The sordid story of Hollywood in the ’80s is lost on William Stadiem’s Moneywood
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The ideal audience for Moneywood, William Stadiem’s wildly disappointing exploration of Hollywood excess in the 1980s, would be someone fascinated by the book’s sordidly seductive subject matter yet ignorant of the figures involved. For everyone else, its selected bibliography functions less as a list of books to read after Moneywood than as a list of superior books to read instead of Moneywood. Stadiem’s book is consequently like a mash-up that limply combines all the worst elements of works like Charles Fleming’s High Concept (about the life and death of Don Simpson) and Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters’ Hit And Run (about Jon Peters and Peter Guber’s time running Columbia).
As an Ivy League-educated lawyer who eschewed a conventional legal career to make a go of it as a screenwriter, ghostwriter, and author, Stadiem is ostensibly in the perfect position to write a definitive book about Reagan-era greed in Hollywood. Moneywood promises a sexy, fun, and breezy comedy of Hollywood bad manners from a wry insider who lived through the madness of ’80s Hollywood show business and survived to write the definitive account of what the book’s subtitle describes as the film world’s “last age of excess.”
It turns out Stadiem wasn’t a Julia Phillips or Peter Bart or Robert Evans-like insider so much as a desperate striver on the margins trying to make a go of it as a screenwriter without much in the way of success. Moneywood is consequently part memoir, part collective biography and staggeringly unsuccessful on both levels.
The problem is twofold: Stadiem’s misadventures in the screen trade are of interest only to him, and his take on the Hollywood of the ’80s offers zero new insight or fresh reporting, only a lukewarm reheating of ancient gossip. He may profess to be an insider, but reading Moneywood I got the sense that a casual reader of Variety in the ’80s would have about as much knowledge of the inner workings of show business as Stadiem, who obsesses about degrees and class and religion in ways that say far more about himself and his warped values than the moguls he writes about with such snotty, insufferable disdain.
Moneywood accordingly offers CliffsNotes-style accounts of the dramatic rises and even more dramatic falls of quintessential ’80s show-business figures like Jon Peters and Peter Guber, who disastrously leveraged their success and flash as independent producers into a stint running Columbia, and Don Simpson, the hard-living, mercurial, and wildly insecure super-producer who helped perfect the art of the high-concept film with producing partner Jerry Bruckheimer.
In lieu of substance, Stadiem offers an excess of what can very charitably be called “style.” Freed from the ghostwriter’s shackles of having to channel someone else’s voice and identity, he never stops winking playfully at readers or subjecting them to an onslaught of failed jokes. He also has a fatal weakness for clichés and terrible wordplay. A typical Stadiem passage is a clamorous run-on sentence marrying two separate clichés in the same overstuffed explosion of verbiage. Here are some examples from the section of the book devoted to David Puttnam, who produced Chariots Of Fire before a disastrous stint running Columbia.
“Although Coke had made Puttnam an offer he simply couldn’t refuse, he was deeply ambivalent about sleeping with the enemy and, as if to assuage his own guilt, used his perch atop Columbia as a bully pulpit to denounce the current studio system and long for the old system, which he vowed to resurrect.”
“Puttnam quickly put his mouth where his money was by turning down [Ray] Stark’s new project Revenge, from a Jim Harrison novella, plus rubbing salt in Stark’s wounds by telling him that if Stark couldn’t place the project with another studio within 90 days, Columbia, for $600,000 development costs that it had already put up, would own the project outright.”
A good joke is effortless; it asks for nothing and delivers everything. A failed joke of the Stadiem variety, in sharp contrast, calls attention to itself and lingers for far too long, before leaving only sadness in its wake. His writing style is supposed to be bitchy and fun. He’s supposed to be the irreverent cut-up reducing everyone to stitches with his elegantly delivered bons mots and droll observations, but the lumbering clumsiness of his writing is less exciting than exhausting.
Stadiem’s conception of devastating wit is to describe Monica Lewinsky as a “starstuck chubette” or a martial-arts movie as a “fistfest.” He reveres clichés as profound existential truths, but his hacky over-reliance on them somehow doesn’t interfere with his ability to sneer at his subjects as if they are lower life forms.
Julia Phillips could write scathingly of her contemporaries in ’70s Hollywood in You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again because she had the authority that comes with being at the epicenter of a major cultural movement. Phillips made classic movies. She knew all the players—hell, she fucked many of the players. She earned the right to be cynical and dyspeptic and sneering about the business of film. Stadiem has earned nothing—certainly not the right to write sneeringly about movies from a place of smug superiority.
I finished Moneywood out of a dogged sense of determination, desperately hoping that Stadiem’s unmerited, obnoxious self-regard would dissipate and the book would live up to its tantalizing premise. Hollywood in the ’80s is a can’t-miss subject that unfortunately does not survive the awfulness of this telling. There is a great book of cultural synthesis to be written about the money-mad mania of the time, but this awful, self-indulgent vanity project sure as shit isn’t it.