Hollywood producer David Brown discusses aging in America.
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GUEST: David Brown
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And it’s been over a quarter century since today’s guest first joined me here. Now even then, David Brown had already produced or executive produced such major Hollywood films as “Sugarland Express”, “The Girl from Petrovka”, “The Eiger Sanction”, and, of course, that blockbuster of all blockbusters, “Jaws”.
Mostly in partnership with Richard Zanuck, my guest is also identified with “The Sting”, “The Verdict”, “Cocoon”, “Driving Miss Daisy”. And has produced as well “The Player’ and “A Few Good Men”.
All this without even mentioning such of his other wonderful motion pictures as “Chocolat” and “Angela’s Ashes”.
Or his and Ernest Lehman’s musical stage presentation of the classic film, “The Sweet Smell of Success”. David Brown is now represented on Broadway with the hit “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, produced by him and Marty Bell.
And they have Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” in preparation.
Of course there’s more to recount from his past to be sure. And even much, much m ore to come. And yet my guest won’t be 90 for still a few more weeks.
And just as in earlier programs together, David Brown and I parsed his literary skills in discussing his utterly charming Brown’s Guide to Growing Gray. And then his saucy self-portrait, Let Me Entertain You.
Now we have the delightful Brown’s guide to the good Life Without Tears, Fears or Boredom. But I would like to ask my guest first whether his guide to such a good life isn’t first and foremost about life and aging here in America.
BROWN: Yes, it is about life in America…aging. Aging is a great American phenomenon because nobody wants to grow old and some of us, like myself, are in denial, as well as my wife, Helen Gurley Brown, who’s a mere 84…just a child bride.
Aging is being denied, defied, and in every…countered by medicines, by fashion and everything else.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “by fashion”? Countered by fashion.
BROWN: Older people dress young.
HEFFNER: Good or bad or indifferent?
HEFFNER: Well I was…when I saw you come into the studio, David, I was going to wear my favorite…one shirt with the white collar and the blue bosom, but I thought it was too young. Is this what you mean by denying age?
BROWN: Well, I don’t do it consciously. I simply have never grown into my present age. It’s a form of denial. I’m very fortunate that the genes have been with me and I’ve been able to defy most of the calamities of aging. But they’re there…waiting.
HEFFNER: Like what?
BROWN: Illness. Death. All that good stuff.
HEFFNER: All the calamities? Come on, David, it goes with the territory.
BROWN: When you get older, as my book indicates…you begin to stagger. I, I use a cane occasionally…you begin to forget things. Sometimes you, you don’t know what you’re saying and sometimes you do and you regret it. That’s getting older. There are telltale signs which I think I have avoided. Mainly by working.
HEFFNER: By working. You said that in one of the other programs we did. In two of the other programs we did you said, “Don’t retire”.
BROWN: Retirement is a no-no. No question about it. We’re retiring to what? To the great oblivion of the retirement. I’ve lectured on enough cruise ships to know what they look like, these men and women of a certain age, who have nothing to do but spin tales about their youth, where I’m still talking about tomorrow.
HEFFNER: What about tomorrow?
BROWN: Well, I hope to be here. That’s one thing.
HEFFNER: That’s number one.
BROWN: That’s number one. Number two, I hope to retain my senses and my mind, and I do that by using my mind through my own work. And…I don’t know if there’s a number three.
HEFFNER: David, do you find this is a…well, as I, as I read the book…as I had read the others…Brown’s Guide to the Good Life Without Tears, Fears and Boredom…Is it a rich man’s book? Would that be unfair?
BROWN: No, I don’t think it’s a rich man’s book. Because it doesn’t depend on income, it depends on out-go. You’re rich if you spend less than you make or you earn or you receive. That was the, the advice of Benjamin Franklin and many other savants. You are only poor when you spend more than you make. And America is currently in the throes of that kind of poverty, because, for the first time since the Great Depression, Americans are spending more than they earn.
HEFFNER: This is…this obviously depresses you.
