Analysis of Dreamland

By Raphael, Frederic | The Spectator, August 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Analysis of Dreamland


Raphael, Frederic, The Spectator


THE NEW AMERICAN CINEMA edited by Jon Lewis

Duke University Press, 18.95, pp. 392

Just under 30 years ago I flew out to Los Angeles in order to kiss hands, as it were, on being given a major feature film to direct. Dick Zanuck and David Brown, who were running 20th Century Fox, thought sufficiently well of my script and of Fay Dunaway's commitment to it to give me the nod. It was, and is, typical of American movie companies to back their hunches, especially with writers who, as Joe Manckiewicz pointed out, have always in some sense directed their scripts before a socalled auteur (who often can't write anything except his name above everyone else's) gets his appropriating hands on them.

When I arrived on that first visit to LA it was a ghost town. The slump in attendances, and in the East Coast bankers' confidence in movies as a source of profit, meant there was no cash for productions. Nevertheless, I was met by a studio limousine, which remained at my disposal 24 hours a day, quite as if there was somewhere to go in it. Dick and David received me with a show of unabated enthusiasm, but when I went to see the chief production executive he listened glumly to my requirements and then said, 'I don't know about locations in Africa, but if you can use 30 Zero fighters anyplace, I can sure help you there.' The studio had recently made Tora, Tora, Tora about Pearl Harbor. The story of what Private Eye had called `nasty Nips in the air' had not lubricated their cash flow. It looked as if television was doing to the studios what Tojo did not quite achieve with the US fleet in December 1941.

By the time I had flown back to London, first class, Dick and David had had to cancel the picture. Not long afterwards, they were themselves cancelled. But if my career as a big-time director was over before it began, Dick and David went from being dead men to unprecedented resurrection: in 1975 they produced Jaws, after which things were never to be the same again, for them or anyone else in the Biz. That Seventies revolution might never have happened if a rookie director called Steven Spielberg had stayed with a script I wrote for him called Roses, Roses, which he liked but didn't finally love. When we parted, amicably, he was freed up to do Jaws. Typical of them, rare cases, Dick and David had remained loyal to Steven after his first feature, Sugarland Express, was a failure (I admired it a lot). Rich, rich, rich was their reward.

The success of Jaws, and the method of its midsummer marketing, led to a revision of the industry's strategy and totemology. It had always been assumed that Big Pictures had to come out in the late autumn; Christmas alone was blockbuster time. Jaws took the people off the beach and into the movies.

In one of the most interesting of the chapters in New American Cinema, the volume's editor, Jon Lewis, details the changing logics of style, production and financing which enabled the Hollywood studios to emerge from the quasi-terminal darkness of the late Sixties into today's boom, boom, boom in which the Biz contributes more to the American economy than anything except plane-making.

Alas, British producers are still too timid, too small-time and too unbusinesslike to learn the organisational lessons spelt out in the best chapters of this variously lively, informative and densely argued volume. David Puttnam's glorious bungling of his command of Columbia Pictures was an instance both of missionary megalomania and of ignorance of what it takes to be a player in the film world's biggest game. His attempt to reduce salaries and budgets was bound to fail. Hollywood studios may be vulgar, wasteful factories, but it's not an accident: the `over-payment' of talent also licenses top executives to give themselves immense bonuses.

More importantly misconceived, however, was Puttnam's idea that the future of the movies lay in modest productions of class-scripts. The opposite (alas for `art,) has proved the case. …

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