Vincent Price

[Please note: The word “Featured” on the left side above was NOT inserted by this blogger, but apparently was inserted by WordPress, and it cannot be removed. NO post in this blog is sponsored.]

The Book of the Week is “Vincent Price, His Movies, His Plays, His Life” by Vincent Price, published in 1978.

Born in May 1911 in Saint Louis, Price was the youngest of four children. He broke into the movies in the 1930’s, when Hollywood made three to four hundred movies annually. In 1956, he appeared, along with Charlton Heston in the most expensive movie ever made at that time: The Ten Commandments. Filming it took eight years; some of it on-location in Egypt, where the Red Sea was parted with then-state-of-the art special effects.

The author claimed that there was fierce competition for roles in the horror genre of the 1950’s, but he had acted in more than a hundred films by 1971. He worked with Boris Karloff, who was able to portray a sympathetic, human-like, but at the same time, scary character. When Karloff played Frankenstein’s monster– who committed evil acts– he wore an excessive quantity of makeup, and screws in his neck, but with a lisp in his speech. There must be villains as well as heroes in entertainment stories, in order to drive the plot.

In many films, Price had to put up with absurdity: “So here we both were, co-starring with a talking fly, and trying to speak our lines while staring at a spider’s web” in The Fly in 1958. By the 1960’s, he was guest-starring on TV as the villain “Egghead” in Batman; in the Brady Bunch, Muppet Show and Hollywood Squares.

In 1961, Price, for no pay, served on the White House Fine Arts Committee to help redecorate the U.S. president’s residence. Beginning in September 1962, upon amassing a valuable art collection, he also became an art consultant to Sears Roebuck & Co. Its stores sold works of truly famous artists (Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh, Whistler, and Andrew Wyeth) for the payment plan of $5 down and $10 a month thereafter. Price wrote cookbooks, too.

Read the book to learn additional information about Price’s life and times.

Fatal Subtraction

[Please note: The word “Featured” on the left side above was NOT inserted by this blogger, but apparently was inserted by WordPress, and it cannot be removed. NO post in this blog is sponsored.]

The Book of the Week is “Fatal Subtraction, How Hollywood Really Does Business” by Pierce O’Donnell and Dennis McDougal, published in 1992.

“I asked myself whether this uncanny similarity and anticompetitive market was the result of coincidence or conspiracy. Thanks to my populist tendencies and a healthy distrust of powerful institutions, I opted for the sinister explanation.”

Politics? Big Tech? Medical, legal, music, sports or oil industry?

The above quote happens to refer (in various ways) to all of the major Hollywood movie studios, just after their most lucrative years. The skyrocketing size of the home video market in the 1980’s made movie studios richer and richer, what with cable TV, VCRs and global distribution. They retained the best entertainment law firms on an ongoing basis so that whenever any powerless parties who felt wronged, tried to hire those firms to bring legal actions against them, there were conflicts of interest.

In 1988, Art Buchwald and Alain Bernheim– respectively a seasoned humorous newspaper writer and lecturer who dabbled in the movie industry, and a producer– sued Paramount Pictures Corporation for thirteen causes of action; among them, breach of contract in connection with the movie Coming to America starring Eddie Murphy. They were fortunate in that they were able to hire a big firm and could afford to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire topnotch attorneys to fight a years-long legal battle.

The crux of the dispute involved the boilerplate contracts almost everyone in Hollywood was compelled by their agents to sign, in order to get work. The studios engaged in cartelizing behavior, so the powerless creative personnel were at their mercy at contract-signing. Only a tiny percentage of powerful elite stars reaped a ton of money for all movies they did, regardless of financial success. The agents claimed they were getting great deals for their less powerful talent, but that was a lie. For, starting in the 1950’s, the contracts evolved pursuant to the studios’ shady accounting practices, in a way that cheated screenwriters especially.

By the dawn of the 1990’s, big-name actors were allowed to behave like prima donnas, basically enjoying excessive expense accounts and reaping outrageously generous compensation from gross movie revenues. The movie idea originators and writers received net profit participation– i.e., the crumbs after all expenses had been deducted. The studios’ definition of “profit” was topsy turvy so when it came time to pay lowly workers, they claimed their movies were losing money!

O’Donnell and his legal team argued that certain provisions in Buchwald’s and Bernheim’s contracts were unconscionable, and therefore legally unenforceable. On principle, the studios’ oligopoly was economically bad not just for his clients, but for society (See this blog’s post “Wikinomics / Courting Justice”).

