Closeup/Film

They have faces again!

If movies aren’t better than ever, Hollywood is

David Cobb March 20 1978
Closeup/Film

They have faces again!

If movies aren’t better than ever, Hollywood is

David Cobb March 20 1978

They have faces again!

Closeup/Film

If movies aren’t better than ever, Hollywood is

David Cobb

Gloria Swanson, petite, impeccable and 79 on March 27, was ruminating recently on the state of the world in general and Hollywood in particular. From the perspective of a 60-year career, her views on physical corruption (what are we doing to our bodies?) and moral decay (pornography and violence) could be summed up simply: we—and the movies—are cruising to hell in a golf-cart.

So Miss Swanson, one of the last superstars of the silents, wouldn’t be watching the Oscar show on April 3, that annual rite of early spring, television’s homage to the mother art? Miss Swanson brightened at once. “Buttes,” she said crisply. “I watch it whenever possible. It’s not as much fun as it was, but then what is? Stars are what draw people, and that’s what the Oscar show celebrates.”

As well as the stars, this year’s Oscar show has a lot to celebrate from 1977: record box-office; Woody Allen’s quadruple nominations with Annie Hall (for best picture, director, actor, screenplay), unheard of since Orson Welles and Citizen Kane in 1941; the clear emergence of Richard Dreyfuss as a movie presence; and the discovery (again) that women can carry a production on their own, or at least as the dominant character—an idea Gloria Swanson grew up with, but one notably neglected since Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were young.

Indeed the top women’s awards will be the most closely contended in years: Jane Fonda for Julia, Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft for The Turning Point, Diane Keaton tor Annie Hall and Marsha Mason for The Goodbye Girl. Trends can hardly be spotted from one year alone and this one did not emerge, full-blown in twinkling lights, suddenly during the last one. Before it there was, for instance, A Touch Of Class (Glenda Jackson), Three Women (Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule), The Other Side Of The Mountain (Marilyn Hassett). This year, The Other Side Of The Mountain, Part II is doing well despite spotty reviews, and Coma, which provides Geneviève Bujold with her best part in years, is a huge hit with both audiences and critics. “Of course, box-office is what counts,” a Hollywood producer notes drily, “but it’s also nice to be told we’re right.”

On the men’s side, the competition is less interesting among the best-actor nominations, if only because Richard Dreyfuss (among Allen, Richard Burton, Marcello Mastroianni and John Travolta) looks as if he’ll run away with it. What is interesting is

Dreyfuss himself. At five-foot-five he doesn’t quite qualify as one of Randy Newman’s Short People but he’s not far off. He’s inclined to pear-shaped pudginess and in his two most recent films he wears bottle-bottom glasses to correct chronic myopia. Anything less like the leading man of legend would do violence to the imagination.

“Don’t you think I’m sexy?” he taunts 10-year-old Quinn Cummings in The

Goodbye Girl. Quinn chokes on her spaghetti. “Are you kiddingT' she manages, as if he’d suddenly appeared from the dark side of the moon. And yet this unlikely icon was recently offered a movie for which he would have been paid $1.5 million against 10% of the gross: an improbable figure improbably managed to reject.

The fact is that in a superstitious industry, Dreyfuss, 30, has become something of a good-luck charm, as if anything he appears in will make everyone connected with it rich beyond the dreams of Croesus. After a couple of bit parts and the support-

ing role of Baby Face Nelson in Dillinger, Dreyfuss made -American Graffiti (1973), The Apprenticeship Of Duddy Kravitz (1974), Jaws (1975), Inserts (1976), Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl (1977). Only Inserts did not make money, but since it has become a cult movie it in no way hurt him; Duddy Kravitz did not make big money but won him great reviews. The other four are the kind of hit for any one of which, anywhere in a lifetime, any actor would bargain with Faust. Dreyfuss managed them in four years— and it is his particular achievement in The Goodbye Girl that he makes you care about the character Elliot Garfield: an intelligent, humane performance, it makes this movie the only one of his hits that is mostly his responsibility.

