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 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 female Hollywood executive takes a friend on a tour of her misogynist showbiz world. 1,957 words. Part Two. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
On the afternoon of the evening in which Lacey Blaire’s life was irreparably altered, the sun cascaded through a French window pane onto Lacey and her best friend from childhood having brunch. It made tiny prisms of light dance against the rims of two diamond-cut cocktail glasses which had been filled with blood orange vodka martinis. The crisp white linen tablecloth had a stain of red where drippings from the lingonberry-braised lamb chop, plated on fine china, had dripped.
“More cocktailS, ladies?” the waiter asked, in a tone that suggested they could request the hair of an Egyptian prince and he would gladly produce it.
Lacey glanced up at him with eyes bright, hair glossed, her 26-year-old freshly microdermabrasion-ed skin glowing. With an air of humble kindness, which meant that she belonged there, Lacey replied: “Why, yes, thank you.”
And Lacey did feel like she belonged there because she had earned her seat at Hollywood’s table. Arriving straight out of college with no help and no contacts, she’d worked her ass off as an unpaid intern until she proved that she had value. Value in keeping a desk organized, value in finalizing multiple calendars, and then, once she scored the chance to offer ideas on story and project execution, value in conceiving ideas that got her recognized as… yes, someone of value in a labor pool inundated with bobble-headed value-less people.
That struggle bludgeoned her idealism but not her drive. Tonight a movie she had helped produce was premiering. That made her worthy of white linen-ed brunches. And she was glad to show Jenny what the “good life” felt like. There was no freshly imported Swedish lingonberry back home. That was for sure.
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: An artist thinks he’s come up with a wonderful way to find film content and wow Hollywood. 2,674 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I had never been treated so rudely in my life. I was in a meeting at a major Hollywood studio, sharing my creativity and insight with a top executive, only to be given the bum’s rush by three security guards. As if the humiliation of being dragged out of that office, down the hall and through the lobby wasn’t enough, I was also thrown, literally tossed, onto the street. Onto asphalt, not gold.
The indignity began that November when I read that a major movie studio had bought the film rights to The Christmas Cottage. Not only was opportunity knocking on my door, it was ringing the bell. Hollywood, an insatiable beast, had run out of ideas. Filmmaking was and still is a lowly art form rising to its greatest level of incompetence. While most studios keep producing re-remakes and re-re-remakes, this studio was trying to be an innovator.
The Christmas Cottage is a painting by Thomas Kinkade, the “Painter of Light” as he is affectionately known in America’s shopping malls, who composed a warm-hearted landscape featuring a snow-covered cottage nestled in cozy woods.
I saw this new development as opening a Pandora’s Box in the world of cinema. Why stop with a painting? There are many images and objects that can have a high concept. Hollywood has already made films from board games and Legos. Sculpture, conceptualism, postcards, Campbell Soup Cans and traffic signals could also be made into blockbuster entertainment.
I wasn’t sure what the studio had in mind for its feature about The Christmas Cottage. Wouldn’t Picasso’s Guernica make a better movie? How about the hard “R” of any Odalisque by Matisse? Or, given the current trend for Christian entertainment, would not The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Bosch scare a heathen back to God? But who was I to question the superior intellect and creativity of the Hollywood sensibility.
The studio credits czar finally comes face to face with his comeuppance. 1,651 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The numbers for the weekend were in and they were bad. The big fall release was a big bomb. A stinker. Guaranteed to cancel out any profits for at least a fiscal quarter. It was like planting a lawn and watching mud come up. Whoever thought that a film about a beautiful girl lost in the woods being chased by a mutant bear was a winner must had been smoking way too much of the recreational stuff. The mechanical bear turned out to be a better actor than the star. When the script called for the character to be injured, she couldn’t even manage to whimper with any authenticity. Jeffrey had heard children’s talking dolls that sounded more real. So it was another loss after the studio had just taken a half-billion dollar write-down in the last quarter on three heavy-effects movies that "underperformed.” Like that gentle phrase could somehow tidy up another red ink disaster.
What Jeffrey knew immediately was that everyone needed to be sprucing up their resumes because the people in charge always figured that cutting overhead was the way to solve the mess they’d created. Jeffrey wondered why they never thought about firing themselves. Instead, some bean counter ran his finger down a list of names and salaries and decided: this one in, that one out.
Just like what he did on credits.
Jeffrey opened yet another binder of the crew deals. This one in. That one out. He checked the spellings and any strange credit requests. That morning, a dolly grip wanted to be credited as Jim "Jimbo" Smith. But Jeffrey hated nicknames and that was why Jimbo’s was gone. The pen’s tiny flick. The black line. The small gesture. Not even a second’s thought to deny the credit. Goodbye, Jimbo.
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.”
A search for the script reader accurately predicting Hollywood’s hits and misses. 2,789 words. Story and illustration by Mark Fearing.
I noticed a detail on a Tuesday afternoon that changed my life.
There I was, studio executive Ben Kurtwin, reading scripts from successfully made movies like some office assistant or film student. I know this will surprise you, but sometimes studio execs read scripts. Especially when they’re a junior exec clinging to their job. And let’s be honest – I don’t want to be fired because what the hell else can I do? I have no actual fucking skills.
