Hollywood Elsewhere Jeffrey Wells writes 8/27/04:
The Producers: Profiles in Frustration
[By the mysterious author of the Luke Ford Fan Blog]
A lot of the people in this business are godless and corrupt. That’s without dispute ... Creativity often creates unbalanced people. When you take an unstable personality and add fame and wealth and freedom of movement, you’re going to get amorality ... It’s what Martin Amis called, "the moronic inferno side of show business."I had mixed feelings about The Producers: Profiles in Frustration. I didn't think that reading 68 interviews with Hollywood producers would interest me, but I did want to find out how Luke Ford, a genuinely talented interviewer, would handle some of the biggest names in show business.
I don't know how Luke got these people to talk to him. His charm must work wonders on Hollywood secretaries. Of course, he has had all sorts of practice asking women out and being turned down. Luke knows all about dealing with rejection and getting around an initial "No!" He has been rejected by nineteen year old community college girls all over Southern California for years. At least a mature Hollywood secretary isn't going to scream: "Get away from me you pudgy middle-age pervert you, or I'll call the police!"
After reading The Producers, I discovered that Hollywood production is actually a very interesting topic; in fact, I was disappointed when the book came to a close. Yet I still have mixed feelings. Not with the subject matter, but with some of the odd decisions Luke made when putting his book together.
The Producers begins with a series of amusing quotations. The late Edgar Scherick (ABC's Wide World of Sports) told Luke: “I don’t think your book is going to be too interesting based on these questions you’re asking.” Scherick was wrong. But Al Burton, producer of numerous hit shows, including Diff’rent Strokes and Facts of Life, was right when he said: “I still can’t figure out what the point of your book will be.” After reading all 226,366 words, I'm not sure either.
Perhaps the subtitle is a clue. "Profiles in Frustration" suggests that the book is about the problems Hollywood producers experience when trying to turn a writer's idea into a finished film or television programme. Unfortunately, Luke provides no help in his introductory essay, because he didn't write one. Instead all he tells us, in a very short preface, is that he interviewed more than 100 producers. Sixty-eight of these interviews are included, while "[t]he stuff I could not fit in this book is on my website." The reader has no idea why some interviews made the cut and others did not. Did the rejected interviews not fit with the book's unifying theme, assuming that there is one? Only Luke knows and he isn't telling.
Perhaps the first chapter will help. Luke begins his book with a 1996 interview with Harry Bernsen (b. 1925), father of actors Corbin and Collin Bernsen. This very brief biographical sketch is all we know about Mr Bernsen before the actual interview starts. In fact, Luke fails to provide an introductory paragraph to any of the chapters in the book. He just starts interviewing. More knowledgeable people than I may be familiar with many of the names. And, to be fair, for the most part Luke's questions reveal who these people are soon enough. But it still would've been helpful if a short introduction was provided, telling us about the interviewee and relating his major accomplishments in Hollywood to the book's central theme -- again assuming ...
In the first chapter we come across another strange decision. Luke asks his questions. Sometimes the interviewee answers briefly. Sometimes he gives long answers that run many paragraphs. Luke puts his words in quotation marks. He puts his interviewee's words in quotation marks, too. So how does the reader know when Luke is speaking and his interviewee is speaking? Good question because it's not always clear. For example, who do you think said the following? “Many of my Jewish male friends long for shiksas." Luke Ford? That's just a guess. But why should the reader have to guess? Why didn't Luke put his questions and comments in boldface, or italics, or use a different font, or colour, or use block quotes, or something? Really, anything would've been appreciated.
I can understand the lack of an introductory essay. After all, Luke posts hundreds of pointless entries to his many blogs everyday, and writing a persuasively argued and elegantly written essay explaining the basic premise of The Producers would've been hard work. But putting his words in boldface wouldn't have required any extra work at all. (Just to annoy us, there are two exceptions to this oversight. In chapters 22 and 58, Luke interviews two producers together. He kindly helps the reader know who is speaking by starting each conversational exchange with "Luke: ... " or "Marian: ..." or "Anne: ..." Nowhere else does he do this. It's like he is taunting us or something.)
The reader's frustration mounts upon completing chapter one. It still isn't clear what The Producers is really about. Perhaps the "frustration" in the subtitle refers to Luke's beleaguered readers? Mr Bernsen certainly doesn't seem particularly frustrated with his lot. Horny? Yes. Frustrated? No. He tells Luke:
I’m 71 years old. I work out three days a week with a trainer. I lost 30 pounds in the last four months and I want to live another 30 years. I want to have babies with this woman [apparently referring to a woman he just spoke to in the café]. To be fair to her, I want to live another 30 years.Bernsen goes on to give Luke some much appreciated advice on how to pick-up younger women:
Bernsen: I can say anything to anybody. How do you think I could talk to this girl like that? Could you have done that? Give her your card.Well, if Mr Bernsen is going to be having babies in his 70s with a woman he just met, I guess there's still hope for Mr Ford. He has three decades to find his teenage bride. And if Harry Bernsen is any guide, Luke won't even have to know the girl before they start making babies together. This optimistic message is the only reason I can think of for why Luke would start his book with an interview with little known Harry Bernsen. What any of this has to do with the frustration of being a Hollywood producer is unclear. It's not even clear if Harry Bernsen is really a Hollywood producer. (I checked IMBD.com and found out that he has four production credits. The latest being for the memorable "Mighty Moose and the Quarterback Kid" in 1976. You remember Mighty Moose don't you?)