His most obvious characteristics are push and energy. During the making of Jaws he actively campaigned for the lead in Close Encounters, originally intended for a man in his forties. His energy is unremitting—“like a Mexican jumping bean,” says Quinn Cummings, who at 10 talks the way Neil Simon writes, “only he’s Jewish and doesn’t stop jumping.” Not since Mickey Rooney was a kid has the screen crackled with such gusto, and Dreyfuss carries it everywhere: during the filming of Goodbye Girl he was producing and acting in a stage run of The Tenth Man, for $ 125 a week, because, he said, he wanted to see legitimate theatre in Beverley Hills. Currently he’s playing Cassius in a production of Julius Caesar at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for no other reason than the “lean and hungry” Cassius had always appealed to him.

He has opinions about everything. He outraged Universal by consistently badmouthing Jaws (“just a fish picture ... a waste of my time as an actor”) before he saw it; and the April rites of Oscar night he regards as nowhere near adventurous enough. “It’s depressing to see one performer after another reading routine stuff off the TelePrompTer,” he says, words tumbling out with the cocksure certainty of a man who knows his own mind and intends to use it. “Why not get AÍ Pacino and Allen Garfield and have them do the cab scene from On The Waterfront? Get De Niro to do something. Get me to do something. The pretext doesn’t matter: the idea is to celebrate movies.”

And, if possible, the box-office. On the

surface, last year was enormously satisfying for the film industry. It was a year when the Nielsen rating company ran shivers through the TV industry by broadcasting a 6.4% drop in the TV viewing audience—yet in 1977, 13 million more people went to the movies in Canada and the United States than in the year before, and business was a record $2,325,000,000. The self-congratulation on the Oscar show, therefore, will be almost tangible.

But there is more here than meets the eye, and not all of it is good news. The fallout and recriminations, for instance, from the David Begelman affair (in which the former manager of Judy Garland and current head of Columbia Pictures’ movie

production forged and cashed three company checks, embezzled a further $61,000, resigned and then, incredibly, was reinstated) has soured many in the business and confirmed, outside it, the worst suspicions of all those who regard Hollywood as Babylon West. On a more direct level, there’s little joy for most members of the Screen Actors Guild, 90% of whom at any given time may be out of work. Forty years ago the Hollywood studios were making 700 movies annually; it’s now down to about 70. The number of theatre screens in North America has dropped by a third since the advent of TV: it’s now about 14,000, and not holding. In 1948 moviegoing was at its peak and 100 million tickets were sold every week: it’s now down to 20 million and spread over far fewer films.

Part of the result has been a return to the blockbuster, the megamillion movie everyone thought had died by 1970 in the mushroom-cloud fallout from bombs like Dr. Dolittle, Star! and Tora! Tora! Tora! Very occasionally a film comes along on a cheapo budget and makes money, but it’s as rare as snow in the Gobi: a Rocky, made for about one million dollars and now one of the 10 most successful films ever, is rarer still.

You would have thought, maybe, that Rockÿs success would start a trend, that instead of putting $20-odd million into one basket which may collect (Close Encounters) or may not (Sorcerer), it would make sense to make half a dozen movies for a total of $20-odd million and hope to score on a couple of them. It’s not working that way, and the only certain conclusion to be drawn from Rocky is that Sylvester Stallone will never make a million-dollar movie again.

“They don’t make the modest picture you’re talking about,” says Billy Wilder, the veteran director (Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, The Front Page), “except for TV. The feeling is that the picture must be extraordinary to get people out of the house. Which means production values, which means big money. So it’s much harder to get financing for a two-milliondollar movie than for a $20-million movie.” Production values include stars and no matter that people say stars are no longer sure-fire insurance against a lousy movie, it’s the increasing cost of stars—and crews—that have doubled the cost of features since 1972.

“More than anything else we need to cut back our inflated costs,” says Alan Ladd Jr., head of movie production for Twentieth Century-Fox, the man who backed Star Wars when Universal rejected it, and the spitting image, plus six inches, of his late father. “But it’s not going to happen the way it did at the end of the Sixties. How could we tell Paul Newman, say, that we can’t pay his price because we can’t afford it? He’ll answer, ‘And how about Star Wars!' ”

So why don’t the stars cut their price and take a bigger percentage?—that way more films would surely get oif the ground.

“Ah, how little you know,” says one Hollywood buff, shaking his head at the wonder of it all. “Lower price means lower status. Say Nicholson cuts his up-front price to $500,000. ‘Why’s he slumming?’ people’ll ask. ‘Does he have cancer? What is it?’ The only time Nicholson would cut his price would be if he really believed in a project, and if Diane Keaton really believed in it, and //William Goldman really believed in it, and //Martin Scorsese really believed in it, and they all cut their prices for this marvelous project called The Heartbreak Of Psoriasis, which they would do as a group effort, a labor of love. Then no one would lose status and everybody would be happy.”

