The screenwriter’s script is completed. But how will the studio mogul react to the brutally honest biopic? 2,802 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
After finishing Act Two, Dave went on a one-night bender, polishing off a fifth of Jack Daniels and falling into a deep sleep on his living room sofa. He awoke with a start in the middle of the night and ran to the typewriter. Through bleary eyes and a cracking headache, he began to type out the opening scene of Act Three: a close-up of a television set.
The Argot Pictures board keeps a safe distance from the blond wood TV cabinet, as if it were some alien life form. But studio mogul Jules Azenberg approaches the contraption and gently strokes it. With that one motion, he demonstrates to the members that he is not threatened by television and that he plans to tame the medium just as he did the movies.
Forced to divest itself of its theater chain following the 1948 Consent Decree, Argot is running a deficit for the first time since the early ‘1930s. There is the smell of blood in the boardroom and Jules must convince the members that he is still in control of the situation. The advent of television gives Jules a new sense of purpose after the prolonged depression he suffered in the wake of his sons’ WWII deaths.
Rather than retread radio stars for television, Jules strikes on an original idea. The next scene is set in a quiet isolated booth at The Brown Derby where Jules is lunching with Madeleine Devane, one of Argot’s biggest stars. Her contract is up for renewal and the aging actress is clearly nervous. They chat for a while as she waits for the boom to fall. In the middle of the meal, Jules lays his napkin on the table and lets out an extended sigh. The color drains from Madeleine’s face, fearing that she’s about to be fired.
“How would you like us to renew your contract for five more years?” he asks.
“Don’t tease me,” Madeleine responds tersely.
“You know I wouldn’t do that to you,” Jules assures her. “I have an interesting proposition.”
Cut to a makeup trailer where the finishing touches are being put on Madeleine’s face and hair. She stares into the mirror as voice-over dialogue is heard from the previous scene in the restaurant: “Television? But I’m an Oscar winning actress,” she pleads.
“And one of the finest talents we’ve ever had,” says Jules. “Madeleine. I’m offering you the future. In movies, you’re about to move into mother roles. TV is a way to retain your glamour and allure.”
But Madeleine is unsure, insecure.
“Leave it to me,” Jules soothes and his voice echoes in her dressing room as Madeleine examines herself in the mirror one last time. Then she steps onto the soundstage and bursts through double doors and speaks directly to the camera. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Madeleine Devane Hour.’’ It ran from 1953 to 1961.
Again, Dave was drawing on truth in his script. Madeleine Devane was an amalgam of several past-their-prime actresses who resuscitated their careers by agreeing to star in television series and who, in turn, brought a touch of class to the new medium. What really saved Jules’ bacon, however, was a calculated business decision that Dave rejected as being too inside baseball as well as dramatically unviable. Against the board’s wishes and that of the other studio heads, Jules leased the Argot film library to television, the first studio to do so and it reaped incredible rewards.
Next, Dave took the germ of an idea and expanded on it in a largely fictitious manner: to depict Jules’ fall off the corporate ladder. He devised a surrogate son, Pete Thorson, a strapping young writer whom Jules takes under his wing. Pete, like many of Jules’ favored scripters, is a heartland type. Jules teaches him all the tricks of the trade and Pete is his compliant disciple, as smooth and subtle as Jules is gruff and abrupt. Pete is promoted to producer and rises swiftly through the ranks, insinuating himself into the executive suite and the Argot boardroom. When he is appointed studio head and Jules is locked out of his office, the old man is devastated.
It is only then that he learns the truth:Pete Thorson is not some fresh-faced hayseed but the son of Adam Bardach, one of Argot’s top 1940s-era directors whom Jules had thrown to the House Unamerican Activities Committee wolves. Bardach afterwar the scandal moves to Europe where he makes a few indifferent films before disappearing into obscurity. But his offspring holds a grudge and exacts his revenge on Jules. In reality, the executive who replaced Jules, but not in title and office, was Edgar Schacter, the former president of Argot’s television division. The appointment smacked of betrayal since Jules had been Schacter’s mentor, promoting him up the ranks, working hand in hand with him to build Argot’s powerful new business. And then his underling usurped him. Except for a polite nod in the commissary and posed photos at movie premieres, Jules and Schacter no longer spoke.
Dave’s screenplay closes on that same park bench. A nurse retrieves Jules, now a lonely and broken former studio mogul, and pushes him up a narrow shaded pathway toward the convalescent home where he is now confined. The camera remains stationary as Jules shrinks out of sight.
A slow fade. End credits.
