Heading to a book party for screenwriter-novelist Tom Epperson’s latest, a South American journalistic thriller called Roberto To The Dark Tower Came, I got to wondering: Will there ever be another great Hollywood book? You know, the kind that makes you catch your breath, slap the beach chair, and gasp, “Did they really do that stuff?”
Mostly, they did—witness the photograph of Robert Towne lounging in the sand with his naked Amazons, as he did some sort of prep for Personal Best, in 1981. The snapshot is tucked in the middle of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. Published in 1998, it was, for me, the last truly great movie business book. Biskind dished shovel-loads of gossip within a cultural arc, as he told how film greats like Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and, of course, Towne, reached for the stars and fell back to earth. The story, entirely real, was a tragedy. “This group of people started to make really interesting films, and then just took a toboggan ride into the gutter. How the hell did that happen?” asks the writer-director Leonard Schrader in a prefatory quote.
There have been some very good Hollywood books since. What Just Happened? by Art Linson, Sleepless In Hollywood by Lynda Obst, Infamous Players by Peter Bart, and Biskind’s own Down And Dirty Pictures come to mind. But nothing has quite matched the bitchiness of Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (1991), the penetration of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), the salty wisdom of Saul David’s The Industry (1981), the self-examination of Steven Bach’s Final Cut (1985), or the terrifying granularity of David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure (1982).
In 2016, there was a boomlet for Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency by James Andrew Miller. But the book’s underlying story, unlike Biskind’s tale of sex-crazed, drug-soaked movie genius, ran cold. In September, CAA’s ex-chief Michael Ovitz will follow with a memoir. But the title—Who Is Michael Ovitz?—doesn’t scream blockbuster.
Over at the Film Academy’s Margaret Herrick library (halfway between home and Epperson’s launch), a shelf lined with four dozen new Hollywood books doesn’t have much you would take to the beach. Instead, they are mostly solid works that drill deeply into cinematic silos, past and present. There’s Mexican Melodrama by Elena Lahr-Vivaz; Hollywood Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC and the Birth of the Blacklist by Thomas Doherty; Sisters in the Life: A History of Out Africa American Lesbian Media Making, edited by Yvonne Welbon and Alexandra Juhasz; and, of course, this year’s tribute to the eternal Boy Wonder, Orson Welles In Focus, edited by James N. Gilmore and Sidney Gottlieb.
One can imagine a very good book coming out of the #MeToo era—a story about the evils of abusive men and the cover-ups around them.
But even that doesn’t promise a really great book, a juicy read about flawed and brilliant gods and monsters, changing the way we think and feel. Books like that could only be born at a time when movies really mattered. When, as Biskind wrote in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “film was no less than a secular religion.” And it’s just not like that anymore.