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Quarantine Reading: John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio

Robert Downey Jr. and Harry Collett in Dolittle

As a publication about film, we find ourselves in the peculiar position of publishing during a moment when theatrical access to movies, and their ongoing future, is as much in question as everything else. During this suspension of normal filmwatching habits, we’ve reached out to contributors, filmmakers and friends, inviting them to find an alternate path to the movies by participating in a writing exercise engaging with any book about or lightly intersecting with film, in whatever way makes sense to them. Today: Eric Marsh on John Gregory Dunne’s all-access portrait of 20th Century Fox in 1967, The Studio.

In 1967, lawyer-turned-filmmaker Frederick Wiseman debuted his first feature-length documentary, Titicut Follies, a harsh institutional portrait of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. That same year, the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation gave John Gregory Dunne unprecedented access to conduct a similar, albeit journalistic, study of one of America’s hallowed institutions:

I arranged to follow the Studio’s activities over the course of a single year, to see how some of the people there got along, got ahead, fell behind, stayed in place, and, above all, fabricated the myth. What I hoped to find at the end of that year was something of the state of mind called Hollywood.

While reading The Studio, it was hard not to think of Wiseman, who 50 years later has his own mythical status in the landscape of documentary and cinephilia as a master of institutional portraiture. The cumulative effect of his kind of work can be powerful, but his details-first view from the inside out can also make you feel like you’re trapped inside an insane asylum (whether a department store, a high school, welfare office, missile command training center, or the Panama Canal Zone). Like a Wiseman film, Dunne’s account is an observational mosaic that documents and arranges, brilliantly and carefully, the goings on of a hermetically sealed community, never really editorializing or developing a plot but letting the characters and their work (and yes, endless meetings) speak for themselves. 

Hollywood as a “closed society” is, of course, something that Dunne recognizes and makes central to his account, which is why throughout the book he punctures and violates the insular community narrative with blind news items from “the outside,” mostly from the gossip and trade rags, that function as intrusions from the Real World. These include the book’s only mention of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War (from an interview with Joan Baez on the Donald O’Connor Show, via Joyce Haber’s disapproving column), sectarian violence in Kashmir (in the context of an MGM-TV production, Maya, being delayed), and one particular item from Daily Variety, apropos of nothing, on page 182, that broke my brain in two:

Despite its similarity in structure and technique to other cinema verite pix at N.Y. Film Fest’s “Social Cinema in America” sidebar event, Frederick Wiseman’s The Titicut Follies differs from them commercially: its four-letter words and prolonged views of male genitalia completely eliminate television as a potential market.

This and other bubble-bursting intrusions help sharpen the picture of Hollywood as a place responsible for shaping the minds and attitudes of millions of people all over the world wile also being a place where nobody knows anything. (It’s worth mentioning here that there is one other direct link between Titicut Follies and The Studio: The Boston Strangler, Albert Desalvo, was sent to Bridgewater around the time Richard Fleischer’s film about him was in pre-production at Fox).

On January 2, 1967, former Hollywood actor and president of the Screen Actors Guild Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new governor of California. The Studio does not mention this event, though Dutch and Nancy do show up at the Dr. Dolittle premiere at Richard Zanuck’s invitation, along with Sophie the Seal (wearing a diamond necklace), Jip the Dog (wearing a jewelled collar), Gub-Gub the Pig (wearing a sequined harness) and Chee-Chee the Chimp (in white tie and tails with a top hat and white carnation). Other omissions are notable: at The Studio the Summer of Love is nowhere to be found, the riots in Newark, Detroit, and Milwaukee never happened, (insert other 1967 world-historical things), and the Vietnam War is mentioned only by producer Paul Monash: 

“Look,” Monash said, “part of the reason I went to the peace march in Century City was because I thought it was going to be exciting. Sure, it mirrored my views, I think the Vietnam war is shit, but I thought I’d get a little jazz out of the march, too.” He stared somehow enviously at Froug. “You were there, weren’t you beaten up?” 