In chapter four Luke interviews Emmy award winning producer and part-time college instructor Alan Sacks. Wacky provocateur Luke Ford writes (note, by the way, how I'm using block quotes to set off my words from those of Luke and Alan Sacks. I care about you the reader. If only Luke was a considerate, sensitive soul like me):
Wearing my yarmulke, I drive to Los Angeles Valley Community College where I find Sacks in the “smartest classroom on campus.”I'm reading this thinking, "Oh god no, Luke, please don't go there. I don't think I can take 550 pages of your racial pot stirring."
Then things take another bad turn:
My attention is not on the program but on a woman. When I walked in the door, I noticed this pale Russian secretary. She wore a tight black miniskirt and a tight top.Alan Sacks isn't pleased with Luke's write-up of their conversation. Sacks complains:
You describe my students as dim bulbs. You describe someone else as black. You describe me as short and Jewish. Those are not positive images that you’re laying out there.Luke (weakly) defends himself: “Ethnicities and religion are of interest to me."
After a slow start, the book rapidly picks up momentum. Luke continues to ask political and religious questions, but, thankfully, he keeps his off-putting racial and sexual thoughts to himself. (I don't mind Luke's attempts at humour on his blog, but different audiences require different writing styles, and such remarks don't belong in what should be a collection of serious interviews intended for a much wider audience than the sort of losers who read lukeford.net.)
Usually Luke stays on topic and conducts thoughtful and interesting interviews. Most of the conversations do indeed revolve around the problems Hollywood producers have in doing their work: how things have changed over the past thirty years; the diminished importance of the network movie of the week; the role of foreign markets; domestic oligopoly and reduced competition: the difficult economics of the independent film; and the perennial problems of having to deal with moody actors, flighty directors, and risk adverse corporate executives.
Luke carefully researches his subjects before interviewing them. He asks open-ended questions and then sits back, listens, smiles, nods, and tapes. Never holding back to save an interviewee from potential embarrassment, he transcribes (and posts) virtually everything. Occasionally the interviews don't go anywhere. For example, Luke takes one female executive to lunch. She finds out about his background in p___ journalism and decides that she doesn't want anything to do with him. But generally, Luke gets a great deal out of his interview subjects. Most are shallow narcissists who love to talk about themselves. They are also, almost without exception, very determined and aggressive people. Their drive leads them to be very abusive toward their bosses, co-workers, family members, and nosy interviewers. One such man is Jeff "Pot Belly" Wald.
Mr "Pot Belly" (chapter 55) is about as impressed with Luke Ford as your average Smith College Women's Studies major. Like a marxist-feminist man-hating lesbian, Jeff "Pot Belly" Wald wants to hurt Luke Ford. And I don't mean "hurt" in a metaphorical sense. I mean "hurt" as in "kill." To quote Mr "Pot Belly":
If I see one more word with your name attached to me, and you’re fucking dead. Do you understand that? You can tape-record that. You can put that as a threat ... I want nothing to do with you. I’m fat with a pot belly? Who the fuck do you think you are? I can make you not fucking breathe.What is it about Luke Ford and homicidal rageaholics? First Mike Albo and now Jeff "Pot Belly" Wald. There are certain people that Luke rubs the wrong way. In Jeff "Pot Belly" Wald's case, the dispute ostensibly revolved around Luke's decision to post a poem by Mr "Pot Belly's" son (aka "Wee Little Pot Belly, Jr.") on lukeford.net. Luke claims that the poem was shown to him and he was free to use it. Mr "Pot Belly" claims that it was copyrighted material. But I think it's fair to say that what really happened was that Jeff "Pot Belly" Wald's image of himself and how others see him are very much at odds. When Mr "Pot Belly" read his words on Luke's site, he got a glimpse of how others view him and he lost his rag. Rather than say to himself: "I really need to do something about my temper, my screaming, my swearing, and, of course, my disgusting pot belly," he decided to blame the messenger, fearless reporter and aging pretty boy, Luke Ford.
The truth is the Jeff "Pot Belly" Wald, unlike our moral leader, is far from being an attractive human being: on the inside or the out. And early on in their conversation it should have been clear to both that this wasn't the start of a wonderful relationship.
Our Moral Leader: What’s your ethnic background?Jeff "Pot Belly" Wald drones on for many pages about his long history of violence, drug use, lying, cheating, and his many failed marriages (there's a shocker). Mr "Pot Belly" tells us of the time he moved his wife, Australian singer Helen Reddy (best known for the feminist anthem "I Am Woman"), and their small child to Los Angeles: "I put Helen and my daughter in the car and we drove to LA. We got here with $8 cash. I bought a $5 bag of grass on Sunset Strip and spent the remaining $3 for food."
