My colleague Scott Tobias hates biopics, or at least he despises their tendency to reduce tricky, complicated lives to a melodramatic series of giddy highs and agonizing lows. I'm more inclined to like superior biopics like Milk but I share Scott's frustrations with the limitations of biographies, whether onscreen or in print.
It's damn near impossible to do justice to the complexities of a human life over the course of a single book. If the subject of a biography is dead or isn't cooperating with their biographer than the task become infinitely more difficult. The biographer is reduced to chasing ghosts.
Today in the double-daredevil edition of Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club I'll be exploring the myriad shortcomings of the traditional biography through two diverting yet unsatisfying books about manly men who lived on the edge, laughing at danger, guffawing at death and chuckling tastelessly at mortality: maverick producer Don Simpson and daredevil Robert "Evel" Knievel.
Alongside partner Jerry Bruckheimer and the simpatico producing team of Jon Peters and Peter Guber, Simpson came to personify the delirious excess of the eighties. Throughout the Reagan era, Simpson single-handedly kept Colombia's economy afloat by cornering the market on its marching powder while selflessly providing for the futures of a large army of prostitutes. He was a one-man Sodom & Gomorrah, an insatiable sinner with a carny's soul and a vacuum cleaner for a nose.
Here's how Simpson biographer Charles Fleming irresistibly begins the first chapter of his book:
One spring afternoon in 1981 a visitor checked in at the 5555 Melrose Avenue gates of Paramount Pictures. He was a writer for The Hollywood Reporter, and he was there to interview Don Simpson, the entertainment executive who had just been named President of Paramount Productions. A gate guard waved him through and directed him to Paramount's executive building, where offices housed Simpson's bosses–Barry Diller, Paramount Pictures chairman, and Michael Eisner, its president and chief operating officer, and several of Simpson's underlings, among them Jeffrey Katzenberg and Dawn Steel
The reporter was girded for the worst. The charismatic, burly, bearded Simpson was already a legend in the making, as famous for his snap decisions and his machine-gun patter as he was for his hair-trigger temper. The reporter sat nervously for thirty minutes, until a secretary led him into Simpson's offices–all white, with white linen easy chairs and couches, the walls adorned with Warhol prints of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. One wall was lined with framed copies of Simpson's business cars, chronicling his rise from the bottom to the top of the Paramount executive ranks.
Simpson emerged presently from a back room. He asked the reporter, "What time is it?" The reporter told him it was four o'clock.
"Four o' clock," Simpson repeated. "You know what I like to do at four o'clock? I like to pour myself a big drink, lay out a few lines and abuse a screenwriter. Take a seat."
The reporter watched as Simpson poured four fingers of Macallan Scotch from a cut-glass decanter, cut six lines of cocaine into a glass-covered side table and serially snorted them into his nose. He took deep glug of Scotch and dialed the telephone. For the next twenty minutes the reporter listened as Simpson harangued the unfortunate, unidentified screenwriter. "You're the stupidest son of a bitch in Hollywood, you asshole," Simpson shouted between gulps of Scotch. "You're a talentless piece of shit. No one respects you. Everyone knows you're an idiot. You have no fucking future in this business." When he had exhausted his wrath, Simpson hung up the phone and said to the reporter, "So, let's talk about my slate of movies."
After a boffo beginning like that, how can everything that follows not feel anti-climactic? As a biographical subject, Simpson is almost too easy. All of his bad behavior, whore-mongering, drug abuse, screenwriter abuse, audience abuse, hooker abuse and insane narcissism was out there in the open. No digging needed to be done. Simpson's entire life was a sordid show-biz spectacle, a sleazy wallow in the depths of human degradation.
Even in the debauched eighties, Simpson's hedonism stood out. Simpson came of age professionally at a time when giant egos tethered to Herculean coke habits were the rule, not the exception. In previous Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club entry You'll Never Make Love In This Town Again, Simpson's mansion is depicted as the ninth circle of hell, a cesspool of pure evil where Simpson took great pride in "breaking" neophyte hookers by either torturing them himself or paying other prostitutes to do his dirty work for him. Hookers didn't swing by Simpson's pad so much as they went upriver into prostitution's heart of darkness.
High Concept references Make Love extensively but otherwise doesn't delve too deeply into Simpson's legendary fixation with hookers. I think that's a mistake. I suspect that the real Simpson was the guy shoving prostitutes into toilets as part of his sick psychosexual sadomasochistic games, not the guy in a Versace suit at movie premieres.
Fleming works overtime to posit Simpson as the king of "high concept", movies whose premise and appeal could be laid out in a single sentence. Simpson and his signature blockbusters (Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Days of Thunder, Bad Boys) certainly played a huge role in dumbing down movies but Fleming sometimes acts as if Simpson was the first man to see the commercial possibilities of popcorn movies with big stars, simple premises, sexy hooks, hit soundtracks and MTV-style editing.
The author writes as if Hollywood was an Eden that pumped out nothing but socially conscious message movies until a slithering snake named Don Simpson tempted its inhabitants with the forbidden fruit of High Concept (how's that for a torturous metaphor?) The irony is that Simpson was, by all accounts, a ferocious intellect, a brilliant mind and an Olympian talker who nevertheless understood how much money there was to be made in insulting the intelligence of the average moviegoer.
Simpson was the idea man behind the Simpson/Bruckheimer team. He was the talent, the brains, the deep thinker while Bruckheimer was more of a nuts-and-bolts detail man. Simpson rose steadily through the ranks of Hollywood, first in marketing, then as President of Paramount and ultimately as the extraordinarily successful producer of a string of zeitgeist-friendly mega-hits.
