The Screenplayer

On Film / Essays — May 24, 2016
The Player essay

This is the way it works in Hollywood: Most screenwriters hate most executives, and most executives hate most screenwriters. The screenwriters think the executives, merchants of unrealistic formula filmmaking, are morons and philistines, and the morons—I mean, executives—think the writers, with their commercially unviable notions of storytelling, are stubborn prima donnas heedless of their obligation to business, to the practicalities of real life. That’s bad news; neither thinks the other knows reality. But the worse news is that they need each other. The executives need to buy stories, and the writers need to sell them, so they smile when they bump into each other at parties, the suit tells the guy in the baseball cap (whose name he doesn’t remember) that he’s been meaning to get back to him about the script he loved—a word the writer hears in quotations—and the charade ends the way it began, in mutual enmity, their unspoken bitterness making assholes of them both.

If you were thinking of pitching a movie about two such figures, you could easily imagine it as bro- or romantic comedy—The Odd Couple or His Girl Friday goes Hollywood—wherein two antagonistic opposites discover common ground on the way to their required happy ending. Fade out, roll credits.

But in real life, which I regret to report—and I think Robert Altman would back me up here—doesn’t always follow movie logic to a happy ending, the executive and the writer, most of the time, don’t fall in love by the end of act 3. Most of the time—about as often as art wants to kill commerce and commerce wants to kill art—they want to murder each other. So if you want to write this movie honestly, realistically, you’re pitching a crime story, maybe even a film noir. Leaning into genre convention to please your prospective buyer, you could build suspense if you kept the audience guessing about who was going to get whom—at least, in the pitch, you could lie and tell the executive you would—but this being Hollywood, and Hollywood being in America, the truth is there is no suspense. We know who’s going down; the power’s with the money. With all due respect to Hollywood’s populist tradition, if you were to do this story according to the writer’s actual reality, it wouldn’t be the proletarian but the executive who pulled the trigger, and the underdog writer—seller of his script and soul—who got killed.

Of course, you will never sell this pitch to Hollywood. (Maybe it’s a French movie.) Just ask Pat Hobby, Manley Halliday, Bud Wiggins, Henry Wearie, or any other pulverized hero of screenwriter fiction. Laughing or sighing, they’ll tell you the same thing: no executive wants to buy a crime story where the bad guy gets away with murder.

That’s what gives Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player the power of a creation myth. In it, he made that ancient and ongoing metaphoric murder—of a writer’s talent, originality, and long-gestating dreams—literal. The executive, Griffin Mill, really does kill the writer, and—with apologies to the test audiences of Canoga Park—gets away with it. If actual executives had actually read Tolkin’s novel—instead of the coverage most unemployed writers would kill themselves to write for those executives’ development deputies to read and review—they would have seen that, before he’s exonerated, our bad-guy protagonist cycles through the Dostoyevskian wringer of fear and loathing and guilt and paranoia. This—not the book’s ending—is where Tolkin, a writer, enjoys his revenge, and not on just Hollywood box officers but the entire yuppie America of the 1980s. Tolkin, in fact, thought of calling his novel The Republican.

When it came time to talk about the movie adaptation, Altman was not producer David Brown’s first choice to direct. Quintet, A Perfect Couple, HealtH, Popeye, some TV movies, O.C. and Stiggs, Fool for Love, Beyond Therapy—his late seventies and eighties work—typed him as a Prospero out of the game and on a losing streak. One could quibble with that assertion (I sure would about Tanner ’88), but it’s safe to say that by the early nineties, when Altman was thumbing it as a director for hire (dreaming, meanwhile, of filming Raymond Carver’s short stories, a project he tentatively titled L.A. Short Cuts), his financial and critical scorecard described a fall from the heavenly years of MASH, Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville, nutty close readings of microcultures that represent the best of the giant, satirical bite Altman was taking out of the American map.

