A film update of Don Quixote from the Star Wars director and Indiana Jones hero? 2,049 words. Excerpted from the 2018 book Critically Acclaimed. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Directed by George Lucas. Written by Charlie Kaufman. Starring: Harrison Ford, Benicio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jürgen Von Himmelmacher.
Quixote Jones, an adaptation of the formerly un-filmable Don Quixote, arrives in theatres today as one of the most highly anticipated films of all time — for all the wrong reasons. It’s the movie equivalent of a freeway pileup: we can’t help but gawk, especially after the controversy that preceded its release.
From the inception, it had all the makings of a financial and artistic bomb.
We were all so sure it would fail.
And we were all so wrong.
A film studio scion makes life and death decisions about movies way too easily. 3,861 words. Part Two of this serialization coming soon. Illustrations by Thomas Warming.
It’s universally accepted both east and west of La Brea that Danny Reinhold is a Grade-A piece of shit. Not a Harvey-sized psychopath or a young Dustin Hoffman terrorizing a raging-against-the-dying-of-the-light Laurence Olivier, but a real prick nonetheless. One of the reasons Danny’s a shithead is because he can be.
Morton Reinhold was second only to the king at MGM in the mid-1960s. He lassoed his legacy when he told Warren Beatty to flatter the boss by saying Bonnie And Clyde was homage to the old MGM gangster pictures. That Warren shouldn’t worry, he’d tell Mr. Mayer what an “homage” was.
Richard Reinhold came up in his father’s shadow, first greenlighting muscle-bound action films for Jerry and Don in the late 1980s before going on to run Universal for a successful decade and a half. That ended with his not-so-subtle ouster a decade back for a string of flops, the last being an affair with his assistant. The lawsuit settled out of court became the writing on the wall. A ceremonial producing deal on the lot came with his parachute. Since then, he has produced three low budget indie features, the last of which (were anyone following the money) was self-financed. But no one was following Richard and none made a dime.
Danny came from this line of Hollywood royalty, memorialized in a framed photo of Morton, Richard, Danny and his gorgeous red-haired date, a couple years back at Morton’s AFI Lifetime Achievement Award shindig. All the Reinholds in Armani tuxedos and Rolexes, not a smile among them, except for the redhead.
This was the moonlit photo Danny was staring at early that morning, 5 am, as he sat bedside quietly putting on that same Rolex, hoping against hope that his last two films were hits thanks to his strategy and taste, but knowing better.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: After a movie studio’s big awards night, the new boss plans changes. 1,442 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
TO: All Employees of Persistent Pictures
FROM: Bradford “Buddy” Newborn, President
RE: Studio Philosophy and Production Slate
We’re all proud of the eight Oscars that Persistent Pictures won last night under Bob Cutner’s management. We hope he gets to use his taste and leadership at another company now that he’s suddenly moved on to make way for me.
Since arriving to head the studio, I’ve seen many of you in the hallways, in the valet parking lot, and as I walk through the commissary on the way to my private dining room. But this is the first chance I’ve had to introduce myself since my father, Bradford Newborn Sr., bought the studio.
To quell some of the rumors and wisecracks I’ve been hearing through our advanced monitoring system, I am well aware that moviemaking isn’t anything like the strappy sandal business. It just so happens that shoes are only one of the many manufacturing interests of Newborn International. We also make small home appliances (“Nothing larger than a toaster oven” is our motto), breath mints and lacrosse equipment. We also had a major investment in the Miami Majors, an ice hockey franchise that I was in charge of running until it folded last year. Let me speak frankly: the Majors died because of poor public support, not because of that lawsuit from 12-year-old Jimmy Brewin after a puck got sucked up into the Zamboni and shot out into the stands, taking with it half his face.
I can report that Little Jimmy is doing well, all things considered, and loves his new nose, mouth and mansion.
Now, for studio business.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: An unceremonious tale behind the history of Hollywood and the mob. 2,125 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
In a glass case at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there stands in silent solitude a lonely Oscar statuette. It carries no name plate. And its hollow eyes stare in gilded oblivion at the countless people who pass it every day without so much as a moment’s curiosity. The award belongs to screenwriter Harper Monroe Farrow, yet it’s never been claimed. That’s because there is no such person, male or female, living or dead. Of this I’m certain.
The Academy, in its unyielding discretion, has never spoken of the orphaned Oscar. New employees are told only that it must remain under lock and key because AMPAS rules dictate it can go only to the person who won it. And no one has ever proven to be Harper Morrow Farrow.
