In "Take 22" film critic Judith Crist serves as hostess and head cheerleader to the stars. Fortunately, there is much to cheer about in this rip-snorting, enjoyable symposium on the precarious state of contemporary filmmaking.
Edited from transcripts of sessions with 22 performers, writers, directors and producers at the Judith Crist Film Weekends in Tarrytown, N.Y., "Take 22" alternately celebrates and bemoans the state of the art, the personality spats the creative process produces and -- more often than not -- the tensions between artists and the Hollywood money men. The comic "us against them" tone is pretty much set in a question-and-answer session with Burt Reynolds, who remembered hearing that the studio might cast Marlon Brando and Henry Fonda as the leads in "Deliverance": "And I thought, well, they'd never make it down the river."
Crist doesn't cramp anybody's style; she's sharp, generous, lets the chips fall and only occasionally acts as referee between the interview subject and the audiences of 150 to 200 film lovers. (When the peanut gallery gets playfully combative, Crist -- "Judy" to the stars -- steps in with a soothing compress.) The moviemakers are so candid and forthcoming that one wonders whether they realized that their comments were being recorded.
Guy Hamilton, the director of the James Bond series, admits, "One of the rules of the Bond pictures is that you're not allowed to have a leading lady who can act."
Bette Davis declares her desire to play Elizabeth I although it would be her third try, explaining, "But now I would feel more comfortable as the older queen. Since I am an older . . . queen. (Loud laugh) Oh, I didn't mean that, really. I got stuck on that one and didn't know how to finish."
Joanne Woodward reports, "The only way I'd work with Marlon Brando is if he were in rear projection."
The atmosphere of the question-and-answer screenings is relaxed but stimulating. When Crist apologized for "exploiting" Hal Prince after a long session, the director dismissed her apology with, "It wasn't the Yale Film Society and it wasn't a bunch of yahoo fans," he said. "I had the rare pleasure of discussing my work with adults."
This is the general feeling among the guests and probably the reason the book seems all of a piece rather than what could have been a mixed bag of measured discretion and irrelevancies. In fact, "Take 22" puts in one's mind not a mixed bag at all, but a continuous punching bag in which licks are delivered and received while blame is passed for box office defeat and old wounds are opened up.
While much of the book is taken up by inside horror stories about the industry, there are intriguing sections about the technical aspects of filmmaking. Steven Spielberg goes into great detail on how he achieved the special effects in "Jaws" ("oil-based phony blood") and other films, yet is reluctant to discuss how the extraterrestrial functioned in "E.T.," feeling it would take away from the special magic produced by the picture.
Burt Lancaster is also especially eloquent about the nuts and bolts of film production, comparing directorial styles and delving into the problems of screenwriting. But it's too bad that Crist did not quote from earlier, germane transcripts in later sessions to develop some healthy "inside" discussion, for example, if Peter Bogdanovich could have responded to Burt Reynolds' wounding comments about the director.
One doubts, however, that "Take 22" will be read as a filmmaking primer -- source material for film students. It's a gossip-filled, movie-chat binge to be read and enjoyed by fans as discerning as the unusually sharp audiences who questioned the stars.
"Take 22" goes in a thousand directions, but it has sass and verve, from Michael Caine's comment on Richard Gere's "pinup image" problem ("The only trouble is, whenever they ask him to take his trousers off, he does") to a Peter Bogdanovich anecdote that will start popping up in other film books immediately.