Six Degrees of Denigration

Backbiting and betrayal never go out of style in Hollywood—thank God.

Indefatigable foreign correspondent turned New York Times Hollywood correspondent Sharon Waxman is one of the finest showbiz reporters on earth, and one of the worst writers. She's a heat-seeking news missile, capable of penetrating the hardened bunkers of the industry's Saddam-like liars and bringing lively truths to light. But you'd have to turn to Quentin Tarantino to find a famous person more incompetent at handling the basics of English prose. I say: So what? Her book on Tarantino and his bad-boy confreres Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze is an exhilarating explosion in an anecdote factory, a Mr. Toad's wild ride through indie cinema, a scholarly document that can stand proudly on your bookshelf alongside Peter Biskind's infinitely more literate classics Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures. Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System (HarperEntertainment, $25.95) works beautifully on several levels, starting with down-and-dirty gossip. The familiar story of Tarantino's Machiavellian skyrocket ascent, his anal flame burning all his former friends to crispy bits, takes on a new freshness in Waxman's brisk telling. He trashes his mom's house making his first movie, My Best Friend's Birthday (written by his fellow loser best friend, Craig Hamann), turns it into the beginning of True Romance, rips off some or much of his other loser best friend Roger Avary's scripts that became the rest of True Romance and Pulp Fiction, screws his producer friend Rand Vossler out of directing Natural Born Killers, spreads self-mythologizing lies about his mother, and coldly cuts her off. It's not just bad behavior, it's the golden recipe for success in the movies. "Don't hang out with your pals from Torrance when you can hang out with John Travolta and Uma Thurman," screwed-over former friend Vossler explains. When Tarantino called his longtime manager Cathryn Jaymes, who was sitting in the rubble of her apartment after the 1994 earthquake, she thought he was going to ask how she was; instead, he explained that he was dumping her. Similarly, he asked recovering addict Hamann to help him stage the syringe-in-Uma's-chest scene in Pulp Fiction. Hamann made it happen; then Tarantino dumped him. The book is a compendium of bad rebel behavior. Russell and George Clooney exchange nasty notes, malevolent mind games, and physical head butts on the dusty desert set of Three Kings. Potheads Russell and Alexander Payne hatch a plot to have Russell streak naked across the stage during a Russell tribute at the Museum of Modern Art, where Russell had once been a lowly waiter. When William H. Macy and Julianne Moore tell Anderson his script for Magnolia seems a little long (Anderson had envisioned a five-hour film), he gave them the same reply: "You fucking cocksucker, I'm not going to cut one word!" Virtually every cast member of Fight Club gets injured from incessant fisticuffs, a metaphor for the filmmaking method of pugilistic director David "Doberman" Fincher. Spike Jonze cruelly shuts fiancée Sofia Coppola out of his boys' club of directors that formed a hot indie production company. (She got even by caricaturing him as the suck-up rock-video director in Lost in Translation.) But it's not just gossip; Rebels adds up to a detailed study of how indie cinema really works. You do what you must to impose your ruthless will. You go eyeball to eyeball with the uncomprehending studio suits, and when things work just right, you smuggle through a subversive hit like Boogie Nights. Sometimes you wind up with a bomb like Schizopolis. And it's not just brute willpower that prevails. Mainstream movies could learn a big lesson from Jonze's use of test screenings for Being John Malkovich. Instead of the stupid standard focus-group process that Bainbridge Island filmmaker Alan Rudolph calls the "fuck-us group," in which poorly selected test audiences answer formulaic questions that give dubious numerical ratings of their supposed enthusiasm over various aspects of the film, Jonze quizzed them on what, specifically, they thought was happening in his complicated story. Their misunderstandings helped him clarify the plot and the characters' relationships. Instead of trying to reduce emotions to statistics, Jonze got useful feedback that made the film better—not dumber. Though Waxman's narrative is scattershot and confusing, cutting from film to film and director to director in a way that could have used some test-reader input prior to publication, her book is packed with entertainment and enterprise. But somebody should send Waxman to an emergency remedial school for writers. She favors clichés so dead they stink like the raining frogs in Magnolia, and she butchers the language in lazily wayward sentences composed on editorial autopilot: "For Jaymes, like for critics and fans, Tarantino's ability to synthesize the culture was entirely unique, and more than enough to be thankful for in a movie world dominated by studio pap." Still, she knows how to root out juicy stories in a movie-reporting world dominated by studio lies and news-free press releases. When Waxman's on the beat, not even Hollywood can keep its secrets.

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