Silly Li'l Show Biz Book Club #3: Is Julia Phillips History's Greatest Monster?

Silly Li'l Show Biz Book Club #3: Is Julia Phillips History's Greatest Monster?

I have a confession to make. I hate a dead woman I've never met. Actually "hate" doesn't do justice to the sheer volume of my contempt for her. That might seem harsh or even unreasonable but rest assured, dear reader, that I did not come about my hatred of Julia Phillips casually. Between her notorious 1991 memoir You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again and today's entry in Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club, Driving Under The Affluence, I have spent countless hours and something like a thousand agonizing pages trawling through the ugly morass of ego, hubris, self-aggrandizement, self-hatred, self-indulgence, labored puns and smug self-satisfaction that constitutes Phillips' psyche, a dark, gothic haunted house, not unlike Grey Gardens, cluttered with ghosts and lovingly cultivated resentments that somehow get stronger with each passing day. I have devoted far too much of my time and energy to loathing The Julia so I'm going to exorcise all my hatred of her in a single essay. Strap in your seatbelts, home-skillets and fertile Myrtles. It's going to be a vitriol-spewing, hate-filled ride.

But first a Cliff Notes take on Phillips' rise and fall. At the age of thirty Phillips became the first woman to win an Oscar for best picture for producing The Sting in 1973. She went on to produce Taxi Driver before being unceremoniously booted off the set of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind following coked-up skirmishes with director Steven Spielberg. Then came the proverbial nightmare descent into booze, pills and freebasing cocaine. Phillips destroyed her career, wracked up an enemy's list to rival Richard Nixon's and by the eighties was virtually unemployable. It's a testament as to how spectacularly Phillips fucked up her career that even B movie schlock-merchants didn't want to get into bed, professionally speaking, with the Oscar winning best-selling author who produced The Sting, Taxi Driver and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

If burning bridges is an art form then Phillips is one of its undisputed masters and You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, a book Final Cut author Steven Bach dubbed "The Hollywood Chainsaw Massacre" is one of its masterpieces (Bach's scathing, dead-on review can be found here). In writing Lunch Phillips took a very calculated risk. By excavating everyone's demons and holding them up for public display she was committing suicide as a filmmaker. Hollywood loves success but not if it comes at its own expense. Yet in Dresden bombing her producing career Phillips planted the seeds of a thrilling second act as a writer, an acid-tongued truth-teller exposing the hypocrisy and greed of Hollywood, consequences be damned. And it worked. For a while.

Lunch wasn't just a huge bestseller; it was a pop culture phenomenon. It ended up in Billy Crystal's Oscar monologue–two years straight, as Phillips gleefully reminds us here–and set show-business tongues a-wagging because it was about Hollywood's all-time favorite subject: Hollywood. Lunch was a success because Phillips had all the dirt but its title proved prophetic: Phillips didn't just burn every bridge in Hollywood: she delivered the bad vibes equivalent of a hundred hydrogen-bombs straight to the center of Hollywood's moneyed elite.

She had written the ultimate tell-all, a book that lustily embodied the old maxim that if you don't have anything nice to say by all means go ahead and spew your hate from the mountaintops. But, in a bit of karmic justice Phillips' free-floating bile for everyone and everything boomeranged right back to her. Phillips was so cavalier in her put downs and so over-the-top in her vitriol that she ended up inviting pity and sympathy for the people she was skewering rather than contempt. Was everyone in Hollywood really a hundred times worse than Hitler or was Phillips simply a pretty hate machine incapable of empathy or compassion, at least where it came to her writing? The answer is probably a little from column A and a lot from column B.

For example if Phillips were to write about, I dunno, Jessica Tandy it'd probably read a little something like this:

I 360 around the Monkey Bar just in time to see Jessica Tandy cantering madly towards me. Silly girl, she thinks she's something more than just the flavor of the month, thatgirl for the themoment, just because of Driving Miss Daisy. Apparently if you suck Hume Cronyn's cock long enough a golden Oscar magically falls out. Times being what they are all. I can smell her halitosis from across the room. Her breath is kicking like Van Damme! It gets stronger and stronger as she lurches drunkenly towards me, a crazed look in her bloodshot eyes. "Ms. Phillips, I loved your book! It was really funny" she sputters nonsensically, letting loose thick, crusty gobs of spit with each slurred syllable. Funny, huh? That's usually what guys with no souls and Republican Stepford Wives say. People with actual souls who can think for themselves instead of blindly swallowing what the Infernotainment Soft Machine tells them usually say it moved them to tears and that I'm their hero. Interrressssting. I can barely focus on her drugged-up words I'm so distracted by her yellow teeth and wrinkled, liver-spot-riddled skin. I brush her off by telling her I'm late for an abortion. I flee in horror before her old-person smell makes me projectile vomit a la Le Linda in L'Exorcisismo. She laughs long and hard but she clearly doesn't get it. Those girls never do. They nod and smile like daddy's good little girl. Yo Tenga Una Tax Problema?