Speculation abounds why this is nobody’s Oscar. It’s clear to me that Harper Morrow Farrow is a pseudonym. Some believe it belongs to the prolific Ben Hecht, who famously wrote or rewrote some 100 films during his colorful career and reputedly maintained a cadre of apprentices to churn out first drafts that he would polish before attaching his name and sending an invoice. Others say it was any of a number of contract writers fed up with scripting crap for their studios but who couldn’t take credit for the winning screenplay because they would have been fired for moonlighting. A few spin that it’s a blacklisted writer who died without revealing his or her true identity. Still more insist it was a Hollywood insider who dared not claim authorship of such a truthful screenplay.
The fact is that Harper Monroe Farrow won the vote for Best Original Screenplay in 1939 for the movie Beyond Utopia. Official records, of course, show that Gone With The Wind, written by Sidney Howard (but rewritten by Ben Hecht and others) was announced as the winner. Not to take away from David O. Selznick’s crowning achievement, but Farrow’s script for Beyond Utopia was deemed better written that year.
No copy of the Beyond Utopia screenplay exists anywhere — not in the Academy’s library or at the Writers Guild. Nor is the film available either because all prints were destroyed. Finally, anyone connected with the production has long since died. Trust me, I’ve searched for anything and anyone connected to this film.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A movie producer relentless at awards time is blindsided by rivals. 2,398 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Most independent producers who strike it big at least make an effort to distance themselves from their bottom-feeding beginnings. Not Herschel Wechsler. It wasn’t the expensive suits that hung on his doughy frame as though he’d slept in them. It didn’t matter that he sprayed spittle when he talked. Nobody even held his flyshit toupee against him. It was that he had the kind of face you just wanted to push into the front of a 1958 Buick.
Hollywood has known its share of ogres with good taste. Joseph E. Levine, Harvey Weinstein, Joel Silver, Scott Rudin, and Otto Preminger readily come to mind. Okay, maybe not Otto Preminger. But the others possessed that rare combination of passion, guts, showmanship, charisma, and intelligence that dignified them and their productions despite the controversy they sometimes courted.
Hershel Wechsler, however, was irredeemable. You didn’t even have to use his last name. Everybody just said “Herschel.” Sure, his pictures made money — and you’d think that would absolve him of the town’s enmity. Except he did it in the one way that Hollywood found unacceptable: at the expense of the motion picture industry’s dignity. As more than one of his competitors — they bristled if called his “colleagues” – remarked, Herschel always found a way to scrape underneath the bottom of the barrel.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A Red Carpet meet compels this couple to keep going. 2,312 words. Part One. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
Backstory: My name is Nat, I work in the mailroom at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and I went to the Academy Awards. Instead of sitting up in the lousy seats with the rest of the AMPAS staff, I met Erin Teller, the Erin Teller, and she sort of made me her date. I sat with her and she won the Best Actress Oscar for When The Mountain Sings.
And now we’re going to the Governors Ball.
I am not making this shit up.
So Erin and I are walking out of the Dolby when Erin grabs my hand and asks me where I’m going because, duh, don’t I know the Governors Ball is upstairs and she’s starving to death. She says some of the cast from Hamilton is performing and isn’t it the best musical ever. I tell her I haven’t seen it and she says, boy, I’m in for a surprise.
This whole night is a surprise. Having my date get a migraine so I go to the Awards solo, then running into Erin Teller – literally, when her limo door knocks me down. Now I can’t figure out why she hooked on to me. But I’m not complaining.
We’re riding up the escalator to the Governors Ball and Erin has her Oscar clutched in her fist. Occasionally, she waves it in the air and says, “Woo hoo,” and people shout, “Woo hoo” back at her. This is the most amazing night of her life. And, fuck me, I never want it to end.
OSCAR FICTION PACKAGE: A PR woman wages her toughest nominations fight versus He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. 3,748 words. Illustration by John Mann.
It is a most curious job I have, thought Veronica Jasper as she sipped her extra large parsley-kale-spinach and lemony yogurt smoothie. How could anyone, certainly not her high school chums back in Nebraska, have possibly predicted that she would one day wind up as Hollywood’s premiere Oscar consultant? Even she had to marvel at how destiny had taken hold and shook out the best in her like a soapy mop. The fact is she now had become a tenacious publicist with scads of A-lister contacts in the ultra-rarefied realm of professionals who conduct Academy Awards campaigns.
