'Hollywood Independents'

The most remarkable thing about Denise Mann's account of post-World War II Hollywood is how topical it seems. Fifty years after the collapse of the studio system, the majors are still trying to figure out how to balance artistic and commercial concerns, adding and shuttering specialty labels with abandon.

The most remarkable thing about Denise Mann’s account of post-World War II Hollywood is how topical it seems. Fifty years after the collapse of the studio system, the majors are still trying to figure out how to balance artistic and commercial concerns, adding and shuttering specialty labels with abandon. Top filmmakers command even more negotiating power but are no less immune to corporate pressure on studio projects. Mann connects the dots between these developments and the concurrent rise of television in “Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover,” a scholarly tome dense with insight.

The independents in this case are Hollywood creatives who became free agents when the old studio system crumbled. Before the Supreme Court ordered studios out of the exhibition biz in 1948, majors had a guaranteed home for all their films, regardless the quality or star power. When they lost these outlets, they could no longer keep churning out the same number of A and B pics, so they started letting contract employees go.

And this, Mann notes, gave agencies like MCA an opening to tilt the power in talent’s favor while enriching themselves. Tenpercenters helped talent become producers and set up their own companies; MCA topper Lew Wasserman negotiated a landmark profit participation deal for Jimmy Stewart, paving the way for countless other such deals.

But these developments didn’t necessarily result in greater artistic freedom for the new free agents. MCA muscled talent and studios equally, Mann writes, and it wasn’t above shady dealings. Wasserman got SAG, headed by client Ronald Reagan, to grant its TV production arm a blanket waiver, and the resulting double-dealing helped MCA gain “a near-monopolistic hold over the television business,” Mann observes.

Conservative politics further constrained liberal filmmakers working on studio projects: Some of the pressures, Mann makes clear, were enforced by the studio; others were self-imposed during the blacklist era. In fact, she makes a persuasive case that many of these filmmakers were no more benevolent than their studio counterparts. For example, Burt Lancaster’s shingle hired Ernest Borgnine for “Marty” instead of Rod Steiger because the former was less expensive; Borgnine ended up suing the shingle for understating the pic’s earnings.

Lancaster, by the way, followed a strategy similar to Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, alternating commercial projects with artistically satisfying ones. Mann argues that only a canny few, like Billy Wilder, were able to have it both ways, infusing their artistic sensibilities into mainstream fare. Arthouse cinema would flower more deeply during the so-called Hollywood Renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s, but Mann maintains its roots can be traced to the 1948-1962 period she focuses upon in the book. 

Early on, the author, head of UCLA’s Producers Program, suggests the majors would have been able to maintain their factory approach, at least for a while, if they had been able to divert resources into TV production. But this what-if scenario is mitigated by ample evidence in the book that into each power vacuum another arises. The business side of show business always asserts itself eventually.

Mann’s tome is quite scholarly — it’s rife with footnotes and allusions to various critical schools of thought — and is by no means an easy read. But it’s well worth the time to digest the nuances of a pivotal time in Hollywood history; the tensions between art and commerce continue to play out on corporatized studio lots daily.

Hollywood Independents

U. of Minnesota; 336 pgs.; $25

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Denise Mann
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