The screenwriter’s challenge for Act Two is seamlessly threading the studio mogul’s public and private lives. 2,260 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Four. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
The second act of his screenplay, the Untitled Jules Azenberg Biopic – First Draft, gave Dave problems as second acts generally do. Determined to push ahead, he rose every morning at seven and, hangover or not, sat down at the typewriter with a pot of coffee and waited for his fingers to magically click into action. On a day when his hands just sat there stiffly poised on the keys and not a single coherent scene emerged, Dave took a break. He and his pal Joel Rodgers went out on the town for a movie, dinner and drinks at Trader Vic’s where Joel regaled him with the details of the latest showbiz scandal. Dave listened, but without much enthusiasm. Like most current gossip, it was graphic and tawdry and destroyed what little illusion was left about movie stars’ private lives. What was Hollywood without glamour? Without fantasy?
When the muse finally revisited Dave, she came equipped with a metaphor. Act Two opens with Jules at a gaming table tossing dice in a visual motif establishing the studio mogul as an inveterate gambler and a smart one at that. For Jules proves himself an expert crapshooter, knowing exactly how long to play, how high to raise the stakes, and when to walk away from the table.
By the early 1930s, his Argot Pictures is on a roll. Most of its B-movie competitors fall by the wayside, victims of the Depression. Argot slowly buys up all the rivals and establishes itself as a viable rival to the A-list studios like MGM and Warner Bros. Here, the script hones close to the real story by assigning Jules due credit. Given his brother Mort’s cautious nature, Argot might have survived the transition to sound but not the economic reversal of the times. It took more than business savvy to keep Argot afloat: it took Jules’ ingenuity and daring.
His risky gamble is to jump head-first into larger budget movies at a time when everyone else, including the established major studios, is cutting corners. And for that he needs an ally because Jules feels inferior to the task of convincing talent to sign with Argot rather than a more deep-pocketed institution like MGM. He needs someone with the polish and finesse to talk to theater types. So he enlists a celebrated and ceaselessly charming German-born director and appoints him vice president of production. It’s a curious choice and, at first, the board expresses concern that a creative type will run financially amuck.
Dave has some fun with the character based on Heinz Wachsberger, depicting him as larger than life and unfailingly Teutonic. The gasps of horror and discomfort from the stodgy board members also provide some welcome comic relief. But the helmer proves them wrong. He is both astute and pragmatic. Talent sees him as one of their own, which establishes a rare bond between management and the creative side of the business. In one scene, he and Jules travel to New York where the studio head happily takes a back seat while the director cajoles marquee names. As a result, Jules returns to Hollywood with a small cadre of quality talent as well as the rights to several of the Broadway season’s most popular stage dramas.
As a filmmaker, the Wachsberger character always knows when to flatter and when to put his foot down. He brings those tactical skills to his executive job. When talent balks at his demands, he simply blames Jules, who givesn him full permission to do so. (“They already see me as the enemy, so what’s the big deal?” the studio mogul confides to his subordinate.) Though Hollywood histories credit Jules with having an innate sense of what the public wants to see on the big screen, the screenplay maintains it’s Wachsberger who truly understands the delicate mix between artistry and entertainment. Jules proves to be an apt pupil, which comes in handy over the long term.
Argot not only has financial success in the 1930s but takes home two Best Picture Oscars as well. By the end of the decade it’s a full-fledged A-list studio with an enviable roster of talent. But in Dave’s script, Jules’ professional success is counterbalanced by his destructive personal behavior.
Doris Pincus, his convenient wife, proves to be his undoing. Even if he was ever faithful to her, he’s certainly not the dutiful husband for long. For dramatic purposes, Dave has him cheat on her as soon as their wedding night with one of the coquettish waitresses at the reception. Doris isn’t let off easily either, portrayed as cold and withholding. When Jules seeks comfort in the arms of every ingenue who walks through the studio’s wrought-iron gates, it’s as much due to his wife’s neglect as his own cupidity.
For a newly minted studio mogul’s wife, Doris possesses all the nouveau riche pretensions of her social set for whom philanthropy is merely a pretext for social climbing. Any regard she has for her husband is because he’s a Hollywood mover and shaker who elevates her standing in the showbiz community. Dave reads several histories depicting Doris as the power behind the throne who counsels Jules on scripts and talent. But the screenwriter sees Jules’ own memos contradicting that assertion as do the testimony of several eyewitnesses whom Dave and Joel interview.
Ever the astute politician, the Wachsberger character befriends Doris and is only too happy to give her credit for some of his accomplishments. Doris claims, for instance, that she discovered the gangly British Cockney actor Miles Carter (born Otis Mickleton) who becomes Argot’s most sophisticated leading man. The director-turned-executive gladly defers to her and always remembers to thank her at the premiere of every Carter film — only the hits, of course — since flattering the boss’s wife never hurt anyone. The pair also become wicked bridge partners.
Dave’s challenge for Act Two is seamlessly threading Jules’ public and private life. To add flavor and texture, he decides to include a couple of thinly disguised and relatively unknown anecdotes about the Argot talent roster, which he unearths from Jules’ correspondence. The first storyline centers on Robert Jeffries, one of Argot’s most talented and self-destructive stars who is arrested during a raid at an exclusive Beverly Hills whorehouse. Jules is forced to eat humble pie and ask his father-in-law Abner Pincus to intercede with the police to keep the scandal out of the newspapers. Jeffries then impregnates the daughter of Beverly Hills’ mayor. At Jules’ behest, Pincus arranges for a discreet abortion, then lords the favor over his son-in-law for years to come.
