What have you seen?”
Either George Stevens Jr. asked me or I asked him. In any case, we were answering each other over lunch where Stevens—a writer-director and founder of the American Film Institute whose credits stretch back to the late 1950s, third-generation Hollywood, which is about the max these days—has been having lunch his whole life, La Scala. Somewhere between Tár and The Fabelmans and Stevens’s spot-on Paul Kohner impression, there stretched out a hand from an old friend glad to see he was back in town. There was an exchange of troubling news about the Motion Picture & Television Fund, the charitable organization that for over a century has offered all manner of assistance to industry professionals and their families, a place whose unofficial motto says it all: “We take care of our own.”
Just a week earlier, Bob Beitcher, MPTF president and CEO, had sent an urgent letter to the community: “Our mission has never faced such dire challenges,” he wrote. COVID costs, nursing shortages, and lower occupancy rates were all overwhelming MPTF’s venerable rest home for Hollywood’s long-serving. “To put it bluntly, the MPTF legacy and mission—our ability to exist—are in real jeopardy,” he wrote. “Our ability to continue to support the thousands of industry members on our campus and in the community who depend on the MPTF for food, shelter, charitable assistance, medical care, and socialization, literally hangs in the balance. Without some dramatic infusion of funds, we will not be able to take care of our own much longer.”
A community is something more than a group of people; it’s a group of people unified. Be it in a shared belief, location, or practice, theirs is a bond that transcends affectation or habit. What true communities share, to borrow a phrase from theologian Paul Tillich, is an ultimate concern. This is Tillich’s definition of faith: an ultimate concern.
An ultimate concern needn’t be religious. Those whose ultimate concern is baseball go to the stadium. As children, they may even collect baseball cards as some Catholics do pictures of saints. For film lovers, the place of worship is the movie theater. Not for nothing do we refer to movie stars as icons: they, too, are a kind of secular saint.
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Hollywood, incorporated in 1903, was bordered by Cahuenga Boulevard on the east and Prospect (now Hollywood Boulevard) on the south. Once, it was just 480 acres of ranchland south of the San Fernando Valley. For a decade, its residents lived apart, undisturbed.
In those days, Hollywood was only a dust and citrus town, morally stringent, a developing community determined to decide itself in a hurry. Then the film people arrived, first in ripples, then in waves. They came not for the sunshine—though God, as they would say, is the best gaffer—but to escape the mercenary predations of East Coast patent holders Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Lubin, Selig, Méliès, and Pathé, each claiming equipment rights exclusively for themselves.
“The movies”—the derisive term puritanical locals gave to these interlopers—were set apart from the farmers and shopkeepers by their nutty hours, innate theatricality, and boozing, none of which spoke to the Protestant work ethic. “We were beneath them,” recalled director Allan Dwan. “If we walked in the streets with our cameras, they hid their girls under the beds and closed the doors and windows and shied away.” They were different, these movies. And in their difference, they stuck together.
Mary Ford, the wife of director John Ford, remembered: “We had one restaurant and that was the Oasis, and you could tell who was working because that was who the maître d’ would bring the check to at dinner. Then we had one nightclub called John’s, and it was a place where you’d go downstairs on Hollywood Boulevard, but nobody went there. They had the Hollywood Hotel Thursday night dances—that was the thing!”
It was there, at Hollywood and Highland, on that first Thursday night, that the wife of Broadway star turned movie actor Richard Carle sat down at the piano and began to play for other picture people of the hotel. They sang and danced, and, according to one reporter, “it struck the proprietor next morning that that sort of thing might be made an institution.”
The next Thursday, a sign went up announcing a weekly dance. “All the smart people of filmdom used to come to the Hollywood Hotel on Thursday nights…and one beheld there Charlie Chaplin, the Gish sisters, Anita Stewart, Jack Conway, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Priscilla Dean, Earle Williams, and many others aside from the regular denizens,” the reporter wrote.
They were indeed regular. They lived and worked together, bound as they were against the taboos held by their host community, to a faith—though it was, in its incipience, more of a hope—in this novelty amusement yet to become an industry or even a profession. “See, we were like a community then, for real,” recalled publicist Teete Carle.