Read the book to learn every last detail of the case.

Somebody Down Here… / How Football… BONUS POST

The first Bonus Book of the Week is “Somebody Down Here Likes Me Too” by Rocky Graziano with Ralph Corsel, originally published in 1981.

Born in January 1921, Graziano grew up in Little Italy and the East Village in Manhattan. However, when he wed in 1943, he moved in with his wife’s well-to-do family on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn; of which he nostalgically remarked, “They got Coney Island and Nathan’s hot dogs and Sheepshead Bay with all that good seafood, and they got Ebbetts’ Field and the Dodgers and a few bums like Leo Durocher…”

Nonetheless, his poverty-stricken childhood experiences and abusive father soured him on life at an early age. He continually ran afoul of the law, but his mother, who loved him unconditionally, kept bailing him out. For such boys in his generation (rejected by the military because he was an ex-con), the only way to escape his bad environment was to succeed in the “rackets” or make it big in show business or become a professional boxer. Read the book to learn how he turned his life around when he put his mind to do two of the three.

The second Bonus Book of the Week is “How Football Explains America, by Sal Paolantonio, published in 2008.

Incidentally, Vince Lombardi sought to recruit wayward boys such as Graziano for the high school football team he coached in New Jersey in the late 1930’s. He used the Englewood police department as his talent source.

Another interesting bit of information from the author in describing how professional football evolved into its current state: safety rules had to be imposed so the sport could turn its barbaric reputation around. For, in 1905, there occurred “…battered faces, broken ribs, bloody skulls, and at least 18 recorded on-field fatalities.”

Read the book to learn many other ways football and American culture became intertwined.

The Good, the Bad and Me

The Book of the Week is “The Good, the Bad, and Me, In My Anecdotage” by Eli Wallach, published in 2005.

Wallach was an actor of stage and screen. In many ways, he lived in a bygone era. Born in December 1915, he grew up in a Jewish family among mostly Italians, in a few different working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Horse-drawn wagons sold fruit, milk and ice. The horses’ manure was sold as fertilizer. The Italians put on puppet shows, and had parades honoring Jesus and the saints, with floats, refreshments, and a band playing the national anthem. A marching band would play at funerals.

The value of money was quite high in the early twentieth century. If pennies were run over by the streetcar, they could be filed down to take on the structure of nickels, which could be used in pay phones. In 1932, Wallach began to attend the University of Texas as an out-of-state student for $30 a year. He roomed at a boardinghouse for $40 a month, including meals. His second year there, however, the school raised its tuition to $100 a year. Even so, the dean helped students find work so they could afford their educations.

In 1936, Wallach got free tuition at City College of New York when he took classes toward his master’s degree in teaching, at his older brother’s behest. He got a scholarship to Neighborhood Playhouse, an acting school, also in Manhattan. There, famous instructors taught Method acting. In the 1940’s, open-air double-decker buses that graced Greenwich Village, charged five cents. Wallach shared a one-room furnished apartment on lower Fifth Avenue for which he paid $35 a month. Maid service was included.

However, in 1956, the author hired a press agent for himself and actress-wife for $125 a week. That was a steep price. Ed Sullivan reported in his column that Wallach and his wife had lost their yacht in a sea storm– a line planted by the agent in the New York Daily News. The agent was let go.

Growing up, Wallach never met any black people. He heard about them in Harlem, but had never been there. While in college in Texas, he worked as an usher at a theater in Austin. He escorted blacks to their seats, which were relegated to the (nosebleed section) balcony only.

During Wallach’s fabulous career, in 1961, he acted in an absurdist play written by Eugene Ionesco, called Rhinoceros. It was about how herd mentality turned people into rhinoceroses when they conformed to State authority. For more information about the plot, see the following:

When Wallach acted in a film in Italy in the late 1950’s, he found that some people disagreed with him on how to portray their characters. He wrote, “It had always seemed to me that calling it the Method was incorrect; each country, each society, each theater, and each actor devises his own method.” Such is true of life at large.

Read the book to learn more about Wallach’s life.

Ingrid Bergman, My Story

The Book of the Week is “Ingrid Bergman, My Story” by Ingrid Bergman and Alan Burgess, published in 1972.

Born in 1915 in Sweden, Bergman lived with extended relatives after her mother and father passed away, when she was three and thirteen, respectively. The father’s successful painting and photography-supply businesses were taken over by the family. When she was fifteen, a couple of friends in high places– and of course, passion and hard work– allowed her to get accepted to the Royal Dramatic School. Nevertheless, she quit to become a movie actress in Sweden.

