Chapter OneAuthor's Note
This book was begun at the greatest time of panic and despair in modern Hollywood history-late January of '82. Future film scholars may well term it "the Heaven's Gate era." And certainly that movie received more media coverage than any other contemporary disaster.
But only a few enlightened bookkeepers will know for sure if it lost more than, say, Raise the Titanic! or Honky Tonk Freeway.
During the holiday season of '81-'82, sixteen films were released by the major studios. Of those, only one-On Golden Pond-was a runaway success. And ten of the sixteen each lost more than ten million dollars. One major studio executive told me recently, "Of course the failures are upsetting. But there have always been failures. What's got us so immobilized now is that whatever it is that we're making, we're missing the audience by a wider margin than ever before. We don't know what they want. All we do know is that they don't want what we're giving them."
Perhaps the key word above is immobilized. By the end of February, only ten films will have begun production. At the same time a year ago, twenty-five had started shooting.
Again, this is the worst period within memory. By the time this book sees print, it may well be the best period within memory. The point being this: Movies are a gold-rush business.
Anyone interested in what follows had best commit that fact to memory....
What follows, generically speaking, is a book about Hollywood. It may not come as a total shock to you if I say this is not the first attempt to mine that subject.
All I can provide that is different is my point of attack: I have been, for close to twenty years now, a screenwriter. I have seen a lot, learned more than a little-most of it, alas, too late.
In terms of authority, screenwriters rank somewhere between the man who guards the studio gate and the man who runs the studio (this week). And there is a whole world to which we are not privy. And I thought it may be helpful to know at least something about just what is taking place Out There. With that in mind, I've interviewed a number of people who work the other side of the street: studio executives, producers, directors, and stars. By the time we're done, it's my hope that you'll understand a good deal more about why you see what you see on the screen.
Because of my Hollywood work, I have seen films on three continents and in at least twice that many foreign countries.
But for me, still, always, it is the Alcyon....
Certainly not a great movie theatre. Probably not even a very good one. But the Alcyon stands alone in memory because it stood alone on Central, even then an aging monopoly; if you wanted to go to the movies in Highland Park, Illinois, in the 1930's, it was the Alcyon-or it was no movie at all.
And the thought of no movie at all was just too painful.
Even when I was six and seven and eight, I was hooked. I suppose I still am, but the stuff I see today often vanishes, while the Alcyon remains.
Captain January. 1936. Shirley Temple. I was five and she was eight. My first time sitting there in the dark, I remember her curls so plainly. And could her dimples have been as large as they seemed? If the answer is no, don't tell me.
Tarzan Finds a Son. Late thirties and memorable because I went to see it twice on consecutive matinees. I don't think I liked it as much as I wanted to escape some visiting relatives, but the fact remains: I was the first kid on the block who had ever done such a lunatic thing. In this Star Wars era, nothing unusual. But the news swept the Elm Place Grammar School playground during Monday recess. "Twice? How could you do it twice when you knew who won?" I didn't have an answer. And I didn't like Tarzan Finds a Son as much the second time.
But I sure did like sitting there.
Not true of Invitation to Happiness, my first evening flick. I was eight and already a sports fan and, during an earlier matinee preview, Invitation to Happiness flashed on-a prizefight movie.
Fifteen or twenty seconds of solid slam-bang action were shown. I had to see it. It was only playing for two nights in the middle of the week and I understood the importance of school the next day. But I knew I had to go. Problem: I couldn't go alone. I launched a campaign of such ferocity that my parents gave in. Grudgingly, we trooped off to Invitation to Happiness-and it wasn't a prizefight movie, it was a kissing movie.
All they did was kiss, the hero and the lady. Those precious fifteen seconds of slam-bang action were there, all right, but that was the sum total of prizefighting. I never dreamed a preview would snooker you that way.
The kisses went on and on. I began to groan. Then I started counting. Eleven kisses. Now a quick buss on the nose, but that counted. Twelve. On and on they went, and by now I was counting out loud.
There were twenty-three kisses in Invitation to Happiness and I hated every one.
But I didn't hate the movies. Not then, not now. Too many memories involved. Movies help mark out our lives. Do you remember who you were when you first saw Citizen Kane? I do. Or Casablanca or Singin' in the Rain? If you give it a moment's thought, I'll bet you can come up with an answer.
I've been a fan for forty-six of my fifty-one years. Before I ever dreamed of entering the business, movies were an essential part of my life.
And whatever theatre I walk into today, part of me, a large part of me, is still going to the Alcyon....