Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club #4: Art Linson's What Just Happened?

Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club #4: Art Linson's What Just Happened?

While perusing the vast oceans of tortured prose that constitutes my life's work recently, I came to a horrifying realization: I am a terribly wasteful and long-winded wordsmith, the kind of self-indulgent writer who never uses a strong, simple word when several dozen fancy ones will suffice. Needless to say, this filled me with shame. Also embarrassment. And shame. Did I mention shame? It also made me feel very shamefullified. Down to my bones even.

Looking back on past projects I was horrified and chagrined, not to mention somewhat flummoxed, by the sheer volume of extraneous words in my assorted scribblings. Honestly, I don't know how you people put up with me and my wanton, wordy wastefulness.

So from this point forward I vow not to waste a single word. I will certainly not test everyone's patience by mindlessly repeating the same sentiment over and over and over and over and over again. Nor will I be redundant. From this moment on I will refrain from unnecessary literary throat clearing, from writing much, yet saying little. I will recommit myself to economy and brevity, to devote myself to stripped-down prose devoid of fanciful flourishes. Also, I will refrain from mindless repetition. That is my solemn vow to you, dear reader. That is my promise, my pledge, my guarantee.

This epiphany was prompted in part by Art Linson's nifty little show-biz memoir What Just Happened?, a tidy little tome that counts modesty and brevity among its myriad virtues. Where Julia Phillips' Driving Under The Affluence takes over three hundred and fifty pages to say nothing, Linson spins colorful yarns, tells amusing anecdotes and leaves readers hungry for more in just one hundred and eighty-one brisk pages. It's a terribly slight book, a trifle really, more of an hors d'oevre than a solid meal, but it doesn't pretend or aspire to be anything more.

What Just Happened? largely takes the form of lunchtime anecdotes Linson tells Jerry, a once-powerful and feared studio executive rendered powerless and impotent by fate. Jerry consequently functions as both a reader surrogate and a memorable character in his own right. As a former master of the universe, Jerry is in the market for a heaping helping of Schadenfreude, Hollywood style. He wants Linson's misadventures in Hollywood's Darwinian trenches to make him feel better about being out of the dirty game of moviemaking, possibly for good. In just one of the book's many droll touches Jerry is clearly disappointed by the scale and scope of Linson's minor humiliations and small setbacks. He wants a brontosaurus-sized slab of red meat but all Linson delivers are bite-sized morsels of angst and ennui.

Unlike Julia Philips, Linson very much wants to continue working in film so he's got a lot to lose by being too forthright about the shortcomings of the rich and powerful. Much of the book's raffish, underdog charm comes from how openly Linson acknowledges the precariousness of his place in the Hollywood pecking order. If You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again posits its author as a plucky feminist truth-telling anti-hero and Robert Evans' transcendently sleazy, epically self-serving The Kid Stays In The Picture reconfigures the producer as the permatanned leading man of his very own Sirkian show-biz melodrama What Just Happened? introduces a new paradigm: the aging producer as show-biz Willy Loman.

The author photos tell the whole sordid tale. Phillips' big, fake plastic smile says "Look out world! I'm still here!" Linson, on the other hand, has the haunted, wounded look of someone who has been kicked in the face by life over and over again and is bracing himself for the next inevitable attack. To be a producer in a fickle and youth-obsessed culture like L.A is to exist forever above a harrowing chasm of uncertainty. It's to wake up every morning and wonder if today will be the day the whole town finally turns on you.

Certainly, compared to the epic catastrophes indelibly captured in The Devil's Candy (Julie Salomon's riveting account of the making of Bonfire of The Vanities) and Final Cut (Steven Bach's memoir of working on Heaven's Gate) Linson's headaches on The Edge and Great Expectations constitute nothing more than a stiff wind in paradise. Alec Baldwin shows up on the set of The Edge fat, bearded and filled with rage. A philistine studio executive pooh-poohs the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow in Great Expectations under the curious logic that "she has no chin". Great Expectations screenwriter Mitch Glazer and director Alfonso Cuaron have vastly different visions for the project.

Yet despite the modest scale of Linson's misadventures the book ambles its way towards a surprisingly sharp and funny picture of Hollywood as seen from the exquisitely jaded perspective of a wounded and wary survivor just barely holding on. Producers tend to be both firemen and arsonists. They're hopefully adept at solving problems. This is important, since most producers are equally skilled at creating problems. In What Just Happened? Linson acts as an mediator between artsy, angsty artistic types like David Mamet, Robert De Niro and David Fincher and the cultural barbarians who run studios with a keen eye for the tastes and prejudices of the lowest common denominator.

One of the book's most amusing passages concerns a disastrous screening of Fight Club for the Fox brass. Here's Linson's account of a post-screening conversation with a mortified, fifty-something executive named Tom Sherak:

"Hey Tom" 'Whoa, whoa.' He held his hand up as a shield. "Tom, I know it's probably not your thing but…' 'What is it?' I began walking with him toward the administration building. 'Tom, it's a terrific movie is what it is.' He looked at me queerly, trying to gauge my sincerity. He started to walk faster. 'Well, there's a lot going on, I'll give you that.' 'It's about the disillusionment of an entire young male generation.' 'Huh?' 'You know feelings of emasculation, materialism run amok, rage.' 'Huh?' He shook his head. It seemed to me that he just wanted to go home and hug his family. 'Tom, you gotta admit it's funny.' 'No.' 'Yes.' 'No. Don't say that.' 'I'll grant you, I was surprised when nobody laughed, but this movie is funny.' 'I didn't see funny.' 'Trust me, it's funny.' 'I want you to do me a favor' 'Sure, Tom.' 'Next week I have a psychiatrist–' 'But, I…' 'I want you to pick a day, any day, and I would like you to go with me and explain this to him, in my presence, why you think this thing is funny.' 'Tom, do you really think that's necessary?' 'Absolutely.' 'I got a full week.' 'It would do you some good.' 'Thanks anyway.' 'I think I know funny,' he said.

Passages like this betray the influence of Linson's friend and collaborator David Mamet and make me wish he'd written an entire book about his experiences producing Fight Club. I think such a tome would perhaps have just a little more cultural currency and commercial appeal than a memoir centered on the aggravations of mounting The Edge and Great Expectations.

I don't want to over-sell What Just Happened since it's such a slight and modest little book but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's like having a sprawling dinner conversation with a lovably dyspeptic uncle with ulcers up the wazoo and a wonderful treasure trove of show-biz stories.

I eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film adaptation from Barry Levinson with Linson's good buddy Robert De Niro in the lead role. It might just be the comeback vehicle Levinson desperately needs though I doubt it'll appeal to many outside the hermetic, endlessly self-absorbed realm of show business. Or maybe not. The film version of What Just Happened went unsold at Sundance despite the prominent presence of Mr. Taxi Driver himself but is booked in a prime slot at Cannes. Heck, maybe I'll pull a twofer and cover the film in My Year Of Flops.

Incidentally, for the next entry in the Show-Biz Book Club I was planning on writing about Lynda Obst's Hello He Lied but I'm worried it's too abstract and dry to make for a good Book Club entry. It's a good book but it's terminally short on sordid sexual revelations, scurrilous gossip and mindless hate. Also blow jobs. Sexy, sexy blow jobs. And coke-fueled orgies. What do you, my beloved readers, think? Should I write it up or should I head straight to Angela Bowie's deliciously decadent Backstage Passes? There's nothing remotely dry or abstract bout that one.