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