Tag Archives: Cleopatra

Trafficking with Movie Stars– Meeting Elizabeth Taylor

29 Apr

I’ve always needed to meet the people whose creative work has profoundly influenced or touched me.  I want to see how they behave, to know what’s inside their heads, to discover how their temperament differs from mine, etc. etc.  Those of you who read my blog know that the movie “Cleopatra” and its writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz were profoundly influential on my life.  When I saw the film for the first time, when I was twelve, I became infatuated with the actors, it’s true, but soon I wanted to know about the man who created it.  Why had the film so affected me?  In film school, in my college years, I produced an award-winning thesis, “When ‘The Movies’ Went Out of Style”, in which I interviewed many members of the cast and crew, including Joe Mankiewicz, and over the years I became the person known as the “unofficial cast member of ‘Cleopatra’”.  I have been a “film historian” in two documentaries about the movie, which are being packaged with the release of the blu-ray.  (Talk about having a whim of iron!  I now co-star with everyone!)  Roddy McDowall in fact became a friend and even visited me in Washington, D.C., when I lived there.

But I had always managed to avoid meeting HER.

Truth is, I really didn’t want to meet her.  I was quite content to know Elizabeth Taylor through her performances.  When you meet stars and celebrities, you always run the risk of major disappointment.  They can be dull and vaguely stupid a lot of the time.  Or so dominated by their loathsome agents and managers that all you want to do is run screaming from the room.  And, being a historian at heart, they certainly don’t want to meet me.  Stars never want to be known as an artifact from another time.  They are NOW, they are HAPPENING, they are RELEVANT.  It doesn’t matter if they haven’t made a film in thirty years, everything is about TODAY!  (Only Roddy McDowall truly had a sense of history, and knew his own place within it, and that was the basis of our friendship – he loved to talk about his days as a child star and all the famous people he had worked with.  Even his Cadillac’s license plate said “EX MOPPET” on it.)  The technicians and craftsmen are the interesting ones – the behind-the-scenes people always have the best stories.  Stars – rarely!

In 1997, however, I finally got to meet Taylor through the intervention of Roddy McDowall.  We had gotten permission from Twentieth Century-Fox to at long last mount a search for the missing footage from “Cleopatra”.  Mankiewicz had delivered a five-and-a-half hour film, from which the studio removed about an hour-and-a-half.  (You can learn the story behind the film’s editing on a new documentary that I’m in, packaged with the blu-ray, called “Cleopatra’s Missing Footage.”)

Though Bill Mechanic, then-president of Fox, had said “yes” to the project there was one hitch to our plans.  The film was still owned in part by Elizabeth Taylor and we needed to get her permission to go forward.  (This was but one of the many unprecedented clauses in her contract with Fox, and never to be seen again in any celebrity contract.)  Roddy said that he would handle her, and he set a time for the meeting.  At the last moment he asked me to come along, saying that I could speak for the recently deceased Joe Mankiewicz.

I was filled with trepidation, not only because of the reasons stated above, but because Taylor scared the hell out of me.  Everyone I had interviewed had talked about how intimidating she could be, particularly if she sensed you needed something from her.  (Stars are always being approached by people seeking money, gifts and favors and they are deeply suspicious of any stranger.)  Even Richard Burton, who I talked with on the telephone, told me that she alone had taught him “how to squeeze the balls of the executives” in his dealings with film studios.  I was fond enough of my balls in their current position and did not relish the idea of her being anywhere near them.

Well, anyway, I went to the meeting.  Really – wouldn’t you?

We traveled in Roddy’s Cadillac up to her surprisingly small house in Bel Air, and proceeded to sit in her living room for over an hour.  She was upstairs and apparently did not mind keeping her very best childhood friend waiting.  I got to look at her Van Gogh up close, however, and that helped to pass the time.

Finally, she appeared.  She was white-haired at that phase in her life and swept grandly into the room.  I remember that she was barefoot beneath a long white caftan.  Roddy introduced us and she said in a slight English accent, “It’s so-o-o-o-o gude to meet yew.  Joe Mankiewicz – ”  (she was the only person I knew who ever pronounced it Mahn-kuh-vitch) “ – spoke so highly about yew.”