“No, I was just ducking blows,” Froug said. “Quite frankly, that’s how I came up with this idea.” 

“Con-tro-ver-sy,” Monash said. He laughed disparagingly. 

‘That’s right,” Froug said. “I know you want controversial subjects for Judd. Well, you got one in police brutality.’ He brightened suddenly. “We could even have a demonstration in this story.”

If the studio acknowledges the world at all, it is only as fodder for the screen, and the focus is always on the task at hand: with revenues of $227 million for fiscal year 1966, the assembly line marched on. When Dunne began The Studio there were, per the annual board meeting, “over thirty feature films in various stages of production and the television department had ten shows totalling nine hours of prime-time viewing on network airwaves.” The Boston Strangler, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Hello, Dolly! were in pre-production. The Sweet Ride, Planet of the Apes, and Star! in production along with various television shows (Monash’s Peyton Place and Judd, Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Land of the Giants, among others). Other projects were in post-production or distribution: Valley of the Dolls, Tony Rome, The Flim-Flam Man, and of course, the $18M roadshow Dr. Dolittle that was making director Richard Fleischer “nervous as hell.” 

“The deal, that’s all this business is about,” a Studio producer told me a few days later over lunch in the commissary. “Who’s available, when can you get him, start date, stop date, percentages — the deal, it’s the only thing that matters.”

Fox, like most of the major studios, struggled in the post-1948 landscape. The Paramount Decision gave rise to independents, and now stars, agents, lawyers, and exhibitors threatened their power and pocketbooks. The era of The Deal was here, and even the Boston Strangler’s wife, producer Edward Anhalt claims, is “acting like an agent.”  Television didn’t help either, annihilating much of the weekly moviegoing audience. The Studio found itself on the brink. By 1962, Fox was effectively bankrupt, and one-time mogul Daryl Zanuck, having resigned as chief of production eight years earlier but still carrying a significant amount of stock, made a dramatic comeback to right the sinking ship. He immediately shut everything down and put his son, Richard, in charge of production in Los Angeles and, while coordinating the corporation’s affairs from New York, engineered a remarkable reversal of fortune. A few years and a couple of smash hits later they were still seeing bags of money dance around their eyes, Cleopatra was forgotten and The Sound of Music was crossing the $100m mark, the first in movie history to do so. But the ground beneath was uneasy. The world was changing, the audience was changing, and barely anyone seemed to take notice. In this regard (and in retrospect), The Studio can be read as an account of Hollywood’s final days of obliviousness, its last stand before the revolution. 

But was there really a revolution? Today, it is conventional wisdom that the studios and the people that ran them in the 1960s were decadent and out of touch, and gave way to the easy riders and raging bulls of the sex drugs and rock’n’roll generation. An auteur cinema lived and thrived in America: somewhere in between the release of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Heaven’s Gate (1980), there was a bonafide “New Wave” movement in Hollywood, with the brats of film schools and the virtuosos of live television coming together under the influence of politics and art to create something new. There are inklings of the coming revolution in The Studio, like when actor Curt Conway, then running the New Talent School, complains about Fox’s “Tyrone Power” tradition:

“Let’s face it, it’s hard to identify with the beautiful people. It’s the kids who buy the theater tickets, kids from fourteen to twenty-five. And the people the kids identify with are Belmondo, Streisand, McQueen – the people Jack Warner used to call the ‘ugs.’ They’ve got the sense of anarchy, right, and that’s what the kids like.”

Bonnie & Clyde is mentioned as a direct competitor and threat to Dr. Dolittle’s Oscar challenges, and towards the end of the book the studio pays $400,000 for the rights to the screenplay that would become Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. However, it’s now clear where the industry was headed in 1967, and it wasn’t towards an artistic renaissance. More than anything, reading The Studio in 2020 filled me with a sense of dread and despair, each page filled with harbingers of doom that connect this past to our current dystopian configuration of conglomerate oligopolies. By the time I closed the book after its climax with the star-studded Dr. Dolittle premiere I was ready to admit that The New Hollywood, like The First Gulf War and the 2020 Iowa Democratic Party Primary, never happened. 