David Selznick in America heard about her talent, and his wife set her wise as to Hollywood’s ways. Her advisors therefore negotiated a one-film contract rather than a seven-year contract. Bergman was the opposite of a prima donna on the set. Selznick was impressed and had his public relations people hold her up as a paragon of virtue and modesty. However, she refused to be typecast, insisting on playing all different kinds of roles.

Bergman wrote, “Another Hollywood thing I hated was the power of those two women, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnists. Their power shocked me, and I thought it very wrong that the film industry had allowed them to build up to such an extent that they could ruin people’s careers and lives.” Sadly, there is nothing new under the sun in that regard. Gossip in American society has been used more often for evil than for good, especially in politics.

Anyway, in autumn 1946, Bergman got slammed for saying she wasn’t going to return Washington, D.C. because the theater there in which she was performing, banned blacks. Perhaps she was not a racist, but her immaturity in her personal relationships caused her first husband and first-born daughter endless anguish.

Read the book to learn of Bergman’s dream role, whether she got to play it, other roles she played, and about her families.

Leading Lady

The Book of the Week is “Leading Lady, Sherry Lansing and the Making of a Hollywood Groundbreaker” by Stephen Galloway, published in 2017.

The subject of this movie-studio-executive biography was born in July 1944 in Chicago. She had a younger sister. Her biological father died of a heart condition when she was almost nine years old. That childhood trauma made her driven to succeed in life. But she took her stepfather’s last name, Lansing.

After graduating from Northwestern University, she and her medical-student husband moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue her dream of becoming an actress. To earn a living, she became a substitute teacher.

She suffered through three years of cattle calls and other indignities, which allegedly did not include sexual favors for career advancement. Arguably, in retrospect, there were mitigating factors to the culpability of men who displayed behavior on the continuum of sexual harassment of women in the entertainment industry.

In Lansing’s generation, both females and males accepted the continually reinforced gender-stereotypes in American culture, especially in that line of work. The vast majority of women never thought to question their enforced inferiority. The tiny number who did, were left silently seething.

Any woman who dared to enter the entertainment industry knew that that was the status quo, or quickly found that out. Institutionalized gender discrimination was a fact of life. Nowadays, of course, men’s offensive behavior is considered by everyone to be inexcusable, but accusations are still very hard to prove, absent reliable witnesses or physical evidence.

Anyhow, Lansing finally got a few roles, the most exciting of which was a bit-part on the TV show Laugh-In. However, the phoniness of acting wasn’t for her; she found she needed to be true to herself and the world.

Lansing, then 26, had cultivated valuable Hollywood contacts, one of whom, a producer, gave her work as a script-reader. Again, in the 1960’s, movie-making was still a male-dominated field, in which few women were able to tolerate the old-boy-network’s frat-boy behavior if they were trying to climb the corporate ladder. Lansing had a calm, peace-inducing temperament and engaging personality. She was able to keep her mouth shut and endure her hostile work environment until such time as she wielded the power to work with men as an equal.

That time came in November 1992, when Lansing became chair and CEO of Paramount Pictures’ movie division. Nevertheless, her work involved a boatload of stress and worries. She was the ultimate decisionmaker on whether a movie got made, but there were frequent problems with, and fierce arguments over hiring crews, financing, casting, shooting, screening, promoting, etc.

By the 1990’s, studios were forced to jointly pay production costs because filmmaking had become so expensive with high-tech special effects and for other reasons. So the relocating of the shooting of Braveheart from Scotland to Ireland due to foul weather, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Irish government provided 1,700 extras on the set, free of charge. Despite the astronomical costs of Titanic, the movie reached its break-even point prior to the revenue streams of cable TV, home entertainment and ancillary markets. Eventually it raked in revenues of $2.19 billion.

But after ten years at the top, Lansing was becoming disenchanted with the trends of the industry. For, “…the quality of pictures no longer seemed essential… clever sales strategies could redeem all but the most abysmal of movies.” In other words, execrable movies that never should have been made were profitable, anyway– the marketers had become more important than the producers, casts and crews. Curiously, the same thing happened in publishing– the people managing the creative side of the business got greedy when cultural changes caused costs to rise.

Besides, Lansing asked, “How did the Oscars become the monstrosity where people [movie studios] are spending zillions and having parties and slipping things here and there? What happened to the camaraderie?” It should not have come as a surprise that by early 2003, Wal-Mart had become one of the largest distributors of DVD’s in the nation.