Nervously I launched into my spiel.  “Well, thank you, Miss Taylor – it’s because of his memory that I’m here.  We’ve finally been given permission by Fox to restore ‘Cleopatra’ to his first cut and we need your permission before we can do it.”

Gone in an instant was the English accent.  Gone was any pretense at friendliness.  The sand-papery voice became charged with Virginia Woolf volume.  “Blow it out your ass!” she screamed at me.  “I never made a DIME off that goddamn movie!”

She had in fact made $7 million from overtime on the production alone.  Later, when Fox had sued her after the film came out, claiming that her and Burton’s “immoral” behavior had proved “detrimental to the financial performance of the film”, she had actually won that suit, and another $2.6 million dollars (10% of the film’s actual budget, proving Mankiewicz’ claim that the film never cost $44 million as the studio claimed) was settled on her – with the stipulation that the books would be closed on “Cleopatra”.  This is why the film is always shown as making only $26 million; it will forever be seen as only breaking even, and never going into profit.  Taylor’s additional ten percent of the gross income of the film, once again guaranteed by her contract, was to be covered in the $2.6 million payment.  “Cleopatra,” however, went on to make money all over the world in various international markets and later by sales to television and home video – the profits of which were denied Taylor by the court settlement.  This was one of the few times that a studio had out-maneuvered her and was she bitter!  Though she had “not made a dime on that goddamn movie” she had actually made almost $10 million – and in 1960’s dollars!  Dimes are obviously of different value to stars of her magnitude.

So what did I do when she told me to “blow it out my ass”?  I’m afraid I laughed out loud.  This was perhaps the only thing that saved me, because she was not expecting it.  Apparently other people cringed before her tempers – Eddie Fisher once told me that she had taught him how to scream for anything that he wanted – but I knew right then that I had a great story suitable for any cocktail party, and one that I could dine out on for the rest of time.  I didn’t need her, you see – I was under contract to Disney at the time, and frankly they didn’t take too well to the fact that I was consulting to a rival studio.  It was her film, and if she didn’t want to do the project, well…it was no skin off my ass.

But Roddy calmed her down.  “Now, Elizabeth!  Elizabeth!” he purred.   He finally maneuvered her to the point where she growled, “Okay – but I’m gonna get my lawyers on it!”  Once again he dissuaded her, saying that such a move would destroy any chance we had for finding the footage.  He convinced her instead to wait until the work was finished before she initiated any legal proceedings.

So that was my encounter with La Liz.  I never met her again.  But then I didn’t want to, either.  Once was quite enough.  Besides, it was never my goal – as it is with so many others who get into show business – to have lunch with movie stars.  I wanted to make stuff, to tell stories, to work with great talents – not hover in the celestial orbits of the rich and infamous.

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Talking Books with Connie Martinson

18 Apr

Talking Books with Connie Martinson

Click the link to watch a little interview on the occasion of my first book.

And in case you were wondering, I’ve only gotten more handsome with age.

Background Music–Inspiration for Writing

12 Apr

When I’m really serious about writing – when I want to completely become one with the page – my headphones are the resource I utilize first.  There is something about the lull of music that makes the writing process easier, allowing my imagination to soar and dive and rise again.  Of course, I can’t write to just any music; I can’t, for instance, lose myself in prose if the music has lyrics.  Words from other sources invariably conflict with my own (although I have been known to play Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” from time to time and it hasn’t unduly affected my output).

Classical music works, too, particularly from the Russian masters of the 20th century.  I’m speaking now of Prokofiev and Shostakovich primarily.  But perhaps some of you already know what these two geniuses have in common…?  The answer is that in addition to symphonies, concerti, and oratorios they also wrote soundtracks for Soviet films.  Prokofiev’s music from “Alexander Nevsky” has in fact become a concert staple, though it was first written as an accompaniment to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film masterpiece.

My first choice for music that helps me to write is always movie soundtracks.  They are always highly colored, they run the gamut of emotions, and are written to go under a scene, to punctuate the film’s intent, as well as to make clear what at times the dialog and action cannot.

