Friday, June 23, 2017

“The Player”: Pitching “The Graduate, Part II”

Few would consider Robert Altman a Hollywood director. Though he enjoyed hits like MASH (1970), the box-office failure of Altman’s ambitious McCabe and Mrs. Miller made studios reluctant to send production money his way. Still, no one has been better than Altman at skewering the way Hollywood goes about its business. I just re-watched his 1992 film, The Player, and marveled at how well it understands moviemaking, Hollywood-style.

 Not that my own years in the film industry resembled what happens on the movie lot depicted in The Player. Working for B-movie maven Roger Corman on the low-budget end of Hollywood, I hardly spent my days in a capacious office suite, nor enjoyed pricey lunches among the beautiful people. (In fact, my deal required me to eat at my desk, while going through piles of script submissions.) Still, I experienced enough of Hollywood to recognize the film’s acid-dipped portrayal of insecure people jostling one another for position. I understood Hollywood’s obsession with star-power and with cranking out formulaic movies chockful of the list of traits described in The Player: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”  I grasped why nearly every pitch heard by studio types within the film has a role guaranteed to be tailor-made for Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts.

And, of course, I love The Player because it features my friend Adam Simon. Fans of the movie will remember that The Player begins with an eight-minute tracking shot that roams the studio lot repesented by Hollywood Center Studios, the former site of Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope. As the roving camera fleetingly captures development execs driving through the gate in sleek cars, listening to pitches, and giving Japanese investors insider tours, a down-at-the-heels screenwriter-type named Adam Simon is desperately trying to accost anyone who might be interested in his latest project. He’s shrugged off by one and all, and a dapper Griffin Mills (star Tim Robbins) demands to know who let him onto the lot. As the film’s story begins to unfold, poor Adam (his actual name is used on screen) is being hustled away, still trying to convince someone—anyone—of his value as a storyteller. It’s a better picture of the writer’s status in Hollywood than any other I’ve seen.

(Adam Simon is still around and still writing. I knew him in my Concorde years as the writer-director of several horror films, including the innovative Brain Dead and Roger Corman’s biggest video hit, Carnosaur. His horror documentary, The American Nightmare, is well worth a look. He got the gig in The Player partly because he’s a longtime friend and colleague of Tim Robbins, with whom he helped found the Actors’ Gang, a local theatre troupe. Adam can’t spell, but he’s a very good guy.)

Adam Simon is not the only sighting in The Player of the writer-as-victim. The film is, among other things, a thriller, and a writer named David Kahane comes to a bad end in a way that sends Griffin Mills’ life completely out of control.  But there are lots of other writer-characters as well, most of them busy pitching their hearts out to suits who are barely being polite. That long tracking-shot at the start features a pitch by none other than Buck Henry, who’s enthusiastically pushing a follow-up to his own screenplay for The Graduate: “Ben and Elaine are married still. . . . . Mrs. Robinson, her aging mother, lives with them. She’s had a stroke. And they’ve got a daughter in college—Julia Roberts, maybe. It’ll be dark and weird and funny—with a stroke.”

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