Read the book to learn more about Lansing’s career trials, tribulations and successes, her personal life, and the activities she found more fulfilling after she left Paramount.

Indecent Exposure

The Book of the Week is “Indecent Exposure, A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street” by David McClintick, published in 1982. This volume with the provocative but misleading title had nothing to do with sex. It actually consisted of a suspenseful, albeit long story seen mostly through the eyes of Alan J. Hirschfield, the CEO and officer at Columbia, the movie company. It was about how a lack of honesty, the power of propaganda, and clashing egos basically resulted in the redistribution of wealth among the wealthy. This sort of thing happens all the time.

In February 1977, then-famous actor Cliff Robertson received a document saying he owed taxes in connection with a check he never received. He later found out that the check had been forged and cashed in his name, by David Begelman, a high-level executive at the aforesaid Columbia.

It was common practice for Hollywood studios to send movie actors checks for thousands of dollars (usually unreported to the IRS) that defrayed a small portion of their promotion expenses for a new picture. The IRS had just then begun cracking down on that taxable income. Robertson’s reaction set in motion a series of consequences that affected thousands of people; mostly financially.

Columbia was a public company, and the bad publicity resulting from news of a serious crime committed by one of its executives was a serious public relations problem. Hirschfield, who was on the board of directors, was told by an attorney that he had a duty to inform the executive committee, corporate counsel and the SEC after an internal investigation had been conducted.

As has been the case since the discovery of journalism/tabloidism, (supposedly said by Mark Twain), “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Begelman’s friends in the Hollywood community (of which the check forger had many) rushed to his defense, having heard only vague rumors that described his transgressions in euphemisms. They really had no clue that he had actually committed several felonies, it turned out. They didn’t want to know.

The friends planted tabloidy messages in the media making the excuse “Everybody Does It” because they took unethical liberties with their own expense accounts, and made Hirschfield the villain, saying he was a power-hungry, vindictive executive, as he technically did compete for power with Begelman in the company hierarchy. Hollywood’s and the public’s gullibility in automatically believing in Begelman’s innocence and Hirschfield’s treachery is human nature.

At the board meeting that initiated the long, heated discussion that would determine whether Begelman was fired, Begelman acted like a prisoner on death row who had suddenly found religion. He implied he might kill himself if removed from his primary job. But actually, anyone who knows this kind of person knows that he would be too arrogant to kill himself.

A preliminary inquiry into Begelman’s history yielded more than one serious crime during his Columbia tenure, and previous lying and other worse misdeeds. Hirschfield argued for termination, saying Begelman was unlikely to change his spots, as dishonesty was a lifelong habit with him. Over the next few years, the Hollywood community and the public, however, still having heard only distorted soundbites that minimized Begelman’s sins, fooled itself into believing they weren’t that bad, and continued to defend him.

Interesting sidenote: In 1982, in a joking context, Hirschfield exclaimed to a female friend who was high on the corporate ladder, in front of some colleagues: “Female executives suck!” She laughed. Clearly, if that was uttered in 2018, hilarity would NOT ensue.

Read the book to learn of the consequences of the stupid actions taken by most of the main characters of this entertaining saga.

My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin

The Book of the Week is “My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin” published in 1964.

Born in 1889 in London, Chaplin had a traumatic childhood. Both his parents were vaudevillians, but his father had trouble with alcohol; and his mother, with her voice. Thus, they found themselves unemployed. Their relationship suffered, and they separated. Chaplin and his older brother lived with their mother in a hovel. Unsurprisingly, his father failed to pay alimony and child support. Chaplin was pushed by his mother onstage beginning when he was five years old.

A commune known as a “workhouse” took in the family. The mother crocheted lace cuffs and the kids attended school. After two weeks, they were transferred to a suburban workhouse. Boys at age eleven were conscripted. So Chaplin’s brother entered the Navy. His mother, however, suffered from mental illness, and was institutionalized. Chaplin went to live with his father in a London slum.

At nine years old, Chaplin showed a true talent and passion for performing. His father got him into a clog-dancing troupe. Later, he lied about his age to get hired by an acting troupe. He had natural ability to play comic characters.

In autumn 1911, Chaplin by chance got into the then-silent motion picture business (only musical sound tracks– no talking), replacing another actor in Hollywood. It was then he created his Tramp character. He was allowed to try his hand at directing and writing, although the bosses of that period were still clinging to their tired “Keystone Kops” scenarios of slapstick chases. His fresh approach that evoked an emotional response became wildly popular among American audiences. He immediately became a legend. Once he came into his own, his brother became his business manager.