Thankfully, those ahead of him passed on The Player, and Prospero answered the call. No one thought it at the time, including, I gather, the director himself, but in retrospect we can see that the addition of Altman was a miracle of perfect casting. A mural maker fluent in the extended, meandering, zooming wide shot, Altman could swallow elaborate social environments like Hollywood in a single gulp; and by peopling those environments with actors set free to improvise, he allowed an uncanny degree of naturalistic behavior to indemnify the real-lifeness he collected by, it seems, just rolling and rolling film and looking around him.

You do get the feeling that Altman hated to cut. Maybe because the cut is a manipulation. It says, “Look here.” It says, “This is a movie.” But not movie is what he’s after, and look here robs you of the freedom you have in real life to window-shop the world. Not that Altman was passive. He wasn’t. His laissez-faire approach worked only because so much faire preceded it; there’s so much he put in those windows, so many colorful people, objects, settings, sounds to choose from. (His best work makes me think of that great, insane maximalist Jacques Tati, PlayTime in particular, if Tati were less obsessive-compulsive and maybe just a teeny bit high.) And in the end, he transformed Tolkin’s crime novel into the most convincing, clearheaded satire ever made about Hollywood, the closest to actual anthropology a fictional film has come in conveying the world, and ancillary worlds, of studio life.

And yet one can understand why Altman hadn’t sprung immediately to mind. At the time, the dawn of the Sundance era, Altman was regarded, somewhat accurately, as a self-positioned enemy of the studio system, a stance that could have shoved any clear-eyed Hollywood satire into self-serving propaganda, or jeremiad. This view of Altman, which still exists today, was helped along by certain exaggerations of the press, and the public’s reductive view of outsiderness. The truth was different. (Case in point: it was Fox, via Alan Ladd Jr., who green-lit Altman’s trickiest movie, 3 Women.) Hollywood was never Altman’s white whale. It was was for him (and is for others) simply a way of telling stories; sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. “I don’t have any perception of myself as being either in or out of Hollywood,” he once said. “I’m not, as people have said, ‘a maverick’ or someone who went off into exile. To me, Hollywood is a state of mind. I’m in Hollywood, I work in the business, in the system, but I’m also out of it.” Altman’s diplomatic perspective, much kinder than Billy Wilder’s in Sunset Blvd. or the Coen brothers’ in Barton Fink—much more complex, and therefore more authoritative—would flood The Player with a bipartisan, liquid intelligence that could deride and relish his subject simultaneously. Which is another way of saying that The Player, quite incredibly, has its cake and eats it too.

That right there is the secret to this movie: Robert Altman got a kick out of Hollywood. Far from making the trenchant, bitter satire so many critics would describe even after they saw the movie, Altman bypassed The Day of the Locust for Our Town and actually made a charmed, even gleeful movie about his so-called nemesis. That’s why so many people in Hollywood love The Player. Rather than insulting the native hedonisms with the tired, myopic clichés actual outsiders (i.e., New Yorkers) have been leveling against Hollywood since its inception, Altman caresses them, guilt-free. Poolside parties, fancy cars (Griffin, correctly, drives a Range Rover), late-night hot tubs, the bottled-water craze of the early nineties (Perrier, Evian, Banning Springs, “Can I have some Volvic, please?”), luxurious desert weekends (Two Bunch Palms, correct again) . . . and all those celebrity cameos! Don’t deny it. You liked it when Anjelica Huston popped up with John Cusack. Don’t deny it! You got a voyeuristic kick from peeping Burt Reynolds at Geoffrey’s. In bemused opposition to the foundational exaggerations so common to the movie-about-Hollywood genre, Altman’s version isn’t Sodom and Gomorrah, and, for its working folk, it certainly isn’t the porned-out fantasyland of Entourage. To borrow the title of Darcy O’Brien’s novel of growing up Hollywood, it’s just a way of life, like any other.

