On Hollywood

Growing up in Los Angeles meant that the movie business was all around me, but I never had anything to do with it and didn't pay too much attention. Nevertheless, my path has crossed that of Hollywood in some unexpected ways, but not always because of where I came from.

The oldest connection turned out to be one of the kids who lived across the street when my parents bought a new house in 1955. That was Brian Grazer, who later made a name for himself by producing two movies directed by Ron Howard, Night Shift (1982) and Splash (1984). His own connection with Hollywood came early, since his uncle, Bernie Kowalski (1929-2007), was a busy director, especially of television shows like the original Mission Impossible. Bernie had very delightful daughters, Brian's cousins. I kind of miss them.

Night Shift had starred the then very popular Henry Winkler and introduced both Michael Keaton and Shelley Long, but Splash was Brian's first a substantial hit and now is especially significant for introducing Tom Hanks to the big screen. It was also a memorable performance by the late John Candy (1950-1994). Eventually Brian's movies achieved blockbuster status, with Apollo 13 (1995, M$172 US domestic boxoffice), Ransom (1996, M$136), Liar, Liar (1997, M$181), Dr. Seuss' How the Rinch Stole Christmas (2000, M$260), and A Beautiful Mind (2001, M$171).

A Beautiful Mind won the Academy Award for Best Picuture of 2001 but generated some small controversy because of how it revised and omitted some facts about John Nash's life and illness. What received less notice, though it did not go unremarked if one looked, was the way in which the movie misrepresented Nash's mathematical work. This is probably not Brian's fault; but it is certainly characteristic of what usually happens when Hollywood tries to tackle a "serious" subject. However, Brian's distortions were modest compared, for example, to Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, which is offensive in its level of misrepresentation.

None of that, of course, was evident in 1955. Brian was just one the principal kids in the neighborhood, so I saw a lot of him until his family moved out to Northridge in the West (San Fernando) Valley around 1964, when we were both in junior high school. Even then we saw the family with some regularity, since Brian's parents kept inviting my parents to their traditional Christmas Eve party, which includes Brian's grandparents, cousins, etc. As time went on, however, Brian and I did not have much in common or remain very good friends, though it was interesting to see him every year. Eventually his parents divorced, and his mother planned to sell their Northridge house. He was missing from the very last Christmas Eve party out there, in 1981, because he was already back East filming Night Shift. After that, when his mother moved away, I actually never saw any of his family again -- except for his younger brother Gavin who stopped by the old neighborhood a couple of times.

It was then an interesting surprise when Splash came out and I discovered that just about the most unpleasant person in the film was named "Dr. Ross"! His characterization by Eugene Levy may have played when this file loaded. Since I had already been in graduate school for a doctorate in philosophy (since 1972) the last time I saw Brian, I had little doubt that this was a tribute, or a reference, or whatever, to me -- although I still had a couple of years to go for that doctorate. When I wrote Brian at his studio about it, however, I never got any answer. Perhaps he was afraid that I might sue him if he made any such admission, since it was not a flattering character of whom to be the eponym. Nevertheless, I don't mind being the original, in some fashion, for the unpleasant Dr. Ross.

John Nash (1928-2015) taught at Princeton, where A Beautiful Mind was actually flimed and where my wife was teaching at the time. One of her students had a video of star Russell Crowe giving her the finger; but she refused to sell it to the media. I don't know why not. It would have gone for some real money. Sadly, Nash was killed in an accident on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2015, while taking a limo back from Newark Airport. This was after I had moved to Princeton to join my wife, and we have used such limos many times. It seemed like a particularly pointless way for such a life to end.

One of my students at Valley College worked at a firm that was the business manager or accountants, I'm not sure which, for Brian. He would stop by occasionally; and once my student told him that she was in my class, where I had mentioned Brian. He remembered me, of course, and remarked on the fun we had on Weddington Street; but I still never heard from him.

There have been two pieces about Brian in The Wall Street Journal that I have noticed. One was in their regular "House Call" feature, which visited him at his home in Santa Monica [September 4, 2019]. One thing that struck me was him mentioning that in high school, "I wasn't bullied. In fact, I was like Robin Hood. I'd fight bullies to save kids who were being picked on." I wasn't in school with Brian at that point, after he moved to the West Valley; but years earlier, before we were even teens, he was a bit of a bully himself. That went on until I realized that I was bigger than he was. Fighting back just once stopped his behavior. Perhaps he took it to heart.

