Review: ‘Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood’

In 1956, Dorothy Parker said, "I can't talk about Hollywood. It was a horror to me when I was there and it's a horror to look back on." Parker was expressing much of the emotional feeling projected by Larry McMurtry in this series of essays spanning the past two decades.

In 1956, Dorothy Parker said, “I can’t talk about Hollywood. It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on.” Parker was expressing much of the emotional feeling projected by Larry McMurtry in this series of essays spanning the past two decades. McMurtry claims that writers have always “drifted around Hollywood like unloved wives. The people they work for would be glad to get rid of them.” Pulitzer prize winning author of “Lonesome Dove,” as well as creator of novels-turned-screenplays “Hud” and “The Last Picture Show,” he speaks with the witty, penetrating voice of an insider.

But McMurtry hits more levels than Parker. Just when his words seem to condemn everything about Hollywood, he finds positive aspects to the system. Rarely has a book been so love-hate in its view of the motion picture world. “Film Flam” is compelling precisely because McMurtry can’t decide if he wants to be part of Hollywood or run away without looking back.

The experiences which prompt him to claim that “the vast bulk of the industry’s writing chores are still divided between smart-assed amateurs and dull-witted hacks” began upon his arrival in California. He collaborated at that point with Peter Bogdanovich and his then-wife Polly on “The Last Picture Show.”

McMurtry’s dislike of his own book caused conflict with the Bogdanoviches, who adored every page. He subsequently came to the conclusion that no novelists should adapt their own works, because they’ve become bored with the material and feel as though they’re treading over familiar and tedious territory.

McMurtry’s divided attitude clearly extends to directors. He insists the majority of them treat character development as a trivial concern, with the result that most American movies are spottily motivated, while also claiming the primary excitement of movies lies in working with gifted directors.

Directors, he says, provide all the freshness that’s necessary in working on a film, then chastises Peter Bogdanovich for making two hours of “The Last Picture Show” interesting, and wishing he could have made it three. McMurtry skewers Sidney Lumet’s direction of “Lovin’ Molly” (based on his second novel, “Leaving Cheyenne”), claiming that Lumet got so caught up in character details that he let his cast of supposed Texans wear shoes instead of boots.

He charges that Lumet would just as soon shoot a false detail as a true one, that he chose a location in Texas which could have been Joplin, Missouri. Worst of all, he allowed Blythe Danner to kiss a slimy little newborn calf, an action “that smacks of Bard College, baby, not Bastrop, Texas.”

McMurtry is at his best on the subject of money. As he explains, “everyone jokes about sex, and a few more rebellious types joke about fame, but no one in Hollywood ever jokes about money.” He accurately points out that producers always expect screenwriters to work for love, a Machiavellian approach to divert them from making too many financial demands. He astutely notes that vast amounts of mediocre work are done for love, and many excellent films were created with money as a motivation, just as Charles Dickens churned out “A Tale of Two Cities” with money in mind.

He confirms that producers hate hiring authors to script their own books, fearing the author will be inflexible about adaptation and too protective of their own material. He also nails a truth about adaptation: flatly written books without specific style provide better basic screen material than literary classics that are too stylistically individual.

One of the most amusing and truthful observations describes the spoiled, impatient attitudes of Hollywood. McMurtry comments, “I have seen a star throw a tantrum because there weren’t enough raisins in her cereal,” defining stardom as “instant accessibility of whatever one might want.” Writers, therefore, are forced to deal with what he calls immensely attractive children with the patience span of two year olds.

Just when it seems as though the author is bent on portraying the screenwriter’s lot as a totally tragic one, McMurtry switches gears. He states that screenwriting isn’t actually hard work, that writers should remember certain upbeat facts: They don’t have to foot the bill, they’re not always blamed if the movie flops. He expresses surprise that writers don’t sing the praises of Hollywood for providing them with a pleasant contrast from their grubby, monotonous day-to-day lives.

McMurtry feels that screenplay should never be read by students eager to learn their craft, because a written screenplay gives no idea of a cinematic experience, including the script of “Citizen Kane,” which he finds “appallingly dull.” He contends that today’s stars are a bland bunch, “dope freaks, pretty boys and lazy ladies,” as opposed to actors such as Bogart, Grant, Stewart and Crawford, who could interest us in a character simply by appearing on the screen who can’t make us like them. He mourns the loss of genuine love stories, while admitting that the genre isn’t commercially viable.

What emerges overall is the author’s feeling that most movies are not art, that bad films, in his view, are far more enjoyable than good ones, and that motion pictures are candy for the masses. He makes no pretense that his judgments are the last word, and by not trying to twist our arms or coerce us into accepting his attitudes, he enlarges the way we see movies as a whole and those who create them.

Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood

Touchstone; 224 pgs.; $12


by Larry McMurtry
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