As he drove over the hill to Argot Pictures to hand deliver the biopic script to Jules, Dave glanced at the title page. The screenplay had been relatively easy work compared to coming up with the proper name. His first thought had been something melodramatic, A Man Alone. Which he immediately rejected as too depressing. Sounds like some black and white foreign film, and more than a tad artsy, Dave reasoned. And it would make the recurring use of the man on the park bench seem all the more precious. For similar reasons, he rejected A Mogul At Sunset.
“Why not Sunset Boulevard Of Broken Dreams?” his pal Joel Rodgers had laughed when they discussed a name for the film. “You are clearly not a title man. But you’ve come to the right place. How about A King’s Ransom?”
When Dave dismissed it out of hand, Joel said, “Fine. That was my best shot. You do better.” But Dave couldn’t and so A King’s Ransom it was.
Dave didn’t expect to hear from Jules for at least a week or 10 days and was about to book a vacation at the desert resort Two Bunch Palms when the phone rang two days later. It was Jules’ longtime assistant Doreen. “Mr. Azenberg would like to see you right away,” she said tersely. “It’s urgent.”
Dave didn’t read much into her clipped tone and thought she was just being her simple efficient self. But when he walked into the office, Doreen didn’t offer up her usual plastered-on smile. She merely pressed Jules’ office buzzer and pointed to the door with the instruction, “He’ll see you now.”
Dave was greeted by the back of Jules’ chair. Without turning around, Azenberg ordered, “Sit down.’” His tone was unmistakable. Dave was about to be excoriated. He sat in an upholstered leather armchair because, if he was going to be chastised, he would at least be comfortable.
Suddenly, Jules spun around and a glass paperweight whizzed by Dave’s head, missing him by inches. It landed with a thud on the floor beside him. “You sonofabitch,”’ Jules fumed, spit flying in several directions.
Dave took a deep breath. In all the years he’d worked for Jules, he’d learned never to interrupt him mid-tantrum. Only afterward would there be time for rational discussion.
“You call this a screenplay?” Jules continued, stabbing his index finger into the bound pages on his desk. “I call it libel and character assassination.” Jules lifted the script between his thumb and index finger, held it in mid-air and dropped it into the wastebasket. Dave swallowed hard. “You must really hate my guts,” Jules fumed.
Dave shook his head, almost imperceptibly, but enough for Jules to notice.
“No? You don’t hate me? Then how could you write this horrible piece of garbage? In your twisted mind, am I really that big a monster? Is that how you see me, you pinko fuck?”
Dave’s back erupted into a cold sweat which glued him to the leather upholstery. He’d seen grown men reduced to tears by Jules’ anger tirades. But he had never been the object of a full-on tirade. The most Jules had ever been with him was displeased and disappointed, like a befuddled but understanding father trying to fathom his son’s behavior.
“And then you put yourself in the script as this Pete Thorson and stab me in the back for the whole world to see. Who the hell do you think you are? I’ve crushed bugs with more backbone than you.” Waves of anger were traveling across Jules’ face. One moment he was bright red, and the next a ghastly white. “What was I thinking asking a boy like you to do a man’s job? When I said I wanted you to be honest, I expected at least a touch of compassion. But this is like… a woman scorned. What, did your wife leave you because you’re sleeping with that faggot fellow traveler Joel Rodgers? Well, I’m going to make it my business to ensure that no one in this town ever hires you again. You know what that means? You will lose your house. You will lose your car. You will lose everything, you goddamn motherfucking –‘”
And so it would have continued indefinitely if Doreen hadn’t rung his buzzer.
“What?” Jules barked into the intercom.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. A. But you have a three o’clock.”
His momentum interrupted, Jules made a motion as if wringing his hands. “You are dead to me. Now get out of my sight. And if you even think of coming to my funeral, that’s assuming you outlive me, I am leaving written instructions that you are to be bodily thrown out.’’
Dave shuffled his way to the door and, with his hand poised on the doorknob, he offered, “I’m sorry, Mr. Azenberg.”
But Jules had already swiveled his chair around and was looking out the window at the Argot studio water tank where a fleet of miniature battleships were being positioned to film an all-out naval assault.
Dave’s splitting headaches returned and for the next several days he got out of bed only to relieve his bladder. He kept drifting in and out of consciousness, never really sleeping. The thought of food nauseated him as did alcohol. The phone rang several times but he didn’t want to talk to anyone.
Instead, his mind was consumed with trying to figure out what had gone so horribly wrong. Was Jules overreacting, or had Dave truly provoked him? And how could the screenwriter have been so self-deluded to believe Jules when he’d asked for an honest biopic about himself.
“Jesus, I thought you were dead,” said his Morris agent Cabe Fallman when Dave finally answered the phone.
Weakened by lack of nourishment and bleary from lack of sleep, Dave could barely force a hello.
