Books

'Halfway to Hollywood': Michael Palin in Wonderland

If Michael Palin thought life as a member of Monty Python was crazy, just wait 'til he tackles Hollywood head-on...


Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-1988

Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Length: 680 pages
Author: Michael Palin
Price: $32.50
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-03
Amazon

When we last left Michael Palin, Sweetest Man in Showbiz (in Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years) he had solidified his status as a superstar – if not actual icon – of the UK media scene with the release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. From there he dipped a few tentative toes into the vast and strange ‘American market’ -- primarily by hosting Saturday Night Live with live cats down his trousers.

That seemed to go pretty well, all things considered… but might be a bit impractical to keep up in the long run (although later hosting SNL with his 80-year-old mum, as chronicled in this volume, was an undoubtedly awesome followup). At any rate it was not enough to avoid the dilemma all prodigies must grapple with at some point post-wrap party on the pinnacle: What do you do for an encore? And if you're Python, a particularly pitfall-laden corollary: How do you keep your relevance? Especially if, as far as anyone knows, it was based mostly on your ability to walk funny?

In Volume Two of his now-officially-epic-length memoirs, Palin spends another 650+ pages trying to pin all this down. That the effort ended up entitled Halfway to Hollywood provides a pretty good idea of how it all panned out.

Despite the fragmentary nature of storytelling-by-diary, an interestingly coherent narrative emerges re: Palin's career trajectory, using the various film productions that punctuate the text as touchstones. We open as he is filming an episode of Great Railway Journeys -- muttering to himself about how very odd this travelogue hosting business is -- and ends up about to leave for the 80 Days journey. In between things take off with the (literal) bang that is the hit Time Bandits; is carried along by the momentum of the next Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life (despite ominous pre-production awkwardness) into his own solo attempt as writer/producer/star (The Missionary, easily the most interesting section of the entire book).

But the latter two are only middling hits... as is his first wholly Python-free production, A Private Function... then gets famously caught in 'development hell' (Terry Gilliam contributing a number of amusing hit-and-run rants at this point)... and various projects with Terry Jones either likewise stall or never get off the ground (though one of them will become Jones' later solo effort, Erik the Viking)... then another project is cancelled by a union strike...

Somehow it all levels off somewhere around ‘respected character actor’ on about page 400 and sticks there, leaving our hero floundering in a sea of tributes, festivals, honourary chairmanships and just generally the kind of scenes he'd spent his previous life satirizing. Despite the spectacular -- Hollywood-esque? -- last-minute comeback that is A Fish Called Wanda, and a revival of Palin's own creative juices with American Friends, it's clear that international stardom -- as the bemused-sounding author himself concedes in the Introduction -- 'somehow failed to materialise’. His future as avuncular BBC host is set.

This does not, however, seem to disturb him unduly. Very little seriously disturbs Michael Palin, which –- as we first learned in Vol. 1 –- can be a Very Good Thing, given whom he hangs out with on a regular basis.

As seen through his eyes the Pythons do not disband so much as dissolve, amicably, into their component ambitions. They decide that it’s really not possible to be ‘zany’ after age 40 anyway -- but as it turns out things only get zanier from there, and somehow the old habit of relying on Palin as straight man, both in their film projects and in real life, remains a constant for everyone more or less. (Save perhaps for Graham Chapman, who seems to have rapidly devolved into the Python equivalent of that one relative who provides all the good gossip at reunions.)

Throughout, Palin keeps his wits about him; he is, once again, the sane guide in the lunatic asylum -- merciful where he can be, realistic when he can't. The promise inherent in his particular knack for character observation, sketching in a complete portrait few sentences, that was developing in vol. 1 flowers nicely here, just when it's needed most. If there is a lack of an overt silly or satirical streak in his diaries, there is still ample evidence of his qualifications for membership in the Flying Circus.

This means that the focus on the casual day-to-day of the celebrity universe, rather than the conscious glitter, has its own rewards. Being Python gets him into lots of places (albeit once he gets there a disconcerting number of people think he's Eric Idle) and being nice and unobtrusive evidently nets him lots of diary material. Especially in the '80s, and especially for readers on the upstart side of the ocean, as Palin ventures further and further into American media culture -- one of the first trickles in the tide of UK/Australian influence on Hollywood productions that began in the '90s.

For North American readers, this has the nice side bonus of UK celebrity references getting more and more familiar as the decade wears on. (The sociopolitical references are even easier: for 'Thatcher' simply read 'Reagan'. Except in the passages that discuss the latter's stance on nuclear war, at which point read 'cowboy'.)

He hobnobs with George Harrison (whose association with Python develops into its own little post-iconic-floundering subplot), becomes fascinated with eccentric co-stars including Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline, listens as Carrie Fisher and Jamie Lee Curtis compare celebrity moms, is cassually offered cocaine by Art Garfunkel (and declines, much to Lorne Michaels' vocal scorn), is terrified to unexpectedly share an improv mike with Robin Williams, is irritated by Mel Brooks (who bizarrely forgives Python for stealing his material), discusses projects with Neil Simon, and turns down a Bill Cosby script in a demonstration that, in the end, he just might've been a bit too smart for mainstream Hollywood comedy.

(Yes, collectors of the might-have-been: that could've been Palin playing the butler in Leonard Part 6. Among the many useful lessons learned in this diary: 'Nice' does not automatically equate to 'gullible', nor 'star' to 'greedy'... although the combination might just have equated to 'much less embarrassing Cosby movie'.)

Meanwhile, things are also becoming more complex on the home front. His sons are now in their teens, and busting out in ways that sometimes bemuse their gentle father. As in the first volume, Palin is forced to watch a loved one deteriorate and die: his sister Angela, having struggled with depression most of her life, in the end commits suicide in 1987. Here again, normalcy -- and immediacy -- works to enhance the narrative; the unadorned anxiety, confusion and finally grief of family and friends is far more compelling than any later recreation would be.

Which of course, is not the case throughout. The diary format has the inherent disadvantage of having been designed as a personal memento, not a public one, meaning that despite the conscientious deployment of a cast list, timeline and copious footnotes, any reader other than Palin himself is inevitably going to veer between getting too much detail about some (many?) things and not nearly enough about others. (Note to author: if one does not want to be known as the Nice Python, one may not want to publish nearly as many diary entries about one's family cats as complaints about one's management. Just saying.) Stories have a disconcerting habit of starting in the middle and/or not ending, and -- especially during the long creative drought between Brazil and Wanda -- start to seem pointlessly finicky.

All told, this is probably not the ideal way to tell a celebrity's story, especially not one who so resolutely refuses to pass judgement. The one point at which Palin 'bristles' is late in the tale, when old friend Jones suggests that he might just be too nice, too content, for artistic comfort. Chances are the reader will agree, in some measure. But by then there is an equal chance they will also have learned to like the author more than enough to forgive him.

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