You think you know Hollywood? Sure, you’ve seen your share of movies. You read Vanity Fair and Entertainment Weekly and sneak a peak at Showbiz Tonight from time to time to catch the latest on Lindsay Lohan’s sexual orientation. You probably even have a million-dollar script inside you, howling to get out. Who knows, maybe you’re even one of the tiny minority of Americans who have seen Frost/Nixon, Milk, or The Reader, three of this year’s Best Picture nominees that combined have grossed less than $50 million so far.
In that case, you know that we show folks are a bunch of neurotic, granola-crunching, coke-snorting, Prius-driving, raw-foods-consuming, bed-hopping, real-estate-obsessed, anti-gun, pro-gay-marriage, metrosexual Obama voters who talk deals all day at Orso’s and Sushi Roku and sleep each night in upscale, all-white enclaves with “Armed Response” signs in front of the houses.
You know we revel in making movies about how evil Amerikkka is, how disastrous the Iraq War was — just like Vietnam! — how dysfunctional the “typical” American family is, and how the American Dream is founded upon the ruthless conquest, pillage, and exploitation of Indigenous Peoples and the original African African-Americans. You’re sure that Hollywood is a conspiracy of illiterate ids in pursuit of a superabundant lifestyle, Ivy League–educated sociopaths only a few generations removed from the glove salesmen and nickelodeon operators who first came west.
In other words, you know we’re as liberal as liberals can be. And indeed we are. It’s just not for the reasons you think, which means you really don’t know anything about us at all.
As we begin the Obama Era, it behooves you to learn a little about us — because, whether you realize it or not, you elected us. With Rahm Emanuel gate-keeping at the White House and his überagent brother, Ari Emanuel of Endeavor, battling CAA, ICM, and William Morris for control of Hollywood, it’s the ethos of Tinseltown that will be rocking your world for at least the next four years.
Many explanations have been offered to account for our ludicrously parodistic version of liberalism. There is no cause too ridiculous for us to support, as long as it is described as a civil-rights issue and is couched in the language of “fairness,” preferably tinged with self-loathing and anti-Americanism. Among the clichés cited for our conformism are (a) the arts are a natural home for sensitive and suffering souls, (b) like journalism, the movie business has long attracted crusaders for “social justice,” and (c) the immense wealth generated for its creators by a hit movie — or, even better, a long-running television series — provokes an internal backlash of guilt over undeserved good fortune, which is then partially expiated by “good works,” especially when those works involve spending taxpayers’ money. (Taxes? Us? We have accountants for that.)
Forget about it. The origin of our reflexive liberalism lies not in the kinds of people who go into movie-making but in something far deeper: the nature of the movie business itself, which drives us insane.
I don’t mean that the picture business necessarily attracts crazy people. Ruthless sociopaths, perhaps; snake-oil salesmen, surely; but not screaming-mimi, fall-down-frothing nut cases. That comes with experience. Nice small-town girls become sex symbols and die of drug overdoses or, failing to become sex symbols, throw themselves off the Hollywood sign. Major writers like Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Chandler leave this town shambling, alcoholic wrecks. The late John Gregory Dunne (an underappreciated novelist, by the way) knew Hollywood as well as anybody, and he called his memoir of working on the film Up Close and Personal by Hollywood’s rightful name: Monster. You can master the beast for a while, but in the end the Industry eats everybody.
Not that there’s an actual “Industry” anymore, as there was in the days of the moguls and the studio system. What we have now in the wake of paternalistic Old Hollywood’s collapse is probably the single greatest hive of unfettered, amoral capitalism in the country — a Hobbesian world of doubt, uncertainty, insecurity, rejection, and failure in which each man’s hand is against every man, and every man’s against his. Call us Ishmael.
Liberalism is a luxury item. Primitive peoples have no use for lawyers, agitators, and community organizers; when everyone is equally badly off, people seek out the hunters, the inventors, and the tough guys, not EPA administrators or associate professors of gender studies. When great cities start to fail — think New York during the Dinkins administration — people eventually call the cops, or Rudy Giuliani, until things get straightened out.
