Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Executioner’s Song

Mailer in Hollywood

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“I would love to get out to Hollywood for several months,” Norman Mailer wrote in a letter to an agent on May 10, 1948. “I have several ideas for novels now, but all of them are a little too small. The trouble with writing something like The Naked and the Dead is that you get frightened if your next can is smaller. And Hollywood, I think, would fit the bill.” When Mailer wrote these words, he was just twenty-five years old, and his first novel had made him famous overnight, complete with offers for the movie rights, which he was eager to explore. In secret, he was planning to use the experience in other ways, as he later confessed: “I went to Hollywood four years ago because in the back of my mind was the idea that I would write a nice big fat collective novel about the whole works—the idea I suppose with which every young writer goes out.” But he also had hopes of more tangible forms of success. He negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. to work on scripts with his good friend Jean Malaquais, to whom he optimistically wrote a few months after his arrival:

Hollywood-wise our position is not bad. I am not at all without hope, for in the last week a few small things have happened which lead me to believe that we shall reap the wind yet—the golden wind. Also I have a wonderful idea for a movie—just right for you and us. There is a young actor here who is in fabulous demand—Montgomery Clift, and he likes me, respects me, et al [sic]. My idea is that when he comes back to town in a couple of weeks, I will see him, and suggest the movie—The Red and the Black. It will be of necessity an extravaganza which means our pay would be higher.

The “extravaganza” never went anywhere, although Mailer and Malaquais worked on a script for Clift loosely based on Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West, and they seem to have considered a project inspired by the organized crime group Murder, Inc. (Most of this information, as well as all quotes from letters, comes from the recent book Selected Letters of Norman Mailer, an astonishingly rich volume that offers countless possible avenues for exploration. I’ve chosen the Hollywood thread at random, but I hope to dig into it in other ways soon.) By 1950, Mailer had grown disillusioned, writing to his sister Barbara: “We got out of Hollywood by brute force, i.e., we made a decision to leave and by gosh and by God we did. I still can’t believe it. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life trying to produce that damn movie. Except I’m probably the only writer who actually lost money by going to Hollywood.” His last remaining point of interest—apart from working on the novel that eventually became The Deer Park—was to sell the rights to his most famous book. A few years later, he wrote to his lawyer Charles Rembar that he hoped to get at least $100,000 for The Naked and the Dead, explaining:

If Naked is going to be bought and crapped up it makes sense only if I’ll get real financial independence from it. Otherwise, I’d just as soon spare myself the heartache…The key to what I feel with all of the above is that the old saw about Hollywood psychology—if you don’t want them, they want you—is very true, at least from my experience. And my other feeling is that if I have to hump for a living in a couple of years, it may not be the worst thing in the world for me. So I’d rather be big or little but not in between.

The Naked in the Dead was ultimately filmed by Raoul Walsh, and Mailer called the result, which I haven’t seen, “one of the worst movies ever made.” (It was evidently in development at one point for Charles Laughton to direct with Robert Mitchum in the lead, only to be scrapped by the failure of The Night of the Hunter—which has to count as one of the most intriguing unmade movies in an industry with no shortage of broken dreams.) But the experience left Mailer with some valuable insights. In 1966, he wrote to Tony Macklin, the editor of the magazine Film Heritage:

I think as a working rule of thumb, a novelist or playwright cannot hope for their work to survive in Hollywood. It can only be adulterated or improved, and since filming a good novel makes everyone concerned quite tense, and justifiably so, since no one wishes particularly to adulterate good art—there are a few rewards in heaven for that—I think if I were a director I would look for the kind of modest novel which can make a fine movie. I think the best example is The Asphalt Jungle.

Mailer never forgot this, and he wrote years later to his frequent business partner Lawrence Schiller, with whom he had collaborated on The Executioner’s Song, to propose a few potential projects: “I think it can be said that any of Raymond Chandler’s novels that are available would be splendid for movies, and I think I could do a lot with them in adaptation, since Chandler has marvelous plots and terrific settings, but is occasionally a little thing in characterization…While we’re at it, it might be worth checking into Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.” None of these adaptations ever came to pass, and Mailer couldn’t resist one more hopeful query: “What’s the story on A Farewell to Arms? I can’t remember when the last remake was done, but if that’s around, it’s a $30 million movie and the event of the year.”

