In Memoriam: David Brown 1916-2010

GUEST: David Brown
AIR DATE: 08/21/2010

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, where occasionally we interrupt our regular weekly schedule of contemporary on-air conversations to present – In Memoriam – a past program with a distinguished guest who has passed.

Today we celebrate journalist, author, print editor, motion picture and theatre producer David Brown, who always will be remembered for his association with such films as The Sting, Patton, Driving Miss Daisy, The Verdict, MacArthur…and, of course, Jaws. The following Open Mind recorded on March 25, 1990 focused on David’s wonderful book, “Let Me Entertain You”.
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I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, and I once began a program by noting that it hadn’t even been just the other day, but rather quite some years before, that a smiling young traffic cop had come up alongside my car, stalled for a moment in Times Square traffic, and said ever so sweetly, “Come on, Pops, move along there”, which really ranks right up there, or down there, with having a pregnant woman, out of respect for your advancing years, rise to give you her seat in a crowded bus.

And that sort of thing does happen, if we’re lucky, to us all. For we do, these days, tend to last longer, which generally is better than the alternative, and probably should have at hand a kind of Biedecker to being here longer and getting around better. Which , of course, was my way of introducing my guest that day, and again this day, writer, film and theater producer, David Brown, who had then just presented us his utterly charming Brown’s Guide to Growing Gray, and who’s saucy self-portrait, Let Me Entertain You, has just now been published by William Morrow & Company. Well, because of my own involvement with the motion picture industry, I never – well, hardly ever – deal with it here on The Open Mind.

But since everyone in America seems to have two businesses – his or her own, and then show business, too – since David Brown, along with his then-partner Richard Zanuck, produced such well-known films as “Cocoon”, “The Verdict”, “The Sting”, “MacArthur”, and of course, the astoundingly popular “Jaws”. And since his Let Me Entertain You now delivers so well on its promise, I want to ask David Brown how and why Hollywood has always loomed so large in American life. David?

BROWN: I suppose the reason Hollywood is so famous around the world is that it deals in fantasy. It deals in a kind of Never-Neverland that most people never enter, except those in Hollywood, who find it is as far from fantasy; it’s often very gross reality.

HEFFNER: And yet in your book, in the new book, Let Me Entertain You, you deal with reality. You have these wonderful little stories, these wonderful vignettes of very real people; not fantasy.

BROWN: No, that’s true. The dream factories of Hollywood, as they used to be called, produce and manufacture fantasy. But their servants and their peons are very much involved in a reality, often not a very pleasant, but very often a very comic and absurd reality. Funny things happen to people who go to Hollywood or work in Hollywood. By “Hollywood”, I mean the generic term of movie making around the world.

HEFFNER: David, you say, “the peons”. You tell stories here, though, of people who played major leading roles in the creations of those fantasies and those myths that, I guess, make us what we are today. Not the little guys, but the big, big people.

BROWN: Well, you know, I use the word “peons” advisedly. Moss Hart once called Beverly Hills “the most luxurious slave quarters in the world.” Even though people make a great deal of money, there are certain strictures. There’s a very big competitive game going on in the movie industry, and in all entertainment, and in all commerce, as a matter of fact.

But, yes, I do deal with the larger-than–life persona of these men and women – actors, producers, directors, and with the world around them.

Hollywood, or the very image of Hollywood, is what we would all like to be if we could have our way. And that goes for some of our base instincts as well as some of our noble, and certainly many of our ignoble. We’d like to be rich, we’d like to be famous, we’d like to be adored, we’d like to be around beautiful men and beautiful women, and we’d like everybody to chase us out of a restaurant and ask for our autograph, except when it happens.

HEFFNER: You know, David, you said a moment ago, you talked about what goes on in that intensely competitive world of entertainment. And then you quickly said, “And in the rest of the commercial world too.” Do you think there’s a qualitative difference between this entertainment world and the rest?

BROWN: Not much. Or should I say, “Much?” It’s a quantitative difference, yes. Hollywood is more so. But it exists in our whole society. We hope we’ve left it behind in the Eighties, but it’s the sweet smell of excess. And I’m not berating it, because everyone is capable of handling a little excess. And success too often becomes excess.

But instead of dealing in generalities, we should really talk about some of the people who made Hollywood what it now is, the legends. The Darryl Zanucks, the David Selznicks, the Harry Cohns. They were funny people in many ways. And they wondered themselves as to how they got there. If anyone has read – and everyone has read – that wonderful book about Sam Goldwyn, we know that these men – in that case, mainly men – literally walked across Europe to get to a port to come to America, lived in intense poverty, and then incredible riches.

