Not to be confused with PBS’ late 1980s elite spex “Tales From the Hollywood Hills,” Christopher Hampton’s vidaptation of his 1982 “Tales From Hollywood” does fall back to the 1930s-40s and that impressive group of German intellectuals who gathered in Santa Monica as refugees from Hitler’s Germany. As observed by novelist Odon von Horvath (who in real life died in Paris in 1938, but whose presence Hampton has extended for dramatic fodder), they’re an all-too-human group. A blase look at German literary giants temporarily beached, it’s a theatrical resurgence for “American Playhouse.”
In 1938 Austro-Hungarian von Horvath (Jeremy Irons) hits Hollywood, where he meets Heinrich Mann (Alec Guinness conveying the author’s dignity and humanness) , learns to write scripts, and joins the exiles at the studios and visits the home of Salka Viertel (Alison Fiske), who’s in the drama far too little. Liberal Mann’s self-inflated brother Thomas (Robin Bailey in a surefire portrayal) reads his windy observations at Heinrich at the gatherings; Heinrich more briefly returns the compliment.
But Hampton has worked with the interweavings of the group, from Heinrich’s second wife, playgirl Nelly (Sinead Cusack in a dilly of a study), to playwright Helen Schwartz (Elizabeth McGovern in a flat interp), who teaches von Horvath English among other things. Bertolt Brecht (Jack Shepherd) appears fitfully and without Lotte Lenya; Leon and Marta Feuchtwanger appear peripherally, and American residents such as Garbo and Chaplin who welcomed them don’t appear at all.
Narrated by von Horvath, events are revealed through his reactions. Thomas Mann is reduced from Germany’s premier author to a pompous ass, and Brecht becomes a neurotic nuisance. Hampton humanizes the legends during their wartime Hollywood sojourn; von Horvath’s subjective observations shoot juice into them.
Hampton has written a play of characters, with Nelly a catalyst of sorts as she slinks destructively around the storyline. Thomas Mann’s wife, the reason for his flight from Germany, barely enters, while a studio chief named, with George Grosz directness, “Charles Money” (Charles Durning) establishes the tenor of American culture as he baldly commands scripts for Ty and Linda. At least as far as the jaundiced emigres see it as they hang on to their Kulture till Americans can free them.
Hampton’s enormous theme, developed with a fluid sureness under Howard Davies’ rhythmic direction, uses newsreels, blown-up stills, rear projections to help the blend of fact and fiction. Conclusion comes about awkwardly, tagged on with little grace as if to hammer home the futility of von Horvath’s call on Hollywood.