November 20, 2019

Believe It or Not

"It’s All True" (Simon & Schuster, 2004) by David Freeman offers us a portrait of an outsized Hollywood, so unbelievable that it must be dead on. It is, more precisely, a novel, lovingly unfolded about the movie business: How it works and how its players — adults spoiled by too much money and power — act out their lives. "Oh me-oh, my-oh," as Henry Wearie would say.

Wearie is the novel’s hero. He is actually a fictitious character, a screenwriter trying to hustle a script idea into a movie deal, but in a voice that sounds eerily like that of Freeman, who himself is a screenwriter. In its way, this book serves as a more knowing successor to Freeman’s earlier work, "A Hollywood Education," published 18 years ago, after the author had moved to Los Angeles from New York.

Wearie’s stance in the face of outrageous behavior is one of wry amusement as he contemplates these men and women who seem to be willingly trapped in the movie business. It is a form of entrapment with more than its share of perks: an obscene amount of money, a highly structured pecking order and a set of rituals and forms of behavior that would not be out of place in the French Court of Louis XIV.

Freeman admits us, occasionally with a touch of shame, into the routines that defines a screenwriter’s life: the daily 9 a.m. coffee gatherings with his friends at Farmer’s Market, made up mostly of other writers and film people who have been banished from Hollywood’s Court; the upscale power luncheons with producers, studio heads and movie stars at the de rigeur restaurant off Sunset Plaza; the round of endless parties where it is important to be seen with the "right people"; and the on-location film shoot in Mexico where Wearie has been summoned by the director to function as both a script doctor and a psychological handler of the film’s out-of-control star.

When he can force himself to attend to it, Wearie’s focus serves as a mantra for "the business": How to acquire heat — i.e., be in demand — and how to use this newly acquired heat to move a script idea from an improvised one-sentence pitch to a motion picture deal. Along the way, Wearie, always amused and always disenchanted, sees himself as a character in a comedy of manners that, at times, is so bizarre and absurd, that it can only be true.

For example, on location in Mexico, the movie star’s wife, Lilah, picked up the phone, which was patched through to the hotel and asked the operator to get her the Michael Singer Agency in Beverly Hills. "Mike Singer, please," Lilah said, and waited until someone came on the line. "It’s Lilah for Mike. Hi. Things are looking good…." Then Lilah asked her husband’s agent in Beverly Hills to call room service at their hotel in Mexico and have somebody bring them over six bottles of beers and some chips.

All of Freeman’s characters are captured (for us) by Wearie’s disengaged voice, as they exhibit different forms of Hollywood largesse often disguised as vanity. There is the pecking order in restaurants; the one-up behavior of the celebrities — one famous actor comes to lunch at a fashionable restaurant with his own chef and makes his entrance into the dining room through the kitchen, pausing for a fraction of a second to bestow favor on the assembled diners — and the lessons offered by a top producer to Wearie on the proper way to generate heat, to recycle a script, to pitch and pitch again, until the initial treatment finally finds its proper resting place, all the while generating work, lunches, maneuvers and the circulation of hope, money and opportunity.

Wearie’s voice is appealing — he is both an observer and part of the scene, detached and involved at the same time. He is unexpectedly moved by a director-friend who dies of complications from AIDS, and surprised to discover that he is capable of so much feeling. When he and his wife embark on a search to adopt a baby — only to discover that the birth mother and her boyfriend are hustlers looking for some quick money and that the young teenage mother is having second thoughts — he comes out into the open air long enough to realize that the self-defining rules and antics of Hollywood, where anything outrageous, even monstrous, is how life is played out as realism, has suddenly become unacceptable. For a brief instance, a shade of morality, of human dignity, matters to him — even though, all things being equal, the only thing he actually cares about, even more than his feeling for his wife, is his old, classic beat-up automobile, a Jaguar which "was about two dings away from being a used car that once was fashionable."

What distinguishes Freeman’s Hollywood comedy of manners from that of some of his predecessors is that surprisingly he views the cast of characters with affection. The novels of other writers lured to Hollywood — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daniel Fuchs, Nathanael West — tended to be filled with shame, despair and disgust. Partly, they saw themselves as outsiders. Not so Freeman. He is aware that he is part of the scene as well; unabashedly so. And never more so than in his fond, thinly disguised portraits of friends: There is director Tony Richardson (called Rolf Shilling in the novel), a wise, gifted Machiavellian who turns out to be both likeable and a more talented game player than nearly everyone else; and Freeman’s Farmer’s Market friend, director Paul Mazursky, warmly sketched in as a director who once made "comedies and dramas about adult life." Now he was out of fashion. "The audience had turned into teenagers who wanted to see other teenagers having sex, outwitting their parents, and running from explosions."

But throughout it all, Mazursky never loses his manic sense of fun, quickly turning riffs into comic sketches that edge towards lunacy.

Ex-girlfriends and agents and writers — some friends of Wearie, some not — are perhaps less clearly identifiable. They are present in the novel, more as assemblage portraits; but there is little doubt they are the real thing and that whatever they say and do, unbelievable as it may seem, they all ring true.