My first choice is always the music of Alex North.  His magnificent score for Cleopatra – which was released in its entirety about a decade ago – will instantly put me into the writing mode.  As the playwright Arthur Miller once said, “Alex North can break your heart in three notes.”  What’s also interesting is the fact that North studied under Prokofiev when he went to the USSR in the thirties.  At times he is jarringly dissonant, at other times lyrical.  But he never becomes sentimental or gauche; his supreme intelligence always shines through.  His music is everything I want to accomplish with my prose.  I’ve written many a page to his wonderful music, and I heartily encourage you to listen to all his works.  Perhaps you’ll be inspired, too.

In fact, one of my favorite tasks at the beginning of every new novel – a task that I liken to hurling myself down a well and painfully climbing back up to the light again – is to choose the novel’s music.  Each new work has its own primary background music (though I mix it up with others.)  Lately, the music of the Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, has come to my aid.  Though he’s mainly known as the composer of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, he is easily as insightful and intelligent as Alex North.  For my latest novel, The Chronicles of the Sanguivorous, I have chosen his score for Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet”, which starred Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.  It’s reliance on folk song motifs is both haunting and tragic, particularly in the music he has composed for Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s themes.  The music seems to fit the hunter and gatherer culture which I depict at the beginning of the novel, for it is both simple and rural at the same time.  Another of his scores, the one for “Days of Heaven” is another great score which accompanies my forays on the keyboard.

So what music inspires you to write?  Send me your own suggestions, because I’m always desperate to discover ways to make it easier.  I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you.

Dear Marilyn (Part One)

6 Mar

I just completed a screenplay yesterday for a proposed mystery series, in which the events revolve around the disappearance of a long-dead star’s body from her crypt.  She has been “collected”, you see, by a rabid fan.  Her corpse becomes, in effect, the ultimate piece of film memorabilia.  In the screenplay I call the star “Maxine Morrow”, but, as everyone will realize, it’s really Marilyn Monroe.  There’s been a long-standing rumor that Monroe’s body is not in the Westwood cemetery where she was laid to rest.  A corner of the marble door to her crypt sported a big chip for quite a while, allowing the faithful to touch her coffin if they so desired.  But some darker sources hint that the chip happened when her body had been whisked away by her acolytes, to become the centerpiece of some bizarre cult – and this is the nugget from which I drew my plot.  Who knows whether or not it’s true – it’s still a good story.  For me, the interesting thing in the writing of this screenplay was that I was forced to replay some incidents from my own past – for you see; I too have a tenuous connection to Marilyn.

The events I’m about to relate are true.  At first I thought I would turn them into a one-person play, in which a single actor plays all the parts; but with my last year’s first and only foray into the theater, I thought, “Why not just write about it for your blog?”  (The only thing that the theater did was convince me that I was much more temperamentally suited to being a novelist than a playwright.  I will always be grateful for the experience, if only because it was a clarifying one, but the theater really isn’t for me; more about that later.)

So here’s my story…

Before I became a full-time novelist, I served as a researcher on a couple of books, one of which was a best-seller.  It was called “Marilyn, the Last Take” by Peter Brown and Patte Barham (each of whom was an amazing character in their own right, and worthy of a book of their own).  The book concerned itself with Marilyn Monroe’s last (unfinished) film, the prophetically titled “Something’s Gotta Give”.  Incidentally, it also purported to at last uncover the truth about Marilyn’s so-called murder at the hands of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy.

I was hired mainly for my knowledge concerning the botched production of “Cleopatra”, which was the shadow story in the book; “Cleo”, if you remember, was being shot at the same time as “Something’s Gotta Give”.  It was the authors’ contention that one of the reasons 20th Century Fox pulled the plug on Marilyn’s picture, leading to her emotional meltdown and eventual death, was because of the studio’s horrendous travails with Elizabeth Taylor’s shenanigans in Rome – they simply could not afford two divas at the same moment, each with a reputation for tardiness, illness, and emotional volatility.  Clearly, with millions and millions of dollars sunk into its gargantuan production, “Cleopatra” was the more important picture.  The supposition taken by the authors was that the brunette won her battle with the studio while the blonde lost hers.