One of the European delegates asked the cost of Tony Rome, and when told, he mused that Alfie, Georgie Girl, Morgan and Blow-Up combined had not cost so much, and all were enormously successful. As if talking to himself, he wondered if it weren’t sometimes better to make a small picture and hope for a large return.

“Sure, Alfie was successful,” said James Denton, the head of the Studio’s West Coast publicity department. He is a large benign man with a mane of white hair. “But think what it could have done if it had stars. Jack Lemmon, for instance, and Shirley MacLaine.”

Through Dunne’s watchful eye we are privy to a parade of meetings both large and small full of nervous writers, arrogant producers, fed-up technicians, cynical directors, pragmatic middlemen, and everyone in-between: a relentless onslaught of well-to-do white men and their self-deprecating humor, casual homophobia, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and eccentric eating and smoking habits. We sit in on production meetings, lunches, dailies, visits to set. We witness Zanuck trying to strongarm ALCOA over land, publicists rushing to make sure the obituary for producer David Weisbart includes his best Fox credits (and that he dropped dead while playing golf with Fox director Mark Robson), arguments over titles for Planet of the Apes (“to show the concept of time, of separation, of the shattering loneliness”), Ernest Lehman turning down Barbara Streisand’s solicitation for funds for Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (“’Gee, Barbra, this is going to be an expensive telephone call,’ Lehman said. ‘Why don’t you call Freddie Fields? He’s rich.’”), the introduction of an African-American family on Peyton Place and the subsequent hiring and firing of a black woman writer after she complained the white writers were rewriting her (“Boland did not succeed, in our opinion, as a writer on Peyton Place”), and much much more. All in all it’s a distressing but often hilarious experience,  and it has that dizzying feeling of shooting a film out of order—or rather in this case, 30 of them. The men of the studio live non-linearly and must constantly tend to  the past, present, and future. These men rarely stop to think. If or when they do, they say things like “We think Malcolm X would make a wonderful story” while praising his nonviolence, then greenlight a Richard Fleischer picture called Che!. Nobody said making pictures was easy, but if I may paraphrase the near future: “The truth is, these are not bright guys, and things got out of hand.”  

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you how the studio crumbled once more before the great rebirth: how Richard Zanuck bet it all on Star!, Dr. Dolittle and Hello, Dolly! in a foolish attempt to recreate the success of The Sound of Music and parted with the studio in 1971 after a string of failures, how these men, so out of touch, disappeared from the lot forever when the revolution stormed the gates. Instead, I want to tell you about one of the book’s main characters, publicist turned powerhouse producer Arthur Jacobs, who invites Dunne to share his anxieties and egotrips as he plots a national merchandising campaign with Corporate America for Dr. Dolittle:

In all, some 300 items, with an estimated retail value of $200 million, were involved in the promotion. Among the items were pet foods, cereals, a Dolittle medicine kit, a Dolittle hat, a Pushmi-Pullyu toy, a television record player for children, a Polynesia doll, clocks and watches, a singing doll, knitted T-shirts, greeting cards, sweatshirts, children’s card game sets, children’s luggage, pencil boxes, plastic inflatable toys, novelty hats, balloons, wrist watches, combs, brushes, sunglasses, place mats, ceramic ware, notebooks, tumblers, billfolds, change purses, color slides and viewers, night lights, toy musical instruments, yo-yos, flashlight novelty items, board games, model kits, jigsaw puzzles, novelty savings banks, storybooks, activity books, buttons, play money, children’s coloring books, doctors’ kits, nurses’ kits, animal toys, children’s schoolbags, lunch kits, puppets, charm bracelets, scrapbooks, diaries, robes, coloring sets, sewing sets, 3D film cards, magic slates and costumes.