Giantism and general excess, of course, have been cornerstones of Hollywood history: they’re a large reason for our fascination. Long before Fatty Arbuckle did unspeakable things with a Coke bottle, Toronto’s own Mary Pickford hammered out (in 1918) a pre-income tax contract that would be remarkable even today: $675,000 a year, $250,000 signing bonus, $50,000 to keep her mother happy, and 50% of the profits of every film she made. Small wonder that a few years later, about to divorce her first husband in favor of Douglas Fairbanks, she quailed at the marital abdication like any other monarch. “But what will my people think?” she asked her advisers.

It’s a long way from the world of Carlos Saura, the Spanish director {Cría, Garden Of Delights) who has made a dozen films in as many years, none for more than $500,000, and has thus far resisted the many offers to make films in the United States. “Of course you can still make a lowbudget movie in America,” says Kenneth Tynan, the English writer now living in Santa Monica. “The question is where you go when you’ve done it—you can spend 2Vi years wheeling and dealing before you get the thing distributed.”

American Graffiti hung around for a year before it was released. The script for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest—1976 Oscar winner for best film and eighth most successful film in history—made the rounds for 15 years, gathering salami and coffee stains, before it was made in 1975, almost in desperation and without any studio backing at the start.

“That ought to scare the studios,” says Charles Champlin, entertainment 'editor of the Los Angeles Times. “But it won’t. The old moguls may have been vulgarians, but so were the audiences then. The trouble is, they never trained successors and today the industry is run mostly by lawyers or former agents. The moguls cared about films as well as profits. The new guys are much more cynical: they only want to make what they think will make millions of dollars, they only want to film what’s ‘in’ at the moment. It breeds a kind of cowardice—caution, to put it nicely.”

The need, then, is for some changes, and Cuckoo’s Nest points the way. Assemble your package without the studio, if necessary, go ahead and shoot, then sell it to them for distribution. “It’s the only way to start an alternative film industry,” says screenwriter Kit Carson. “If we all waited for the studios, the only features they’d ever make would be $25-million epics.” Certainly the film schools around the United States—some 1,000 at last count— are churning out would-be film makers at a daunting rate, and their impatience with the major studios won’t quickly go away. Because of the change in movie economics—fewer films, larger budgets, everybody free-lancing for the best deal— screenwriters are at a premium. All young film makers would like to run their own show from first to last—“and the way you start,” says one of them, “is to write a screenplay and hurl it over the studio wall like a grenade in front of you.” American Graffiti, The Sting, Five Easy Pieces, Harold And Maude, Sugarland Express were all written by graduates of the film schools at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. Prices vary wildly: Robert Towne was paid $400,000 for Chinatown (which also won him an Oscar), Gloria and Will-

ard Huyck were paid only $5,200 for American Graffiti—but because Francis Coppola, the producer, cut them in for a piece, they have made something over $600,000 from it so far.

“The fact that everyone’s a free lance, everyone’s a star, is pushing prices up,” says Paul Schrader, who has moved from reviewing (fired from the “alternative” Los A ngeles Free Press for panning Easy Rider) to screenplays {Taxi Driver) to writing and directing (currently Hard Core, with George C. Scott). “On balance this is better for the director—he can pick and choose. But oh, the egos!” Schrader, 31, was trained for the Calvinist ministry, spent some years grunging around in the porno sleaze of Hollywood, and today looks like Holden Caulfield 20 years of hard living later. “I’m a man in hell,” he says, sounding the right note of Californian angst,

“but Hollywood is

the right place to be in hell.”

A ball of barely contained energy, with the look of a man who has had to make one more compromise than he’d intended, Schrader notes that there are only five things the movies can offer any more: “Stars, spectacles, overt sex, overt violence and quality. You want something else, go work in TV.”

A character in Budd Schulberg’s novel The Disenchanted asks of a writer: “What happened to him?”—and is answered: “Hollywood.” The cry of William Faulkner, of Herman Mankiewicz, of Dorothy Parker, of Scott Fitzgerald, into their cups; talent expropriated by bushels of money, Hollywood as alibi. Not everyone buys it. “I can’t imagine a better place to have spent my life,” exclaims Barbara Hale.

