When Tasha Robinson handed me a copy of the Allan Carr biography Party Animals, she wryly noted that the cover featured a giant, sexy photograph of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John at the height of their nubile beauty, and the name of the book’s subject in borderline-microscopic type. For all his egomania, Carr—the producer of Grease, Grease 2, Where The Boys Are ’84, Can’t Stop The Music, and the infamous 1989 Oscar telecast—probably would have loved the cover. Carr worshipped beauty. He was a marketing genius who understood better than anyone that if you want to sell books, you’re a lot better off pimping sexy famous people than a bespectacled, obese, diminutive Jewish homosexual from the Chicago suburbs.
Variety writer Robert Hofler’s Allan Carr biography Party Animals echoes his previous book, the Henry Wilson biography The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, in its unbelievably bitchy and entertaining treatment of a voracious, physically repulsive star-maker who created a thriving one-man industry out of his insatiable appetite for hot younger men. Hofler is less interested in getting inside Carr’s mind than in nailing his giant, caftan-clad target to a wall and firing a never-ending volley of verbal darts in his direction. Hofler has great malicious fun with Carr, but his bitchiness sometimes veers into cruelty. For example, Hofler delights in the ugly details of Carr’s Oprah-like war with the scale. He takes glee in the image of Carr trying to shove chopped liver or chocolate cake through a jaw he habitually had wired shut in an attempt to lose weight.
Carr was a man of sizable appetites. No, Carr was a man of grotesque appetites; as unsavory as it might be, the mental image of Carr trying to force food through jaw-wiring vividly conveys the subject’s desperation to experience ecstasy at all times, no matter the cost or eventual blowback. It was disco, baby, and the ’70s, so the cocaine wasn’t addictive, there were no hangovers, and the good times would never stop until everyone got addicted to cocaine, experienced an excruciating decade-long hangover called the ’80s, and the good times abruptly came to a close.
Carr was the quintessential outsider growing up, even gossiping about all the popular kids in an anonymous column he wrote for the student paper. He was forever on the outside looking in, the misfit gawking with envy at the impossibly beautiful boys and girls who ruled the school.
As a producer, Carr was ruled by his cock; as Hofler relates, Carr’s can’t-miss pick-up line throughout much of his career was “cash or career?” Carr wasn’t deluded enough to imagine the beautiful boys he picked up were interested in him for his wit and sophisticated understanding of socioeconomic politics. Like so much of what constituted show business in the ’70s, it was a cold, cynical transaction: sex for money and fame. By Hofler’s account, Carr’s penis essentially willed the Village People musical Can’t Stop The Music into existence; Carr’s need to scour the gyms and discos and beaches of our fine nation to find the finest slabs of beefcake to fill out the production numbers was the driving force behind the film. For Carr, the casting couch came first. Everything else came second.
How shameless was Carr? To promote Can’t Stop the Music, Carr got Baskin-Robbins, that apogee of All-American wholesomeness, to release an Ice Cream flavor called “Can’t Stop The Nuts.” As Hofler notes, that’s less a double entendre than a triple or quadruple entendre. Even more egregiously, Carr got the Milk Advisory Board to pony up $2 million to stage an elaborate milk-themed production number for Can’t Stop The Music, a musical rooted in the fetishistic role-playing of the gay underground.
Hofler posits Carr as something of a conduit between the gay and straight worlds of the ’70s. He was a man of supremely populist taste: For him, entertainment was all about Mickey and Judy putting on a show and sexy kids in bathing suits dancing, not Shakespeare. Carr understood the bottomless commercial potential of a cheap but resonant property like Grease, with its potent blend of sex, nostalgia, and catchy songs, because he was its target audience. But as his ego grew, Carr’s sense of what the public wanted, as opposed to what he wanted, began to fade.
Everything in Party Animals leads up to Carr’s defining moment: producing the 1989 Academy Awards. Carr was brought onboard to shake up what was perceived as an ancient and moribund awards show. If the sleepy Academy Awards needed a jolt of caffeine to liven it up, Carr rammed a 9-inch syringe full of uncut crystal methamphetamines into its eyeball. Carr had recently seen a hit San Francisco spoof called Beach Blanket Babylon that sent a campy burlesque of Snow White on a wacky tour of our crazy times. Carr loved the show. He especially loved the idea of Snow White as the show’s protagonist, so he decided he would borrow the idea wholesale and begin the Oscars with a confused and distracted Snow White walking the red carpet before entering the auditorium, where Merv Griffin would be singing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” culminating in an Oscars-themed parody of “Proud Mary” with Rob Lowe as her Prince Charming.
With the benefit of hindsight we can now safely say that this opening was the worst fucking idea in the history of the universe. A myopic Carr imagined that a theatrical conceit that barely made sense within the context of a raunchy San Francisco revue would work just as well as the opening of cinema’s most important and self-serious night. He also didn’t think about the possible legal consequences of using a character intimately associated with the eternally litigious folks over at Disney. Carr desperately needed someone to rein in his irrational exuberance; instead, he was cocooned by yes-men unwilling or unable to prevent the disaster about to unfold.
If the idea was terrible, the execution made it worse. As played by an unknown actress named Eileen Bowman, Snow White came off as a shrill ninny, and Carr’s enduring hard-on for Rob Lowe—who owes his career to Carr’s crush and, of course, the Freemasons—temporarily blinded him to the fact that Rob Lowe could not sing. At all.
Carr’s career died the night of the 1989 Academy Awards. He had delivered big ratings, the best in years, but at the expense of everything the Academy is supposed to represent but doesn’t: dignity, seriousness, social relevance, and substance. Carr unleashed the Academy Awards’ screaming inner queen, and show business wasn’t about to forgive him for the transgression. Hofler writes that in his sad, low-profile final decade, studio executives still regularly consulted with Carr on how to promote their films, even if they weren’t about to work with him publicly. The fat little man who dreamed of being beautiful had become a show-business leper before his death in 1999 at 62.
I’ve read so many books like this that I’ve become jaded; it takes an awful lot of coked-up ’70s depravity to even register, but Party Animals delivers the goods and then some. It’s trashy fun at the expense of a thrill-seeker who remains the life of the party even in his death. In a perfect bit of historical continuity, Carr’s kitschy pleasure palace/private disco/John Travolta shrine Hilhaven Lodge was purchased by future Academy Awards producer Brett Ratner, a man with a deep love for Hollywood history, the campier the better. Say what you will about Ratner and his films: Like the man whose home he has made his own, at least he has excellent taste in vulgarity.