The downtrodden creatives of Hollywood have long been a favorite topic of the movies
The writers’ and actors’ strike that brought filmmaking to a halt virtually overnight has jolted millions of people who had no idea just how frayed relations within Hollywood had grown. But no one should react to any of this with shock or disbelief. The gulf between the powerful and the marginalized is one of the oldest and most resonant themes in L.A. literature and cinema.
If movies about Hollywood over the years are any barometer, the question is not why things reached this point but why writers and actors have not joined in an industry-crippling strike since Eisenhower was president.
The rhetoric from the striking side is fierce. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher vocally champions her constituents and describes the studio execs, in plain terms, as bloodsuckers.
“Who are these people? They want to squeeze blood from a rock, because all they’re interested in is showing their shareholders how much money they’re making and not losing. And where do they go? To the performer, who is the foundation of their whole business model,” Drescher said in a recent interview.
But Disney CEO Bob Iger questions the strikers’ grasp of the economic realities of the industry, while the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers insists it has offered fair contracts to settle this dispute. The strikers don’t know a bargain when they see one.
Drescher’s rhetoric may verge into hysteria at times. Her attempts to point up economic inequities put a superficial gloss on a deep and eternal cultural gulf. But that does not make her wrong. Her general criticism flows from tensions and fissures that have defined Hollywood since before the birth of anyone involved in this drama. You cannot begin to understand the roots of the strike without grasping the cultural factors at play.
Amid all the overheated rhetoric, it is clear that actors and writers in 2023 have their heels dug in so deep because they don’t want to end up anything like the poor souls who strut across the screen in some of the most depressing films of all time. They might toil all their lives and end up nobodies. This is the stuff of some of the most powerful and wrenching drama ever put to celluloid, antedating by years and decades the scenes of people marching in the streets in the summer of 2023.
Take, for example, The Day of the Locust. When director John Schlesinger adapted Nathanael West’s 1939 searing novel, he must have known full well that he was tapping into material that would feel contemporary to viewers in 1975. The clothes, music, turns of speech, and other period details might impress audiences with their verisimilitude without detracting for a moment from the sense that this was a film about Hollywood as it is, and as it always has been and always will be, even if strikes wring a few concessions from the studios now and then.
Often when a director takes liberties with a famous novel, it tends to outrage fans of the source material. How dare anyone meddle with genius. But, in making The Day of the Locust, Schlesinger engaged in a kind of creative extrapolation that makes the film all the more powerful. The changes feel right, even if by the end you do feel that you have seen two movies. The first: a satirical drama about a young storyboard artist, Tod Hackett, his slutty romantic interest, Faye Greener, the ineffectual Midwestern transplant, Homer Simpson, the cowboy Earle Shoop, the screenwriter Claude Estee, and a few others. The second: a disaster movie with fires and mob violence that will haunt your nightmares for months.
The struggles and conflicts in The Day of the Locust anticipate today’s labor issues in Hollywood to an uncanny degree. Tod works in an office on a studio lot where executives treat him and his fellow production proles as barely worth making eye contact with in their rare interactions. The insouciance of Tod and his young colleagues cannot hide the fact that they are all hanging by a thread. In the early scene where an executive pops into their office to announce a rare promotion, it is like a ticket out of hell. The lucky young guy’s nonverbal reactions, as he bids goodbye to Tod and the others, scream I am so out of here!
Later in the film, Schlesinger takes the incident that opens West’s novel, and makes it into a scandalous occurrence that would bring down the wrath of the public, and the law, on the studio if there were any justice in the world. In the book, an inept attempt to film a battle from the Napoleonic wars makes for a comedy of errors. In Schlesinger’s hands, it becomes a life-threatening disaster as the British and French soldiers veer off the center of the battlefield into a hilly area whose underpinnings are so much weak wood scaffolding. A few of the soldiers break right through the thin surface and fall, and then more of them, and more still. Before the disaster reaches its nadir, Tod sees the signs on the scaffolding indicating that the work is unfinished and no one should be up on top of the thing, and he tries to warn everyone, but it’s too little, too late.
Those following the Hollywood strike in 2023 will see disturbing parallels. Schlesinger has taken the character of Claude Estee, who really just has a few cameos in the novel, hosting a party here, turning up at a cock fight there, and made him into one of the few who prosper in this milieu, a powerful screenwriter who can pull strings and make or wreck others’ careers on a whim.
As it happens, no one dies in the fiasco where the scaffolding falls apart, though many suffer injuries. When Tod confronts Claude about the unfinished scaffolding, and asks whether the whole mess would be any different if someone had died, Claude dismisses the question. No one got killed, after all. Tod presses the point. Would a fatality have made any difference? Again Claude blows off the question. To Claude, as to the studio moguls of 2023, the low men and women on the totem pole are so much fodder, and it really makes no difference whether they live or die.
The current analogue for Claude’s attitude comes across in some of the comments that have angered Fran Drescher and others. Sources have attributed outrageous statements to the moguls, including suggestions that low-level workers ought to lose their homes. That’s the nature of the game. Let them eat cake.