Hale, 55, a woman of great presence and charm, was a studio contract player for years before doing a decade of Della Street to Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason on TV. In the early days she would make three and four pictures a year, and had a paid education doing it: “We were taught dance, singing, acting, even pottery—believe me, I learned more in Hollywood than I did at school in Illinois, and I don’t mean what people think you learn here.”

In fact the increasing screen treatment of that sort of thing appalls her; after all, she made headlines in 1943 by giving Frank Sinatra (in Higher And Higher) his first screen kiss. Her son is William Katt, Sissy Spacek’s date in Carrie, soon to star in a “prequel” to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and widely hyped as the heartthrob successor to Robert Redford. His mother saw his most recent movie— Young Love, something of a sleeper, not to say sleep-over, movie, rich with climactic visuals and orgasmic chat—“and I very nearly collapsed. All that verbiage, that terminology! I told Billy, T don’t think it’ll hurt you, it was just in very bad taste.’ Billy kind of shrugged. ‘That’s the way the movie was, mom,’ he said, ‘that’s the way it is today.’ Of course Billy’s living with someone he’s not married to, and I don’t agree with that either. It would never have happened in my day. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn got away with it because they were of a certain stature—but the rest of us? Shape up at once, we’d be told, or ship out.”

Today, with only two movies behind him and an uncertain world in front, William Katt, 27, employs a business manager and an agent; a PR firm is soon to come. In the Thirties, when the studios took care of everything, the money was ploughed back into the system, and Hollywood built up a splendid number of supporting actors. Now prices have become astronomical either because of the track record of the director or the demands of the stars. Often there seems no money left for anything else: New York, New York featured two star actors and one star director, supported by little else but indulgence.

Perhaps what it comes down to is Power, which obsesses Los Angeles and New York about equally. Nobody of any position to worry about in the entertainment industry would dream of phoning someone directly, even if the phone is immediately to hand; just as nobody at the other end, in the same position, would dream of picking the phone up first, even if it’s ringing in his ear. To do so would mean loss of status, like Jack Nicholson dropping his up-front money for a movie: how come no secretary, dogsbody, factotum? “When I got fired from the L.A. Times,” says Joyce Haber, who used to write a Hollywood column for it, “nobody called me for two years. Not even my friends. Now that I’m writing a column again (for Los Angeles magazine) I can’t get off the phone.”

The deal, the hondel, is everything. Haber tells the story of the video cassettes taken by police from Roman Polanski’s house after his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, and three friends were murdered: the cassettes recorded three actors strenuously engaged in licentious digression. Just as strenuously the actors, when they discovered what had happened, asked the police to give them back at once. “So the cops told them they were having a little trouble cracking the case,” says Haber, “and they’d certainly appreciate a donation for a reward to be given for any information about the murders. The actors understood very quickly: the police got a $25,000 donation and the actors got their tapes back.”

The ebbs and flows of the power trip may explain the wave of sado-masochism breaking over the Hollywood subculture; and not so sub, at that. Porno movies—a few of which like Barbara Broadcast and Inside Jennifer Welles continue to do much better business than many of their much pricier legitimate competitors—wouldn’t be complete without an S&M sequence; and there are four dominance clubs flourishing in L.A., very much above ground. Says Paul Schrader, who researched the subject for his new movie: “It’s very big business. Their clients are executives, lawyers, directors, judges, all those people who push people around all day long, and then go to these girls after work. It must be therapeutic.”

With psychic therapy goes the physical kind. The upwardly mobile in the entertainment business have always been prone to diets, and if they have occult overtones so much the better. The reigning queen is Eileen Poole, a delightful fiftyish redhead from England who ministers to more stars (though she won’t disclose names) than there ever were in MGM’S heaven. One of her clients is Beverley Walker, a vice-president at Universal, who waxes misty in Mrs. Poole’s praise. “I had terrible problems,” says Walker over lunch. “I was losing my hair, I was 50 pounds overweight, and other things were wrong too. Eileen just touched my wrist and put me on this diet, and in two months I’m right as rain. (The fish and a small salad, thanks.)”