A gathering place is one thing, but a community also needs places to work. Enter the studios, the massive lots containing warehouse-size spaces for shooting indoors—soundstages—a necessity thanks to the industry-wide implementation of synchronized sound recording. Moving inside, out of the Hollywood sun and away from natural settings, mandated elaborate lighting and electronic equipment as well as artificial scenic and design elements and places to store them. As it was wiser and more efficient to buy than rent, a host of production people were needed to build and manage these elements and maintain these facilities. Others had to manage those people. No longer could a movie be improvised in the streets. It was too costly, too fragile. A movie needed experts—and a lot of them. It needed a studio, a family of families. “A picture is kind of a family group,” said cinematographer James Wong Howe. “The cameraman has his own family: operator and assistants, the gaffer, the head electrician, his grip, and his stand-by painter. These people are all in his one family, and, usually, when you’re under contract, you keep that unit together.”
Working within the hierarchical system brought with it the gripes familiar to any employee—none were more vocal, or more misunderstanding of their inherent creative subordination within the system, than the writers—but studio personnel, as beneficiaries of secure employment as artists, proudly aligned with their home bases and, in most cases, the visionary showmen who led them. “When I was at Metro, I was in the MGM family, the Louis B. Mayer family,” recalled composer Harry Warren, best known for cowriting songs like “We’re in the Money” and “Jeepers Creepers.” “He was very nice, by the way. I liked him. He was great,” Warren said of Mayer.
“He always made it like a family,” said Norman Taurog, who directed everyone from Mickey Rooney to Elvis in a career that started in the 1920s and spanned five decades. “He always knew when you were starting to shoot a new picture. Always! If a day went by and he missed your first morning, he would pick up a phone to say, ‘I’m sorry I missed your first day, but I was tied up with a conference.’ ”
Mayer, then the highest-salaried executive in America and inarguably the most powerful man in town, threw open the doors to his Santa Monica beach house on Sundays, presiding over gatherings that began with brunch and ended with a screening. Throughout, he could be spotted with an arm over the shoulder of a concerned or needful guest, problem-solving, taking an interest. In addition to making movies, Mayer understood that his company—his family—spoke to America. Though born in present-day Ukraine on July 12, 1884, he declared his birthday was the Fourth of July. And in a way, it was.
We’d always had stories, we’d always had plays, but never before could regular people experience the matchless eloquence of 50-foot faces and moving images marshaled by a distribution system powerful enough to join the consciousness of an entire country. To know Gary Cooper, you didn’t even have to speak English.
Spiritual values, callings, ecstasies of love, they cannot be adequately spoken. They require myth and metaphor, lexicons of grandeur.
They flourish in cinemas. They die on television.
A giant screen, bigger than your world; a theater, outside your house; perfect darkness, perfect silence; a screen story you, without a remote control, cannot stop; your heart and mind joining strangers’ in communal thrall, all of you pulled together by an invisible thread—these are the ingredients of transcendence.
What is the value of a moving image that is smaller than life? Like a memory, it has already receded. But a moving image that is bigger than anything you will encounter on an average day, and the elements in it more colorful, vivid, and charged with meaning, is not a degraded copy; it is a new experience. It is life.
Imagine—as we now have reason to—a world without movie theaters.
Movie theaters, where we joined together, body and mind, helped us survive the Great Depression and win the Second World War. But then the war ended, and we moved to the suburbs and turned on the television. Then in 1948, the Supreme Court handed down the landmark anti-monopoly ruling of United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc., beginning the end of the studio system, the contract system, as well as the livelihoods that went along with it.
“The community that was Hollywood is gone,” Billy Wilder said in the late ’60s. “Now, if you want to make your picture, you write it at home. You rent some stages someplace, you shoot, and a week later, you walk out of it. It’s like going to the Ramada Inn. You don’t live in the studio anymore. There’s nothing.”
Henceforth, Hollywood would be a community perpetually on the verge of extinction. But as there were still pioneers to maintain continuity, the community could still claim living ties to the past.
