Fak­ing it in Hol­ly­wood

Se­ri­ous writ­ing about movies de­clined when stu­dios be­came more in­ter­ested in busi­ness than cin­ema, says

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Michael Bodey

ANDREW Mor­ton’s bi­og­ra­phy of Tom Cruise raises many ques­tions, many of them un­seemly. But the most press­ing ques­tion from Tom Cruise: An Unau­tho­rised Bi­og­ra­phy is one the au­thor had no in­ten­tion of rais­ing: where has all the great film writ­ing gone?

Mor­ton’s with­er­ing chron­i­cle of Cruise’s life is cap­ti­vat­ing on sev­eral lev­els if you can plough through all the Scien­tol­ogy psy­chob­a­b­ble. But it is a work­man­like book.

Mor­ton has been far more lu­cid and il­lu­mi­nat­ing on mat­ters Cruise and celebrity while be­ing in­ter­viewed on television, spruik­ing the book.

His ar­gu­ment that we live in a world where celebri­ties gain ac­cess to po­lit­i­cal power be­cause of who they are rather than what they know or can con­trib­ute is com­pelling and worth ex­plor­ing. Yet on the page, Mor­ton be­comes bogged down in the minu­tiae of Cruise’s growth as an in­flu­en­tial am­bas­sador for Scien­tol­ogy and the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s com­i­cally hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture.

Of course, he couldn’t hope to de­ci­pher an ac­tor who wouldn’t con­trib­ute to his book. To his credit he barely tries, other than to pre­sume Cruise is not ho­mo­sex­ual. So what?

Mor­ton spends much of his time de­bunk­ing myths about Cruise and leaves in­ter­pre­ta­tions up to the reader, and so is hardly as evis­cer­at­ing as he could have been.

At least the au­thor didn’t lapse into the weary­ing style that now counts as film bi­og­ra­phy: ‘‘ Af­ter film­ing X, which made Y at the box of­fice but was blasted by the crit­ics, ac­tor Z moved on to A.’’

But the short­com­ings of Mor­ton’s book are shared by too many con­tem­po­rary books about cin­ema and its stars.

This leads me to con­tem­plate some­thing juicy but highly un­likely: the pos­si­bil­ity of Cruise one day writ­ing his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It won’t hap­pen be­cause mod­ern ac­tors tend not to have the ca­pac­ity for self- re­flec­tion needed to write in­sight­fully about their ex­pe­ri­ences. Cruise’s in­fal­li­bil­ity com­plex sug­gests he would rather write a man­i­festo than a mem­oir.

Oh for the days when Char­lie Chap­lin pub­lished My Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy , and Luis Bunuel looked back can­didly on a dar­ing ca­reer in My Last Sigh: The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Luis Bunuel. Or when David Niven pro­duced such rol­lick­ing mem­oirs as The Moon’s a Bal­loon and two great direc­tors knocked heads in Hitch­cock by Fran­cois Truf­faut .

Ad­mit­tedly th­ese books came dur­ing a pe­riod when film was more about show than about busi­ness. As the dol­lars re­quired to pro­duce and sell a Hol­ly­wood movie have grown im­mensely, the can­dour and spon­tane­ity of most of its par­tic­i­pants have di­min­ished.

It should be no sur­prise that the most mem­o­rable film mem­oirs have come from for­mer stars or those on the pe­riph­ery: Bruce Camp­bell’s If Chins Could Kill: Con­fes­sions of a B Movie Ac­tor , Ju­lia Phillips’s You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again and Robert Evans’s The Kid Stays in the Pic­ture are very read­able.

Other vivid film books have come from pro­duc­ers or writ­ers — such as Dawn Steel, Art Lin­son and Lynda Obst — so in­fu­ri­ated with Hol­ly­wood’s lack of logic or taste that they have felt a need to ex­pel their bile.