The other Wall Street Journal piece was a 2015 column by Alexandra Wolfe, written because of Brian's book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life [with Charles Fishman, Simon & Schuster, 2015]. This was also an interview with Brian in Santa Monica. It focused on what Brian called his "curiosity conversations," which involved "his regular practice of seeking out and meeting people outside of the film industry." This was to make connections, expand his horizons, and perhaps get ideas for new movies. All sort of public figures were involved, but one case, at least, didn't go well. When he met Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), Mrs. Asimov "told him that he didn't know enough about Mr. Asimov's work to sustain the conversation," and they left. This encouraged him to do a bit more homework before his meetings.

After reading that, I reflected that perhaps Brian had never been that curious about philosophy. He knew by then that I had been teaching at Valley College. And he would have had no difficulty finding me on the Internet. If he wasn't going to take me seriously as a philosopher, well, I think he could have confirmed that impression by consulting most academic philosophers, who largely ignore The Proceedings of the Friesian School. But, one way or another, he doesn't seem to have thought to ever consult me, curiosity or not.

You never know. Perhaps Brian harbors some disagreeable memories, or worries that I might still sue him over "Dr. Ross" in Splash. In any case, it is getting a bit late in our lives to return to old, very old, friendships. I do remember Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) recounting how, in old age, he would try and contact old friends in late night phonecalls. Other people remark how a bit of alcohol can facilitate such a practice.

I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years. [Slaughterhouse-Five ]

But when old friends seem to fall away, sometimes over political differences, I reflect that it should not always be my job to restore relations. Or, Brian could worry that I might pitch King Harald's Saga, the Movie. I'm sure he gets that a lot in LA.

My path next crossed Hollywood when I made some new friends at my junior high school. These included one Joseph Irving Hyams IV -- Jay Hyams -- who turned out to be the son of Joe Hyams (Joseph Irving Hyams III, 1923-2008), a writer whose pieces had appeared, among other places, in Playboy magazine.

Jay was part of a great group of friends, who I got to know for all too short a time. They had regular tournaments playing the board games Risk and Diplomacy, which was all great fun. Later, in Austin, I had a group of friends who also played regular games of Risk and Diplomacy, sometimes at my own apartment.

Unfortunately, when we graduated junior high in 1965, Jay moved back East. It turned out that his parents were getting divorced, and his father, whom I never met, was going to be marrying the actress Elke Sommer (whom I never met either -- she was in the second Pink Panther movie, A Shot in the Dark [1964]).

Jay's mother was too unhappy about all this even to remain in California. Although Jay and I maintained a correspondence for a little while, we soon lost touch. So I have no clue as to his future. Years later I actually bought a little book Joe Hyams had written on Zen Buddhism. The last I had heard anything about it then, he was still married to Elke Sommer and living in a large house in Beverly Glen. Now, however, I have been informed that he and Elke divorced, he remarried, and then moved to Colorado, before his death.

Jay has written several books himself, including a book about James Dean written with his father [1994] and several other books about movies and even art. Otherwise, Jay has translated many books from Italian, worked for Italian publishers, and even taught in Italy. Sounds like fun.

One night in 1980, I met Joel Coen at a party in New York. He said he and his brother, Ethan, had written a film script called "Blood Simple." They planned to make a trailer to raise money.

I told him I had a camera. I was hired. The film we eventually shot was a success. I became a cinematographer, then a director and producer.

Barry Sonnenfeld, cinematographer on Blood Simple, "A Momma's Boy Cuts the Cord," "House Call," The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2020, p.M12.

My third connection to Hollywood came from a most unexpected quarter. When I was living in Austin, Texas, in the late 70's, a good friend of mine was in the linguistics department. I'll call her "Nan" [note].

She was originally from Ohio, but had come to graduate school at the University of Texas after living in New York City for some years. Her boyfriend there was an aspiring film maker named Joel Coen. Eventually, early in 1979, she and Joel got married, and he moved to Austin. When I moved out of my apartment that June, I seem to remember even passing on my bed to them, as they set up a household.