Veronica’s specialty was creating Oscar buzz around her clients, much like political consultants do for candidates running for public office. True, neither she nor any other Academy Awards consultants had their own golden statuettes for a job well done, but they could be members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ venerated “Public Relations” branch. Still, Veronica had morphed into the kind of person she most loathed about the entertainment industry: a player who takes delight in the misfortune of others.
But enough of such idle musings, Veronica told herself. There’s another Oscar campaign season upon her! Phone calls to make. Dinners to arrange. Producers to placate. Journalists to schmooze. Still, why did she feel so gloomy? Because here she is — again — for the twentieth straight year coordinating the Academy campaigns for another clutch of indie and studio clients. And it’s always the same rat race. Get a grip! One day she’ll retire to that seaside hideaway in La Jolla and forget all of this nonsense. But for now she needs to plot how to win the coveted votes of all these self-involved, self-aggrandizing Academy ilk.
A humongous Hollywood merger has unforeseen consequences for all involved. 2,559 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Margaret Sewell sighed as she sat across from her friend, Lou Delray, at the Fox studio commissary’s outdoor patio. She had little appetite and barely touched her salad. “My boss said, ‘I wish I could take you with me.’ And he didn’t even bother to try and sound sincere. Then he gave me a holiday gift card to Neiman-Marcus. As if that was supposed to make me feel better. ‘Hey, clown,’ I wanted to say, ‘how about a gift card to Ralphs, so’s I can buy some food after I start collecting unemployment in 2018.’”
Lou was only half-listening. He hadn’t filed for unemployment since losing his first job right after college. For the past twenty years he’d been a teamster driver on a succession of studio TV and film projects. The studio facilities would remain and his boss, Henry, claimed Lou had “nothing to worry about.” But when your boss tells you not to worry, that’s precisely the time to start making other plans.
With the departure of the television and movie production units, sooner or later, probably sooner, something was bound to give. And that usually meant the older and more expensive workers.
“They’re saying that, after the merger, ten thousand jobs are going to be lost in all. Screw Murdoch and screw Iger twice,” Margaret said as she threw her salad into the trash. A number of heads turned and nodded, some eyes rolled, and a couple of mouths uttered sarcastic laughs.
Buoyed by the reaction, Margaret added, “I might as well tattoo ‘Roadkill’ on my forehead. Am I right?”
CHRISTMAS FICTION: Two Hollywood families discover the real meaning of the holidays thanks to a transgender plumber. 3,165 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The last Sunday before Christmas, the Strider twins took their Swedish Vallhund decked out in an elf onesie to the Palisades dog park. They’d came home with what to them was ho-hum news. But to their folks, it was tantamount to a shot at the holy fucking grail.
“Some boy Jared and his sister wanna come over next week,” Cody told his mother, Radha.
“Their last name is Pfeffer with three F’s, two E’s and a silent P,” said Cass who’d transcribed the names and the proposed details of a holiday playdate.
“Jared Pfeffer? Not Bobby Pfeffer’s kid?” Radha twitched.
“On the board at the Brautigan School, Bobby Pfeffer?” her husband Rex said. The parents exchanged a telling look, then both grabbed for Cass’ notepad. Indeed, it was the same A-list family.
Thus the most pivotal event of the Striders’ entire lives would transpire three days later when Jared Pfeffer and his younger sister Blair and a couple of friends would be coming over. A previous engagement with the brood of a basic cable star had fallen through, and the Striders were now a last-minute slot filler.
But the real coup was that, after a screening of the Scrooged reboot, Bobby himself planned to stop by for coffee with his new trophy wife.
CHRISTMAS FICTION: Who used to make the best holiday movies? Jews. But do they still? 1,654 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The ghosts of show business moguls Joseph E. Levine, David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn and William Castle took a break from their pinochle game to agree that what Hollywood needed was a good Christmas picture.
“As long as the goyim are spending everything they have on presents,” Levine said, “why can’t they throw a little of their money our way?”
“After all, Jesus was Jewish,” added Goldwyn, “at least on his father’s side.”
Selznick wasn’t as sure. “I admit that a Christmas picture is good for holiday business. But what happens on December 26? Who wants to see a movie about Santa Claus in January when the bills come in?” he said, shaking his head.
“For that matter, who wants to see a picture about the Civil War seventy-five years after Appomattox?” Levine shot back. “If it’s a good picture, people will come. But you gotta have the right ad campaign.”