Oth­ers have come from those jour­nal­ists who tend not to be jun­ket­ing, full- time show­biz lack­eys. Stephen Bach cap­tured a stu­dio tragedy beau­ti­fully in Michael Cimino’s Fi­nal Cut: Art, Money and Ego in the Mak­ing of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists , while Joe Queenan’s If You’re Talk­ing to Me, Your Ca­reer Must be in Trou­ble: Movies, May­hem and Mal­ice was a won­der­fully ir­rev­er­ent and knowl­edge­able knife in Hol­ly­wood’s back.

I don’t know whether it’s a sign of Hol­ly­wood’s cul­tural de­cline but play­ers at the high­est level tend not to com­mit to books. Cyn­ics would sug­gest they don’t even read them.

Sure, writer- di­rec­tor David Mamet pub­lished Bambi Vs. Godzilla: On the Na­ture, Pur­pose, and Prac­tice of the Movie Busi­ness re­cently, but it’s merely a com­pi­la­tion of his acer­bic, mostly onenote col­umns for The Guardian .

There’s no short­age of film writ­ing. The genre is over­loaded with se­ri­ous ap­pre­ci­a­tions and quickie bi­ogra­phies.

Yet for ev­ery can­did diary, such as Bruce Beres­ford’s hi­lar­i­ous com­men­tary on a few years spent fruit­lessly de­vel­op­ing projects, Josh Hart­nett Def­i­nitely Wants to Do This . . . True Sto­ries From a Life in the Screen Trade , there are 10 stu­dious but soul­less bi­ogra­phies such as Ingo Pet­zke’s Phillip Noyce: Back­roads to Hol­ly­wood .

Cin­ema ap­pre­ci­a­tion in print in­ex­orably veers to­wards schol­arly, bland stuff. On the flip side, news­pa­per and mag­a­zine fea­ture writ­ing about cin­ema is in­vari­ably breath­less and inane: ‘‘ The star touched me play­fully on my knee and be­gan to pour out his soul.’’

One writer who made his name as an an­a­lyst of rare in­sight and crisp writ­ing, David Thom­son, man­aged to sully his rep­u­ta­tion with his em­bar­rass­ingly fawn­ing bi­og­ra­phy of Ni­cole Kid­man.

Ac­tors aren’t the smartest genus but they can play en­ter­tain­ment jour­nal­ists like suck­ers.

And film crit­ics? Well, that is a field with very few valu­able prac­ti­tion­ers. Lit­tle won­der a poll of Hol­ly­wood pro­fes­sion­als a few years ago had The New Yorker ’ s An­thony Lane far ahead of any other. In a field with many peers, he has none.

I’d al­most sworn off read­ing any­thing about film but from a few key sources and most cer­tainly had fin­ished read­ing books about film. Then I de­voured Steve Martin’s A Comic’s Life . It’s a won­der­fully re­flec­tive and in­sight­ful book that, thank­fully, doesn’t ven­ture into his film ca­reer but fo­cuses on his glo­ri­ous as­cent as a stand- up comic and his de­ci­sion to drop that ca­reer in an in­stant.

As Martin said re­cently, he re­alised he wouldn’t write about his film ca­reer af­ter watch­ing Jer­sey Boys , the Broad­way mu­si­cal about Frankie Valli and the Four Sea­sons.

‘‘ It’s be­fore you make it that’s the most in­ter­est­ing part,’’ Martin said. ‘‘ Af­ter that, it’s just, ‘ Then I made this movie. Then I met this per­son . . .’’’

If only more film writ­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers had Martin’s savvy. Michael Bodey co- wrote Aussiewood: Aus­tralia’s Lead­ing Ac­tors and Direc­tors Tell How They Con­quered Hol­ly­wood, which, of course, is ex­empt from crit­i­cism.

Critic dis­armed: Ni­cole Kid­man, sub­ject of an em­bar­rass­ing bi­og­ra­phy by David Thom­son

Hi­lar­i­ous com­men­ta­tor: Bruce Beres­ford

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