When Mr "Pot Belly" wasn't representing feminists, like Helen Reddy and Gloria Steinem (I kid you not), he was out threatening people with bodily harm.
I got into another huge fight with the president of NBC, Michael Weinman. This time I threatened to kill him. The show I’d done [a special Helen Reddy variety show featuring another feminist, and so-called peace activist, Jane Fonda] was supposed to air on Mother’s Day. And NBC was going to fuck me and put it on in August, when nobody’s watching. I went berserk.When not trying to kill people, Mr "Pot Belly," a proud leftist (supporter not only of Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Helen Reddy, but also an acquaintance of Stokey Carmichael, Malcolm X, and America's first black president, Bill Clinton) was growing his business:
I was friendly with producer Burt Sugarman ... He’d just bought the company Chuck Barris Industries, which produced The Newlywed Game, The Gong Show, The Dating Game. I met with him and we formed a partnership company called Barris-Wald. That lasted four days. I said to him, "The company is a piece of shit." He said, "If you don’t like it, change it. You’re the president." So I fired 127 people in one day out of 129 employees. I hired 127 new people. I went over to the shows and fired everyone on the shows — all the producers, everybody. They’d been doing the show for 24 years.Ah leftists, you gotta love 'em. So sensitive. So caring. So compassionate. So much better than those horrible mean-spirited conservatives.
And who cares more than Barbra Streisand? No one! She cares so very much. And who represents Mr Barbra Streisand? None other than that caring leftist, old Mr "Pot Belly" himself: “James Brolin has been my client for 24 years and my friend. I executive produced his TV series 'Pensacola: Wings of Gold' (1997-2000)." A wonderful television spectacle, I'm sure.
One can learn a lot about leftist hypocrisy reading The Producers. Leftists are so proud of themselves (and their moral superiority) that they want to shout their politics from the mountain top -- and into Luke Ford's trusty microphone. For example, Luke interviews Richard Dreyfuss’ producing partner Judith James. Ms James, who tells us that she's "left of left politically," has spent ten years trying to produce a documentary about Winnie Mandela. Oh sure there was that whole child murder thing, but leftists are very good at turning a blind eye to violence when it's committed by their fellow travellers:
I’m a much greater supporter of hers than 92 percent of the people in the United States. I defy any person in this world to stand up to what she stood up to and not go crazy. She went nuts and she has not come back from the other side completely but she’s a great woman ... [S]he has a great story and people should hear about it. There’s a little imp in me that says, "You don’t want to hear it? Fuck you, I’m going to tell it to you anyway."What a shame that Judith's loving profile of Winnie has yet to be made. But hey, there are always other caring leftists for Hollywood filmmakers to beautify. How about Robert Mugabe? Yasser Arafat? Or Saddam Hussein? Wonderful socialists all. Hollywood leftists will have to hurry up on their Saddam hagiography, as he is not long for this world -- thanks to evil President Bushitler. Many a Hollywood tear will be shed when Saddam is hanged. He cared so much for the less fortunate. Did you know that in pre-invasion days, Iraqis lived in a wonderland of kite-flying peace and tranquility? That's what Hollywood's favourite documentary filmmaker Michael Moore thinks. And from where does the world's true evil originate? America, of course. Moore explains: "this country of mine ... is known for bringing sadness and misery to places around the globe." There are other sources of evil, too: "The oil companies, Israel, Halliburton."
It's a shame that Michael Moore didn't get the full Luke Ford treatment in The Producers. Luke did, however, talk to Lewis Chesler (HBO's "The Hitchhiker"):
Luke: What is the filmmaker’s moral responsibility to society?Chesler continues:
I have always felt there’s a relationship between sexual repression and the violence that is so endemic to American culture. One part of American’s fascination with horror and violence is that horror and violence is basically sexual projection and sexual repression. If there was a greater genuine sexual permissiveness, we would be less violent.A Hollywood leftist lecturing us on how to make America a less violent place (through sexual promiscuity, no less). And you thought Luke Ford was nuts.
Luke certainly was nutty for not ending his book with a concluding chapter telling us what he learned, if anything, from interviewing these mostly leftist, and mostly moronic, Hollywood producers. And yet I enjoyed the book a great deal. It helps explain why the last good movie from Hollywood was 1959's Pillow Talk, a romantic comedy starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson. It's been all downhill since.
Overall Grade: A-
Strengths: Luke asks his questions. Lets his subjects speak and mostly gets out of the way. Some of them, thanks to their stupidity and vanity, proceed to hang themselves. It's quite a spectacle. But most talk thoughtfully about the nitty gritty of producing films and TV shows in today's Hollywood.
Weaknesses: Luke occasionally interjects himself unnecessarily into an interview, telling us about his fantasy sex life (as if we care); there is no clear theme; no introductory essay; no concluding essay; no typeface changes to help the reader determine who is speaking in long interviews; frequent bad language; lots of sexual references; occasional threats of bodily harm to Luke Ford's person (no actual violence, though, thank goodness).
How To Buy: You can purchase The Producers: Profiles in Frustration in three different formats here, here, and
here. You'll be frustrated in places, but ultimately you won't be disappointed.