PLAYBILL PICKS: The Five Greatest Plays About Hollywood
By Robert Simonson
It's a tale nearly as old as Broadway and Hollywood. The successful playwright is lured to California with promises of riches and sunshine, hates the experience, then returns to New York to write an eviscerating portrait of the movie business.
In the history of show business, no one has bitten the hand that feeds it harder that the dramatists moonlighting in Tinseltown. Feeling their talents and dignity have been affronted by a colony of shallow, megalomaniacal egomaniacs, they reach for their trustiest weapon—the pen. The tradition goes back as far as the 1920s, when George S. Kaufman—who would see many of his stage successes made into film—mercilessly sent up the film world in Merton of the Movies. He offered up a second helping of abuse in 1930 with Once in a Lifetime. His satiric sword has since been taken up by the likes of Clifford Odets, David Mamet, David Rabe and many, many more.
Here are Playbill.com's picks for the five best Hollywood hatchet jobs.
MERTON OF THE MOVIES: Perhaps more than any other playwright, the satiric, sardonic, sarcastic George S. Kaufman was a past master at skewering Hollywood. His best known, and much produced, hatchet job is Once in a Lifetime, co-written with his most famous partner, Moss Hart. (See below.) But Merton of the Movies came first. Written in 1922 with Marc Connelly, it was a hit and surely ranks as one of the first major American plays to send up the vacuity and vulgarity of Tinseltown. Unlike Lifetime, Merton was not original material, but based on a 1919 book by Harry Leon Wilson about a dimwitted greenhorn named Merton Gill who takes off to Hollywood to make it big. He's naïve and has no talent, but he makes it anyway, mainly because producers reap unexpected comedy from his dramatic overacting. While not produced widely, it is occasionally rediscovered, and has received significant productions in the past twenty years from the Atlantic Theatre Company and Geffen Playhouse.
"No sooner were there movies then there were plays spoofing the movies," argued film and theatre critic Robert Cashill, who writes for Popdose.com and Theaternewsonline.com. Merton, he was, "left footprints, by establishing a basic template for the genre, with an idealist adrift in fast-talking, morally screw-loose, scam-ridden Hollywood—I think every subsequent play ever written about La La Land follows it to some degree or another, including The Big Knife, with its conscience-stricken star, and Speed-the-Plow, whose secretary has, or seems to have, upstanding motives. Here movie-mad Merton Gill, lowly clerk in a Midwest general store, puts his dream of stardom into action and heads for the bright lights, where his earnest overacting draws unintended laughs in the dramatic parts a correspondence course in acting prepared him for. The joke’s on Merton as the filmmakers and hustlers around him groom the serious-minded rube into a comedy star, as sophisticated East Coasters skewer West Coast values, and not for the last time."
"The Kaufmann and Connelly script is a sweet, funny and painful look into an silent film actor’s hopes of becoming the greatest dramatic actor in all of Hollywood," said John Rando, who has directed the play, and calls it "one of the greatest Hollywood plays of all time." Rando added, "Merton Of The Movies is a hard look at the truth that even though comedy is the bread and butter of Hollywood, most of the time drama will take the cake."
ONCE IN A LIFETIME. This 1930 play was the first effort—and first hit—by the soon-to-be-famous duo of Kaufman and Hart. It actually began as a Hart creation, until the writer invited Kaufman to take part in a few rewrites. Kaufman also directed the Broadway premiere, which ran for more than a year. The play is set during the fraught time when the advent of "talkies" was sending Hollywood into confusion. Three desperate vaudevillians, including George Lewis and May Daniels, arrive in town in hope of selling themselves as elocution experts. They encounter a wide array of Hollywood zanies: the megalomaniacal producer, dumb but beautiful actresses, stage mothers and, standing in for the authors, a playwright so abused and bewildered by his treatment that he's outfitted for a straightjacket. (Kaufman actually played this role himself in the production.) As in Merton, the idiot of the bunch makes out best: dull-witted George Lewis ends up directing a terrible film that is mistaken for a masterwork. The play has been revived on Broadway and off, on the West End and at the National Theatre, and it has received countless regional productions.
"I've always loved the script," said Neil Pepe, artistic director of Atlantic Theatre Company, which has produced the comedy. "It just captured, at that time period, what it meant to be interested in show business as it pertained to film, and how that played out in Hollywood as opposed to New York. Kaufman and Hart's ability to cut to the humorous truth and the tragic truth of what that business is was just outstanding. Even in contemporary times, writers still talk about what it means to try to ply their trade in movies, how there's a lot of money in Hollywood, and how they get lost in the economic shuffle. In that aspect, like in many others in the play, that play is timeless."
