Category Archives: Company Town

When I Was At Morton’s

For nearly 30 years (but especially during the 1980s), Hollywood’s big, big money — its new, blockbuster money — converged, with era-defining consistency, on the corner of Robertson and Melrose at Morton’s, which Peter Morton opened in 1979 as a grown-up alternative to his Hard Rock Cafes. Come 7 p.m., nowhere else saw as much action: Power was spread out in Manhattan, but in Hollywood in those days, it resided in only one place. With all the deals discussed over those (only) 19 tables — including Eddie Murphy’s historic $15 million deal with Paramount in 1987 — it’s a wonder Morton didn’t hire a security guard and call his place an agency.

From being one of only three CAA-approved expense-account restaurants to the place where even the maitre d’ was a star (Rick Cicetti was cast by Larry Gordon and Joel Silver as a security guard in Die Hard), Morton’s pulled in an entire universe of movers and shakers — including Barry Diller, Ron Meyer, Alan Horn, Scott Rudin, former Columbia Pictures head Dawn Steel, former Time Warner CEO Steve Ross and former 20th Century Fox owner Marvin Davis — as well as celebrities (even Jack Nicholson felt comfortable eating at the bar alone). Unassuming on the outside, it had the industry juice to be the signoff to Spy’s biting Hollywood columns by the pseudonymous Celia Brady (“See you Monday night at Morton’s”), a central location for Julia Phillips’ roman-a-bile You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (the writer was banned after it came out) and the subject of New Hollywood lore:  It is said that when a man suffered a heart attack and was carried out on a gurney, nobody noticed amid all the dealmaking.

In 1994, when it moved across the street to the intersection’s southeast corner, Morton’s transformed from commissary to the epicenter of glamour, becoming known as the site of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s Oscar party (see sidebar.) While the old guard bemoaned the less clubby feel, the music biz also moved in, rounding out the restaurant’s twilight years. Jennifer Lopez threw her engagement party (to Cris Judd) there in 2001, and in 2002, Sony held its post-Grammys bash at Morton’s, with Celine Dion, Tony Bennett and Destiny’s Child attending. By the time Morton’s closed in 2007, says actor-writer Ben Stein, “It had passed its time by five or six years at least.”

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Why They Couldn’t Make Breakfast at Tiffany’s Today

This week, as the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, generations of fans old and new will amble up Fifth Avenue, press their noses to the shiny windows on 57th and remember their first times.

It will be a bittersweet day for me, however.

Sweet for all the right reasons, bitter because the age of the grown up Hollywood comedy is long behind us. Mind you, this isn’t nostalgia, it’s arithmetic: the people making the movies have changed and so have the people they’re making them for.

As a former seven to twelve year-old, I was a huge fan of sameness. That was the great thing about The Kids Menu. No matter where your parents took you, it was always the same. Pizza, pasta, grilled cheese, simple, familiar, benign. The perfect speed for a young person not ready for the Big Out There. That’s Hollywood today.

No offense to pizza, but this is tragic for those of us care to enjoy a piece of arugula from time to time.

Even more tragic for those of us who were eating off The Kids Menu when the likes of John Calley, the great and beloved studio chief who died three weeks ago, was in the kitchen.

A true master of the art of commercial art, Calley oversaw a successful series of highly diversified films, ranging honorably from healthy dreck to serious grown-up fare. For every meandering, money-grabbing Da Vinci Code on his tremendous resume, there was challenging, immortal A Clockwork Orange. For every dollar earned, in other words, there was a risk taken.

The very beautiful thing about this era of not-tool-long-ago is Calley wasn’t alone. There were others making money, making art. Fox’s Alan Ladd Jr. said yes to Star Wars and Harry and Tonto, a movie about an old guy and a cat; United-Artists’s David Picker agreed to Dr. No and Lenny, a movie about the price of making tough art; Paramount’s Richard Shepherd green-lit The Towering Inferno and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie about free love before the term even existed.

Alas, Shepherd wouldn’t get far with Breakfast at Tiffany’s today, at least not if he were making the grown up version we know and love. Out would go the subtle innuendo, European couture, moral ambiguity, and brilliant counterpoint casting of its good-girl star in a bad-girl part, and in their place, rim-shot jokes, the latest fashion trend, explicit messages, and safe, dependable typecasting. In other words, today’s Tiffany’s would be a film suited to the mundane demands of Hollywood’s most admiring customers: kids. Theirs is mainstream film’s greatest love affair.