Phillips' stock defense against charges of misanthropy and unnecessary literary roughness has always been that she's merely reflecting her subject and that the people she writes about are infinitely meaner than her books. This is a little like saying, "How can you possibly suggest that I'm paranoid when everyone is clearly out to get me?"

Alas, Phillips used up all her lurid true-life tales about beautiful people doing ugly things in Lunch. Actually, she used up all her juicy, hateful gossip in the book's first half and had to pad out the remaining two hundred pages with agonizingly dull anecdotes about almost producing dreck like the Shadoe Stevens vehicle (and Films That Time Forgot entry) Traxx.

So what do you do for an encore when you've used up all your sexy anecdotes and been exiled permanently from the film industry? If you're Phillips you fill a little over three hundred and fifty pages with nothing. Actually that's not entirely fair. Lots of things happen in Driving Under The Affluence. Phillips whines about her tax bill. She whines about her health problems. She whines about not being on the A list anymore and she whines about getting busted for drunk driving yet again. Oh, and there are also scattered excerpts from a Vonnegut-style broad satire about a talking dog movie star named Crackers who is a genius at cunnilingus.

At one point Phillips gets a commission to write a magazine article about the hot new trend sweeping Hollywood: lesbians. The piece never runs but this lurid little detour allows Phillips to explore one of her pet themes: how desperately everyone wants to fuck Julia Phillips. In the seventies, at least, everyone got their chance. Here Phillips merely plays coy while an endless procession of foxy lipstick lesbians her daughter's age lust after her forty-something, well-worn lady-parts. But since nothing remotely interesting happens Phillips fills the yawning chasm where compelling material should be with an abundance of style.

Phillips' hopelessly shrill authorial voice was barely enough to sustain a book that took place in the white-hot epicenter of seventies Hollywood; it sure as shit can't sustain three hundred and fifty three pages of stream-of-consciousness self-absorption. In Lunch Phillips dished about mingling, fucking or getting fucked over by all the stars there are in the heavens and producing The Sting, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Taxi Driver. In Driving Under The Affluence the biggest/only name is Corey Haim, who calls her "Ladygod" and longs, like everyone else in Phillips' books, to make sweet, sweet love to the author. Oh and those sleazy drug-fueled sexathons with huge celebrities that made Lunch so guiltily compelling? They've been replaced by brief, unedifying run-ins with Heavy D, Big Daddy Kane, Tone Loc and one of the guys from Boo Yah Tribe. In Lunch Phillips made history with some of the greatest filmmakers and films of her era. Here she watches MTV and gossips with her friends.

Just how hard up for material is Phillips? Phillips devotes six full pages to an itemized list of every meeting and lunch she had in connection with botched adaptations of Interview With A Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. Here's a typically riveting entry:

9/19–dinner with Hilary Henkin (potential writer), Harlan Goodman (my assistant) and Beverly Ross (his girlfriend, Hilary's girlfriend)

Fascinating stuff, huh? Who needs boring old Spielberg and his space aliens or Scorsese and his cab-driving psychos when you can fill a book with the ghosts of day-planners past? If I were Phillips' publicist I would try to pass off the book's rambling, stream-of-conscious shapelessness as an impressionistic pop-art portrait of Los Angeles on the edge of the apocalypse, a scathingly satirical literary answer to Strange Days or Southland Tales from the ultimate seventies survivor. But that, dear reader, would be what we in the trade call bullshit. Phillips intermittently tries to pass off Affluence as a book about the crazy socio-political-economic turmoil of Los Angeles in the early nineties but instead of deepening her book she just ends up trivializing the issues she pretends to care about. The Sting, Taxi Driver, Close Encounters and winning an Oscar at thirty while drugged into a stupor? That's Phillips story and her history. Rodney King, the L.A Riots and O.J Simpson? That's just some shit she watched on television.