A way of life, a culture, brought credibly to life by Altman’s inside knowledge of the trade. Alongside those movie-star cameos are cameos from the “real” people of Hollywood, known unknowns like Altman’s longtime screenwriting collaborator Joan Tewkesbury, his directing protégé Alan Rudolph, film critic Charles Champlin, and, in one deleted lunch scene, producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck. We get the telephone customs every assistant learns the hard way: no, Sandy, you never let the caller know the boss is out of the office, you say he’s in a meeting. We get a little lingo: Griffin asks his assistant for the script “in white pages, no color.” We get esoteric nods to Hollywood’s recent past: at one meeting, Bonnie Sherow (Cynthia Stevenson) defends her case with a reference to Adrian Lyne’s original ending for Fatal Attraction, cut because it didn’t test well with audiences. We get Jack Lemmon playing the piano at a party because that’s what Jack Lemmon did at parties (there’s Felicia Farr, his wife, standing next to him), and we get it all in the background, without explanation, as if adding exposition would make The Player feel more like a Hollywood movie. Which it may or may not be.

This is Altman’s masterstroke.

Hollywood, in addition to being a culture, is also a genre of filmmaking, and Altman, who loved to satirize genre as much as he did social customs, plays havoc, in The Player, with the formulas and shibboleths of the Hollywood Movie, a way of storytelling that was so often at odds with his own independent (in all senses of the term) interests and techniques. As The Player describes the war between the executive and the writer, commerce against creativity, the movie describes a Robert Altman at war, stylistically, with his Hollywood impulses, the cinematic and story clichés Altman loved to hate and hated to love, a tendency he once called “a system of copying art.” Is The Player guilty of plagiarism? God, yes. How many noir conventions can we possibly swallow? The murder in Los Angeles, the corruption of a decent man, the amoral femme fatale, the hard-boiled Fred Ward (“Pasadena’s as good a place to die as any”), the venetian blinds, the footsteps on a silent sidewalk, the long shadows in dark alleys . . . But look again and you’ll see Altman, gradually, tickling them with irony—that schlocky, bad-movie pan up from the dead fish to the graveyard, those over-the-top music cues and cheap, MacGuffin-y scare tactics. And what about the plot holes? How did Griffin settle on Kahane? How did that snake get into Griffin’s car? And what happened to all that tension Tolkin built so carefully into the novel, usually so crucial to the crime movie? Halfway into The Player, as in Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune and Gosford Park, we lose interest in the murder. We practically forget the cops are after Griffin. We lose the suspense. And the supposed climax of the film, when Griffin is hauled in to the police station, is laughed away. The role of the detective, for instance, a character Hollywood might have used to turn the screws, Altman gave to Whoopi Goldberg. Tension? She’s hysterical. June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), the femme fatale—dressed always in white, not black—Griffin ends up marrying. In other words: for Griffin Mill, it’s a perfect, and perfectly plagiarized, Hollywood happy ending, complete with cozy cottage and baby on the way. The sort of bullshit sentiment many Hollywood executives kill writers for.

With irony and enthusiasm, Altman goes Hollywood, then plays Hollywood against itself, piling up and then undermining movie conventions, as if The Player, in addition to dramatizing the fight between a writer and an executive, is itself, in its choices, the mongrel product of that fight. And in fact, it is: the film begins with a slate dropped before the camera (“Action!”) and ends as Griffin, pulling up to that cozy cottage, buys a writer’s pitch called The Player. But is it a sellout? Whose film is it? The studio’s or the artist’s?

The Player asked that question in 1992, on the crest of a great resurgence of independent film in America and, within Hollywood, a healthy influx of independent-minded filmmaking—a mini renaissance that lasted almost two decades before the market collapsed in 2008 and fearful franchise thinking erased from the theatrical market the sorts of small- and mid-budget movies that turn on the strengths of their screenwriters and directors. Today, when it’s the IP (intellectual property) and not the script, or the director, or even the actor, that gets the movie made, when films are green-lit before they are written, and studios, I keep hearing, hire weaker directors because they’re easier to control, I think of that meeting, midway into The Player, the morning after Griffin Mill has killed a writer, when he muses aloud to a roomful of colleagues, “I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.”