Blogs > Cliopatria > Kirk Bane: Review of Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood

Sep 9, 2009 7:46 pm

Kirk Bane: Review of Graydon Carter's Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood

Graydon Carter’s compelling new compendium, Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood (New York: Penguin, 2008), examines the making of thirteen “of the most iconic films and classic flops in cinema history”: The Magnificent Ambersons, All About Eve, Rebel Without a Cause, Sweet Smell of Success, The Best of Everything, Cleopatra, The Graduate, The Producers, Midnight Cowboy, Myra Breckinridge, Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, and Reds. Carter’s book tells “the story behind the story,” exploring how each movie “was conceived, how it was assembled, and generally who did what to whom…Who doesn’t want to know about the knockdowns, the hissy fits, the brawls, and the breakdowns?”

Carter has edited Vanity Fair since 1992. Tales of Hollywood features articles by Peter Biskind, Steven Daly, Laura Jacobs, David Kamp, Sam Kashner, Sam Staggs, and James Wolcott, seven of the magazine’s best writers. In short, this is film history at its most entertaining and informative. While every essay is worth reading, two particularly merit discussion.

In “Dangerous Talents,” Sam Kashner deftly analyzes the “electric” teenage drama, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Thoughtfully helmed by Nick Ray, it starred James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. Kashner contends that the true iconoclast on set was director Ray, not Dean. The maverick filmmaker, a fast-living libertine who followed his own code, obviously impressed his twenty-four year old lead. Susan Schwartz, Ray’s widow (and fourth wife), wondered,”What was all the fuss about Dean when Dean was so clearly…aping Nick?” And Jim Jarmusch, one of Ray’s film students, maintained that his mentor was “the outcast Hollywood rebel, white hair, black eye patch, and a head full of subversion and controlled substances.”

Subversion, indeed. A drug abuser, heavy drinker, and audacious gambler who sometimes dropped “$30,000 in a night,” Ray was attracted to his young actors. Before filming began, the forty-three year old auteur became lovers with Wood. Ray may also have had an affair with Mineo. At the time, both Natalie and Sal were sixteen.

Ray and Dean were kindred spirits. Writer Gavin Lambert, one of the director’s lovers, described them as “deeply introverted loners…distrustful of all authority (but especially studio executives), hungry for love but wary of involvement.” Recognizing Dean’s brilliance, Ray welcomed his input. Together, they created “dangerous magic” in their “celebrated movie about juvenile delinquents.” Following the film’s completion, Ray and Dean planned to start an independent production company. “You know,” Ray asserted, “if you have the artist in front of the camera, protected by the artist behind the camera, you have your freedom.” However, Dean’s death in a car crash on September 30, 1955, “scarcely a week before” the movie’s opening, dashed these hopes. Actor Frank Mazzola, who played one of the film’s gang members, declared, “When Jimmy checked out, it really took a big chunk away from Nick’s dream…With Jimmy, Ray could’ve been the biggest thing in the world.”

Ray never made another major motion picture after 1962, when he suffered a heart attack while shooting the Charlton Heston epic, 55 Days at Peking. His relentless lifestyle had taken its toll. For the next seventeen years, the self-destructive former filmmaker lived as a nomad. Movie prospects came and went. One of Ray’s aborted projects was a documentary on the Chicago Seven. He died of cancer on June 16, 1979.

Over the course of his tumultuous career, Ray directed a number of significant films, including They Live by Night (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), The Lusty Men (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), Bigger than Life (1956), and King of Kings (1961). But Rebel ranks as his masterpiece. “If they’re still showing Rebel Without a Cause twenty years from now,” Ray once observed, “then it can stand as my epitaph.” (In the summer of 2009, Film Forum presented “Nick Ray,” a fourteen-picture retrospective. Rebel, of course, was featured.)

On the night of April 7, 1970, director John Schlesinger’s X-rated Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture at the 42nd Academy Awards. In his incisive essay, “Midnight Revolution,” Peter Biskind avers that “Hollywood would never be the same…This was a dramatic moment, pregnant with historic significance, marking…the symbolic transfer of power from Old Hollywood to New.” (Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, though, “paved the way” at the 1968 Oscars.)

Critics condemned the film’s raw, unsettling content. While Rex Reed proclaimed that it was “a collage of screaming, crawling, vomiting humanity,” Variety deemed Midnight Cowboy “generally sordid.” But moviegoers, particularly New Yorkers, embraced it, lining up for blocks to purchase tickets. According to Michael Childers, Schlesinger’s assistant on the picture, “there was a 10-minute ovation” on opening night (May 25, 1969). Midnight grossed almost $45 million and earned seven Oscar nominations, winning three.

Schlesinger’s film concerned the relationship between cowboy gigolo Joe Buck and his con man friend, crippled consumptive Ratso Rizzo, in late Sixties New York. According to Biskind, Midnight Cowboy “rescues a true humanism” from “a cesspool of dark, foul, even taboo material—drugs, illness, passionless sex, both straight and gay.”

A “handful of lavishly talented people” created the film. These artists included Oxford-educated director Schlesinger, blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt, acclaimed composer John Barry, who contributed the memorably “mournful” theme, and the film’s two brilliant leads, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Biskind lauds the two young actors. Midnight Cowboy, he declares, “makes us a gift of one of the landmark performances of movie history: Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, with Voight’s Joe Buck a close second.”

Readers may be surprised to learn that none other than the King of Rock and Roll expressed an interest in playing stud Joe Buck. Michael Childers recalled that “Elvis Presley’s person from MGM said, ‘If you’d clean up this script, get rid of some of the smut, it could be a vee-hicle for Elvis!’”

“Today,” Biskind states, Schlesinger’s movie “provides a spellbinding glimpse—etched in acid—of how we lived then.” Unquestionably, Midnight Cowboy stands as one of Hollywood’s milestone films. A genuine work of art, it should not be missed.

Pop culture students, especially those interested in cinema history, will relish Carter’s superb essay collection. If we’re lucky, he’s hard at work on the sequel.

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