May 24, 2012
(+++) THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT
Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex). By Peter Bart. Weinstein Books. $15.
Truth Be Told: Off the Record about Favorite Guests, Memorable Moments, Funniest Jokes, and a Half Century of Asking Questions. By Larry King. Weinstein Books. $15.
Readers who want to imagine themselves “in with the in crowd” will enjoy both these “insider” books, even though the endless parades of behind-the-scenes tidbits and snarky commentary will quickly become tiresome to everyone else. Peter Bart, a longtime film executive for Paramount, MGM and Lorimar and later the editor-in-chief of Variety, has a lot to say about Hollywood matters that will surprise absolutely no one: drugs, sex, infighting and backbiting, ridiculous budget overruns, and a whole series of disastrous movies (for many of which Bart blames the late Charles Bluhdorn, head of Gulf+Western when that conglomerate owned Paramount). Infamous Players is also, of course, a story of successful films (failures alone are dull, unless they are at spectacular Ishtar-like levels). So, on the plus side, there is information here on The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown and other first-rate movies. Bart spares almost no one in his observations – except himself. A typical self-serving comment is, “From the moment I learned of the project, my own attitude was one of disbelief.” Bart was a New York Times journalist before going to Hollywood, but seems to have lost sight of the journalistic notion of balance – although it must be said that his style in Infamous Players certainly makes for an entertaining narrative: “This was now a ‘go’ picture… This was going to be a surreal exercise and all we could do was watch. How bad could it be? Truly bad, as we were to find out.” There is plenty of gossip-rag-worthy commentary here on misbehaving actors and actresses, venal studio bosses, and Mafiosi: “[Sidney] Korshak’s principal entrée to Hollywood power was Lew Wasserman, the boss of MCA and Universal. The two had met before World War II when Wasserman was still an aspiring young agent. Having represented music acts playing the mob-controlled club circuit, young Wasserman respected Korshak’s cool in dealing with the bad boys. Soon Korshak was meeting other Hollywood players who needed to capitalize on his Chicago pedigree. When Columbia’s Harry Cohn died, in 1958, his investors from the mob were alarmed about possible public disclosure. Conveniently, Cohn’s widow, Joan, hired Korshak to circumvent probate and negotiate a furtive resolution. A year later, Joan Cohn was remarried at a ceremony in Korshak’s house.” There is probably nothing actionable in smarmy writing like this, nothing so over-the-top in terms of accusations and assumptions of the worst about people that it would cause Bart any legal difficulties. Journalistic difficulties are another matter, but Bart is well beyond his New York Times days. Lovers of name-dropping (Julie Andrews, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Hoffa, Dustin Hoffman, Henry Kissinger, Warren Beatty) and baby boomers who grew up with the movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s will have fun with the frothy confection that Infamous Players intends to be, and largely succeeds in being. There is nothing particularly revelatory in it, certainly nothing to counter the notion that Hollywood has always been a vast cesspool of depravity fueled by tons of ego and oodles of money. The book’s purpose is mostly to confirm that stereotype and to allow readers to wallow in it vicariously – perhaps Bart’s revenge for the years during which he wallowed in it for real, or more likely his chance to proclaim himself a cut above the milieu in which he spent nearly two decades, as if someone who lies down in garbage does not emerge covered in flies.
Larry King largely tried to avoid wallowing during his half-century-long broadcast career, but he himself became tabloid fodder from time to time because of his personal life. He deals with this and other issues in Truth Be Told, an entertainingly written “behind the scenes” book with a particularly silly subtitle, since “Off the Record” is precisely what it is not. King gets into some serious subject matter, including the ways in which broadcasting has changed since the advent of powerful cable networks and the importance of keeping personal lives off-limits except for genuine public officials such as politicians – the latter issue being admittedly self-serving but still worth considering thoughtfully. Most people, though, will read the book for its celebrity mentions and near-constant name-dropping, from Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope and George Burns to today’s stars. Readers may be somewhat surprised that King, a liberal but not an ardent advocate of politics of any sort on his show, snipes repeatedly at almost all things Republican or right-wing, with some notably strong (and rather juvenile) pokes at Fox News. Those seeking substantial insight into King’s life will be disappointed: he mentions autobiographical matters mostly in passing, in connection with his shows and the people he has interviewed. And anyone who is not a King fan may find the book of little interest and the style somewhat irritating: “This is a serious subject. So let me ease into it with a funny story. The topic is crime.” “Nobody could play like Buddy Rich. Mel Tormé told me he wanted to play the drums until he heard Buddy. Then he threw away the sticks. Sinatra loved Buddy too.” “Less than two months after my show ended, revolutions toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and unrest spread through the entire region. People ask me where these changes are headed. Everything I’ve seen in the past puts me in a unique position to tell you: I have no idea.” That last quotation in many ways encapsulates Truth Be Told: King does seem to be truthful in what he writes, even when he doesn’t really have much to say – and he presents his views (or non-views) forthrightly and entertainingly, at least for those who know his on-air persona and want to feel as if they are connecting with him in a personal way by reading the book. There is, of course, no connection at all, any more than there ever was through a television set; but that will not stop King fans from enjoying the bits and pieces that the longtime talk-show host serves up. Non-fans will find little of interest here, however, because much of King’s thinking is simply not very deep: “The communications business has always been in the business of attraction. But there are now so many people screaming to be looked at [that] it’s changed our culture. And as comedy has become mean-spirited to call attention to itself, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh will say just about anything to keep their audiences wondering what’s next. More and more, conventional news has succumbed to the tabloid.” This is what passes in King’s book not only for truth-telling but also for revelatory thinking. It may be the first, but it is scarcely the second.