By Alton Reece
During the minor scandal that attended the publication of my biography/memoir, I Was Howard Hughes, I went underground for a few months. I won’t make it sound like I went on a grand spiritual quest, the way the people who book Oprah wanted me to. I just took off with my girlfriend and drove around the country. However, when I re-emerged in L.A., my first job back was as one of eleven screenwriters (nine uncredited, including me) on a wildly successful romantic comedy that will go unnamed. If you speak the title anywhere on the planet people will immediately nod and many will quote the movie’s signature line, which has become as gratingly iconic as “show me the money.” The line was spoken by a lanky brunette, beloved worldwide—of course, if the hoi-polloi could see her petulance with the craft service people over the temperature of cream cheese, or her daily unmerciful harangue of her dialogue coach, or her interminable ass-kissing of anyone from the studio, they might care less about what her tattoos mean.
I tried to talk to her one morning by the coffee machine. I said hello, how are you, nice morning. What I got for my trouble was this:
“Are you the one who wrote the book?”
Her eyes were superior, yet puffy enough you could’ve squeezed last night’s vodka out of them.
“Yes, I’ve written books,” I answered.
“Yeah, I recognized you from ET.”
“You recognized me?”
“Uh-huh.” She poured coffee.
“Well then, I’ll tear off this day’s calendar sheet and put it in my scrapbook.”
She had a look on her face like someone had just asked her to do some math without a calculator. I smiled, then walked off.
Maybe I was too harsh with her, but this particular actress is well-known for having graduated from an Ivy League school, for being widely-read and having literary pretensions—the ubiquitous “novel in the works”—and I guess I expected a little more.
My title is “The Global Barbarism of Hollywood” but what does that have to do with a tarted-up actress with an IQ of 128? I’m not quite sure. I don’t think I can sum it up in a neat aphorism, so, if you will, follow me for a moment.
One of my favorite movies is Sullivan’s Travels, the 1941 Preston Sturges masterpiece. It’s a comedic romp and a self-reflexive meditation on art, and asks what art should concern itself with, weighty issues or ‘just’ entertainment? It comes down on the side of entertainment, saying that after a week in the mines we don’t need to watch something so full of philosophical import and self-importance it seems like it could’ve been adapted from Sartre. I agree whole-heartedly, which would seem to put me in a position squarely opposite that of someone who would title this piece as I have. You’d think I’d be a fan of the formulaic, easy-to-digest comedy and drama we see arriving fresh at the multiplex every Friday. But I’m not an advocate of tripe and neither was Sullivan’s Travels. You see, the important difference is that Sullivan’s Travels, while lighthearted, was also well done. It was clever, witty, and thoughtful, even when doing slapstick. It wasn’t just a bunch of easy sex jokes and car chases and digital tricks. The Marx Brothers, even at their worst, had wit. So did W.C. Fields. Even the cartoons used to be smart. Just watch Bugs Bunny if you don’t believe me.
I know my position seems too easy. A lot of bad movies used to get made, and the ones that have survived are the best of an otherwise awful lot. However, because of many factors—increased production costs, fierce competition from other media forms, but, most of all, a lack of moral courage—things are dumbed down today to a degree that makes one shudder. Also, Hollywood has destroyed the rest of the worldwide movie industry, or at least rendered it a flopping goldfish, so all that is left to comfort our weary viewer on Saturday night is the addled and rapine barbarism of my title.
However, this isn’t just a screed against the movie industry. It’s also a confession. You see, up until this point, I’ve had a part in the crime. I’ve profited from it. But no more. I’ve got a son now. Justin. He’s going on three and starting to understand what’s going on around him and I don’t want him to grow up watching his daddy make his living in this kind of business. So from here on out, even if we have to live in a tent, I’ll do no more script work. Of course that won’t stem the bloody tide, but at least I’ll know I put up a few sandbags before the screen faded to black.
One last sin to confess. Remember the iconic line I mentioned earlier? Well, I wrote that. I’m the one who saddled the world with it. Please forgive me. Didn’t get paid much for it, but I won’t complain. I signed a contract and I’ll live by it, no matter what my lawyer says. When I first saw the script, it read like it’d been written by a team of proverbial monkeys with typewriter. It took me a week by myself in a motel room to fix it. If it gets the Golden Globe it’s up for, I won’t be on stage, but that’s all right. Like I said, I signed a contract. But I’ve also written my last movie.