No business likes risk, and lucky for Hollywood, younger audiences, prone to the pressures of “cool” and partial to formula, are about as risk-free as a demographic gets. They know what they like and they like what they know. Thus are the young supplied with sequels, franchises, remakes, and movies named after board games (Battleship will be released in 2012). Anything to serialize what has already been serialized before.

To be fair, this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as Hollywood’s first star, movies have tried to homogenize their product in a way that was mutually beneficial for both business and audiences.

If they like Cary Grant, the thinking went, give them Cary Grant movies. If they like Marilyn Monroe, maybe they’ll go for Kim Novak. Sometimes it even turned out well. But not anymore.

The very big, very small difference between then and now is back then, novelty had a commercial ring to it. Mixing proven types with risky, unproven material, like Audrey Hepburn (a franchise) plus Truman Capote’s (challenging, naughty) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was in 1961 an attention-grabbing combination. A gamble yes, but a gamble bold enough to win big: revoking homogeny, Richard Shepherd’s film was bigger than any single demographic alone. That meant kids, grown-ups, Hepburn’s fans, and Capote-lovers all had something to look forward to.

And thank goodness: Without that lucrative roll of the dice, the film would be little more than a serialized rehash of Audrey’s persona and hardly worth remembering today. Even if the movie failed, it would be worth remembering because, thanks to Shepherd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had prestige out of the gate. It pandered up.

The Sex Pistols’ late manager Malcolm McLaren observed ours was a karaoke world, an ersatz society. As long as his statement applies to Hollywood, and it does, we’ll never see the likes of an Audrey Hepburn in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s ever again.

Our Chateau

After seeing Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere – the most authentic evocation of L.A. life ever filmed – I couldn’t resist the opportunity to figure out why and how The Chateau Marmont, the setting for the movie, has come to represent our local attitude of luxury, isolation, and play. So I spoke with some of Hollywood’s shrewdest watchers and compiled an oral history which Angeleno published in this month’s (January) issue. The intro is below.

From Paris to Poughkeepsie, every city is in perpetual search of a metaphor for itself, but few are more conflicted about choosing their postcard than Los Angeles. Perhaps that’s because no one—inside the city or out—seems certain if it’s a good idea to have a good time.

By now, after 100 years of Hollywood, what is certain is that you can’t have a spotlight without a shadow. Those ubiquitous postcards of palm trees and the Hollywood sign? They might get top billing on the revolving racks, but they will never tell the whole truth about the myth. That honor is reserved for The Chateau Marmont.

After eight decades of whimsy, gloom and derelict amusement, L.A.’s centerpiece hotel—as elusive an icon as the city itself—has finally landed a starring film role. Opening December 22, Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a father/daughter romance starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning, lovingly positions the Chateau at the heart of the myth.

Built above a no-man’s-land stretch of Sunset Boulevard in 1927, the Chateau Marmont was originally perceived as out of the way—too far from Hollywood to be central and too far from Beverly Hills to be convenient. But that’s what made it inviting, at least to Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn, who set up William Holden and Glenn Ford in suite 54, where they could screw around without screwing up. If you’re going to get in trouble, he told them, “go to the Marmont.” And a myth was born.

All these years later, it’s still getting born. So how, in a city that burns up trends like diesel fuel, has L.A.’s favorite hideout stayed a hideout? Some of the hotel’s most devoted disciples have turned up for a guess and a story or two.

For the rest of the piece, please click here.

Federico y Ginger

Amid news of a Pac-Man movie, the latest casting developments in Captain America, reviews of Iron Man 2, new TV spots for The A-Team, and Fox’s announcement of a Planet of the Apes prequel, I excavated a small piece of encouragement: Pedro Almodovar will be working with Antonio Banderas once again. The film, The Skin I Live In, will begin shooting this summer.

“The film will be a terror film, without screams or scares,” Almodovar told the Spanish daily El Pais. “It’s difficult to define and although it comes close to the terror genre – something that appeals to me that I’ve never done – I won’t respect any of its rules. It’s the harshest film I’ve ever written and Banderas’ character is brutal.”