It's abundantly clear that Phillips wrote Affluence solely to pay off her tax bill. It shows in every half-assed, padded, over-written, content-free page. Not surprisingly, Phillips spends much of her time whining about her debt to the IRS. Hey, you know who ends up with huge tax problems? People who've made a fuckload of money. Incidentally, you know who's really fucking hard to feel sorry for? People who've made a fuckload of money, then wasted it all freebasing cocaine. Though to be fair, it is hard not to weep copious tears when Phillips financial situation gets so bad she actually reduced to letting go of her personal assistant. I know. Is there anything more heartbreaking in the average person's life then coming to the cold, shattering realization that they can no longer afford a personal assistant/nanny for their college-age daughter? I'd be lost if Anton weren't on hand to run my errands, bathe me, clip my fingernails and write most of my articles. I mean, help research my articles. Similarly, everyone can relate to worrying that they might just have to sell their Academy Award for fifty thousand dollars just to keep afloat financially.

Affluence quickly becomes an exercise in style-as-substance though Phillips' writing "style" can more accurately be deemed an endless assortment of terrible puns, annoying, endlessly recycled tics, cringe-inducing wordplay, lame running jokes, homemade slang and repetition for the sake of repetition. Also, there's repetition for the sake of repetition. It's very repetitious that way. Here's a sample of Phillips' timeless comic stylings:

"All roads lead to Arnold" he'd said philosophically at our most recent get-together regarding (daughter) Kate's upbringing and bills accruing thereto. I did the upbringing and he did the bills. Referring to The Terminegger, and I brainsurfed. If Madonna and The Schwarzenator spawned offspring would they be little Madonnaneggers? Schwarzenonnas?

Coining terms like Madonnaneggers and Schwarzenonnas is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Phillips' witty Wildean wordplay. You know the phrase infotainment? Well, Phillips' beautiful mind changed it to InfernoTainment! Cause it's so awful it's like the deepest circle of hell or something! How crazy is that? Phillips is so crazy about the phrase "InfernoTainment", in fact, that she literally recycles it over a hundred times. The first ninety-five times are gut busting. After that it starts to get a little old.

Affluence is among other things an encyclopedic compendium of clever things Phillips has said and exhaustive accounts of everyone who laughed at them. It's not enough for Phillips simply to crack wise: no, she must also report just how hilarious her friends and colleagues found her. Finally, a book with its own laugh track. Call me crazy, but I prefer to determine for myself whether I find something funny or not. Unless I'm interviewing John Cleese, in which case being told to find something funny becomes strangely flattering.

Phillips occasionally ventures out of her narcissistic bubble of self-absorption to deliver politically charged broadsides against the rich white Republican men she's convinced are responsible for all of hers, and society's problems. You'd have to travel to your nearest Junior college dorm to hear such sophisticated political discourse though if Phillips truly wanted to discover just what nefarious hatemonger was responsible for her problems all she needed to do was look in the mirror.

Phillips treats her fuzzy class and political resentments like they're a flaming sword of vengeance, which makes it all the more deliciously ironic that she ended her career co-writing Drudge Manifesto with Matt Drudge, a rabidly anti-abortion Conservative who dresses like Walter Winchell's ghost and shares Phillips' peculiar brand of fake populism, the delusional belief that he's a plucky underdog Davids bravely taking on vast armies of rich and powerful Goliaths. If Phillips and Drudge really are the voice of the little guy then we are all supremely fucked. Apparently Phillips' fierce political convictions magically disappear once a big paycheck is dangled in front of her.

Phillips spends so much time feeling sorry for herself that it's easy to forget that she'd recently published a massive bestseller. Among other things Affluence illustrates by example how to handle success in the least gracious way possible. Instead of a tart victory lap it's a book-length whine. If this is the aftermath of historic literary success I'd hate to see what failure looks like.

Incidentally, from this point on I'll be doing Silly Li'l Show-Biz Book Club twice a month. So every week I'll be churning out either a My Year Of Flops or Silly Li'l Show-Biz Book Club entry. So, you know, I got that going for me.

Up Next on Silly Li'l Show-Biz Book Club
What Just Happened?, Art Linson
Backstage Passes: My Life With David Bowie's Cock, Angela Bowie
W.C Fields & Me, Carlotta Monti and Cy Rice
Yes, I Can!, Sammy Davis Jr.
The Studio, John Gregory Dunne
Playing The Field, Mamie Van Doren

Filed Under: Books

More Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club