Unfortunately, their marriage didn't last out the year -- I just hope it wasn't because of my bed, around which my own first marriage had come to an end. I guess it wasn't a lucky bed for any of us. Indeed, it had an inauspicious beginning. When my first wife and I bought it at Good Will in Austin in 1975 and tied it to the top of our 1965 Volkswagen Squareback, we were almost immediately rear-ended while waiting at a light driving away from the Good Will store. The driver behind us simply rolled into us, so it was a very low impact hit, but it left a dent in the body of the car the whole rest of the time until the car was totalled, in a more violent rear end collision, in 1980.

I was away for the summer of 1979, and when I got back to Austin in the fall, I called up the Coen house. Nan was away, but Joel was there, with his brother Ethan. I went over, and the three of us actually went out to a movie. Now, in retrospect, I'd really like to remember which movie that was. I didn't realize until Nan returned to Austin herself that she and Joel had already broken up. He hadn't mentioned it. She was even already involved with her future next husband, whom she had met in the linguistics department. Joel and Ethan moved back to New York, where we see above that they met Barry Sonnenfeld.

These events were interesting in light of Joel and Ethan's first big Hollywood movie, Blood Simple (1984). It is set in Austin and is the story of a man who hires a shady private detective to murder his wife and her lover (!). The detective only pretends to do so, but then ends up killing everyone involved, except the wife, who manages, in what many critics referred to as the gross-out scene of the year, to kill the detective instead. The Austin locations are striking and characteristic, and the house and neighborhood used are dead ringers for the house that Nan and Joel actually shared.

We all rather liked Dashiell Hammett stories in those days, and it turned out that the title of the movie was an allusion to a line in Hammett's Red Harvest -- the story upon which the later movies Yojimbo [1961], Fistful of Dollars [1964], and Last Man Standing [1996] were based. The classic Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars were among the subjects of a class taught at the University of Texas by my friend Lynn Burson on corresponding Japanese movies and Westerns. As it happens, Last Man Standing, although poorly received, is the closest adaptation of Red Harvest.

A later movie by Joel and Ethan, Miller's Crossing (1990) was a splendid rendering of Hammett's The Glass Key -- a meditation on friendship before Hammett got beyond his misogyny in The Thin Man-- a fact rarely noted by critics.

Unlike many people living in LA, I was not working on a movie or television script. Nor did I hope to break into acting. But I did read Daily Variety over lunch, after teaching my morning classes, and I do treasure the peculiar connections that I have had to the movie business.

It was after reading reviews in Daily Variety I headed directly to see Home Alone [1990] and The Sixth Sense [1999]. They sounded great; and they were.

Now, of course, Daily Variety is no more, and I have retired and moved to New Jersey. I have actually posted a treatment for a movie, King Harald's Saga, The Movie, but have no more intention or ability to write a movie script than I would have before. I'm not likely to run into Joel Coen, or even Barry Sonnenfeld, at a party.

Living an hour or less away from Manhattan, I now have my own experiences of the place, which has often involved the disappointment of favorite bars and restaurants closing, including the Atlantic Chip Shop in Brooklyn, where I enjoyed a British version of fried "shrimp and chips" and deep fried Twinkies -- which I had learned about, to the horror of my wife, from seeing a fried food documentary while still living in Los Angeles.

I remember a couple of Nan's comments about New York, one that New Yorkers are so neurotic that they will talk to anyone. I'm not sure I have seen this, although I have found that sometimes giving money to panhandlers in Penn Station or near the Port Authority Bus Terminal encourages them to talk rather than go away. I've really never gotten into conversations in bars, where one might expect that, although a couple of bartenders have been very friendly -- as at one of the bar/restaurants that closed -- e.g. Chevy's Mexican Grill on West 42nd Street.

Nan also said that she thought that New Yorkers were unfriendly on the outside but friendlier on the inside than Texans, who otherwise are overtly and famously more friendly -- even with the great motto, "Drive Friendly." I'm not sure I have seen this either, although I have definitely encountered unfriendly New Yorkers, including an old lady on the Coney Island Boardwalk who threatened to hit me with her walker. And "Drive Friendly" certainly does not apply to Manhattan. I have never made friends easily, either in California, Hawaii, Texas, in the East, or elsewhere. My remaining friends are those with whom I have been thrown together at times, mainly in college.

Some perspective on what to think about the moral tone and ethic of Hollywood we can see in a couple of movies. These are not unique, but I like them in particular.