The book was an immense best-seller, mainly because of the Kennedy connection.  By this time, the late 1980s, the shocking news that the president’s mistress had been none other than Hollywood’s most famous and tragic blonde was old hat.  The truth was that Kennedy treated Monroe as just another serviceable doll, and when he was through with her he handed her off to his brother.  (This same territory had been covered as early as 1965 in Jacqueline Susann’s roman a clef, “Valley of the Dolls.”)  Monroe, however, was not just another easy bimbo and refused to endure such shabby treatment.  She was no $100 a night girl – she was a star!  Monroe pestered the President and his brother with daily calls and letters, insisting that she was going to spill the beans both to their wives and the public, and had, in fact, called a press conference for the following Monday morning.  That Sunday, however, she was found dead in her bedroom and the press conference never happened.

Well, there you have the ingredients for the perfect conspiracy theory.  You have the hysterical White House handlers, the unstable star, the pre-emptive murder made to look like a suicide, and the subsequent cover-up.  The real story was that sometime during the research phase the authors and I discovered that there was no proof whatsoever that the Kennedy’s had a connection to Monroe’s death.  Marilyn had been “sliding toward extinction” for most of her life.  She was forever getting plastered on the weekends with booze and pills, subsequently calling up her friends, members of the Rat Pack, and treating them to long, teary farewells.  “Say goodbye to the President for me,” she supposedly gurgled that last night, “and say goodbye to you, too, ‘cause you’re a pretty nice guy.”  Her friends even had a phrase for it – “Marilyn’s dangling the phone again.”

Usually one of them would race off to her house, revive her, call her shrink and have her stomach pumped out.  All would be well – for about another week.  Then it would start all over again, except that the last time everybody was tired.  No one went to help her, thinking that someone else would get it.  At worst, Marilyn’s death could only be labeled a negligent homicide – that people knew she was dying but did nothing about it.  The truth was that she had been dying every weekend for the last couple of years.  Her friends were sick of the endless drama.  (We’ve all had friends like this, haven’t we; people we’ve dropped from our lives because the emotional wear and tear is just so fierce.  Self-centered neurotics are fun theater for a short while, until you realize it’s all about them, and that you can never be more than a supporting player in their lives.)

Peter and Patte decided to contact their publisher, Random House, to tell them that they could not tie the Kennedy’s to Monroe’s death, but that they had a pretty interesting story to replace it nonetheless.  Do you know what the publisher’s reply was?  “You contracted with us to tell the story that the  Kennedy’s killed Marilyn Monroe, and by God you’d better deliver it or perhaps our lawyers will speak a tongue you comprehend.”  It was Gore Vidal’s cynical prophecy come horribly to life – that the new literature of the modern age takes real names, real places, and real events and simply makes all the rest up.

So here’s the lesson I wish to impart unto you today:  think of this story every time you read the purported “truth” in books or in magazines or in newspapers.  Remember that writing is slanted.  All writing has an agenda.  All publishing is about money.  If you want the truth, you must locate and read articles from many sources and then come to your own conclusions.  Somewhere in one of them there might be the kernel that engendered all the commentary – just don’t expect to find it in the book store, on the television or in the newsstand.  We have been so managed and maneuvered by our news sources that we don’t know what end is up anymore.

In other words:  DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING!

After the publisher’s scary dictate, the authors and I had to go back to emphasize every untruth, every veiled accusation, and every raving innuendo made by some nut case who claimed to know the real story.  But the publishers got what they wanted – a best seller.  It even engendered an episode on “Unsolved Mysteries” – which was a bonanza of publicity for the book and its subsequent release in paperback – in which Robert Stack solemnly urged the public to write the Los Angeles Supervisor’s office to “uncover the truth about Marilyn Monroe’s murder!”

That’s when it really got interesting.

Next:  “Dear Marilyn – Part Two”:  in which I read through 8,000 letters from “all those little people out there in the dark,” as Norma Desmond was fond of saying.  You might think that Hollywood people are crazy, but let me assure you – they got nothing on the public.  You might even think that the events depicted in my latest novel, “The Stand In,” (also set in Hollywood and also based on a true story) are lurid escapism –

But just wait!

