This comprehensive anthology opens with producer Fred J. Balshover’s account of shooting Westerns in 1909, as thugs hired by the Motion Picture Patents Co. lurked nearby, and closes with an article from Premiere magazine describing a July 1996 intervention by friends, including Mike Ovitz, to send former CAA agent Jay Moloney into drug rehab. The pages in between feature plenty more guns, goons, dope and debauchery, as well as many exceedingly savvy comments on the nutty process of making movies as film evolved from the inspired improvisation of pioneers in the California hills into the market-researched product of mega-corporations lodged in the skyscrapers and studio complexes of urban Los Angeles.
Silvester displays an impressive ability to select pertinent, pithy texts and organize them intelligently. Choosing to chronicle Hollywood’s 90-year history almost exclusively in the words of those who worked there, he seems to have read every movie-biz memoir ever published, and he excerpts both the obvious but essential (William Goldman, for example) and such little-known gems as cameraman Karl Brown’s account of D.W. Griffith, “trying to drive his dreams into a corner where he could capture them and show them to the world.”
The first folks shooting films out West expected to be going back East as soon as Thomas Edison gave up trying to enforce a monopoly on moviemaking equipment. Instead, they stayed and prospered beyond their wildest dreams. People who had been living in bungalow courts eating stew out of the pot, remembers Frances Marion, by the 1920s “sat stiffly at Sheridan or Louis Quinze tables so loaded with silver and crystal that you could hear their arthritic old knees buckling.” The jazzy, cynical tone affected by Marion, Mary Pickford’s favorite screenwriter, nicely captures the flavor of Hollywood in its gaudy silent heyday; in the two excerpts from her long out-of-print book, “Off With Their Heads,” Silvester has found, as usual, just the right material to encapsulate an era.
Another treasure trove is the correspondence of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, whose funny, sophisticated yet jittery letters from the 1950s vividly evoke a nervous decade when Hollywood was rocked politically by the blacklist and economically by competition from television. Silvester reprints a memo from Darryl Zanuck warning of excessive production costs as early as 1946, and he skillfully interweaves excerpts from two books about “Cleopatra” to anatomize that famously disastrous production. “I think with this film it can be seen that the whole system finally breaks down under its own weight,” writes Fox publicity manager Nathan Weiss in 1962. ” ‘Cleopatra’ will come to mark the end of a Hollywood era.”
If “Cleopatra” epitomizes a studio system out of control, “Heaven’s Gate” demonstrates the drawbacks of the non-system that replaced it. One of the reasons nervous executives failed to rein in director Michael Cimino’s obsessive over-shooting, explains producer Steven Bach in “Final Cut,” is that they knew it would be prohibitively expensive to re-assemble the all-freelance company later. “In today’s movie business, you get it right right now, or you don’t get it right at all,” Bach writes.
Readers who came of age in the 1970s believing that the film-school generation would make braver, quirkier, more adult movies — which they did for a while — will be depressed all over again by the inevitable selections from the reminiscences of Julia Phillips and Robert Evans depicting their peers’ (and their own) unbridled egos and unfettered drug abuse.
Sections on the ’80s and ’90s, when the studio system re-invented itself at a level of bloat that would have had Zanuck stubbing out his cigars in producer’s palms, are mercifully short. Silvester’s choice and arrangement of material remains astute, though Sidney Lumet’s rueful analysis of why audience surveys are useless should really have closed the book. (Presumably the final image of a sobbing talent agent — Jay Maloney — was impossible to resist.)
But the defining comment in this level-headed anthology, which views Hollywood excess with a critical but seldom censorious eye, comes from critic Kenneth Tynan after his first visit in the 1950s. “Complete packing. Toss neatly folded prejudices unused into ash-can,” he writes. “Hollywood is no place for solitary artist, but ideal for artist who is (a) gregarious, (b) unsuited by nature to personal responsibility, and (c) not flustered by necessity to appeal to mass audiences.”
No need to read all 720 pages of “The Grove Book of Hollywood,” entertaining though they are: Tynan nailed it in one sentence