And the health of the movie industry? Aging rapidly in some areas and hiding behind the misleading healthy complexion of its current record profits, but a long way from terminal. Increasing use in the United States of cable and Pay-TV, and of ever more sophisticated home-entertainment systems (particularly Universal’s imminent Disco-Vision, which will enable us to buy movies of our choice and run them through our TV sets), indicate a further decline in the number of North American movie theatres—perhaps down to some 7,500 in the next decade. At the moment, what used to be the movies’ B-features are being made for the small screen; as the inducements to stay home increase—not least the cost of going out—the calibre of movies being made for television should improve.

Some doomsayers suggest that the days of the movie theatre are numbered, that by 1990 TV will have won all the marbles. Impossible to believe. For one thing, a feature run sets the price for the feature’s subsequent sale to TV; for another, the urge for an evening’s splurge, the Saturday night fever to get out of the house, goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. Seventy percent of the movie audience is under 30: in large part a dating audience for which the shared experience of Going To The Movies is irreplaceable.

The wish to go remains. The trick is to get people there in sufficient numbers to make it worthwhile. The megadollar spectacular must soon fall on its own sword

(can the $35-million-pluSv4/?0az/y/?.se Now ever make back its investment?); cop movies are on the way out; the Western, for the moment, is buried at Boot Hill; comedies are consigned to Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, perhaps the only directors the studios consider totally untouchable, though Carl Reiner {Oh, God!, The One And Only) is coming up fast on the inside. A flurry of more realistic pictures is in the wind: what the trade calls blue-collar movies {Rocky, Car Wash, Saturday Night Fever, F.I.S.T., Macon County Line) have done well enough to encourage a trend. “We’ll see a smaller scale, less cynicism, a return to the Frank Capra films of the Forties,” says Universal’s Beverley Walker. “Those are

the scripts crossing my desk these days, and it’s very good news.”

Adds Jan Nemefc, newest of the extraordinary group of expatriate Czechoslovakian directors* who have made Hollywood their home: “The best country for film making is still the United States. Of course the films may not always be the best, but the range! Satire, sci-fi, horror, sociopolitical . . . they speak to the whole world.” Nemec, 42, speaks with feeling: since the crushing of the Czech uprising in 1968 he has become something of a nonperson in his native land. His films are no longer shown there, his name is not listed in any of the records of the Czechoslovakian film industry, and from 1968 to 1974, when the authorities finally let him go, he was officially banned from any work at all.

Plainly, for all Hollywood’s excesses and venality, things could be a whole lot worse. Joseph Henry Steele is a former magazine writer, biographer—and publicity director for David Selznick, who produced Gone With The Wind and wrote more and longer memos than anyone else in the entire history of the world. Now 82, Steele lives in the Motion Picture Country House in L.A. and suffers from hypertension—brought on, he suggests, by at least 150 Selznick memos too many. He was reminiscing the other day about the money tightness of some of the stars he has known: Clark Gable for one, Cary Grant for another. The tightest, he said, was Ronald Colman, the screen epitome of the dashing romantic hero; Leslie Howard on earth.

“My God, was Colman tight! He once fired his valet after 16 years’ service. A couple of years later the valet was broke and wrote Colman for a loan of $100. ‘These are hard times,’ Colman wrote back, T can’t possibly manage $100, but here’s $25. It’s more than I can afford.’ Four years later, 1958, Colman died.” A half-beat. “And left $3,800,000.”

A dapper, courtly man, Steele leaned back and pondered the middle-distance. “It’s a funny place, I’ve never been able to reconcile any of it. The cheapness, the generosity, the poverty, the richness, the smallness. Oh heck, it’s like anywhere else, I guess.”

Only bigger,

*The others: Milos Forman (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), Ivan Passer (Born To Win), Jan Kadár (Lies My Father Told Me)—all products, from a country of only 15 million, of a film industry largely createdduring the German occupation (1939-44). The Germans built studios so that the Czechoslovakians would turn out propaganda films for the Nazis. In the event, they didn’t turn out one. Jan Nemec’s theory:

“Lfda Baarova, a leading Czech actress, had an affair with Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. Goebbels was mad about her and would have given up his job for her if it had been possible. He visited her constantly in Prague, where the atmosphere was so different from anything he knew elsewhere that he was charmed into letting the Czechs do anything they wanted with the studios he had had built.

“Lfda Baarova lives now in Salzburg, a lovely woman. I asked her once what she ever saw in Herr Goebbels, that small and ugly man, and she replied: ‘He had this presence, this power, I cannot explain it. He was so männlich. ’ ”