HEFFNER: Yes, but there are so many people who surface in this book. Not just those early pioneers. Not just those who walked across Europe, came here, stopped perhaps in the fur industry or the clothing industry in New York, and then got into the theater business and went West. But here, everyone seems to be – maybe it’s unfair, David – of a piece in terms of the, what you consider the entrepreneurial aggressiveness and excessiveness. Why excessive in Hollywood? Is there something in the nature of film-making that makes for excess?

BROWN: I don’t know that there is something in the nature of film making that makes for excess. There’s something in the nature of people that makes for excess. And those, and where you have a lot of money flung around, and where the rewards are so incredible, and where almost everyone is overpaid, and then rarely underpaid.

When I went to Hollywood, after a career in journalism, everyone assumed I went there because of the money. And that was true then, in 1950. Today the film-making world is composed of young men and women who really would rather be in the film-making process than do anything else.

We, of my generation, sold out to Hollywood. In the present generation (I deal with many present generation film people in my book) they really consider it a wonderful art form. We considered it commerce. We thought the pictures that they worshiped, those Shintoists who are ancestor-worshiping the old movies. We made those movies to put bread on the table. We really didn’t think very much of them. They were lucky accidents when they turned out to stand the test of time. But, you know, I deal with a great deal more in my book than the world of show business.

I deal with living long and liking it, which I dealt with in my previous book. This is no more and no less than one man’s journey through life, through 74 years of life. And I haven’t known much excess. What I’ve known, basically, is a great deal of success, and a great deal of failure. And failure is part of this book.

HEFFNER: Funny you say, “Failure is part of this book”. You make a great deal of what you call the failures. And yet, in each instance, whenever there was a momentary failure, you did what you advise people to do: Get up and start all over again.

BROWN: That’s right. You know, jealousy and envy, like everything else in Hollywood, reaches pinnacles that are unknown in any other profession (if I may call it a profession). Maybe it’s the oldest profession. But I don’t have, in this book, the extent that envy and jealousy – they are the same; one is a little more intense – play in the world of entertainment. Someone said, “It’s not enough”, (I hope I didn’t’ say it) “It’s not enough that your friend not succeed; he must fail”.

I’m afraid that plays a great part in the ego game in the picture business, and in all show business. “My god, so-and-so has a hit. Isn’t that awful?” But when something goes bad to some treasured and major figure in the world, that word gets around almost with a certain degree of glee. It was Ambrose Bierce who defined “happiness” as “That feeling of exhilaration upon learning of the misfortune of a friend”.

HEFFNER: You know, you talk about the envy. But what struck me most here was the presence of the single word, a single emotion. It wasn’t greed, it wasn’t envy, it wasn’t lust; it was fear. And I thought to myself, “Well now, David Brown could have called this book ‘Fear is the Spur.’” Now, why? The contrast between the huge salaries and the great power and prerogatives, and then failure?

BROWN: Perhaps. If Erica … Erica Jong hadn’t used it, I might have called it Fear of Flying. That’s interesting, what you’ve just said about that, because fear is one of the major elements in the kind of life I describe.

HEFFNER: In Hollywood?

BROWN: In Hollywood.

HEFFNER: In entertainment generally?

BROWN: In entertainment generally. Fear of failure. Fear of not achieving what other people achieve. And yet one cannot speak for everyone. The film editor who is a paragon of excellence. Writers. There are a great many film people who work simply in the pursuit of excellence, and not in the pursuit of profits. That may surprise a number of viewers, but some of the best people in the entertainment business or on the sets are behind the camera and not in front of the camera. And it’s nice to think that many stars today are working in the theater for very little money because they want to keep their craft fresh and foxy.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, it, it puzzled me as I read Let Me Entertain You that you were never talking, never writing about this fear in terms of people’s incomes. Or it seemed to me that that was a minor, minor consideration. That what you were talking about was a fall from grace that must be exacerbated when you get into the entertainment world, when you go public. There must be something that, that fosters this fear that one doesn’t feel in other forms of endeavor.

BROWN: I think what happens in, not only the entertainment, but the broadcasting business and the publishing business, and whenever you go into the arena to be shot down or appraised by others, I think we’re all a bunch of scared kids. I think if you take the common denominator of our childhoods, you’ll find a lot of men and women who succeed in this business were really unloved. I don’t want to go Freudian on you, but…

HEFFNER: Go ahead. Please, be my guest.

BROWN: …I suspect that many of us (I know I’m one of them) simply are trying to prove something, whether to our fathers or to our siblings or somebody else. And one way of doing it is to go for this gigantic, this almost elephantine popularity and celebrity that the entertainment world offers. This is so true of actors, of course.

HEFFNER: You know, too, David, I wondered, the difference you mention – again you talk about the entertainment world, and you say, “And broadcasting too, theater” – do you sense, in terms of their role in the creation of who we are and what we are as a people, some qualitative difference between the broadcast industry, the broadcast field, and the movie-making field? I mean, where is the power?

