Doing blow

Michael Wood

  • You’ll never eat lunch in this town again by Julia Phillips
    Heinemann, 650 pp, £15.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 434 58801 6

Most of our current nostalgia goes to the Fifties and Sixties when it doesn’t go to some Victorian never-never land. The Seventies! How could we forget them? Or remember them? Were they anything other than time on the clock? There was a lot of supposed recovering from the Sixties, and of denying the Sixties ever happened. It was an age of narcissism, some said, but we were too self-absorbed to notice. Our nostalgia is really going to have to work hard here.

For Julia Phillips, and for everyone else, she says, ‘who thought they were young, decadent and rich in the Seventies’, the Seventies were the Eagles song ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, and a style modelled on the song. ‘The Seventies ... pot ’n’ coke’n’ incense,’ she also says; like the Sixties only higher. Phillips’s sober despair of the Eighties is the dreary mirror of her previous fevers: ‘The price you pay for living through the Seventies. Hell, sometimes she thought she fucking invented the Seventies.’ Julia Phillips, with her (eventually ex-) husband, produced Hill’s The Sting, 1973, which got an Oscar for Best Picture, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, 1976, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, which cleaned up in all kinds of ways. The second two films were huge risks, albeit different risks, which paid off hugely. Phillips’s garrulous, disorderly, nightmarish and often funny book needs reading, I think, with those two films in mind. She worked hard on Close Encounters, and her account of what she did, however angled and reedited it may be; shows what producers are for – mainly inventing ways of keeping the talent and the money from falling out irreparably. She didn’t work on the shooting of Taxi Driver, but the film has just the edgy temperament she has: an indication perhaps that if she didn’t invent the Seventies (‘I was the Seventies,’ she says, but that merely means she has, in her own phrase, mastered her hyperbole), she found them, embodied them in the life she says she led.

One of the most striking things in the book is the way Phillips’s taste for cocaine turns, without warning or understanding, from a chancy, fast habit into a bleak addiction; and one of the clues to what is happening is the way she picks up damaged or self-destroying people, and gets excited by hanging out with drug-dealers. A beautiful young man says to her, ‘All my friends are dead or in jail,’ and she finds that ‘pretty sexy’. Later the theme darkens, but it is still full of glamour. One of her friends is so deep into cocaine that he has ‘lost all sense of proportion’: ‘That is the heart of his appeal.’ ‘I know a lot of dead people,’ she says repeatedly. And then: ‘I know a lot of dead people, and one of them is me.’ ‘And every once in a while,’ she says with mockheartlessness, ‘it was fun to think, Well, but what about the suicides?’ ‘Fun’ is Phillips’s idea of flip, dark irony, but the literal meaning of the word hangs around, there seems to be a fair amount of genuine heartlessness caught up in the imitation. The dead people are part of her idea of fun, as well as part of her sense of terror.

She has defeated the addiction now. This is ostensibly one of those American books about how motherly love and the need for self-esteem will in the end triumph over the demon vice. Well, ostensibly – it’s several books. It’s also a tale of the bright (Mount Holyoke), difficult (all her selfish mother’s fault) Jewish girl from New York who made it big in Hollywood. It’s a tale of comeuppance, of the arrogant city mouse who wasn’t smart enough to keep out of the paws of the cat. It’s a do-the-dirt-on-famous-people book. Julia Phillips wants to look mean and selfish, it’s the way to avoid being sentimental. Many people would not think of taking a mink coat to India, and many would not mention it if they did. Phillips, insulter of all pieties, probably checked twice to make sure her mink was packed, and would say she had taken it even if she hadn’t.

In fact, none of these performances or fables is very persuasive. Phillips doesn’t write well enough or observe closely enough to evoke a place or a time or other people or even the shape of her own life with any conviction. Mainly she just drops names and adages, and keeps running. She has some good jokes (‘I know he’s in oil, but does that mean he has to look like a derrick?’), and a snazzy narrative line which alternates between first-person and third-person, the two perspectives meeting at the end as Phillips (I/she) decides to write her book, this book, identified now as a transcription of an ‘endless conversation with herself’. She glosses the meaning of her title, which she has had in mind for years: ‘You’ll never eat shit in this town again.’ Fat chance. This is romantic renunciation angling for a comeback. I’d be surprised if the book didn’t set Phillips up with Hollywood lunches for the rest of her life; it’s soft gossip (as in soft porn). Hey, they could make a movie out of it.

What Phillips can do, compellingly, is recall moods and grudges and pleasures as if they were happening this minute. She remembers clothes and hairdo’s because of how she felt in them; people because of what they did to her; and every snort or toot in cocaine because it was her youth and her recklessness, it was what she did, who she was. She has managed to overcome a habit without disavowing it; her loyalty to the drug and its powers is what is touching. Nothing in the book equals the raw regret with which Phillips looks back at her cocaine days: mourning not the addiction but the adventure, the innocence (that special innocence of people who think they know everything) with which she took risks and drugs and made movies. For Phillips, these cocaine days were the Seventies. The Eighties in Hollywood, she thinks, were just businessmen pretending to be artists, sure things giving pale imitations of risk.