Curiously, Schlesinger’s film leaves out aspects of the West novel that would help convey its themes. Faye Greener, the daughter of octogenarian miracle polish salesman Harry Greener, describes dozens of movie ideas in her conversations with Tod Hackett. She is an unsung bard, so desperate for a chance to get her foot in the door that she ends up selling her body. The latter tendency comes across vividly in the film, and in this respect Schlesinger is a good deal more explicit than West. Yet in leaving out her unrealized cinematic visions, he has done the film a disservice and failed to communicate the dynamic as effectively as he could.
But Schlesinger makes up for this in other ways. He renders, even more hauntingly than West, the experience of putting all your effort into selling a product only to meet with an indifference crueler than outright hostility could ever be. In a film literally bursting with unpleasant scenes, some of the hardest to watch are those where Harry Greener, father of the faithless Faye, makes his rounds in the wealthiest parts of L.A., does a song and dance, and tries to hawk his miracle solvent. Though he puts his heart and soul into the jigs, the rich Angelenos lounging outside in their sunglasses barely deign to look at him. Given Harry’s frailty and desperation to impress, their coolness verges on elder abuse, in a moral if not a legal sense.
Viewers should ask themselves just why these scenes in The Day of the Locust are so disturbing. It may be because Harry Greener is where every struggling actor, writer, and production assistant in Hollywood fears ending up as technological advances continue to remake the industry and life as we know it. At a point in the near future when AI handles a bulk of duties, they too will be frail, puny, irrelevant vestiges of a buried era, coming onto private lawns and doing their jig before studio bosses who won’t give them the time of day.
The riot at the climax of the film is the uprising of the have-nots, the marginalized and disposed and forgotten and ignored, yet it is precisely they who burn and get trampled to death in this ironic coda. The parallels with the Black Lives Matter “protests” of the summer of 2020 are hard to ignore.
But the supreme irony here is that Film Forum, New York’s go-to venue for celebrated and canonical films, saw fit to put on a Billy Wilder festival just as the actors’ and writers’ strike got into high gear. On the weekend of July 22-23, and on August 3, one of the festival’s crown jewels, Sunset Boulevard, will once again lure viewers into its hypnotic and darkly funny dance of nostalgia, desperation, and murder. Never have the words of Joe Gillis, right after he leaves the mansion of the clutching and neurotic Norma Desmond and heads off into the rain to hitch a ride to a party rife with forced laughter and smiles, been more resonant. He thinks of his friend Artie Green, and muses:
“There was bound to be a New Year’s shindig going on in his apartment down in Las Palmas. Writers without a job. Composers without a publisher. Actresses so young they still believed the guys in the casting office. A bunch of kids who didn’t give a hoot, just so long as they had a yuck to share.”
In no film about Hollywood are the lines of demarcation as stark. You could almost think of Norma as a female Harvey Weinstein, using her money and clout to force a struggling young person on the margins of the industry to be her beau. Norma ridicules Joe’s spurning of her romantic advances and possessiveness, asking who could be worthier of his love: “Who? Some car hop or dress extra?” But, then again, the Weinstein analogy fails given Norma’s own fraught relationship with studios in whose eyes this star of the silent film era has long outlived her sell-by date. She is not a studio mogul, but another outsider, even if she always knows where her next meal will come from. One thing is clear: Hollywood is vicious and the kids at the bottom of the hierarchy have it toughest.
The desperate and the outcast, those whom Norma, in her final monologue, calls “those wonderful people out there in the dark,” have haunted the dreams of directors and screenwriters whether they set out to tell Hollywood stories from the point of view of the actors and writers, or that of the moguls. Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel The Player was the inspiration for one of Robert Altman’s most acclaimed films, in which studio executive Griffin Mill begins to receive anonymous and threatening postcards from the very type of person you might spot on one of the picket lines right now snaking their way past the Netflix and Amazon studios.
Mill’s job is to sit in a fancy office and listen to screenwriters try to summarize their creative vision in a two- or three-minute pitch. On the basis of these brief encounters, he makes decisions that will forever seal the fate of the aspirant. Guessing that one of the many people he has heard out, in his office, and quickly forgotten must be the source of the postcards, he begins an investigation that leads him to one David Kahane. As they sit in a bar and chat, it emerges that Griffin remembers nothing of the pitch about which he promised to follow up with David: an idea for a film about a young American in Japan that oddly anticipates the recent HBO crime series Tokyo Vice.
Of course Griffin doesn’t remember. He was probably sneaking glances at his watch, and thinking about other things, the whole time that David earnestly set forth his ideas and hoped to impress the executive. And then there was an appointment with another eager writer, and another, and another. . . . When Griffin follows David out onto the street, they get into a heated exchange, during which David envisions what might happen if 6 was 9 and Griffin lost his job, and taunts the exec: “I can write! What can you do?”
Of course that is so much wishful thinking. Griffin can drown David and not have to worry too much about any legal or professional consequences. The moguls are secure in their power. It is so very rare for the mighty to meet face to face with the desperate and try to take their concerns seriously. The SAG-AFTRA strike recognizes this reality, has real fears about pay and the growth of AI, and has tried to force a reckoning such as never happened before in the history of entertainment.