In 1973, Adolph “Papa” Zukor, founder of Paramount, celebrated his 100th birthday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The New York Times reported an attendance of 1,250. On the occasion, Joan Didion would write, “It is in this tropism toward survival that Hollywood sometimes presents the appearance of the last extant stable society.”
But there was a casualty—a little bit of soul. In the mid-1970s, amid what Robert Sklar, in Movie-Made America, called “the growing multicultural fragmentation of American society,” the decentralized Hollywood turned, at long last, to the gods of box office, urging salesmanship over quality and, concluded Sklar, setting in motion the progressive devaluation of “the status of myth, dream or ideology in contemporary social life.” Hollywood’s new ultimate concern? Money.
Into the ’80s, those windfalls of momentary consensus polarized Hollywood. Art or business? Most chose business. Morton’s—to my knowledge, the last Hollywood restaurant of consequence—was really a place of business. No one ever rode a horse, as Bob Hope once did in Chasen’s, through the front door.
This past year, at the Oscars—a ceremony at which honorary awards are no longer presented—several below-the-line categories, including Best Film Editing, a craft unique to the art of motion pictures, were cut from the main broadcast. The Hollywood community, despite various protests online, did not boycott. Conversely—or perhaps additionally—Will Smith hit Chris Rock in the face and got a standing ovation.
The next day or thereabouts, I listened to some younger folks, in gym clothes, talking about their business.
“The script sucks.”
“Yes, but who cares? It’s going to get made.”
Who are we now?
A few months ago, the Motion Picture & Television Fund celebrated its centennial at the former home of United Artists and Goldwyn Studios, now known, tellingly, as the Lot, where all seven stages, I heard, have been leased to HBO.
Walking in with the others, you could still see, under the new glass towers better suited to office people than to filmmakers, the old courtyard offices, built to human scale, and the unmovable soundstages, big as ships, sunning themselves in the afternoon. Here we were, we agreed, gazing upward. A movie studio.
The feeling itself was the recurrent subject of conversation, how good it was to be there again. The consensus was that the romance, not nostalgia, was as real as pride and history. “You gotta hear this—Elliott Gould told me that when he was making—”
“How is Elliott?”
“Elliott is Elliott…”
The spirit of continuity, not just with history but with the human beings who made it, passed between colleagues young and old. From story to story, the younger grew wiser, and the old got younger. Both made an appearance to honor this venerable institution, a life-giving guardian of movie folk and their families, the cared for and the caring: Hawk Koch, Casey Wasserman, Sherry Lansing, Walter Mirisch, Bob Mirisch, Jodie Foster, Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg, a few Goldwyns (a couple in high school), and a hundred or so dedicated others whom I didn’t know but, once introduced, knew instantly.
“What have you seen?”
This from a fellow I had just met, a resident of the Motion Picture Home. It was the very question I was about to ask him.
Top Gun, I said. He hadn’t seen it, but he had heard about the script—the problems. I told him he had heard right. Was he planning on seeing it? He waved away the thought, Who needs it, before admitting, Yeah, sure, of course I’ll see it, laughing at his own switch. Implied in the laugh was the recognition that, whether he liked it or not, this is what he was. Who needs it? He needs it.
“It’s all of them. These pictures they’re making, they’re overwriting them. They tell you everything—everything you’re seeing, they tell you why you’re seeing it…”
Again, he said it before I did.
We walked slowly through the crowd, my new friend, shuffling conscientiously, waving away the effects of his recent stroke like Top Gun’s script.
Today’s hits are like all movies, not just movies; they’re also the people who make them. Those who make up Hollywood today, at best, are the most accomplished craftspeople in the world; at worst, they’re unwitting enablers of the corporate agendas. Meet them at a party and you’ll find them, with very rare exceptions, either complaining or brainwashed.
My new friend and I, we like almost nothing, but we keep going, Vladimirs and Estragons. Going and waiting.
Rounding the corner of the last soundstage, he searched what seemed to be a remote corner of memory. “Did you see this thing Everyone…? Everyone Everywhere—Jesus, what’s it called?”
“Everyone Everything…?” I tried. “No. You?”
“I heard good.”
“Yeah,” he said, shrugging. “I heard good, too.”•