The apparent blandness of the Seventies, on this reading, would have a reverse or secret side of flirtation with danger. Only flirtation, but with real danger. The blandness of the Eighties would be both a continuation of whatever real blandness there was in the Seventies and a massive shut-down on its secrets, a revulsion from flirtations which turned into unspeakable marriages. Before we dismiss this sense of the Seventies as too specialised and expensive to carry any real historical implication – you might think you were young and decadent, but you had to be rich to get in on these acts – we might pause over some of its connections to American movies. ‘Much of Taxi Driver,’ Scorsese has said, ‘arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope.’ This is not the old claim that movies are (sort of) like dreams. Scorsese is saying that being at the movies is like being in a dream, actually experiencing an altered or troubled relation to reality. He continues: ‘And the shock of walking out of the theatre into broad daylight can be terrifying. I watch movies all the time and I am also very bad at waking up. The film was like that for me – that sense of being almost awake.’ Julia Phillips didn’t much like the script for Taxi Driver, but she grew ‘extremely fond’ of the movie itself. It was ‘a cokey movie’, she says.

Big pressure, short schedule, and short money, New York in the summer. Night shooting. I have only visited the set once and they are all doing blow. I don’t see it. I just know it.

Well, she should know, but what is interesting here is the way the literal cocaine slides over into Scorsese’s analogy. Taxi Driver would have been a cokey movie even if the entire set had been clean. Well, would it? I don’t know how we could tell, but it does seem that cocaine and a mentality are combining here: a volatile bit of movie history. We can imagine the scene without cocaine but only if we imagine some other, equal buzz in the air, some other source of lift-off and peril. Maybe making movies is (was) enough for some.

Audiences have ‘become afraid of American movies’, Pauline Kael wrote in 1976. People used to go to cosy American films and stay away from worrying European works. Now they see frothy French comedies because they are scared of The Godfather II, Nashville, and needless to say, Taxi Driver. I don’t know how true this can be, given the money that those films have made, but it’s an interesting argument about the way films are perceived and talked about – about what we think they are for. Kael’s suggestion is that we were not frightened or outraged by say The Towering Inferno, a glossy manipulation of some of our favourite fears, while Taxi Driver really overwhelmed us, tipped us into that dream state more comfortable films only allude to. I think it, too, was a glossy manipulation, only cleverer and more violent, a vastly overrated movie, but it did reveal a peculiar Seventies uncertainty, of which Close Encounters is also a precise, if contrary reflection.

Taxi Driver, Scorsese said, was supposed to be ‘like a cross between a Gothic horror and the New York Daily News’. Its hero Travis Bickle is a man with ‘the best of intentions’, ‘very spiritual’. He represents ‘the power of the spirit on the wrong road’. Scorsese found it ‘scary’ when audiences didn’t find ‘a violent catharsis’, just got high on the idea of out-of-control killing, but why was he so surprised? The spirit in Travis Bickle’s (and Scorsese’s) sense doesn’t care about right roads and wrong roads. That is precisely its terrible allure. The historical referent of Taxi Driver is a world where the news is Gothic, the mixture is made before the movie gets there, and audiences divide into those who are terrified by this state of affairs and those who are excited by it. Those who are terrified seem to understand less and less about the world. Those who are excited seem to understand less and less about themselves; they know a lot of dead people, but they don’t know why they are dead. Close Encounters manages to bring this divided audience together again: there are things out there we can’t understand, there are fears and highs to be faced and to be had, but they are on our side, they won’t kill us. Phillips describes a moment on the set of Close Encounters in Mobile, Alabama. She and Spielberg are looking at a house, Phillips says with a ‘shiver’: ‘Ghosts definitely live here.’ Spielberg smiles like a seven-year-old. ‘I know,’ he says, ‘isn’t it great?’ Shiver and smile.

The advantage of looking at such possibilities through a producer’s eyes is that you realise how deeply fantastic the matter of money is, how the financing of movies partakes of just the same dream mentalities we find in the films and in the viewers. ‘Money is real and not real, like a spook,’ Lionel Trilling said. Like a drug, we might add. Money is solid and phantasmagorical, finite and flexible. ‘The bottom line is that there is no bottom line,’ Julia Phillips asserts. What she means is that you make good movies by taking risks, not by balancing the books every day – that the books will balance later if your vision is right. But of course the proposition is more complicated than that, and will stand for the whole risk-and-reward scenario of the Seventies; it becomes a self-fulfilling or self-cancelling prophecy, depending on how you feel about gambling. The bottom line is that the bottom line itself is both historical and magical. Markets are all about confidence, as well as about products and qualities. They are also about guessing, and if you are backing Close Encounters you are (probably) right to ignore or keep extending the bottom line. If you are backing Revolution the bottom line was probably too expensive in the first place. If you stick to a safe bottom line, you avoid the costly flops but you miss most, if not all of the fun. Phillips is in mourning for the movies which were her career, her youth and her adventure, sitting shivah for them, as she puts it. There are enough good films around to keep us from fully sharing her grief, and those Seventies films were not always so great either: but I think she has, through preoccupations and rancours of her own, focused on one of our lacks, the price we pay for not having faced yesterday’s horrors and temptations. In the Seventies the movie brats were young and they played, irresponsibly at times, with grown-ups’ toys and obsessions. They made The Godfather, 1972, 1974; Mean Streets, 1973; Jaws, 1975; The Deer Hunter, 1978. Then they themselves grew up and made kiddy movies.