A more light-hearted episode deals with Jules’ efforts to undermine Lorraine Myers, the overzealous stage mother of his top musical comedy star Priscilla Saint John. The ambitious Myers inserts herself into Argot as studio casting director by making it a stipulation of Priscilla’s long-term contract. Though Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn both bid for Priscilla’s services, neither give Myers a base of power, which proves to be Jules’ bargaining chip. In return, Jules extracts more favorable financial terms for Priscilla.
But Myers is less concerned about money than in advancing her daughter into dramatic roles. Her casting position ensures that Priscilla get first crack at all the best scripts and that no serious rival emerges from the studio roster. In one of Dave’s interviews, an Argot contract player confirms that Myers stood in the way of her consideration for any A-list projects.
Dave discovers that Myers has a taste for cocaine so Jules arranges for a fake drug bust to keep her in check. But in his script Dave substitutes a more palatable scandal: Myers is having an affair with a Bugsy Siegel type and Jules threatens to expose her sordid love life.
The culmination of the second act, though, is a series of scenes dealing with the acrimonious dissolution of Jules’ marriage. For years, Doris endures his petty infidelities which don’t last long. Until Jules meets a former Ziegfeld showgirl, Adela Jean Moriarty, at a New Year’s Eve party in New York. She’s impossibly tall with cascading natural blonde hair and Mediterranean blue-green eyes. She’s also bright and sharp-witted. In describing her, Dave paraphrases a line from one of his favorite 1930s comedies: “At least Adela Jean made him pay for what he wanted, not for what he didn’t want."
By the time Doris learns of Adela Jean’s existence, Jules settles the starlet in a Malibu beach house only a mile from the official Azenberg seaside compound. But then Jules makes a fatal error: he proposes marriage. Adela Jean turns him down. She has no intention of sitting around and marking time until she is replaced by a newer model. When she threatens to walk, Jules is reduced to begging. His dream, he confesses to her, is to beget several blonde-haired blue-eyed children.
Dave confirms the story from three different sources. But no one is exactly sure how Doris finds out about this very private conversation. But she goes right to her father with it. The Pincus family lawyer warns Jules that the affair has to end, but the threats make the studio mogul all the more resolute to convince Adela Jean to marry him and have his kids.
So Doris then embarks on a whisper campaign and soon all of Hollywood hears about Jules’ unorthodox proposal. Normally the boys’ club pulls together over such matters, but even in a town where vows of marriage are written on wax paper, Jules’ desire to make his mistress the first lady of Argot Pictures is met with disapproval. Jack Warner tells him to back off and so does Darryl Zanuck. But Jules refuses. Misguidedly believing that the best defense is a strong offense, Jules recklessly begins escorting Adela Jean out in public to official – and wife only – industry events. According to Hollywood’s moral code, having a starlet on one’s arm is acceptable behavior for a mogul. But another matter entirely to appear in the society pages with his harlot.
In retaliation, Doris decides to break a few rules of her own. She invites a prominent gossip columnist to lunch and trots out the Argot Pictures dirty laundry. Normally, the newswoman wouldn’t touch that kind of story for fear of being banned from the studio lot and losing access to talent. But Doris enlists other studio wives to help her. The gossip columnist runs with the story in return for several exclusives that more than compensate her for incurring Jules’ enmity.
When the story breaks, it breaks big in hundreds of newspapers across the country. Normally, the public has little interest in the peccadilloes of a studio mogul. But the gossip columnist has an ace up her sleeve: her “close personal friend,”New York’s Cardinal O’Hare. His Holiness provides a quote for her column stating that Jules and Adela Jean’s affair is further proof of Hollywood’s moral bankruptcy and urging all good Christians to boycott Argot films and its nationwide chain of theaters.
The prelate’s pronouncement has little effect on the studio’s box office fortunes. But, in terms of internal studio politics, it is devastating. At the next Argot board meeting, Jules is ordered to give up Adela Jean. When he balks, Doris has no other recourse than to file for divorce, naming Adela Jean as correspondent. The ex-Mrs. Azenberg wins full custody of their two sons and turns them against their father. Doris also strips him of all his property – the Beverly Hills mansion, the Malibu beach house, the New York and Paris apartments, as well as a sizable chunk of his cash assets. Jules is undeterred, convincing himself that after he’s made one fortune he can make another. But, just in case, he keeps a secret off-shore bank account.
In his lovesick mind, Jules imagines that Adela Jean now will take pity and marry him. He’s wrong. As his assets dwindle, so does her attention. Six months after the divorce, Adela Jean leaves him for a Wall Street financier. She dies in the 1950s a hopeless alcoholic. But a rich hopeless alcoholic.
Dave decides to transfer the Adela Jean affair more or less intact into the screenplay. He even has a casting suggestion to play Jules’ love interest – Faye Dunaway, because of her recent breakout performance in Bonnie And Clyde.
Jules does not see his sons again until just after WWII is declared. Whatever Jules’ shortcomings, as a father he sincerely believes in the continuity of family and in his own way loves his sons. Frantic with worry, he tries to enlist his former father-in-law’s help to secure the boys’ safe commissions as he has done for several of his draft-age male stars. But Jules is rebuffed and accused of being unpatriotic.
In the screenplay Dave fashions a poignant final meeting between the father and his two estranged sons. Jules waits in a limousine outside his ex-wife’s home. His sons come home to say goodbye. They are clearly not pleased to see their father who apologizes for his personal failures and begs them to listen to reason. (“I don’t want to lose you,” he says. "It’s too late,” his older son replies.) The two young men head toward the house and greet their mother warmly. When she sees Jules, Doris slams the door in his face.
In the next scene, Jules is again sitting on a park bench and looking across the way, this time at the ghosts of his two boys. They do not acknowledge him, even in death.
End of Act Two.