When you read through Mailer’s letters on Hollywood, you’re left with a depressing sense of one of the most important writers of his generation repeatedly failing to gain traction in an industry that stubbornly resisted all his talent, ambition, and charisma. His correspondence is filled with fascinating hints of what might have been, some of which might have better been left unrealized, as when he wrote to the producer Mickey Knox to propose a version of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King starring Orson Welles and Sonny Liston. (A decade later, he wrote to Peter Bogdanovich, who was interested in adapting his novel An American Dream, to ask if Welles would be interested in reading an unproduced screenplay by Mailer titled The Trial of the Warlock: “I agree it’s hardly the sort of thing he’d want to do—why ever get into something like that at this point in his career?—but he might have quick insight into how to make it better, or approach the problem of the horror. I could use that. Truth, I’d be delighted to have him read it in any case just for fun.” Nothing ever came of it, and to the best of my knowledge, the two great wunderkinds of the forties never even crossed paths.) Mailer worked with varying degrees of seriousness on scripts for Henry Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion and the story that became Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and he eventually did write a couple of teleplays for Schiller, including the O.J. Simpson movie American Tragedy. For the most part, however, he concluded that he was better off making movies on his own, leading to such directorial oddities as Beyond the Law, Maidstone, and Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the last of which is one of those films that has intrigued me for years without ever prompting me to actually watch it—and I have the feeling that it could hardly be other than a huge disappointment. And perhaps the final lesson is simply that writers, even the greatest ones, should adjust their expectations accordingly. As Mailer wrote to Tony Macklin: “A novelist or playwright sells his work to Hollywood not in order that the work shall survive in translation, but to purchase time for himself.” And Mailer, like all writers, needed all the time that he could get.

The strange land

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On January 7, 1970, Robert A. Heinlein’s wife, Virginia, wrote to their agent Lurton Blassingame to share an alarming story:

Some weeks ago, a fan letter came in from the jail in Independence, California. In a burst of generosity, Robert tried to do something about this girl who’d written him. It turned out that she was one of the Manson family. So if we’re knifed in our beds like Sharon Tate, it’s because of three letters from members of the family. Just tell the police. I’m leaving these notices everywhere I can, in hopes of preventing anything from happening.

Virginia didn’t volunteer the sender’s name, but the Heinlein scholar James Gifford has speculated that it was Sandra Good, who was known within the Manson Family as “Blue.” I’ve written elsewhere about the influence of Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard on the late Charles Manson, which was meaningful to about the same extent that you could say that he was “influenced” by the Beatles, but it’s still worth exploring. Heinlein, in particular, clearly meant a lot to some of Manson’s followers. In addition to the letters that Virginia mentions, which also seems to have included one from Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land was found at Barker Ranch in Death Valley, where Manson was arrested, and his son was named Valentine Michael by his mother. (Whether or not Manson himself ever read the novel remains a matter of dispute, but I’m inclined these days to believe that he didn’t.) The more I reflect on it, though, the more I suspect that the members of Manson’s circle weren’t interested in Heinlein because of his books, ideas, or position in the counterculture. I think they were drawn to him because he was that rarest of creatures—a science fiction writer who was also a celebrity. And that, in turn, made him a target.

Earlier this year, I read Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry for the first time, in order to fill in some of the background for my discussion of the case in Astounding. I came away impressed by two other takeaways. One was the intensity of the coverage in the press, even as the killings were unfolding—if they happened again today, in the age of social media, they would still feel like the story of the year. Another was the extent to which celebrity was inextricably tied up in it at every stage. Along with Sharon Tate, the victims included the stylist Jay Sebring, who had cut the hair of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and half of the Rat Pack, and Abigail Folger, the heir to the eponymous coffee fortune, while the house in which the murders occurred had previously been rented by Candice Bergen and her boyfriend Mark Lindsay, the lead singer of Paul Revere and the Raiders. In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi and Gentry write of the aftermath:

It was reported that Frank Sinatra was in hiding; that Mia Farrow wouldn’t attend her friend Sharon’s funeral because, a relative explained, “Mia is afraid she will be next”; that Tony Bennett had moved from his bungalow on the grounds of the Beverly Hills Hotel to an inside suite “for greater security”; that Steve McQueen now kept a weapon under the front seat of his sports car; that Jerry Lewis had installed an alarm system in his home complete with closed circuit TV. Connie Stevens later admitted she had turned her Beverly Hills home into a fortress. “Mainly because of the Sharon Tate murders. That scared the daylights out of everyone.”

