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Book Review: Hollywood: A Third Memoir by Larry McMurtry

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Larry McMurtry has written many fine books — novels, essays, memoirs; unfortunately Hollywood: A Third Memoir is not one of them. Intended as a look back at his associations with the Hollywood film industry over the years mainly as a script writer, the book has little to say that seems either insightful or revealing. He begins with the first movie made from one of his books, Hud — a film, however, he claims he had nothing to do with. He ends with his shared Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, a film for which he does claim some credit, but about which he really has little of any significance to say. Between the two, he drops a lot of names, repeats himself too often, and indulges in cliché platitudes.

First the name dropping: talking about the beautiful people when you have something interesting to tell the reader about them isn’t a bad thing. Writers have become famous and made a fortune doing just that. The key is to tell us something worth knowing. When he talks about the famous agent “Swifty” Lazar, and tells us how he began withering away after his wife died; then how he began giving away his worldly goods, sometimes the same things to different people, that is at least interesting. When he talks about the breakup of Peter Bogdanovich’s marriage as the result of an affair with the young Cybill Shepard on the set of The Last Picture Show, that at least is juicy gossip. When he describes how powerhouse attorney Gerry Spence refused to sign off on a screenplay about one of his cases unless he got to play himself in the movie, that at least is illuminating.

On the other hand, to tell us that when you stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel you saw the Prince of Wales, Muhammad Ali, and — do you believe? — Mel Tillis, and let it rest at that. The only thing to say is, “So what?” Elizabeth Taylor once stopped by a table where he was sitting. George Burns gave the daughter of his writing partner a cigar. He played tennis with Barbara Streisand, and she made him so nervous he threw up on the way home — or maybe it was the French food. Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Cary Grant, all passed on a variety of scripts he was involved in. The scripts didn’t get made. Marlon Brando lights up a room when he comes in. He wrote a script for Goldie Hawn. It didn’t get made. He stayed in a penthouse that once housed Warren Beatty and even had dinner with him. This is memorable stuff? Yawn.

His tendency to repeat himself is annoying. It is almost as if he has forgotten he has already mentioned these things. Robert Halmi, Senior is called “Senior” to distinguish him from his son Robert Halmi, Junior, we are told twice. Hollywood, we are told on several occasions, doesn’t like to make movies about Hollywood. Westerns are expensive to produce because of location shooting and hiring the animals. He’s partners with Marcia Carter in a rare book business in Georgetown. Chasen’s, the famous restaurant, site of many a Hollywood deal, is no longer with us. Woody Allen may be one of the few writers who can write a screenplay without a partner. Some of these are more interesting than others, but is it really necessary that the reader be told them more than once?

Besides, some of the insights into the movie business are less than startling. The power players in Hollywood won’t know who you are after a few bombs. Writers tend to be low men on the Hollywood totem pole. You need a commitment from a box office attraction to get the funding to get a script green lighted. The more time it takes to shoot a movie, the more money it costs. First class on a plane is better than tourist, but a private jet is best of all. Jack Nicholson made Easy Rider and became a big star.

This is not to say there is nothing worthwhile in Hollywood: A Third Memoir. McMurtry makes an interesting point about the difference between writing movie scripts and writing fiction. Fiction, he says, can be written in a trance-like state, almost as if the conscious mind wasn’t necessary. Script writing requires conscious, logical thinking. What McMurtry was most successful at in his scripts was creating character; that was the one thing he felt he could do well. When you professionalize a passion, you destroy it. Lovers, he says, learn this when they marry. More of this kind of wisdom would be welcome.

McMurtry probably has a more significant memoir of his Hollywood days in him. His associations with such landmark productions as Hud, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, and Brokeback Mountain would seem to offer fertile ground. The material is too promising to have wasted it in this little book.

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