Have you read The Stand In? Available on KindleNookeBook, and iPad. Downloading the book is a great way to support this indie-author. 

Brad Geagley’s List of Essential Films

13 Feb

After my last blog, many of you have asked to see my list of films that I give out to my classes – so here it is.  As I’ve repeatedly said, this is a very eclectic list that I use for a variety of reasons:

 

  1. To acquaint the students with (mainly) films from the American Studio System after sound was introduced.
  2. Some are true classics that they should know, if only for cultural reference, i.e., famous for being famous, like “Gone With the Wind” or “Lawrence of Arabia”.
  3. Sometimes a film (such as “Stage Door”) has been included because I want to introduce them to actors or actresses with whom they may not be familiar – such as Katherine Hepburn or Eve Arden.
  4. All the films have extremely strong stories, and utilize the storytelling elements I teach in class superbly.
  5. Some are included to illustrate specific storytelling elements:  “All About Eve” for dialog, for instance, “Cleopatra” for spectacle, “Sunset Boulevard” for the clash of two styles (silent and sound) or “Inherit the Wind” for those films based on a real news story.

 

Because of the above-stated reasons, you’ll notice that many of the famed classics are missing, the most obvious of which is “Citizen Kane”.  Sorry, I’ve never found it interesting or emotionally compelling enough to include.  My apologies to its legion of admirers – but it’s my class, after all!

 

1930s

Stage Door

Camille

Ninotchka

A Tale of Two Cities

Gone With The Wind

Bride of Frankenstein

The Awful Truth

The Wizard of Oz

 

1940s

The Lady Eve

The Shop Around the Corner

Meet Me In Saint Louis

Citizen Kane

The Heiress

The Little Foxes

The Best Years of Our Lives

Casablanca

Mildred Pierce

Shadow of a Doubt

 

1950s

All About Eve

The Bad Seed

Some Like It Hot

Sunset Boulevard

North by Northwest

Marty

On the Waterfront

Singin’ in the Rain

Rebel Without a Cause

A Place in the Sun

Paths of Glory

 

1960s

West Side Story

Lilies of the Field

The Haunting

Cleopatra

Rosemary’s Baby

Bonnie & Clyde

Night of the Living Dead

Spartacus

Inherit the Wind

Lawrence of Arabia

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

The Graduate

Petulia

Patton

Psycho

Splendor in the Grass

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

1970s

The Godfather

The Godfather, Part 2

Cabaret

Chinatown

The Last Picture Show

Nashville

Annie Hall

 

1980s

Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels

A Room With A View

E.T., the Extra Terrestrial

Amadeus

Blue Velvet

Raising Arizona

Terms of Endearment

Ordinary People

Broadcast News

Moonstruck

Out of Africa

Remains of the Day

 

1990s

Searching for Bobby Fischer

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

The English Patient

Raise the Red Lantern (Chinese)

American Beauty

Shakespeare in Love

Unforgiven

Goodfellas

 

2000s

To Die For

A Beautiful Mind

No Country For Old Men

American Beauty

O Brother, Where Art Thou

The Queen

Chicago

Agora

The Descendants

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Milk

 

As I’ve said, there are a lot of necessary films missing from this list.  Write and tell me what films you’ve seen from the list, and also some more films I should include.

 

Inspiration–What inspired you to become a writer?

6 Feb

What inspired you to become a writer?  Believe it or not this question came up last night for me when I was watching Madonna during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.  Her appearance, drawn on a moving float pulled by gladiators and costumed in cloth of gold, was –well, what was it?  An homage?  A parody?  A rip-off? – of Cleopatra’s Entrance Into Rome seen in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film starring the late, great Elizabeth Taylor.