And they had reason to be scared. As a cellmate later recounted, Manson follower Susan Atkins openly mused while “leafing through a movie magazine” of other potential victims, including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Tom Jones.

The movie magazine in Atkins’s hands speaks to how the killings came out of an odd, momentary intersection between celebrity culture and the counterculture, as catalyzed and animated by Charles Manson’s brand of psychopathy. And it’s a combination that is hard to imagine emerging anywhere but in Southern California. (As Quentin Tarantino has said of his next movie: “It’s not Charles Manson, it’s 1969.”) It was a world in which Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys could pick up two teenage girls hitchhiking in Malibu, take them home, and find Manson and a dozen others crashing there when he returned at three in the morning. And it isn’t merely the time and place, but the liminal personalities involved, who move like shades between the lands of the unknown, the marginal, and the famous. Manson himself was just one of many, but I’ll content myself with two more examples. One of his followers, Bobby Beausoleil, had worked with the underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, scoring and appearing as himself in the short film Lucifer Rising. Anger, whose fascination with these twilight realms would be most famously expressed in his book Hollywood Babylon, had been mentored by Marjorie Cameron, the widow of L. Ron Hubbard’s friend Jack Parsons. On a slightly less occult level, we find the photographer and legendary hustler Lawrence Schiller, who bought the life rights of Susan Atkins and cranked out a quickie book on the murders. He later came to feel that he had thrown away his access to an important subject, and he rebounded with Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which he researched, packaged and sold, and, much later, with a series of projects about the O.J. Simpson trial. Schiller put together the latter with the help of his friend Robert Kardashian, for whose wife, Kris, he had directed a birthday video in which she drove around the streets of Los Angeles.

In the movie From Hell, Jack the Ripper says: “One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century.” I don’t want to credit Manson and his followers with any more importance than they deserve, but their story undeniably anticipated much of what we’ve come to take for granted about the world in which we now live. There’s the way in which the news can suddenly insert itself, all too horrifyingly, into our own lives, as in the tragic case of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, who spoke with a local news vendor “about Tate, the event of the day,” hours before becoming the next victims. And they were ahead of their time in their reminder of how the famous and the ordinary can be leveled in an instant, not by social media, but by death. The fact that Manson was eighty-two when he died underlines how long ago all of this was, but his obituaries also feel like a sign of things to come. He and his disciples drew omnivorously from popular culture, as Leslie van Houten’s attorney said of his own client: “That girl is insane in a way that is almost science fiction.” But if the one constant throughout it all was race—in particular, the specter of a coming war between blacks and whites—it’s also true that Manson, in his megalomania, seized on it primarily to control his followers. He believed that he would emerge to assume power after the conflict was over, and his disciples often resembled modern preppers in the preparations that they took to survive it. But there were also moments when more practical considerations took precedence. As Jeff Guinn writes in the recent book Manson: His Life and Times:

In mid-March [of 1969], Charlie received word that [producer] Terry Melcher would finally come to hear him perform some of his songs. Charlie had been keeping everyone busy preparing for Helter Skelter, but a cataclysmic race war paled compared to Charlie finally getting a record deal.

The Ex-Kardashian’s Song

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Kris Jenner

A couple of weeks ago, the Kardashian family released a new video. (If you’re already tuning out, please stick around—it’s going to be worth it, I promise.) It was a birthday tribute to matriarch Kris Jenner, in the form of a remake of a short vanity film that Jenner herself had made decades earlier. And while the media lavished most of its attention on the new version, written and recorded by the Kardashian sisters and featuring cameos from the likes of Justin Bieber, I found myself much more intrigued by the older clip, which has been kicking around online for a few years. It’s a remarkably guileless celebration of its subject’s looks, wealth, and connections, disguised as a love letter to her friends, as sung to the tune of Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” Watching it now, it’s hard not to think about the strange places that life would take her, or to wonder at the change in her routine implied by the original lyrics, which mention the Cheesecake Factory, Bible study, and church on Sundays. The images of her “friends,” which include brief glimpses of Michael Jackson and O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson, carry an unavoidable charge of their own. But the moment that made me really sit up and take notice came at the very end, as the credits began to roll: Directed by Lawrence Schiller. And in all the cheeky coverage that the video and its remake have inspired, nobody seems to have mentioned the Schiller connection, which in many ways is the most surprising detail of all.