BROWN: No, because I’m not one of them. Doesn’t depress me, but I’m saying, “Tsk, tsk, you can’t do that anymore. You must realize that if you get to be my age you don’t want to be homeless. You don’t want to be poverty stricken”. And there’s only one way to overcome it. Save. Save, and be prudent. Not stingy, but prudent.
HEFFNER: But I thought it was Helen Gurley Brown who was the saver and the prudent one and it was David who…I…David, we’ve gone out to dinner. You’ve taken us out to dinner and I’ve seen you give bankrolls to…
BROWN: That’s true.
HEFFNER: …everyone in the restaurant.
BROWN: But Helen cured me of economic illiteracy. Long years ago I had a business manager who took 5% of my income in Hollywood…merely for making out checks.
Helen said, “I’ll do that”. The fact that she was young and pretty hastened her departure from my midst. So she’s, she’s…yes, I do tip well. Of course. Because I can afford to. But I don’t do anything I can’t afford. I don’t have a yacht. I don’t have a plane. I don’t identify with the very rich, although I’m comfortable.
HEFFNER: You don’t identify with the very rich?
BROWN: No, not with the super rich, no.
HEFFNER: You mean Warren Buffet?
BROWN: Yes. Of course.
HEFFNER: Although he has so much less money now.
BROWN: Yes, I know. But he’s still in…he’s still up there.
HEFFNER: Right. David, you…you…in writing Brown’s Guide to the Good Life I was fascinated by lots of the advice you gave here. You talk about the secrets of success and failure. You talk about “minding my purse” as you just have.
What did you mean by “lessons from the life in show biz”?
BROWN: Well, that’s an insider chapter. That’s about…that was originally written for Variety, the Bible of show business. And it, it capsulizes fifty years of experience in the vineyard of Hollywood and Broadway. What I’ve learned.
And I thought it might be interesting to a public that is now besotted with curiosity about the entertainment business.
HEFFNER: What have you learned?
HEFFNER: What have you learned?
BROWN: Well I’ve learned first of all that committees can’t make good movies. I’ve learned that you, you have to avoid voice mail of you can, in addition to meetings. Answer the phone. That one person’s vision is better than the consensus of 20. Now all these things are not being observed, of course, in Hollywood. Or any place else. We live in an age of consensus, which means there is no single minded vision, which is what made Hollywood what it is…great. Made it great. Because individuals defined the movie business. And movies aren’t as good today because the studios are mere blips on the radar of some vast corporations to whom they are just little bubbles, little blips. The owners of Hollywood studios are not passionate about movies because they’re far removed from the battleground; they are not Jack Warner, Daryl Zanuck, David O. Selsnick.
You see Hollywood was a Mom and Pop business in the early days. That’s what made it great. A bunch of immigrants coming over and doing what they could to make movies, which started as nickelodeons…so, the point is that Hollywood does not make as good pictures as it used to because the passion isn’t there. But the exception…there’s always an exception… like salmon swimming upstream…a few get through…good movies…mostly independent movies.
HEFFNER: Good movies. What was the favorite of those you’ve been associated with?
BROWN: “The Verdict”…a courtroom drama starring Paul Newman. And I saw a good movie the other night.
HEFFNER: What was that?
BROWN: “The Devil Wears Prada”.
HEFFNER: I saw that, too.
BROWN: And everyone is talking about it now. For the first time people are discussing a movie. Not just people in New York and Los Angeles, but everywhere.
HEFFNER: David, are you so sure? I…Elaine and I went to see it and I thought afterwards…that is only for people in Hollywood…
HEFFNER: …and New York.
BROWN: Look at the figures. It did $27 million…its opening weekend, the number two movie. Its per screen average was about half of…even more than half of the number one movie…that mindless blockbuster…
HEFFNER: The…yeah…go ahead…
BROWN: Yeah, I’m looking…I’m trying to remember its name…
HEFFNER: Which one was it, it wasn’t…
BROWN: Well, it’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”…Part 3 maybe. I don’t think that opened yet. I believe it was either…not “Superman”…but one of the others…
HEFFNER: No, it was probably “Superman” at the same time.