A studio credits czar rules his kingdom unless or until confronted. 1,711 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Sometimes the smallest gestures had the biggest consequences, didn’t they? The pebble to the windshield that eventually cracked the whole thing. The chance meeting at a premiere that neither was supposed to attend. Say if one morning thirty years ago, a development executive at Fox hadn’t argued with his boyfriend before coming into work, Jeffrey Baummann might had sold the script that set him on the path of a successful writer. Or twenty years ago to the liquor store a minute earlier, and Jeffrey would have bought the lottery ticket that won a hundred mil and not the someone who did right in front of hm. Ten years ago if not for a missed red light, Jeffrey might have met a different woman who could have been his wife. That morning, expending not even a calorie, he crossed out a name on a draft of end title credits for one of the studio’s films.
With the flick of a pen, a black line moved a half-inch right and one less dolly grip went into the roll.
Jeffrey was the studio’s credits czar, a nickname from an old boss to make him feel better when she declined his raise. Afterwards, the late head of publicity at that same studio said at a big meeting, "Oh Jeffrey, you’re the poor bastard who has that job." It certainly got a laugh.
This was what he did: prepared the main and end titles for the studio’s films which meant he looked at lists and lists of names, deciding whose would go in. He eliminated many of them with a small gesture. There was no attempt to find the private echo, this one resonating, that one not. He had a template. He filled it in.
The ex-WWII Army officer with the mogul relative isn’t sure showbiz excites him. 2,201 words. Part One. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
December 1945 – On the set of MGM’s Up Goes Maisie shoot
Dave pushed the studio mail cart around the perimeter of the darkened sound stage until the sudden burst of brilliant light from a working set flooded his eyes. It was a scene set in a business school classroom, one of the opening shots in a Maisie series film; rows of cute extras taking their places at typing tables. Watching them from her chair, awaiting her call, was the film’s star, Ann Sothern. Every Maisie movie was a cash register for the studio and she was its cashier. She sat legs crossed in ankle-strap shoes, in a tight dress, waiting for the director’s signal to take her place for the shot. Dave had seen so many famous faces since he’d began at MGM the month before that Ann Sothern, though lusciously sexy, was by now to him just another recipient of studio mail. Up close, even the thick mask of makeup couldn’t distort her perky blonde beauty. Her smile broke out her dimples and her eyes radiated that glow he’d come to see as only emanating from actors with the elusive star quality that created box office.
Dave Meltzer had strict instructions to hand-deliver a letter only to her, not to any maid or assistant. It was a fat envelope plastered with registered mail stickers from a law firm. At her dressing table, she studied the pages, following the text with her pen. “What do you want to do after the mailroom?” she asked Dave, picking up the phone.
“Not sure. I’ve only been here a few weeks.”
“Nothing got you gaga to write screenplays, direct, produce, or at least hump some of these gorgeous girlies around here?”
“I push my cart around hallways, between offices and over sound stages. I stack mail, hand it to the people and go on my way.”
“You need to start shmoozing, kid. Talk to the people you deliver to. Make friends. Kiss a few asses. Learn the landscape.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Dave said. “Thanks.”
A WWII U.S. Army officer contacts his macher relative in the movie biz. 2,999 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
April 1945 – Trier, Germany
A G.I., spent by battle fatigue, trudged away from his platoon during a bivouac at the edge of a forest and tried catnapping under a leafless tree. He looked up at its naked branches still cobwebbed into the overcast skies. A red-winged blackbird sang on the branch above him, a harbinger of a Spring that seemed late in the morning chill. But the song was a sleeping pill and the soldier folded his arms, took off his helmet and nodded off.
After an all too brief catnap, the first soldiers in C Company arrived. The G.I. roused, looked up and saw Lt. Dave Meltzer grinning down at him. “We’re moving east in hour, a mop-up operation. Meanwhile, relax.”
The officer and the G.I. smoked in silence a while, heads tilted toward the brooding sky. “I’m already back home in my head, sir” Quinn said, tapping his temple with a sigh.
“Patience buddy. It’s a matter of a week or two.” Lt. Meltzer rubbed his stubbled chin and asked, “And home is…?”
“New York — only for a month, tops. Then I’m off. My old man is pushing me to go to Hollywood and look up a family connection. Maybe back-door myself into a movie job.”
Lt. Meltzer nodded. “So I’m told. Mr. Louis B. Mayer. My old man’s family came from the same town in Russia as Mayer. His grandmother and Mayer’s maternal grandmother may have been sisters. Could be a familial delusion.”