One is Redbelt [2008], written and directed by David Mamet. A martial arts instructor, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, becomes involved with some movie makers and martial arts promoters. He is given an expensive watch as a gift. This turns out to be stolen; and when the police get involved, Ejiofor and his wife are suddenly cut off from all the movie connections that they have been making. He has also discovered that the martial arts events that the movie makers have been staging are fixed. In the climax of the movie, Ejiofor crashes a live, staged event and beats down the corrupt competitors. The film was modestly successful with critics and audiences.

The movie was made about the time that David Mamet became disillusioned with "liberal" politics. He got serious about his religon, Judaism, and began writing sharply critical political works. Redbelt is clearly what he thinks of Hollywood, after his own involvement for many years. In a way, it is encouraging that such a movie could be made; but the corruption in the industry, financial, political, and personal, goes much deeper than we see here. It is unlikely that one movie could expose it all, and recently the most conspicuous phenomenon may be the political self-righteousness of actors, producers, etc. all the more blatant in comparison to their hypocrisy. They are privileged, complacent, isolated people who think they are the Vanguard of the Revolution, while indifferent to the crime, among other things, that the Democrats have unleashed on Americans.

The other movie I want to note is The Loved One [1965], brilliantly adapted from the book The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy [1948], by Evelyn Waugh. This is, of all things, a Los Angeles funeral industry story and a parody of the Forest Lawn cemeteries. At the beginning of the movie, John Gielgud plays a production assistant at a large Hollywood movie studio. He is hopelessly working as a dialect coach trying to help a hick actor develop an English accent.

One day, he shows up for work and discovers that someone else is now occupying his office. He has been fired, and his boss had not even bothered to inform him. This happens in Hollywood, where some people have reported over the years that they learned about their firing by reading of it in Daily Variety.

When Gielgud (who is lucky to have been allowed onto the studio lot) confronts his boss, all he gets is a quibble about how he pronounces the name of the new hire who now has his office. This is Mr. Medici, who has one of the most illustrious names in history. Gielgud pronounces it as we might expect, but the boss says that this sounds like a "Wop" name and is properly pronounced "Medeecee." The exchange is in the book, but the movie expands on it a bit; and the argument is more effective when we can hear the names pronounced.

Because Gielgud's character goes home and commits suicide, this leads to the movie's treatment of the funeral business. Another gem of the book and the movie is the name of Miss Thanatogenos, "Born of death" (perhaps, Θανατόγενος), a cosmetician at the funeral home. When my own mother was buried at Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills, I spoke to a cosmetician there about her treatment. I didn't tell her that I was thrilled to deal with an actual "Miss Thanatogenos."

The issue of he name "Medici" in the movie interests me in two ways. One is, of course, the bad faith, treachery, and ignorance of the studio boss. The other is the reluctance of many Italian-Americans to use the Italian pronunciation of their names. Thus, at the Weather Channel, meteorologist Jen Carfagno carefully parses her name as "Car-fag-no," with a hard "g," followed by "no." On the other hand, Fox News personality Emily Compagno maintains the palatalized "gn," like "ñ" in Spanish. On the Hispanic side, Congressman Devin Nunes writes and pronounces his name, which is clearly Spanish, without the "ñ." The Anglicized pronunciations I now think of as "full Medeecee." The punch of the Loved One case, of course, is that an educated person should be aware of who the Medicis were; and the bearer of such a name should have no interest in concealing its history.

The Officer Involved Shooting in Fargo

The "Alien" Movies

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2020, 2022 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D., Postumus Friesianorum, All Rights Reserved

Note to "Hollywood"

"Nan" is a ficticious name. The real name of the person has been concealed at her request, out of respect for her privacy. I notice that the page on the Coens at Wikipedia mentions that Joel "briefly enrolled in the graduate film program at the University of Texas at Austin, following a woman he had married who was in the graduate linguistics program." His wife is not named there either, and the marriage is not otherwise listed with his "spouse(s)" among the statistics about him.

The name "Nan" was suggested to me by the "Natalie Lambert" character, played by Catherine Disher (b.1960) on the late, lamented, Canadian vampire/policeman TV series, Forever Knight. Catherine Disher has nothing to do with Joel Coen or my linguistics friend, but, well, she's nice; and her abbreviated nickname reminds me of the name of my friend, the "woman... in the graduate linguistics program."

Curiously, "Nan's" actual nickname was the title of a 2018 move.

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