“Fulfilling the Mutual [film company] contract I suppose, was the happiest period of my career. I was light and unencumbered, 27 years old, with fabulous prospects, and a friendly, glamorous world before me.” Chaplin and his friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford found out that the movie production companies were going to merge, lower the outrageous pay of actors, and take control away from them. So Chaplin et al formed their own production company, United Artists.

During a trip on W.R. Hearst’s yacht, the Hollywood director who had taken over Hearst’s film production company, had a heart attack. Chaplin wrote, “I was not present on that trip but Elinor Glyn, who was aboard…” told Chaplin about the episode. The ridiculous rumors regarding the director’s murder were false. “Hearst, Marion [Davies] and I went to see Ince [the director] at his home two weeks before he died.”

Read the book to learn a wealth of other details of Chaplin’s life, and why he moved to Switzerland with his family; get the explanation– straight from “the horse’s mouth.”

Wired

The Book of the Week is “Wired, The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi” by Bob Woodward, published in 1984. This is a career biography of the performer best known for his sketches on “Saturday Night Live” (SNL), “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.”

Born in 1949, Belushi started his career at an early age, thanks to a paternal high school drama teacher. Belushi formed a comedy troupe in college. At the youngest age ever (22), he  joined the improv group, “Second City” in Chicago.

Belushi’s brand of comedy was lowbrow and attention-whorish. He became the onstage focus when he joined such group-oriented acting companies as SNL and Second City; this irked his fellow performers.

Belushi met the younger and less experienced Chevy Chase when they performed in an Off-Broadway black comedy about death. Then came a National-Lampoon-produced radio show, and SNL.  Other roles included Bluto in the movie “Animal House” and comedian Dan Akroyd’s partner in the movie “The Blues Brothers.”

As is typical of talented yet insecure performers who hit the big-time almost immediately, behavior problems abound. But since the star is “the goose that laid the golden egg” his or her behavior is tolerated.

“… John could inflict remarkable chaos… There was no telling what was gone or broken or misused. It seemed that John had dipped his fingers into everything in the refrigerator” while attending a 1982 Super Bowl party at the home of his agent, Bernie Brillstein.

Toward the end of his life (which should not have been unforeseen), Belushi was surrounded by enablers to his cocaine addiction. He was provided weekly with $2,500 cash for “expenses” in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his business associates. They allowed him to act like a spoiled child borne of their own greed, or out of trying to avoid the hypocrisy of being drug addicts themselves. They continued to believe in his talent even though the movies he did after Animal House were money-losers.  A major rationalization of that era was that cocaine was unavoidable backstage at SNL and it was uncool to decline to socialize with one’s fellow comedians.

Read the book to learn the details of how Belushi ended up the way he did.

 

My Life So Far

The Book of the Week is “My Life So Far” by Jane Fonda, published in 2005. This insightful autobiography describes an actress, activist and exercise instructor whose childhood family life was psychologically challenged. Throughout her life, she has been continually working through various emotional, moral and gender issues.

Born in the Santa Monica Mountains in December 1937, Fonda was lavishly raised alternately by a nanny and her parents, who were absent on and off. Her father was a famous actor on Broadway and in movies; her mother, until she suicided, was in and out of mental hospitals. Fonda was close with her younger brother, Peter. She became a bulimic and developed an “appeaser” personality.

Although Fonda had a leg up in her career due to her famous father, she chose to engage in activities that she felt were societally beneficial. The media and the U.S. government, however, treated her like a criminal. She was put under surveillance by the FBI, CIA, State Department, IRS and Treasury Department, which created dossiers of thousands upon thousands of pages just about her. In 1979, she settled a lawsuit against them in which the government admitted its guilt.

In 1972, Fonda visited Hanoi to gather information and inform the American people about Nixon’s evil Vietnam-War schemes, a few of which were already in progress. Later that same year at the Academy Awards ceremony when she won a Best Actress Oscar for “Klute,” she maturely did NOT make a political statement, having been told it was the inappropriate place for doing so.

Fonda believed that presidents made war due to their feeling pressure from society to prove their masculinity. She herself was a product of this same environment, judging from her taste in men. Her third husband– media billionaire Ted Turner– “…was unable to experience intimacy because there just wasn’t room in his brain for words other than his own.” He was an emotionally needy narcissist.

Read the book to learn how Jane overcame her eating disorder, achieved success in acting, exercise-business enterprises and political activism, and how she improved her relationships with family and friends.