Even before the complete corporate takeover of the Studios that began in the 1960s, synergy was already the name of the game. It’s clear, over the course of The Studio, that Dr. Dolittle was not so much a movie as a publicity campaign in search of a movie, specifically one that didn’t open with its main character riding in on a giraffe, and one that Fox would of course find almost a decade later in Star Wars ( backed by another son of Hollywood, Alan Ladd Jr.). This brand of corporate moviemaking that was taking shape at Fox would win in the end. These men may have seemed out of touch with the youth audience, but not with capital and would figure out (how to manipulate and manufacture) the audience soon enough.

Epilogues and legacies: Self-made man Jacobs’ massive corporate publicity campaign for Dr. Dolittle may have been a mixed bag (Oscars yes, profits no) but by 1968 there was no question who won the war. Planet of the Apes, a film that he had shepharded since the early 1960s, one that had been turned down by all the majors, was a hit. (“’I think we’ve got something more than mere entertainment here,’” Heston said. ‘Jesus, as long as it’s not a message picture,’ Jacobs said nervously. ‘We’ve got entertainment and a message in this picture, Arthur,’ Heston said. ‘Great.’ Jacobs said.”) It spawned multiple sequels, all of which starred his wife Natalie Trundy (his supportive girlfriend at the time of The Studio, in which she steals a silver service plate from Ernie’s for a laugh). He notoriously turned down a chance to produce Midnight Cowboy because it wasn’t “for the whole family.” He produced Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969) and Play It Again Sam (1972) and died of a heart attack at 51 during a production of Huckleberry Finn. Trundy sold his rights and projects back to Fox, and there have since been eight Apes films, one animated series, and one live-action television show. In April 2019 Disney announced that, following their acquisition of 21st Century Fox, future Apes films are in development. Dr. Dolittle may have tanked on its original release, but was remade with great success in 1998 starring Eddie Murphy and rebooted once again in 2020 by Universal and Stephen “Syriana” Gaghan.

Irwin Allen didn’t even shoot pilot episodes. Instead, he shot 10-minute presentations that cost $100,000 each and demonstrated special effects and visual highlights of his proposed (science fiction) series. They didn’t call this kind of thing High Concept back then but Allen was at the vanguard of packaging and selling in the postwar landscape (“there’s only one thing to remember about television: it’s a business”) and he would, most famously, pioneer major studio co-productions with the definitive silent-majority blockbusters of the ’70s: The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Lost in Space was remade as a feature film in 1998 by New Line and, in 2018, Netflix released the Legendary Television reboot of Lost in Space. On March 9, 2020, the series was renewed for a third and final season.  

Robert Wise did not repeat his Sound of Music success with Julie Andrews and Star! and remained a mercenary throughout the ’70s, working for Universal, Allied Artists and ultimately Paramount, where he made his last big splash directing Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). A Steven Spielberg-directed remake of his West Side Story (1961) is slated for release in December 2020.

Richard Zanuck, son of a mogul, would be relieved of his duties at Fox in 1971. He would  subsequently work at both Warners and Universal, where he would form a producing partnership with David Brown that helped launch the career of Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, Jaws) and usher in the era of the wide release. He also produced The Sting (1973), Cocoon (1985), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), not to mention six Tim Burton films (including, because of course, Planet of the  Apes). He once mused that “I had amassed more money with one or two pictures than my father had in a lifetime of work.” 

Taking stock of its major players after the publication of The Studio, it’s clearer than ever that, far from being an account of the crumbling old ways before the revolution, it’s actually nothing less than an account of the men that won, that re-engineered the majors in the age of neoliberalism, who fused the studios to their corporate overlords forever through publicity and brand partnering, wide releases and globalization, spinoffs and sequels, high concepts and intellectual properties. These men did not, of course, invent these things, but they certainly had a large role in carving out Hollywood’s corporate future in the National Entertainment State. Perhaps The New Hollywood was, as David Cook has suggested, a “richly fruitful detour in the American cinema’s march towards gigantism and global domination,” but—a few takeovers and several Dr. Dolittle and Planet of the Apes reboots and remakes later, as Disney’s market share skyrockets above 30%—even that description feels generous. Like the American government and its failing institutions, Hollywood then is Hollywood now. No matter how anyone remembers it, we’ve always been before the revolution.

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