#page# So you’d think that folks in Hollywood, once they’ve made it to Brentwood and Bel Air, would want to hold on to what they have. And in their personal lives they do: The west side of Los Angeles remains the most visibly conformist and segregated major city in America. Everybody looks the same, drives the same car, and lives in the same house, no matter its external architectural style. But the pleasant exteriors mask an inner dyspepsia, one we must confront daily as we go about the business of show business. No wonder we say there’s no business like it.
Here’s how it works:
As we members of the Writers Guild of America — the closed-shop union that screenwriters must join upon selling their first script to a Guild signatory company — like to say: It all starts with the script. A lone writer, or maybe partners, sitting in an airless room, spitballing, “what if”-ing, note-taking, typing. Creating worlds and characters out of nothing and then trying to animate them in 110 pages of pica typescript that, to the untrained eye, appears to be mostly strange abbreviations and white space. Until we write, nothing can happen. Which, in addition to the fact that we’re indispensable to feature films and scripted television, is the reason writers are so cordially loathed: We’re not only the lazy slobs who keep everybody else from working but the skunks who force agents and studio execs to lug home stacks of scripts with which to ruin their weekends. And if that seems contradictory, tough.
Then the real insanity begins.
Producers circle the material and occasionally bite, hoping they’ll be able to “attach elements” — directors and actors. Without an offer, meaning money on the table for the actors and directors, they’re almost always unsuccessful, which is why the producer, whose wheedling and flattery would put Uriah Heep to shame, is such a stock figure that Mel Brooks made a movie and a musical about him. On some level, even the best of them are Max Bialystock.
If you’re lucky, Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg sign on and your spec script ends up in front of a financing entity — a studio or a major indie — that can afford to pay everybody his quote and actually make the movie. There may be such a thing as a fun shoot, but most of the time filming is the drudgery of 18-hour days, infinite repetition, and interminable waits between set-ups. Everybody’s always on edge, at each other’s throats, or in each other’s beds.
As this misery runs its course, there’s no one you can trust. Hollywood is the place where “‘Hello,’ he lied” isn’t funny. Nobody will ever tell you the truth about your script, about the attachments, about its chances of getting made, about its real fate at the box office — there’s no percentage in the truth and, besides, you can’t handle it — and so the only thing that counts, the only thing that’s real, is the check that clears.
In the end, the combination of no job security, extreme competition — there’s always a new generation of writers, directors, and actors willing to live in their cars on Victory Boulevard in the Valley as they plot to take your job — and a dizzying emphasis on novelty wears even the strongest soul down. When we hit it big, we feel sorry for the schmucks who actually have to work for a living. When we lose out for a job, we relate to the schnooks who get canned from the assembly line when the plant closes and moves to China. Fat years and lean, we are nothing if not empathetic.
Message: We care. We don’t want you to have to go through what we go through. We don’t want you to have to worry about your job security or think about money every waking hour of the day. So we intend to keep on screaming about excessive executive compensation, except ours; about corporate jets, except ours; and about raising the minimum wage, even though we take production not only out of L.A. but out of the U.S.A., to wherever it’s cheapest. Liberalism lets us feel a little better about our hypocrisy and helps us sleep at night.
In the meantime, we’ll keep on making movies about cops and spies and serial killers and vampires, with as many cool weapons as we can brandish and as much gory violence as you can stomach. We’ll coarsen society with as much filthy language as we can imagine and make you laugh when it comes out of the mouths of babes. We’ll abuse the very notion of the traditional family by norming and honoring alternative lifestyles. We’ll celebrate diversity even though we have almost none.
We don’t hate America. We hate ourselves. We just take it out on you. Liberally.
– “David Kahane” is the nom de plume of a writer in Hollywood. He writes regularly for National Review Online.