In 1941, the visionary German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht, newly arrived in Los Angeles, where he hoped to make his fortune as a screenwriter, wrote these lines:
Every morning, to earn my bread,
I go to the market, where lies are bought.
I join the ranks of the sellers.
Hollywood: A Third Memoir is the distinguished writer Larry McMurtry’s delightfully episodic account of his long, profitable and generally rather enjoyable engagement with the movie industry — or, to borrow Brecht’s phrase, his time among the sellers.
The subtitle notwithstanding — and a writer this accomplished with a Pulitzer and an Oscar to his credit is entitled to call his work whatever he damn well pleases — McMurtry’s 44th book might better have been styled Hollywood sketches. It’s less a fully realized third volume of his memoirs than it is a series of terrific vignettes, some less than a page in length.
Whatever the form, we’re reminded that fine American writing is always reliant on storytelling and that McMurtry stands among our best not only because of his uncanny ability to compress a cogent narrative arc, but also because his eye for the moving detail is infallible.
The standard-issue storyline of literary writers in Hollywood casts the industry as a kind of celluloid Moloch into whose flaming maw talent is cast for no better purpose than ritual sacrifice. Sift through the ashes and something more complex emerges. To start with, there’s nothing unique about the way — or, for that matter, the reasons — Hollywood consumes writers.
A financially distressed Henry James, after all, spent most of the 1890s churning out eminently forgettable but remunerative dramas for the stages of London’s West End, which was to that era’s theater what the industry is to today’s cinema. More recently, the late film historian Tom Dardis has pointed out that William Faulkner survived the war years entirely on checks from Warner Bros.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the prototype for all great writers ruined in Hollywood, was heavily in debt and living off of handouts from his agent and editor when he landed his first screenwriting contract in the 1930s. Once America’s highest-paid short story writer, he hadn’t been able to sell a line in years. That first contract paid him $1,250 per week; not a bad sum in the Depression. Fitzgerald lived well and, more or less, happily on his Hollywood income until his untimely death.
McMurtry’s engagement with the film business has been similarly profitable. The unexpected sale of his novel Horseman, Pass By — made into the 1963 movie Hud — brought him $10,000 in 1962, enough to escape teaching world literature to bored kids from the oil patch at Texas Christian University. “I had nothing to do with the filming of Hud,” he writes. “Similarly I had nothing to do with the filming of the fine CBS miniseries of my book Lonesome Dove. The same holds for Terms of Endearment I just wrote the book!... The fact that Hud was made from my book had one extremely important effect: somehow through the illogic of show business it enabled me to get work on scripts for no better reason than that I was from the West — cowboy country… I will always be grateful to Hollywood for… well… it’s essentially financed my fiction, my rare book business and, to a huge degree, my adult life.”
Summoned a year later by producer Alan J. Pakula to write his first screenplay, McMurtry also discovered there was a lot he liked about Hollywood — particularly first-class air travel there. He also loved Hollywood and Los Angeles because traffic wasn’t yet a problem, and good book shops were numerous and open late. “I must mention that I liked Hollywood from the moment I first visited it, and I like it still, even though it must be said that the traffic now is a serious problem… As Jack Kerouac aptly said, Los Angeles is still the West Coast’s one and only golden town. Say it’s glitter all you want; at least it’s real glitter, applied at a level that for me never fades.”
McMurtry’s angle on the industry is a particularly sanguine one not only because he’s enjoyed a remarkable degree of success for a guy who’d never seen a screenplay when Pakula summoned him westward, but also because he always seems to have taken Hollywood on its own terms and not expected more than it can provide. He describes, for example, the frenzy that descended on the filming of The Last Picture Show, one of his books for which he did the script.
“I had never particularly liked Picture Show as a novel,” he writes, “and did not get too keyed up about its ups and downs in the studio world.” Director Peter Bogdanovich did and, since he was under studio edict to bring the finished film in at no more than two hours, was distressed when the first week of filming suggested the finished movie would be at least three hours long. McMurtry recalls:
“[M]y phone began to ring and ring. In essence what we needed to do was cut a full third of the script and do it while the movie was in daily production.
“And this we did!
“Not only did we do it, but it turned out not to be as hard a task as one might expect… Some of the substitute scenes were better than what had been there to begin with, such as the brilliant impotence-graduation-seduction sequence. Others were, at least no worse than the original. The film wrapped on time, and came in, initially, at about two hours and two minutes.”
To make two hours, Bogdanovich had to cut a scene he loved — one he was able to restore when the film, now hailed as a masterpiece, was reissued some 20 years later. In McMurtry’s shrewd appraisal, even though money usually trumps talent in Hollywood, “the picture was widely reckoned to be a classic (and) for once the powers-that-be relented.”
McMurtry’s memoir is filled with glittering names, engaging anecdotes — how, for example, Swifty Lazar’s bad agenting cost him millions and how intimidating it is to be Barbra Streisand’s doubles partner at tennis — and shrewd observation. His description of walking Hollywood Boulevard alone after winning the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain is the book’s climax and highlight.
Any Angeleno of a certain age and inclination will share his nostalgia for the vanished great bookstores of old Hollywood, particularly Pickwick, where an hour of browsing was the perfect preface to a perfect martini down the street at Musso & Frank’s.