But the colorful producer always wanted more. Not content to merely produce, Simpson wanted to write and direct. Simpson was also a shameless narcissist who struggled to overcome the lingering emotional scars of a chubby childhood through regular cosmetic surgery. He wanted to be a star in the truest sense. At the height of his power, Simpson even had the balls to attempt a wildly unlikely second career as an actor by taking on a supporting role as an Italian race car driver in Days Of Thunder, a film that embodied the Simpson ethos. It was slick, empty, insanely expensive, pandering and derivative of Simpson's previous hits, most egregiously Top Gun.
I enjoyed High Concept but all the excess became deadening after a while and I never got the sense of who Simpson was underneath the boozy, coked-up bravado. Fleming' book is big on surface flash but largely devoid of telling moments, keenly observed little vignettes where the messy humanity of its subject burbles up to the surface.
To give you an example of what I mean by a telling moment there is a moment late in Bob Woodward's John Belushi biography Wired where Belushi, in the midst of another drug bender, tells his coke dealer that he wishes she had been able to see him play high school football. In that telling moment, the gulf between who Belushi used to be–a baby-faced kid from suburban Illinois with all the talent in the world and his whole future ahead of him–and what he had allowed himself to become–a foul-smelling, self-destructive junkie whose life revolved around getting his next fix–becomes quietly devastating. It's not Belushi's drug-taking that's affecting but the intermittent moments of vulnerability and innocence that throw his hedonistic excesses into much sharper relief.
High Concept is fatally lacking in such telling moments, as is Stuart Barker's Life of Evel. If the best biographies get deep inside their subject's psyche Evel offers a view of its subject's life from somewhere high up in the bleachers. It's about as intimate as a press release.
Where superior biographies blend first-rate reportage with a psychiatrist's insight into the human mind and first-rate prose, Evel feels lazily pasted together from secondary sources like men's magazines, websites and cheapie Knievel biographies. It doesn't help that Barker is British so he spends part of the book explaining American culture to his audience.
Barker is particularly obsessed with the notion that Knievel's wildcat existence struck a fierce blow against the mollycoddling of what he repeatedly calls the "Nanny state", a term and an idea that I suspect has a lot more resonance in Great Britain than it does here. Apparently before Knievel hopped onboard his bike everyone sat around grumpily all day, waiting for the government to tell them what to do, then going to jobs picked out for them by the government before heading home so the government could read them a bedtime story, serve them warm milk and cookies and put them to sleep.
Knievel was raised wild and free in Butte, Montana. He was a hellraiser from an early age, a self-proclaimed bank robber and troublemaker whose rootless existence found direction when he began doing stunts on his motorcycle. In Barker's telling, Knievel essentially created the concept of a motorcycle daredevil, then perfected it as he rose steadily to national and then international fame.
Reading Evel I was impressed by the astonishing lack of scientific planning that went into Knievel's famous jumps. He left just about everything to chance yet walked away from countless crashes bruised, battered and worse for the wear yet ready to crash again. While publicly giving speeches espousing the virtues of clean living, Knievel drank and fucked like a Kennedy. He even kept vials of his beloved Wild Turkey inside his cane.
All those years of abusing his body with whiskey and collisions inevitably caught up with him. The public began to turn on Knievel after he registered his dissatisfaction with a former business associate writing a tell-all book about him (note to self: read/write about said tell-all book) by breaking his arms with a baseball bat. A trip to the hoosegow followed. When Knievel got out he learned that kids and corporations were understandably a little weary about embracing a violent ex-con with an explosive temper.
Throughout the eighties Knievel led a vagabond existence, traveling around the country in a bus, mixing with mobsters and star-fuckers and attending to the demands of his raging alcoholism. I suspect that if, say, a Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe or Nick Tosches had spent three days with Knievel during these wilderness years he would have walked away with an infinitely more fascinating and revelatory examination into Knievel's character than Barker does chronicling his entire life.
After losing his fortune and fame in the eighties Knievel had a huge comeback in the 90s, as kids who grew up worshipping him during his seventies heyday ascended to positions of power in entertainment. But Knievel's health problems cast a grim shadow over this resurgence of interest in his life and career.
Barker is incredibly dismissive of Evel's son Robbie, dismissing him as little more than a glib pretender to his father's vacated throne but I think that's patently unfair. Robbie may not be Evel (heck, who is?) but he is one of the top daredevils in the world. I wish that Barker had spent more time exploring the complex, competitive relationship between Evel and his son.
Barker overdoses on the nanny state rhetoric as he waxes poetic on what Knievel's life and career ultimately meant:
Knievel's spirit will live on in many ways. It will live on in every chuld or adult who refuses to be beaten down; who insists on getting back up to try again. It will exist in those who shrug off pain and grit their teeth in the face of adversity, and in those who spit in the eye of authority (apparently authority is a Cyclops-looking motherfucker) and refuse to be told what they can and can't do by increasingly nanny states. The spirit of Evel Knievel lives on in motorcycle racers, snow boarders, bungee jumpers, sky divers, skateboarders, base jumpers, stunt men, freestyle motocrossers; anyone and everyone who believes that taking risks and feeling adrenalin surging through their veins is the only way to feel truly alive. His spirit is in the wind that whistles through the visor of an open crash helmet, in the glint in the eye of a rebellious teenager who flips a finger at petty officialdom, in the rasp of exhaust as a kid fires up a motorcycle for the first time. In short, it is everywhere, and as long as mankind continues to push the boundaries, take chances, and venture into the unknown, it will never die-despite the best efforts of our governments to protect us from ourselves.
I would like to go on but I'm afraid the nice lady from the government says it's nap time so I will reluctantly bid you adieu and wish you happy landings in all your endeavors.