Hollywood, by Larry McMurtry

A few weeks ago I mentioned that memoirs about the lives of celebrities seem to find a ready market. McMurtry is a celebrity within the world of writers, thanks to the success of books such as Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment, and the phenomenal success of movies made from them. This third memoir from him is about his interactions with Hollywood, his screenwriting career, which began almost by accident before he was famous, and his later efforts to have his books made into movies.

One expects that memoirs supposedly written by famous people are actually ghost-written, but in this case we can be confident that McMurtry wrote it himself. It is a casual recounting, jumping here and there, with chapters ranging from one to three pages. A ghost writer would certainly have added some organization and filled out the brief text. We do get some brief mentions of actors, producers and directors with whom he's worked, and more substantial descriptions of a few people such as Peter Bogdanovich and his agent, Irving Lazar.

Reading this slight and rambling book is a bit like listening to a favorite uncle run through his store of anecdotes: they are sometimes mildly interesting or amusing, but there is not much substance to them. He occasionally repeats himself, but you let that pass because of the affection you have for him.

Do I care that he once sat at a table at an Oscar party with George Burns and James Stewart, both of whom—quite elderly—sat silently throughout? Or that he met Stephen Spielberg once but their conversation was interrupted almost immediately? Even celebrities with whom he claims friendship, such as Susan Sontag, Diane Keaton, and Barbra Streisand, are only mentioned briefly because, as he says, he does not kiss and tell.

I did enjoy descriptions of two not-famous people who influenced his stories, a former Texas Ranger named Joaquin Jackson and a tragic Wyoming lawman, Ed Cantrell. I also enjoyed his descriptions of scouting locations for Hud and The Last Picture Show in his native Texas. As a writer I was amused by his descriptions of staying in the penthouse at the Beverly Hilton and flying first class, though he would really prefer a private jet. No writer I know enjoys such luxuries, but this is movie-money talking, not book-money.

He does mention that after his heart attack in 1991 he no longer has the attention span to write screenplays. He says several times that fiction comes easily to him but scripts do not. After his heart attack he confined himself to fiction, “which doesn't really require a clear mind”, until he was able to persuade Diana Ossana to become his screenwriting partner. It was Diana's idea to offer Annie Proulx an option for “Brokeback Mountain” after reading the short story in The New Yorker.

One interesting insight I gleaned from this book is his take on the difference between fiction and screenwriting:

How different? Well, for one thing, movies are sort of talked into marketability, if they have any, the talk being mainly between writer and producer, or writer and director, or both. Actors will occasional ally offer an opinion, but these opinions are rarely heeded . . . The line producers who are responsible for the daily money flow rarely get into the aesthetics of the project either.

Another helpful insight comes when he maintains that his success at having his books optioned for movies is due to his ability to write characters whom famous actors want to play. Until an actor who is thought to be a success at the box office is attached to a project, it won't generate interest or the necessary funding. For instance, Terms of Endearment might not have been made if Jack Nicholson hadn't decided at the last minute to join the cast. That makes sense, though I hadn't thought about it in those terms before. Certainly McMurtry excels at creating characters with the depth and/or quirks to make them interesting.

All in all, this is a pleasant and undemanding read. There is rarely any continuity between the short chapters, so you can pick it up and read for only a few minutes. Like many readers, I tend to read several books at once, some light and some weighty, picking them up to match my mood and attention span.

Do you read multiple books at once or focus on one at a time? What movies made from books have you liked?

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