WRITERS IN HOLLYWOOD
By Ian Hamilton
Harper & Row. 326 pp. $25
THE MEN and women who write the movies have grown accustomed to being upstaged in the movie capital, but who would expect them to be upstaged in a volume called Writers in Hollywood? It seems the ultimate snub: Screenwriters don't even get any respect in a book about screenwriters.
The real stars of Writers are the legendary studio heads. Irving Thalberg of MGM. Louis Mayer, also of MGM. Harry Cohn of Columbia. Jack Warner of Warner Brothers. And Darryl Zanuck of 20th-Century Fox. All of whom have already had whole books written about them.
The co-stars in this book are the famous directors: D.W. Griffith, Frank Capra, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, William Wyler and John Ford.
The supporting players are the writers -- most with nothing more than bit parts.
Ian Hamilton (author of biographies of Robert Lowell and J.D. Salinger) has the annoying habit of attaching directors' names to movie titles. He refers to "John Ford's 'The Informer' " -- even though Dudley Nichols wrote it. He writes of "Howard Hawks's 'Sergeant York' " -- even though writer Howard Koch gave it its political punch. In discussing "The Best Years of Our Lives," he even mentions director "William Wyler and HIS writer, Robert Sherwood." (The capital letters are mine.) So not only do the movies belong to the directors, but the writers do too. One might expect this kind of talk in other Hollywood books, but this is supposed to be a book about screenwriters.
The "screenwriters" who get the biggest parts in this book are actually authors who just passed through Hollywood. Once again, we are given a synopsis of how F. Scott Fitzgerald battled producers and the bottle in Hollywood. Once more, we glimpse William Faulkner drinking his way through drafts of screenplays for "The Big Sleep" and "To Have and Have Not." We also meet Nathanael West, Bertolt Brecht and Aldous Huxley -- none of whom is remembered for his movie writing. The only full-time Hollywood screenwriters who get what might be called speaking parts are the writer-directors -- the so-called "hyphens." For example, Hamilton reviews the career of writer-director Preston Sturges, who made such films as "Christmas in July," "The Lady Eve," "The Palm Beach Story" and "Sullivan's Travels." Hamilton likes Sturges because "there is always a touch of film criticism in his films, a showing how it should be done." But he eventually dismisses him as a director who always "falters in the end." I would suggest that Preston Sturges's worst movie is better than this book, which falters from page to page.
The only screenwriter who is just a screenwriter who receives serious attention is Dudley Nichols, who wrote not only "The Informer" but also "Stagecoach." Hamilton calls Nichols "Hollywood's most earnestly respected screenwriter," which is meant to be a hollow compliment. The author suggests that the screenwriter owed much of his success to John Ford -- his favorite director -- who did a lot of "hacking away" at his scripts.
Supposedly Ford once threw the only copy of a Nichols screenplay over the side of a yacht at sea because it was too long. Nichols went back and rewrote it shorter.
"In stories like these," Hamilton writes, "Nichols is presented as a rather craven yesman, a minor functionary in the Ford wagon train, and there surely was a sense in which he was suited for that role . . ."
Perhaps -- but I prefer to go on respecting Dudley Nichols and throw this book overboard. HAMILTON WANTS to have it both ways: He belittles famous novelists for failing in Hollywood. But he also belittles successful screenwriters for being shallow and pliable enough to make it in movie land.
Hamilton never pauses to ask himself why some writers do well in Hollywood and others don't. He does notice that a lot of journalists have found happy homes in Hollywood, but he never wonders if something about journalism might possibly prepare writers for screenwriting. He seems to believe that all the ex-newspaper reporters in Hollywood -- Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Herman Mankiewicz, Dudley Nichols and so on -- are just a coincidence.
But actually journalism and screenwriting have a lot in common. Honest reporters only write what they see and hear. In other words, journalists don't read minds. Likewise, screenwriters only write what the camera can see and the microphone can hear. In other words, movie writers can't write camera instructions such as the following: CUT TO -- INTERIOR -- JOE'S MIND. So journalists who go to Hollywood have had a lot of practice doing just the kind of writing they need to do in Hollywood. No wonder many do it well.
But novel writing is obviously a lot different from screenwriting. Novelists do read minds. Novelists do tell us what their characters are thinking. Novelists do cover a lot more than the visible and audible world. So no wonder their craft -- their art -- is not always readily translatable into screenwriting. The bottle was not necessarily all that defeated Faulkner and Fitzgerald in Hollywood.
Insight into what makes a screenwriter is not all that is missing from Writers in Hollywood. There is also no new research. The author carefully footnotes all his facts, which all come out of other books and articles. This volume about Hollywood, which is after all a fabulous place, was written in the library.
There is no new point of view -- in fact, no point of view at all. Hamilton describes a government agency set up to advise Hollywood during World War II as follows: "The reviewers had no particular love of the movies, nor any real taste for 'entertainment,' and were on the whole grindingly humorless in their appraisals." I would say the same of Hamilton himself.
This book is simply a rearrangement of all the old Hollywood anecdotes.
One old anecdote -- which Hamilton chooses not to tell -- comes to mind. It is the one about the time Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote "Citizen Kane," got drunk and threw up at a fancy Hollywood dinner party.
"Don't worry," Mankiewicz told his distressed hostess, "the white wine came up with the fish."
The problem with Ian Hamilton's book is the order in which things come up. The studio bosses come up first. Then come the directors. Then come the writer-directors. And the Just Plain Writers keep coming up last in this book that is supposed to be about writers in Hollywood.
Aaron Latham is the author of "Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood" and the screenplay for "Urban Cowboy."