Who is Lawrence Schiller? He’s one of the great hustlers and characters of the twentieth century, a man often compared to a mercenary version of Forrest Gump, and for good reason. Schiller began his career as an enterprising photographer and ambulance chaser who first gained fame with his shots of Marilyn Monroe’s nude swim on the set of Something’s Got to Give. Later, he used his natural shrewdness to get everything from Jack Ruby’s last interview—which he snuck into Ruby’s hospital room to obtain—to an exclusive with Sharon Atkins of the Manson family. To most readers, he’s best remembered for his collaborations with Norman Mailer on no fewer than seven projects, most notably The Executioner’s Song. (Schiller got the life rights to Gary Gilmore and his girlfriend Nicole, brought in Mailer as a writer for hire, and conducted most of the interviews and background research. He appears as a major character in the second half of the novel itself, and later directed the miniseries of the same name, which provided a breakthrough role for Tommy Lee Jones.) His relationship to Mailer, whose estate he currently oversees, is neatly described by Peter Manso in the exquisitely bitchy afterword to Mailer: His Life and Times:

Like most hustlers [Schiller] was smart, full of nerve and combativeness, and what was most obvious was that he enjoyed his reputation as an independent who refused to play by other people’s rules…“Norman, I’ve just signed up so-and-so. You interested?” Schiller might offer, operating as a one-man production office, talent agency, and cash register, and if it was a Yeah, the high-energy dealmaker would scurry off to take care of all the details. Then boom, there it was, a new project on the table. How could Norman resist?

Lawrence Schiller

And his connection to the Kardashians is even more implausible. Schiller was friends with Robert Kardashian, an entertainment businessman and lawyer in Los Angeles who moved in similar circles. He had also been neighbors in Bel Air with O.J. Simpson. (An old profile from the Los Angeles Times notes: “Schiller had also once directed O.J. in a music video”—apparently a reference to the Jenner birthday film—”as a favor to their mutual friend Robert Kardashian.”) When the Simpson trial began, Schiller was more than ready to pounce: with the blessing of Kardashian, by then a member of the defense team, he spent thirty hours interviewing O.J. in jail, and he ghostwrote the resulting book I Want to Tell You. After the verdict, Schiller performed one of the great about-faces in the history of journalism, spinning his access to the Simpson defense into the book American Tragedy, which is best known for its account of a lie detector test that Simpson failed two days after the murders. The book and its subsequent adaptation as a miniseries, which Norman Mailer wrote, led to Simpson filing a lawsuit against Schiller and Kardashian, claiming that Schiller had obtained the interviews under false pretenses. Kardashian was also disciplined by the California State Bar for his involvement with the project, and he ultimately agreed not to practice law for two years. He died soon thereafter.

Schiller is in his late seventies now, but he hasn’t slowed down: he released a new pair of documentaries on the Simpson trial just last month. (In a weird reversal, for a later generation, the O.J. story retains its interest primarily because of the Kardashian connection: the new tidbit that got the most play involved a suicide threat that Simpson allegedly made in the teenage Kim Kardashian’s bedroom.) It’s unclear what his relationship is with the family now, although I’d guess that it probably isn’t great. But it also feels like his last big scoop. I’ve believed for a long time that there’s a fantastic book lurking at the heart of the Kardashian saga—not the cheap cash-grabs that currently populate Amazon, but a huge, Robert Caro-level treatment that would give the rise of this family the consideration it deserves. As sick as some of us may be of the Kardashians by now, there’s no denying that if we were encountering their story for the first time, it would strike us as indecently fascinating, with a cast of characters ranging from O.J. to Caitlyn Jenner to Lamar Odom to Kanye West. And Lawrence Schiller is obviously the man to write it. It’s impossible to imagine that the thought hasn’t crossed his mind: Schiller has put himself at the center of such circuses for half a century now, and even if he weren’t so close to the story already, he’d be a great choice. His books tend to be enormous, meticulously researched, and saturated with gossip, and few figures of any era would have more to say about the role that the media plays in the creation and destruction of human stories. Consider this post an open letter to Schiller. This book needs to exist; I know I’d buy it. And Schiller ought to get on it now.

Written by nevalalee

November 23, 2015 at 11:01 am

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