"I think Once in a Lifetime is a classic because it manages to be a terrific satire that has a great big heart," said Mark Rucker, who directed the play recently at ACT in San Francisco. "May Daniels is one of the great female characters of the theater in the early 20th century. Acerbic and whip-smart, she uses irony to survive in a man's world where she is surrounded by idiots. But beneath her wit-laden armor beats a heart of gold. After out of town try-outs this play almost died when Kaufman walked away from it. Hart realized that it needed to be a love story as well as a send-up and convinced Kaufman to revised it. Thank goodness, he was right!"
THE BIG KNIFE: Though Kaufman may have loathed the film community, his plays about Hollywood were rendered with a touch of affection. Certainly, they were not angry plays. Clifford Odets' venture into this territory most certainly is. In his tale of corruption and compromise, he makes his hatred clear and declaims it loudly. Odets' stand-in is Charlie Castle, a top movie star who has sacrificed his soul, integrity and maybe his wife and son in exchange for a multi-million-dollar, 14-year contract that binds him to one studio for life. The underbelly of the movie business—the power-mad producers, the wanton starlets, the bow-and-scraping agents—is exposed in all its ingloriousness. This being Odets, the play has some pretty rotten things to say about the American way of getting ahead, and the writer says them in his bewitchingly punchy style.
"Odets wasn't really trying to write a exposé of or satire on the Hollywood star-studio system," commented Time Out New York theatre critic David Cote. "He saw the big money, inflated egos and mysterious aura of movies as a chance to write a play with the feel of a Jacobean tragedy. He wanted blood, bile and spit—and jagged, febrile language… Some of the critics have knocked the play a bit too hard. Sure, it could use a rewrite and lose some heavy-handedness, but I take Odets the way I take O'Neill or Ibsen: Some of it can be overwrought and even laughably pretentious, but it packs a wallop by the end."
"Maybe it was the proximity to the show's setting," said theatre journalist Rob Wienert-Kendt of a Burbank production of the play he remembered well. "Maybe it was the casting of non-stars who looked and behaved uncannily like interchangeable vintage contract players (but in a good way), or maybe it was the disarming prospect of an Odets play I hadn't seen before, one that found in studio politics a compelling analogy for larger themes of temptation, success, compromise, and made of it a reasonably taut thriller, as well."
HURLYBURLY: David Rabe's 1984 masterpiece is the one play on this list that aims its microscope not at Hollywood's winners but its losers. It's characters, who inhabit grungy digs in the Hollywood Hills, are low-level actors and writers on the fringes of the business. They half-heartedly pursue their careers, but spend more energy on drinking, drugging and wanton misogynous behavior aimed at the various women they know. Aware that their careers, lives and characters are slowly rotting away, they seem powerful or unwilling to halt the creeping entropy. They babble on about big ideas, all the while leading smaller and smaller lives.
"The characters in this play take a lot of drugs, but what they're really addicted to is the movie business," said playwright Jonathan Tolins, author of the current play Buyer and Cellar, "the money, the excitement, and the promise that they can make something worthwhile in a system that makes it almost impossible. Their behavior may be reprehensible at times, but you always feel the yearning underneath."
SPEED-THE-PLOW: The most recent classic stage shellacking of Hollywood mores was this 1988 barnburner by David Mamet. Mamet was already a movie veteran at this point, having written screenplays for "The Verdict" and "The Untouchables," and directed his own screenplays for "House of Games" and "Things Change." He knew how things worked, and showed what he knew in this three-hander largely set in the office of new studio head Bobby Gould, as he wrangles over a possible action movie deal with friend and producer Charlie Fox. The fly in the ointment in this buddy drama is Karen, Bobby's idealistic and possibly conniving secretary. One critic described the plot as "Boy gets script; boy loses script; boy gets script back again." Comical cynicism, ambition and aggression are in ample display.
"I spent a few years after college temping at the studios and I've always appreciated the way this play turns on the influence of a temporary secretary," said Tolins. "When you work in Hollywood, you spend less time making movies than you do talking about making movies. Everything is determined by the outcome of those conversations—what movies get made, whose careers rise and fall. The pressure is maddening, and since there are no right answers, every county is heard from—even the temp—and that's something Mamet gets so deliciously, ferociously right."
"Speed-the-Plow is the one play" on this list, said Pepe, "that, in terms of the actual business of making movies with the system—the power plays and moral predicaments of getting a film made—that I felt really digs deeply into that questions of moral conscience vs. commercial conscience."
Honorable Mentions: Robert Cashill: "The flim-flammery is alive and well and funny as ever in Jon Robin Baitz’s Mizlansky/Zilinsky, or Schmucks, where bottom-feeding producers pursue one last scam with Oklahoma dentists as ex-wives, hangers-on, and the IRS provide complications." Rob Weinert-Kendt: "I'm intrigued by how Stones in His Pockets and Cripple of Inishmaan tell such contrasting and oddly complementary stories about a film production changing the lives of poor Irish folk." As for me, I've always had a liking for John Patrick Shaley's 1993 comedy Four Dogs and a Bone.
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