(I will pause here to express my awe-stricken appreciation of Ms. Ciccone’s exceptionally inflated ego, in that she would actually attempt to insert herself into Taylor’s place.  My stunned reaction was precisely reminiscent of my first sight of her in the “Material Girl” video, where she was costumed as the late, great Marilyn Monroe.  I was tempted to ask myself, as I did then, “What’s wrong with this picture?”  Madonna seems terminally undersized when she sets herself up in opposition to those truly great icons of 20th Century film stardom and it’s sad that she can never – quite – become what they were.  It must be so disappointing to her.  The fact that producers and executives are forever lavishing money and venues on her so that she can try again and again seems just another sign of our age’s own cultural impoverishment.  But – and I freely admit it – this attitude just may be me at a cranky 61 years of age, lamenting the “good old days” which usually weren’t.)

But Madonna did get me thinking…

In her wonderful biography of Maria Callas, Adriana Huffington (then Stassinopoulos) wrote that she had been caught by Callas’ magic when she was twelve years old.  She went on to philosophize that, for most creative people, something usually appears on the horizon at this time to interrupt the placidity of childhood, something that grabs you by the throat and yanks you out of babyhood into the world of adult appreciation.  Suddenly your world is no longer bounded by your neighborhood streets.  Instead, your world has become all wonderfully huge and, best, unexplored.  For Ms. Huffington, it was Callas.  For me it was “Cleopatra”.

Of course, the groundwork had already been laid.  I had always loved history, particularly Egyptian and Roman history.  The first movie I can remember seeing was “Land of the Pharaohs,” which starred Joan Collins as Nellifer, whose “treachery stained every stone of the pyramid!” (as the movie posters screamed.) The first adult book I remember reading, at ten years of age, was “The Egyptian” by Mika Waltari.  And then there were all those films like “The Robe”, “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus”, all of which became my own personal fantasy worlds.

Then, when I was twelve years old, “Cleopatra” came into my life and everything abruptly came into focus.

I had not heard much about it, which is strange because the film’s tumultuous production and the adulterous love affair shared by Liz and Dick had been the most reported news events of 1962, generating more articles than even the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I remember that I was sitting in a chair at the La Mirada Shopping Center’s barber shop, waiting for my turn to get a haircut, when I picked up the Life Magazine that featured the cover story, “Cleopatra Barges in at Last.”  For the first time I underwent what could only be called an out-of-body experience. I literally fell headlong into the black-and-white production stills and was aware of nothing else.  The buzzing sounds of the electric shavers and the snips of scissors faded away into nothing. I don’t think I even responded when my name was called – for here was my fantasy world come alive at last.  They were photos of a past-life that I only suspected I had lived – and even the patterns on the costumes seemed thrillingly familiar.

In short, I was hooked.

I literally saw the film again and again and again.  Though many people find it turgid and slow, I became aware of wonderful words for the first time.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ script taught me that the beautiful placement and rhythms of speech can be as exciting as any car chase or yellow explosion.  And, more, these famous personages from history became instantly recognizable as more than mere historical placards; instead they were thinking, feeling, and achingly flawed people – just like me.  (In fact, the dysfunctional relationship between Cleopatra and Antony that Mankiewicz depicted was that of my own parents, but we won’t go into that today.)  In other words, I knew these characters; I lived with them.

What I want to say is that Joe Mankiewicz taught me how to write.  At first I slavishly copied him, endless rewriting “Cleopatra” in various teen aged forms.  But like the students of the master painters, who copied even the brushstrokes of their mentors, I gradually became free to develop my own style.  My first two books, “Year of the Hyenas” and “Day of the False King” were my own versions of those sex-and-sandal epics from the 1950s and 60s.  And, having written them (and successfully, too) I felt free to finally do my own work.  I’ve both been inspired by and have now exorcized, “Cleopatra”.  My newest novel “The Stand In” is the first in which my truest voice can be read, and it’s wonderful to know that even at 61 I am capable of growth and change and refinement.

So here’s to Joe Mankiewicz, Elizabeth Taylor, and even Madonna.  Without you I couldn’t have been who I am today.

My question to you readers is – what inspired you?  What opened your world?  What made you want to write and write and write?

Let me know.  And if it was “Cleopatra”, that’s fine too.

 (Have you downloaded my newest book, The Stand In? It’s on Kindle, Nook, and the iPad. Enjoy my five starred mystery for less than a latte and you’ll help support this indie-author so I can continue to inspire.) 

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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