Hollywood Murder and Intrigue, The Stand In– The Story Behind the Novel

30 Nov

The few friends and colleagues who have read “The Stand In” prior to its publication have asked me, to a one, if it is based on a true story.  Yes, I answer, and…no.  It is actually based on an anecdote told to me by my longtime mentor and idol, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the Academy Award winning director and writer of “Letter to Three Wives,” “All About Eve”, and “Cleopatra.”  My thesis in film school was a critical reevaluation of “Cleopatra”, his film with Elizabeth Taylor, and I became acquainted with the great man when I called him up for an interview.

I have always loved stories of Old Hollywood, and Mr. Mankiewicz had plenty.  A born storyteller, he could hold me rapt for hours.  One anecdote, about a Well-Known Star whose face was destroyed in a car wreck, became the seed that germinated my latest novel.  The Star’s studio, you see, was unwilling to let go of so profitable a property, and made the decision to finish the film he was doing with his photo double.  For “The Stand In”, I extrapolated a far more lurid conclusion – so that’s why I say it is both true and untrue.

It is set in the year 1957, a time when Hollywood was reeling from two terrible blows; the Studio System was imploding and television was taking away its audience.  I have always loved the decline of an era, when everything begins to curdle. My historical novels have always been set in the sunset of an empire; and the same holds true for “The Stand In”.  Give me a story of corruption and intrigue over brave, honest pioneers any time.

When I write, I like to shut out the world with my headphones full of moody music.  I therefore listen to film scores, with their many dissonances and blessed lack of song lyrics.  In fact before I begin a book, I choose an album that becomes its own de facto soundtrack.  In the case of “The Stand In” I listened to a compendium of themes by the composer Alex North, another of my idols, who can break your heart in six notes.  Another album was the music to the film “The Bad and the Beautiful”, a picture with Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner that purported to show all the dirt attendant to the filmmaking business.   Needless to say, with its lush romantic and themes and tawdry brass accompaniments it was the perfect background music for “The Stand In”.

I loved writing this book, because I mined my own life for its details.  I remember going as a kid to the same restaurants my characters go to and traversing the same streets that they themselves walk.  Hollywood was much more splendid then – largely because it was a closed set.  The studios were fantasy fortresses that you had to storm if you wanted to go inside; they weren’t owned by huge entertainment conglomerates which today give tours of their back lots for the price of a ticket and spill all their secrets in their marketing campaigns.  Something has been lost, I think, in the total exploitation of every aspect of film making.  Glamor, I think.

Did this story really happen?  Yes, I say…and no.


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