Throughout the eighties, Almodovar and Banderas made five films together – Labyrinth of Passion, Matador, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and finally Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – an impressive, versatile streak that, in its day, ranked with the greatest director/actor partnerships around. Back then, before Almodovar had fully cultivated his current, perversely mature sensibility, Antonio Banderas was the living embodiment of his world, Cary Grant to his Howard Hawks. Under Almodovar’s direction, the actor alternated between a screwball-state of flummoxed boyishness (like Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business, I Was A Male War Bride) and commanding manliness (like Grant in Only Angels Have Wings) – a duality appropriate to Almodovar’s madcap feeling for passionate behavior.

Together they forged new cinematic ground (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an NC-17 comedy about a stalker in love with a heroine addicted porn-star), pushing ahead into uncharted emotional territory that they may not have reached on their own. Katharine Hepburn’s famous remark about Fred and Ginger – “He gave her class and she gave him sex” – readily applies; Pedro is Fred, Antonio is Ginger. How else could we have been lured into rooting for Banderas, who played that memorable, lovable rapist in Matador? Teamwork.

Jimmy Stewart made cold Hitchcock warm; Mastroianni gave warm Fellini cool; and Liv Ullmann gave Bergman’s films a chance at hope, like a life preserver thrown into a cold, dark sea. Antonio Banderas – a highly gifted performer who has never really been taken seriously in America – could, as Almodovar said, play “a puerile guy with an overpowering power of seduction.” Has there ever been a better summary of Almodovar’s brand of playful intensity?

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Jason and the Argonaut

I saw a sad thing this weekend.

Jason Reitman, who has every reason to hold his head high, who has made two half-movies and one hearty, honest-to-god, fully-realized romantic comedy, and who has already been compared to Preston Sturges, and whose best work, I’m sure, is still ahead of him, took the stage several evenings ago, and conducted a brief interview with Kathryn Bigelow. Poor Reitman was discomposed throughout.

By the end of their conversation, his distress turned sour and I regarded him, as I did Jude Law’s Hamlet, with an equal mix of pity and nausea. (Bigelow remained poised, however; a tower of grace and earthy virtue, like a pretty Virginia Woolf come to Hollywood.)

It was a revealing piece of movie-town theater. I wish I could say the boy was overwhelmed, that facing a presence as physically imposing, endearingly kind, and irrefutably talented as Kathryn Bigelow threw him off balance. But that would imply humility. Because he framed it against his own Oscar-losses, Reitman’s deference, which he punctuated with press-release style clichés about how “tense” The Hurt Locker was, read less like genuine awe than the kind of passive-aggressive cry for attention I used to pull on girls in high school when I suspected no one was going to make out with me.

Bigelow would be ambling her way to a point and Jason would cut in with a joke – about a remark she made some time ago. Had he spent the intervening moments, I wondered, polishing the perfect punchline? Or did it just come to him right then, and he couldn’t hold it back? In either case, he was uncomfortable ceding the stage, so much so that Bigelow, out of a kind of saintly beneficence, often seemed to be ceding it for him. That is the only way to explain the number of times she changed the subject from The Hurt Locker to Up in the Air, which, naturally, was met with waves of obligatory (though earned) applause, and a lot stern nodding on the part of Jason. Soon, he was answering her questions.

In light of the recent (and very public) business of Up in the Air’s WGA arbitration debacle, I suspected Reitman would have taken greater pains to represent himself as judiciously as possible. But it seems he can’t help it. (There is something of Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington about him.) Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Reitman asserted his draft of Up in the Air represented substantial changes from its predecessors. “When it came time to allot credit,” wrote Steven Zeitchick in his L.A. Times blogpost, “Reitman maintained that the substantive work on the movie was his and that he shouldn’t share credit with [Sheldon] Turner. The two went to arbitration in front of the Writers Guild, which ruled in favor of Turner and handed him a credit.”

Up in the Air becomes even more interesting when it’s considered in the light of Reitman’s apparently merciless ambition. Did he make the film as warning against the bulldozer life or as an approbation of the Ayn Randian instinct? It’s tough to say. But that’s what gave Up in the Air its color. With Clooney as his pilot, Reitman made ego look as compelling as ever. But the other night, Kathryn Bigelow, with a single touch of her magic wand, had him in the kind of chokehold he may never get out of. I sincerely hope he does.

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Twilights

Warner Bros. head Alan Horn has announced that he plans to follow the Harry Potter movies with more comic book movies. “As we ease out of Harry Potter,” he said, “we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [comics] Library!” He also announced these pictures will be released in 3D. All of them.

