slowly diminishes in stature until, at the end, he’s just a little man with big ears sitting in front of ugly brown curtains and a great big empty desk, reading a Teleprompter into the ether, with nobody paying attention. Think Redford in The Candidate but with BlackBerrys. He’s a metaphor for our time, a hymn to the human condition, a sign of the diminishment of leadership in the post-&^%$-Bush era, a cautionary tale about the power of the media, and —”

Without a word, Axelrod got up and left the room. For a moment, nobody said anything. Then the Exec spoke.

“You’re fired,” he said.

In a flash, the assistants were ushering me toward the door, and I hadn’t even finished my Diet Coke yet. “But, but,” I cried, “I thought you wanted me to speak truth to power!”

As I lay sprawled on the sidewalk, I could hear his answer: “What, are you stupid? This is Hollywood.”

— David Kahane continues to believe in himself and in his talent, even if nobody else does. To prove they’re all wrong, he’s written a new book, Rules for Radical Conservatives, which will be published by Ballantine Books on September 28. You can tell Dave he’s right, as usual, by friending him on Facebook or by writing to him at kahanenro@gmail.com.

Since February 2007, Michael Walsh has written for National Review both under his own name and the name of David Kahane, a fictional persona described as “a Hollywood liberal who ...

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