This new mogul may be expert in Big Media business but now he’s being schooled by the art world. 2,819 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Luck was with Pincus “Pinky” Peterman that day. Here he was, CEO and the largest shareholder of one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world, including a film studio, television network, and a lot of new Silicon Valley ventures he didn’t totally understand. And now he’d acquired a prized online news service. Immediately some CNBC analysts said once again he’d purchased at too high a price. At first Pinky was hurt and depressed. After 24 hours, he snapped out it. He may have overpaid for what he’d bought so far, but he’d also learned a lot. An education, he realized, always comes at a price. Besides, he was the newest Big Media mogul and about to enjoy it.
Tonight, he found himself at a posh dinner party seated next to the most exquisite leggy blonde he’d ever seen. Not bad for a 48-year-old guy from Merrick on Long Island, he thought to himself, enjoying the view as his dinner partner shifted in her seat and allowed her skirt to ride up a little further so he could see what pleasure lay beneath.
Then the impossible happened. Somewhere between the appetizer and the main course, this vision named Natasha Rostova ran her fingers lightly down his thigh. Could he dare to imagine what would happen later? Peterman knew he was short, paunchy, and balding and that this was happening because his hostess had told Natasha that he was powerful and worth billions of dollars. But he didn’t care. His heart — and other parts — were pounding in rhythmic overdrive.
As Natasha lifted her manicured fingers from his thigh, she handed him a card which announced that she was the director of the Michael Simeon Gallery. As it happened, Pinky’s decorator had just started his huge new Holmby Hills home, and there were lots of bare walls crying out for art. After all, he was a mogul now and needed all the high-end accoutriments.
He suggested that Natasha check out his needs — all of them — by having dinner with him at the house the following evening.
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – On November 24-25, 1947, forty-eight studio moguls surrendered to HUAC’s Red-baiting. 2,492 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
As a hotel employee of some 20 years, Nino was used to keeping the secrets of guests. But this was the first time they ever made him swear to it on a copy of the Old Testament. The request came as he was setting up his bar in the third floor function room of New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria. Nino knew this wasn’t a drinking crowd; if anything, they were a complaining crowd. Because whenever the Hollywood moguls stayed at the swank hotel, they bitched that business was always bad no matter how much money they were making. He recognized some of the guests from their previous visits as one powerful executive after another entered, many greeting each other in Yiddish.
A spread in Life magazine had come out that morning entitled “The Movie Hearings.” Written by Sidney Olson, the article purported to reveal how Reds were trying to take over the movies, and why the House Un-American Activities Committee had summoned a galaxy of star witnesses to expose the supposed conspiracy. Many during the October 10-20 hearings had testified willingly — but others had noisily defied the commiittee, triggering the gavel of HUAC Chairman J. Parnell Thomas. Ten writers, directors, and producers who had refused to discuss their beliefs and associations were called The Hollywood Ten. Now the suite was filling with film studio brass who not only had been friendly witnesses but also shared the HUAC Chairman’s impatience with the First Amendment.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” warned Barney Balaban, the President of Paramount Pictures. “When you get the heads of all the movie companies in one room, it’s called restraint of trade.”
“Who’s restraining trade?” asked Harry Cohn, the President and Production Director of Columbia Pictures. “We’re just talking business.”
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – A superstar couple with a secret grapples with HUAC’s purge of Communists inside the movie industry. 4,474 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“How’s this? Take my right side, fellas. That’s always my best side.”
Grant Strickland and his actress wife Lili Reynolds stood on the U.S. Capitol steps posing before a crescent of jostling still photographers as dozens of fans waved and reporters shouted questions.
“Grant, are there any Communists in the movie industry?” asked one newsman over the din. Strickland and Reynolds hooked arms and leaned toward each other for the press photographers.
“I’m not into ‘isms,’” the actor replied with a chuckle, “—unless it’s capital-ism!”
“And what about you, Lili? How do you feel about your husband appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee today?” another reporter called out. “Are you nervous?”
The former chorus girl who became one of Hollywood’s biggest draws as the sassy dame-next-door type whom men adore glanced up at her husband and then back at the questioner. “I’m here to support Grant — and also our industry.”
Given the seriousness of the HUAC hearings, though, she ignored shouts to dip her chin and show off her steely sultriness.
“Grant, what do you think of these hearings?” asked another reporter standing at the back of the horde.