The 84th Annual Academy Awards are nearly here, and while many of us may be pondering if George Clooney will snag that Oscar or not, it also brought to mind some great Hollywood reads—books that go into the nitty-gritty business of show business.
Read more about excellent new memoirs.
One thing is for sure, from its beginnings a century ago, Hollywood has generated a huge library of books, written by players and backstage types, major and minor. Here, for starters, are five worth reading.
Julia Phillips, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (Random House, 1991)
As maverick film journalist/historian Peter Biskind (Down and Dirty Pictures, etc.) has chronicled, the 1970s were a strange and dangerous time in Tinseltown, thanks mostly to a white powdery substance that took the place by storm. For corroboration, read producer Phillips’s wild and woolly account of life behind the scenes, all sex, drugs, bad tempers and very bad behavior.
The late Phillips, who died in 2002, got fired for just such things. She did indeed eat lunch in Hollywood after a long period of ostracism, but the point was made: If you’re going to tell tales about the naughtiness that goes on behind the curtain, then use lots of pseudonyms (“Edgar Souse, accent grave on the ‘e’ ”).
Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me (Random House, 1997)
Brando specialized in playing larger-than-life characters—sometimes so large that they had to be clad in muumuus. He was a larger-than-life character himself, the progenitor of tribes of children, champion of countless causes, a legendary reader and vastly smarter than the Stanley Kowalski he portrayed.
His autobiography, a notorious flop when it appeared 15 years ago, tells the story from a singular—and singularly weird—viewpoint. It’s full of horrors, thanks to a rough childhood under the care of alcoholic parents and countless disappointments. But it’s also oddly joyful. Think of the character he played in The Missouri Breaks (1976) then give that character a word processor, and you have some idea of his narrative stance.
Mae West, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It (Prentice-Hall, 1959)
Speaking of smarts, few figures in Hollywood were ever as canny as the pioneering West, who took sex and sold it as if it were candy—if slightly illicit candy—and who insisted on controlling her work in a time when actors and writers were considered mere cattle. (See the Coen Brothers’ film Barton Fink  for more on that.) West was able to shock even at a ripe old age, when she wrote her memoir Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, a title that plays on one of her most famous lines.
David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon, 2007)
Director Mamet still famously—or infamously—would seem to consider actors to be, if not cattle, then interchangeable parts of far less importance than the director or writer. For all that, and for all the strange rightward turns he’s taken politically of late, he’s made some lasting films (House of Games,  for one) and knows more than a thing or two about his craft.
In this essential vade mecum for would-be filmmakers, he offers notes on the art (“an appallingly simple process. One needs a camera, film, and an idea (optional)”) and business (“simple hucksterism: find an attraction, present it as engagingly as possible, take the money, and guess again”) of filmmaking. If you wonder why Hollywood films seem so awful, but why the great ones are really and truly great, the answers lie within these pages.
Joe Eszterhaz, Hollywood Animal: A Memoir (Knopf, 2004)
Eszterhaz was once one of the best journalists Rolling Stone ever hired, more consistently on the mark than Hunter S. Thompson ever was. Then he headed west to Hollywood, and all sorts of macho mayhem ensued. So did some memorable movies—some memorable for their good qualities, some entirely the opposite, including Flashdance (1983), Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993) and Showgirls (1995).
In his take-no-prisoners memoir, Eszterhas, having long held the record as the film industry’s highest-paid screenwriter, rarely lets a page go by without mentioning his big-buck successes and the excesses they funded. But, he argues, his fees were far from undeserved. For his first four films, he writes, he was paid $4,775,000. “The studio’s take,” he adds, “was $850 million. They made $850 million and I made less than $5 million. They made about two hundred times more than I did. At that rate of exchange, wouldn’t you, too, get a little obsessed about making more, about evening things out…just a little bit?” If you’re more interested in the business than the art of Hollywood—and the Oscars are all about the business, baby—then this is your book.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus. His latest book is Aelian's On the Nature of Animals (Trinity University Press).