Filming Behind the Camera

Never mind what the studios have in store this summer; SIFF shows how Hollywood itself is a rich subject for documentaries.

SIFF boasts a bumper crop of documentaries this year, but two in particular caught my eye. Both are portraits of spotlight-averse Hollywood legends depicted by directors far out of the mainstream: Barry Avrich's The Last Mogul: The Life and Times of Lew Wasserman, a cool-eyed analysis of the pioneering Tinseltown godfather; and Jon Ward's Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern, a warm-hearted celebration of the co-auteur of Rebel Without a Cause, who today is a Northwest resident. The personalities involved exist at opposite poles of power, personality, and style; between them, they capture everything there is to know and feel about film. Lew Wasserman really was like the Godfather, as Avrich demonstrates with a wealth of resonant historical footage. Fighting his way up in Cleveland's mobbed-up mean streets, he ruthlessly seized control of the pop-music industry, then parlayed his ridiculously tiny movie assets—management of Hattie McDaniel and third-rate Ronald Reagan—into a tyrannically imaginative dominance of Broadway, radio, Hollywood, and TV. When other moguls dismissed TV as a fad, Wasserman snapped up Paramount's pre-1950 film catalog for a song and rented it out to TV for over a billion dollars' profit. By forcing moviemakers to use entire slates from his MCA talent-agency stable, he seized control from the studios. He invented the modern movie star by getting James Stewart a percentage of the profits of Winchester 73 instead of a salary. He persuaded young unknown Steven Spielberg to go mass market, and thus helped create modern blockbuster culture. He was so powerful that Bobby Kennedy busted him for antitrust actions in 1962. So Wasserman cultivated politicians. Soon he was manipulating both parties like hack actors. Reagan, whose career he'd saved, helped him violate Screen Actors Guild rules for profit, and then, as president, helped kill the FBI case against him. It was Wasserman's 10th federal beef, unsurprising for a guy whose tightest crony was consigliere Sidney Korshak, the model for Robert Duvall's character in The Godfather, whose credits went back to Al Capone. Avrich details Wasserman's screwups, too. He spurned Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark—Lucas wanted half the profit—and kept MCA out of cable TV. Inexplicably, he thought that when he sold his company to Japan's Matsushita in 1990, the new Japanese owners would let him keep his power. He died a fabulously rich nobody whose phone quit ringing. Fascinating as it is, The Last Mogul is not a very moving rise and fall. It's all business. As Avrich's best witness, producer David O. Brown, testifies, "I believe the only orgasm Lew Wasserman ever had was at the opening of Jaws." For emotional impact, you're better off seeing Going Through Splat. "Splat" is what happened to Stewart Stern's screenwriting career after an astounding first quarter- century: an Emmy and two Academy Award nominations; de facto credit for the Rebel Without a Cause Oscar nom director Nick Ray screwed him out of; career-capstone roles for Joanne Woodward (Rachel, Rachel) and Sally Field (Sybil); plus alternately creative and destructive friendships with James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Dennis Hopper, and scads of others. Stern survived the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and a script-flinging screaming match with Marlon Brando on The Ugly American, but this doc reveals him to be a creature as delicate as Percy Bysshe Shelley's Sensitive Plant. Esquire called him the only filmmaker who matched the great playwrights of the '50s, infusing movies with a keen, utterly individual psychological insight. The kids in Rebel (including Ray, the world's oldest teenager) supplied the sass—the off-camera car wrecks and Chateau Marmont champagne-bath orgies—but Stern provided the soul, the Freudian angst, the Peter Pan subtext, and the tremulous words that made them immortal. Also that odd scene where Dean moos like a cow in the planetarium. This re-created Stern's first meeting with Dean, a competition to imitate farm animals that he performs in this film. What a life Stern has had (and what genes: In his 80s, he looks sexagenarian)! He grew up playing Peter Pan on the Great Gatsby–like estate of his best friend and cousin, Arthur Loew Jr., and the greater estate of his mogul uncle, Paramount founder Adolph Zukor. Stern's gift was a brooding emotional openness in some ways reminiscent of his high-school classmate Diane Arbus, only nicer. But what made his career also unmade it: Hollywood is no place for a vulnerable writer. In Splat's lengthy interview with Hopper, a bit player in Rebel and longtime Stern pal, he says, "He was a troubled person." When you seem troubled to Dennis Hopper, you're in trouble. I wish Ward had pressed Hopper to admit that he was wrong to discard Stern's script for The Last Movie, then claim that there never was a script, and then beg Stern to come help him fix it while he was improvising and coking his way to disaster in Taos. But this might have required a gun, and Ward is an interviewer as gentle as Stern is. This is a problem at points in the film, because an aspect of the writer's block that descended on Stern in the '70s was a crippling tendency toward self-doubt, second thoughts, and indecisive narrative. Rebel was written in green ink on a legal pad with nary a correction, as if dictated verbatim by the angel Gabriel. In a later Stern script, he once observed, "The page is black with reconsiderations. You almost can't find your way from word to word because of the arrows and the balloons and the crossing-out on the page." Being shallow, I wish Ward had kept steering Stern back to showbiz gossip: What happened that night at the party with Marilyn Monroe? When you stood in your underwear in woe with snow blowing in your window at the Plaza, and Brando put his arm around you and comforted you with tales of his own childhood, what precisely did he say? Splat does offer the answer to another pressing question: How did a war hero with artistic achievements—any one of which would make most of us insufferable egomaniacs—become Stewart Stern instead? Splat offers chilling evidence: audio tapes of his mother explaining why she and his father wanted to abort him, because his existence would be so destructive to her creative career. Stern was a Lost Boy the day he was born—and that scary disenfranchisement, poured into Rebel and other works, is why his spirit will live forever on-screen. Not that Stern's talent is lost, however. He's got a great life in Seattle. He generously shares his genius with up-and-coming moviemakers—he helped the author of the novel that became Mysterious Skin, adapted into an edge-dwelling new film by Gregg Araki (which screens at SIFF June 2 and 4). You can pick his Oscar-honored brains by taking his local screenwriting course (thefilmschool.com). But Going Through Splat is a film-school course in itself. tappelo@seattleweekly.com The Last Mogul: Broadway Performance Hall, 6:15 p.m. Sat., May 28; and 1:45 p.m. Mon., May 30. Going Through Splat: Egyptian, 6 p.m. Sat., May 29.

 
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