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What is just as interesting as Hollywood?

Last updated on: January 30, 2004 12:31 IST

If you ever thought there was something benign about the way independent films are made, you have to read Peter Biskind.

"Life in the indie world can be nasty, brutish, and short," Biskind writes in Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (560 pages, Simon & Schuster, $26.95).

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"It was once said, if Hollywood is like the Mafia, indies are like the Russian mob," Biskind, former executive editor of Premiere magazine, adds.

"With less at stake, fewer spoils, little food and water, the fighting is all the more ferocious, and when times are tough, the rats (let's be nice -- the mice) feed on one another," he continues. "And because there's no place to run, there's neither respite nor recourse. People get away with even worse behavior than they do in Hollywood."

Biskind's book is among several new books on Hollywood, including Joe Eszterhas's Hollywood Animal: A Memoir (752 pages, Knopf, $26.95) and Gavin Lambert's Natalie Wood: A Life (384 pages, Knopf, $25.95).

It is no big deal that no one really likes Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood, but would anyone refuse to work for him?

Weinstein, grudgingly called the Last Mogul in Hollywood, runs the much-envied Oscar factory called Miramax with brother Bob.

Miramax, which started as an inconsequential little firm more than two decades ago, became so successful that Disney acquired it after promising the Weinstein brothers it would remain autonomous. The mini studio has produced a number of artistic hits, including the recent Cold Mountain that could be a strong Oscar contender this year. It was also behind the Oscar winning The English Patient and Shakespeare In Love and soon-to-be-completed Bride And Prejudice directed by Gurinder Chadha.

There have been too many media stories about Weinstein's ego, temper and reputation as a bully.

Yet Biskind's book has been creating a lot of buzz for several weeks. Unlike magazine articles that are soon forgotten, this is a long and thorough examination of not only the Weinsteins, but also of actor and producer Robert Redford, a strong voice in independent films.

In examining the rise of independent films in the 1990s, Biskind takes a hard look at Redford, who started the Sundance Film Festival at a small skiing resort in Utah.

Biskind said right from the start he decided to follow the Sundance story as it grew from a regional film festival to the premier showcase of independent films, almost succeeding 'despite the mercurial Redford,' whose visionary plans were nearly 'thwarted by his quixotic personality.'

Biskind criticises Redford's management style and his alleged failure to honour Sundance's founding goals. "Judged by one of its original, loftier goals, an institute to help outsiders," he writes, "Sundance has failed. Women, Native Americans, African-Americans and the poor still don't have equal access to the camera."

When IndieWire magazine sought a clarification, Biskind relented a bit. He told the publication, "In terms of what they started out to do they failed... but I think it turned into something else which is still valuable."

"I think [Sundance], for the all the problems, is extremely valuable -- you'd have to be an idiot not to acknowledge that," he added.

Never mind the number of good films produced by Miramax and independently made films showcased at Sundance, Biskind argues the business is often fraught with insecurities and often humiliation for filmmakers.

Some critics have called the book one-sided.

"It's a titillating look at showbiz money, infighting and egos," declared Daily Variety, "but there's never any sense of artistic achievement, exhilaration or creativity in the biz."

About 15 years ago, Eszterhas was one of the highest paid scriptwriters in Hollywood. With controversial hits such as Basic Instinct and Flashdance, it wasn't difficult for him to get about $4 million per film a decade ago.

Eszterhas also steadily built a reputation as an unruly drinking man and a misogynist. But when Showgirls and Jade scripted by him lost heavily, Hollywood lost no time in showing him the door.

Though Eszterhas tried to write more scripts, it became clear to him about five years later, especially as he was battling cancer, that Hollywood is not forgiving.

Eszterhas described himself as a part outlaw whose youth consisted of robbing cars in Cleveland. His book promises to be unrelenting in his assessment of Hollywood, and his life.

The man who has been accused of sexism and misogyny wants us to know that his second wife is his best friend and equal partner.

Once considered an advocate of sex and violence in movies, he shows himself as a churchgoer with faith in the power of prayer. The book jacket declares, "For many years the ultimate symbol of Hollywood excess, he has moved his family to Ohio and immersed himself in the Midwestern lifestyle he so values."

The book is also about the showbiz cancer that ate his soul, Eszterhas said in interviews.

Eszterhas promises to reveal in the book the fights, the deals, the extortion, the backstabbing and sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll world that is Hollywood.

Before Eszterhas, Redford and Harvey Weinstein, there was the luminous actress Natalie Wood whose leading men included James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause) and Redford (Inside Daisy Clover). Then suddenly she married a comparatively small star Robert Wagner. In 1981, the 43-year-old actress fell off her luxury boat and was found drowned, leading to tabloid speculation she committed suicide or was murdered.

For Gavin Lambert, who also wrote the script of Inside Daisy Clover based on his novel, telling the tragic story of Wood, daughter of a controlling mother, is more important than speculating about her death.

In Lambert's Natalie Wood: A Life Wagner speaks out for perhaps the first time about the death, asking a witness for a true account of what happened that night in 1981.

The book promises to be an affectionate portrait of a life-loving, yet suicidal, actress who tried to kill herself when she was 27 and whose insecurities and other demons never let her in peace.

From the moment Wood made her debut in 1946, playing Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles' ward in Tomorrow Is Forever at the age of seven, she had to learn -- coping with her mother, Hollywood producers known for their big egos and libidos, and her many lovers.

The writer reveals how hard Wood worked at Hollywood's survival game.

She acted as if she were not interested in the movie Splendor In The Grass and let studio boss Jack Warner know about it. It was a big gamble.

She rightly thought that she would get the part precisely because she seemed uninterested.

Three Hollywood books looking into three colourful eras and many colourful people; the real life stories here could be more fascinating than those doled out by most Hollywood scriptwriters.

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Arthur J Pais