Anyway, I was reading scripts from the previous few years’ biggest hits looking for the intangible that makes a popular film. All of these big-earning features had been offered to Destination Studios where I currently spend my days and many nights, but we’d bought only a few. Enough to keep on doing what we do. But I wanted to see first-hand what my dearly departed colleagues had missed and why we had passed on pictures that had gone on to make mountains of money. Maybe the answer lay on the page after all.
As I started to read Death On Mercury, the biggest moneymaker from last year, that’s when it happened. The detail I noticed wasn’t something in the script but from the coverage. The reader had given this screenplay a big thumbs-up and a high score and advised the studio to jump on it. The reader’s name was “Jody.”
EXCLUSIVE: Michael Tolkin debuts the beginning of his novel-in-progress about a veteran executive’s humiliation when he has to start over in Hollywood. 2,974 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Chapter 1 – Out With A Scream
For thirty-five years, I was the right hand man to John Brine Trubb, the legendary producer who would have been immortal if he hadn’t died. I had the privilege of being at the old man’s side when he went out with a scream. It’s the great puzzle of Rosebud that no one was in the room to hear Kane’s last word, but three of us were there to hear the Trubb’s final adios. JBT’s attorney, Redoubtable Maize, always too fancy with his allusions, heard in the old man’s dying expression the horror of Don Giovanni dragged into Hell at the foot of the Commendatore’s statue, agony after defiance. JBT’s special friend Auspicia Renn, his Abishag, said that it was the sound her rather older lover made when he was in ecstasy on Ecstasy. A logical guess, but wrong; from my catbird seat forward of the curtain that hid his day/nite bed on the Gulfstream, I knew too well the shape of the sordid bellow she was able to draw out of him and I can arbitrate the credit for his final yodel; she loses. No, JBT’s death shout was a blend of the old man’s two favorite moments in all of cinema, opening with the start of the cattle drive in Red River, the close ups of cowboys waving their hats in the air, calling Yee-Haw! And blended with the "Yah-hoo!" at the end of Dr. Strangelove, when the great Western actor Slim Pickens rides the nuclear warhead out of the bomb bay, setting off the end of the world. I kept this observation to myself, as JBT would have wanted. “Hum this every morning when you brush your teeth: never share your personal taste,” he used to say to the people he knew in the business, the people who looked up to him. It was a ridiculous mantra, bad advice, meant to send his enemies, which meant all of you, in pursuit of wasting someone else’s money. Pursue failure. That was the message inside the advice however justified by the circumstances. He had plenty of good advice, too, look at what he did, but he never shared it, not even with me.
The funeral service was austere but per his manifesto, surprisingly well catered for a crowd of three hundred or so, although I had no appetite after my first pass at the pastry table, when attorney Redoubtable took me aside. When his first words were, “Look, Martin,” I could have written the rest of what he said, or hired a writer to do it, at scale.
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.
HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST SERIES – Decades after the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings, a son confronts his father’s accuser. 4,692 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
We were halfway through Silas Raymond’s funeral when I realized that the fellow mourner I had been struggling to recognize was the man who had blacklisted my father. Two days later, I saw him again at Musso & Frank’s. He sat alone in a booth, watching the door as if he expected J. Edgar Hoover to burst in and arrest him. Then I thought, no, they won’t arrest him, they’ll arrest the people he named to Silas Raymond’s Motion Picture Industry Council.
Silas Raymond was the most notorious Red-baiter of the witchhunt era. Even though he didn’t sit on the House Un-American Activities Committee, he walked in goose-step with them. He said he could spot a Red within five minutes, and he decimated Hollywood’s creative community with a campaign of intimidation, guilt by association, and outright lies. That’s why I went to his funeral back in 1995; I wanted to make sure the son of a bitch was dead.
They planted him at the stroke of noon (though the stroke of midnight would have been more fitting) at Forest Lawn, and I remembered thinking that the low turnout for such a one-time heavyweight wasn’t because he was forgotten. It was because he’d outlived all of his friends and most of his enemies. I was one of the latter.
I behaved myself during the services, even though I wanted to put a stake in his heart right there in one of Forest Lawn’s smaller chapels. I needed to see who would show up to honor him. Among his handful of mourners were, appropriately, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
And Marcus Gottfried.
That was the name I finally connected with the face. A former film director, he was now in his low eighties, twenty years older than my father was when he died. We swapped glances during the services and then went our separate ways. Maybe he was wondering who I was, too.
A film editor gets the opportunity of a lifetime with the world’s greatest director. 4,163 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I liked Martin from the get-go. He was extremely polite, with an unexpected sense of humor, and eyes so intelligent and intense that most people feared him. Fortunately, I had grown up around a man with fierce eyes, my grandfather. Being his favorite, I was the only one of his grandchildren permitted to sit on his knee and – privilege of privilege – play with his beret.
This day of my interview to work at Kaleidoscope Studio, Martin was wearing a checkered brown and white shirt and brown corduroy pants, but no beret. Not that day.
“May I ask a question?” I say. He nods. “Why am I here?”
Martin breaks into laughter. “We have three films and three films in trouble,” he declares. His producers Forest and Gary nod in agreement.
Martin wants to take me on a tour of the studio. Once outside, something quite weird happens. He points to a black bicycle leaning against a wall.
“Come on the bike.”
Martin repeats, “Come on the bike.”
“I haven’t done this since I was two years old,” I tell him. But I jump on the front of the bike and off we go.