It’s only a matter of time before the other studios follow, and the already widened gap between tentpole films and whatever they call the dying breed – let’s say, sideshow films – is widened even further. In time, expensive technologies like 3D, no matter how beautifully employed, will invariably draw asunder the once-valued populist precepts of glamour, wit, and personality. The reason why is simple: 3D is as fit to convey these invisible qualities as 2D is to contain those of Avatar. To those of us who still had a dream of Hollywood quality, this is indeed unfortunate.

Of course many will be unfazed, or at least claim to be, but how will the creative people of vision and virtue justify their endeavors now? Last night, at Genghis Cohen, my favorite Chinese restaurant, friends of mine, quoting a friend of theirs, said, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusionally optimistic.” But that was last night. After this news, I would revise that statement to read, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusional.”

Soon studio pictures will be separated into two genres: boy and girl. Fires & Farts and Clothes & Crushes.

How will grown-up people spend their evenings? You would think Hollywood would be eager to answer that question, for as my field research has proven, there seem to be many older individuals out there wandering around in suede jackets. In fact, just yesterday I saw at least seven balding men at Genghis Cohen alone. Seven! Multiply that by the number of Chinese restaurants in town, or the country, then double it (for wives and girlfriends), and there you have just a sliver of the new paying audience. It may not account for the number of older people who stay home, or those at other restaurants unfriendly to shrimp in lobster sauce, but that’s no excuse. I saw them. They’re out there. I promise millions to the executive who thinks on their entertainment needs.

Unfortunately, as the recent Oscar ceremony confirmed, Hollywood’s interests are as far from producing grown-up product as they’ve ever been. Even Nancy Meyers, who has an ostensible claim to restoring adulthood to the screen, fails, time and again, when it comes to treating her characters as actual people in midlife. Her women cry and pout and moan and take baths; they are, in short, a longer-in-tooth product of genre two, Clothes & Crushes. So you see, even when Hollywood tries to “grow up,” it still must have two feet firmly planted in Dean & Deluca.

Let’s stay with Meryl for a moment. Consider Julie & Julia. Grown up fare? Well, yes and no. Yes: to see Meryl and Tucci, as Mrs. & Mr. Child, so completely revel in each other’s pleasure, culinary and otherwise, was absolutely a moment of hope for the Chinese restaurateurians among us. There we saw a relationship. It was stunning. No: Amy Adams.

We can read Meryl’s recent run of fluffier films since The Devil Wears Prada as sign of a major actress growing her palette, or, in light of the state of Hollywood film, as an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em play for the audience that really matters the most – the kids.

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Blahteurs in Love

I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes split. Without Conrad Hall or Roger Deakins, there’s no way Mendes could make anything work.

Today, people deny ever having liked American Beauty, but I was there when it came out. I saw the reactions. Audiences of all kinds went either nuts or mildly nuts for this mildly courageous appropriation of independent film that was, after all, just a bigger version of what had come before it. Openly gay, openly surreal, down on suburbia, and hard on family, American Beauty took everything we once loved about edgier, low budget features and stuffed it into a friendly, nicely conceived package. Alan Ball’s package. (Which now looks like a rehash of Nicholas Ray, fifty years later: Rebel Without a Cause? Bigger Than Life? Johnny Guitar? They’re all in there.)

American Beauty flattered our intelligence without challenging us; it got aboard the pitch-black comedy bandwagon that had been running at full speed for years; and it crossed star performers with a new breed of disaffected youngsters, the kind that tell of street-cred beyond the studio walls. Well done, suits!

Adding cinematographer Conrad Hall to the production was a brilliant move, though, admittedly, it doesn’t take a genius to spot a genius. When it comes to Hall, if you have eyes, you will see it. Which brings me to Roger Deakins, which brings me to my point.

Mendes followed American Beauty with Road to Perdition. Conrad Hall again. Then Jarhead and Revolutionary Road. Deakins, Deakins (genius, genius). The films were not universally loved, but they were taken seriously, and dismissed tenuously. In other words, they were given the auteur treatment, even as they were denied. To be fair, the pictures were carefully, and sometimes beautifully made, so it was only fitting Mendes received undue patience. But so did William Wellman in his day. They both fall under the heading, “blahteur.” (Their films feature the distinct stamp of other people’s distinctive stamps.)

Of course, I too could be mistaken for an auteur if I had Hall or Deakins shoot my pictures. And perhaps Kate Winslet, God love her, made the same mistake. But that’s okay. These things happen. Now it’s time to heal. If I were her, I’d call up Alfonso Cuarón. He’s single.

And brilliant.

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