“I suppose you’ve heard,” Fallman continued, without pause. “Argot’s put the script in turnaround and the old man is smearing you left and right all over town.”
Cabe delivered the news so gleefully that Dave wondered whether the agent was actually taking pleasure in seeing his client humiliated. “Uh no,” Dave whispered.
“Aw, cheer up,” Fallman laughed. “So you want the bad news first or the good news?”
“The good news, please.”
“Have you read Variety today? You’re in Army Archerd. Jules trashes you for three long paragraphs.”
“That’s the good news?”
“Christ, kid, the fucking president doesn’t get three paragraphs in Army. Basically, Jules Azenberg says he hates your script. And Army says that now every other studio in town is dying to make this biopic.”
“Where did Army get that idea?”
“From me, where do you think? I planted it.”
“What the hell did you do that for?”
“Because it’s true. As soon as word got out that Jules was mortally offended by A King’s Ransom – lousy title by the way – everyone else wanted it. I’ve got two firm offers already, but I’m holding out to make sure no executive brings in another writer to mess with your screenplay.”
“You really liked it that much?’” Dave asked timidly.
“I only read the coverage. But that’s not the point. We’ve got this town by the short hairs.”
“I’m finding all of this very hard to believe.”
“Well, believe it. And Steiger is out. He and Jules are golfing buddies, in case you didn’t know. But who cares? We’ve got McQueen, Newman, Beatty and that new kid, Dustin Hoffman, all salivating for the part. My assistant had to hire a temp just to help answer the phones.”
“So what’s the bad news?”
“You won’t see another dime, at least on this script. It’s gonna cost us to get it away from Argot.’ It’s not in turnaround. It’s in limbo. And Argo will sit on it unless we come up with really big money. Then they’ll let it go. Now me and senior agent Joe Laventhal are taking you to dinner.”
“Yeah, he’s taking you on for movies. And since he outranks me, I agreed. You’re back in the picture game, Dave.”
“I don’t know that I want to go back to writing movies.”
“Don’t be a schmuck. Joe’s already getting calls asking about your availability. Because everybody wants to work with the guy who stuck it to Jules Azenberg. Laventhal will get you four or five assignments back to back for top dollar. And even if you fuck them up, by that time you’ll be living in Bel Air and I’ll jack up your asking price for TV. It’s a win-win. Eight o’clock at The Polo Lounge. And wear a suit.’’
The phone line went dead and Dave reached for a bottle of Jack Daniels, which seemed to magically appear. After several swills, he took the alcohol into the shower with him. By the time he was dressed, he was so far gone he had to take a taxi to the restaurant. The dinner floated past him like a dream. Laventhal smeared butter all over him, making lofty promises the senior agent couldn’t possibly keep. He was still rambling when Dave excused himself and telephoned Joel and asked if they could meet up later at Barney’s Beanery.
His pal was sitting in a darkened booth and held out his hand to shake Dave’s when he approached. “Congratulations. I hear you got played like a Stradivarius,” Joel cackled.
“What are you talking about?”
“Sit down, you dumb shit, and let me explain.”
According to Joel, Jules knew all along that Argot would never finance a film that portrayed the studio’s founder in such an unfavorable light. The mogul also knew that if he made a big enough stink about it, everyone would want to produce it.
“The thing is that when shits like Jules are in power, then everybody’s afraid of them. But the moment they’re on the downslide, it’s payback time. Schadenfreude on the rocks.”
“Why did Jules want the script in the first place?” Dave asked, now completely thrown.
“He told you he wanted you to write the truth and his story told, warts and all. Maybe it’s his idea of atonement, though I never figured him for the religious type. Anyway, that’s why he needed a writer who was known to be pissed at him.”
“Then why didn’t he just say so to me?”
“He wasn’t going to tell you his plan. Writers are notorious blabbermouths. They might tell someone. Like me.’’
“But I wouldn’t have.”
“He wasn’t going to run that risk. Didn’t you learn anything from writing that script? You’re dealing with Jules Azenberg, baby. To him you’re just a cog in the wheel, a means to an end.”
On the cab ride home, Dave replayed the conversation over and over. By the time he crawled into bed, he concluded that it possessed its own peculiar Hollywood logic. Jules had always been a brilliant maestro, keeping the woodwinds and strings and brass all going at the same time, each making his own contribution to a warped symphony.
Yes, I’d been played. Big time. But Dave didn’t blame himself for not attempting to outmaneuver someone as Machiavellian as Jules Azenberg. Only in his scripts could Dave conjure up cunning and duplicity – though never anything as elaborate as what Jules had just pulled off. Which explained why writers resided in Hollywood hell. And always would.