BROWN: The power is in the hand that writes the check. The ultimate yea-or nay-sayer, whether in broadcasting or whether in movies or whether in publishing, that’s where the power is. The fear is in that person who is attempting to get the check to be written and paid for. The broadcasting business is the same as Hollywood, only more so. If we’re talking about networks, if we’re talking about the entertainment division, and now the news division, they’re all celebrities. They’re all in search of the golden grail of celebritydom. Not personally, but because the demands are being made on them by the market people, and understandably so. We want ratings. We want box office. We want bestsellers. It’s all part of the same pattern in our society which is driving us into a kind of profitable desert.

HEFFNER: Now, you said that almost defensively. “And understandably so”, that this should be the case.

BROWN: Yes, because the money that is spent for entertainment is substantial. The money is provided by public shareholders for the most part, or by banks, or by both. And returns are expected. We have just had, here in New York, a great thing about the contraction of the Pantheon Press, because it was profitless, and yet it had a noble heritage. Who is there that can say a business shouldn’t make a profit?

Hollywood was born of exhibitors who created the studios to fill their theaters with product. And the entertainment industry is part of that, in broadcasting, and now, for better or for worse, a great deal of the news programs have become entertainment oriented, some even under the aegis of the entertainment division, although there’s a sort of hazy line there. Is that good? Is that bad? I don’t think we can judge. That’s life.

HEFFNER: David, do you really mean that? Is it good? Is it bad? You don’t think we can really judge? Have you no judgment about the…

BROWN: Yes, I do. But since … and oddly enough, in my early years in Hollywood, there was a great deal of judgment, when the old moguls often ridiculed … I remember when Darryl F. Zanuck turned down a picture called “The Blackboard Jungle”, which dealt with teachers, and in slum situations, in violence against teachers. He said, “I don’t want to export that picture of America. Let somebody else make it.”, knowing it would be a success. And yet he made “The Grapes of Wrath”.

There was a conscience among the early pioneers. And I don’t want this discussion to degenerate into pure nostalgia, because I’m living for the future.

But since you’ve asked, what I do think we need in broadcasting, in entertainment, is some individual, some CEO, someone who can say yes or not, to say resoundingly, “No, we will not publish that book. No, we will not make that movie. No, this will not go on our air, if it’s something that there isn’t a need to know, because I don’t think it’s good for society.” I would welcome that. Perhaps in the Nineties we’ll go back to that. Perhaps the public itself will lead us to a kind of media where the Trump divorce does not preempt the reunification of Germany.

HEFFNER: But David, you write here so impressively, so interestingly, so entertainingly, in Let Me Entertain You, about an earlier time when it would seem that the dynamics, the very dynamics of the industry, permitted that kind of statement from those kinds of men – and one would like to say women, but that wouldn’t be true.

BROWN: Yes. But unfortunately there’s a down side – or I don’t like to use that word; it’s almost as repulsive as “bottom line” – but what we have now that we didn’t have then is an eclectic programming in the movie industry. Movies like “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, going back, or many films that you’ve seen and admired, would never have been made under the old studio system. Now we have to fight to get a picture made, but it does get made somehow or other, because there is no one-man or one-person control. But the tradeoff there, not very good, is, since there is no one-person control – that is, a taste control; I’m not speaking of a senses control – we have a kind of anarchy, so that a lot of bad things are said, published, and made. Bad for whom? Bad for the quality of our lives, particularly in the realm of violence and the cheapening of life, which we see enough on our news programs, but we also see it in entertainment. And it does sell. And it’s too bad.

HEFFNER: It does sell. It’s too bad. Do you see any – I mean a moment ago you wistfully spoke of that giant figure who would step forward and say, “No”.

BROWN: “Let someone else make it”, is what that giant figure would say.

HEFFNER: And your guess is what? That someone else would make it?

BROWN: Sure. They all make it. It’s a strange thing. A book is turned down by a publisher because that publisher says, “I think it’s indecent to publish this, not in the sexual connotation, but it shouldn’t be done”. Someone is there, wherever there’s a buck to be made. That’s it. There is no…and yet that fine line which you are very much involved with, how do you discourage free expression? Should you? We’ve just had quite a thing in Washington regarding the funding of the arts. We don’t want to become a society of censorial powerful men and women.

HEFFNER: David, you’re very much involved now with the theater, the Broadway theater.

BROWN: Yes.

HEFFNER: How does it differ from your experience? How do your experiences there differ from your experiences in Hollywood and before that, as a journalist?

BROWN: They’re not too different in the sense that a good play is like a good screenplay, and a good director is like a good director in the other medium. Where they differ is that the playwright is in control of his or her work. And changes are not made without the permission of the writer. It’s a writer’s medium. And that’s wonderful. And producers nurture writers. They can make suggestions, but they can’t rewrite the script.

And journalism, the script is written for you every day by the world. In the theater, you’re able to do many things that you can’t do in movies. You’re able to capture the imagination of those. Our play, “A Few Good Men”, you have a bare stage. When we make a movie out of that, it’s going to be quite different. I like the theater. It’s very pure.

But like Hollywood, like journalism, like all those things we’ve been talking about, we still have to get an advance. We still have to get reviews. We have to get money. We’re at the mercy of the economics of the theater, which are horrendous, just as horrendous and possibly even more restricting than the movies, because the movies can take more chances than the theater. And yet off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and most importantly, the regional theaters around the country, are providing us with a whole new generation of writers. It’s very exciting. And that’s what I like about theater: the new generation of writers.

HEFFNER: Of course you know, because I made no secret of it, how much I loved “A Few Good Men”. What happens, you say, when it is translated into film? It will not be as spare?

BROWN: Well, it will become a movie, of course. And it will not be desecrated, because I intend to have Aaron Sorkin, the young playwright…will write and has written the screenplay. And currently, “Driving Miss Daisy”, with which I’ve had some connection, is an example of a play that’s pure as a play and pure as a movie, because the writer, the playwright, the director, and the producers of that film chose to keep the original fabric and were successful in getting it on and having the audience accept it in its film transformation.

HEFFNER: Now, could Hollywood succeed to the degree that it does succeed if writers had the same authority?

BROWN: No, unfortunately.

HEFFNER: Why?

BROWN: Because writers do not necessarily know the film medium as well as playwrights know the theater medium. Oddly enough, playwrights, dramatists, have a very good knowledge, I’ve found, of the requirements of the stage. It’s an interesting thing, and I mention it in my book. I‘ve never known a dramatist who didn’t want a novelist; and I’ve never known a novelist who wanted to be a dramatist. Dramatist is a very special skill. And working with the camera, and working with the film medium…Film is a collaborative art. The theater, to a larger extent, is auteur.

HEFFNER: And when the auteur philosophy begins to surface in Hollywood, is that good or bad?

BROWN: We get very talky movies if we’re speaking of writing auteurs, because the directors, the writer is too often a surrogate of the director. That’s too bad, because it’s the written work that makes the movie what it is, but transferring that written word. I think I’ve told you, if not in this book, my earlier book (and why don’t I remember which), that Sam Goldwyn once gave Bob Sherwood a lesson in screenwriting; the difference. He said, “You know, a man and a woman are in an elevator. The elevator stops. Another woman comes on. The man who was on originally with the woman takes off his hat. That means they’re married. That’s dramatizing; not putting it in dialogue.” There are screenwriters who can master the film art, and they usually become directors, and should become directors so they are in control of their own work.

HEFFNER: Which is better? Which do you enjoy more, David? Life in the theater? Life in Hollywood?

BROWN: I’m going to give you a cop-out answer. I like them all, because one comforts me when the other doesn’t work. I’ve made it a rule in life to have a great many things on tap, “In the mail”, as I say in this book, because the mortality rate of our dreams is very, very severe. Mortality rate, dreams; that doesn’t quite fit. But I think you know what I mean.

HEFFNER: I do.

BROWN: Our dreams die. But not all of our dreams die, and not all at once. And I prefer a certain diversified portfolio of dreams and ventures in order to keep me from cracking up.

HEFFNER: Well, you’re never going to crack up, David, because you believe in work. And I love this line which harks back to the earlier book we talked about: “When you’ve lived a long time, there is hardly anything you can do well except work.” And that’s wonderful in its way. And you certainly demonstrate that by this continuous involvement in books, in theater, in movies, I suggest that …?

BROWN: Oh, I have many movies in preparation, and also a television series.

HEFFNER: Now, what are you going to find in television? Something better? Worse?

BROWN: Oh, I have found in television something that I cannot find in either theater or movies. I’m doing classic short stories about men and women. The series is titled, “Women and Men”, in deference to the Movement. And I’m able to do Ernest Hemingway, Proust, John Updike, Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker, in 28-minute segments, and get actors and writers such as Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and Frederic Raphael who will work on those because they never have an opportunity to do some of the work, for economic reasons. It works in television, in this particular brand of television, which Home Box Office is financing.

HEFFNER: David, I think we’ll never have to worry about your not working. In one or all of these fields, we’re going to see the name, and read more things that say, in their own way, Let Me Entertain You.

BROWN: Well, I’m trying. I’m just wondering what I’m going to do with the rest of the day. There must be something out there.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) David Brown, thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind.

BROWN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining us today…in memoriam.

I hope you’ll be with us again next week. And meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

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