BROWN: In any case…
HEFFNER: …everybody went to see…
BROWN: …it’s a blur to me…but “The Devil Wears Prada”, about high fashion in the magazine universe of New York, entertained women all over the United States according to box office figures. And I believe it will do it in Europe and Australia and Asia.
HEFFNER: You don’t think they went to see Meryl Streep alone?
BROWN: No. Not at all. Not at all. Meryl is a very fine actress, but it’s the character that counts. And she was emblematic of a certain type of success. My only caveat about that movie…and it’s been echoed by a few critics…is that Anne Hathaway…I believe her name is, the, the young woman…
HEFFNER: How could you forget the name of such a beautiful young woman?
BROWN: I didn’t.
BROWN: Anyway, she gives up at the end; she gives up the very occupation she has mastered. She berates success; she makes success utterly unacceptable.
HEFFNER: Didn’t that make it a real American story?
BROWN: It’s an American story…it’s an American myth that success begets unhappiness and you, you…when you’re successful your personal life falls apart. Not necessarily.
HEFFNER: David, how does that fit in with what you’ve said about the present masters of Hollywood? They were people. They are people for whom the bottom line is the bottom line. Success is the guiding principle.
BROWN: You mean how does that, that particular message of that movie fit in?
BROWN: Well, they’re trying to…the trying to beguile the public with, with an acceptable message. The public likes happy endings, or what it construes to be happy endings. Now here’s a lady who goes into the newspaper business in the 21st century leaving the fashion business, which is hot, hot, hot.
Wrong. She should stay in it. I don’t know how you end the picture otherwise, however, and satisfy the commercial taste of the public.
HEFFNER: You said “The Verdict” was perhaps your favorite of those you were associated with. What…which others…or first why, why did you feel that way about “The Verdict”?
BROWN: Well, “The Verdict” is a story of redemption, not a story about money.
HEFFNER: Isn’t the “Prada” movie a story of redemption?
BROWN: In a very limited sense. It’s redemption from what? From riches and glory?
BROWN: I don’t call that redemption.
HEFFNER: All right. We can argue about that again.
HEFFNER: But “The Verdict”…
BROWN: “The Verdict” is a fine story about a lawyer who has one client and who is up against the church, the medical profession and the legal profession all at once. And somehow prevails. When in “the Verdict” the Cardinal says to his acolyte, who’s congratulating him on the progress of a lawsuit, he said, “We’re winning”. And he said, “I know, but are we right? I want to know, are we right”?
That’s the key to “The Verdict”, are we right? And that’s what I call real redemption. And it’s not about money, although the jury comes forth and says, “May we give more than we were asked for?” The judge says, “Yes”.
HEFFNER: I sense a contradiction still, between this and your verdict on “Prada”.
HEFFNER: And the young lady. David, the other things that you’re, that you talk about here, that you write about…you’ve written, in a sense, very much as you have in the past, always up…always upbeat…so do we take this to be a…
BROWN: Yes, of course. It’s what I believe. I’ve always been optimistic. I’m a Depression child, I was in the Second…
HEFFNER: “The” Depression.
BROWN: I mean the real Depression, the big Depression. I was born in the First World War. I grew up in the Roaring Twenties, and I went down in the terrible thirties. I went to war in the forties. I came back. I’ve lived through every, every conceivable thing. I watched Lindbergh take off for Paris when I was a slip of a boy. I’ve seen it all. And everything I’ve seen makes me feel things are better now than they were then.
HEFFNER: You do feel that way.
HEFFNER: Not in Hollywood, though.
BROWN: No, but Hollywood is a speck. It’s a mere atom in the world of, of ideas.
HEFFNER: I’m not talking about the world of ideas, I’m talking about America as it really is. You find that the world of film, contemporary film is just a speck?
BROWN: Let’s be very clear. Old Hollywood didn’t make very good films either. But they made them for the right reason; they felt them. The heads of the studios really suffered with their movies. They really cared about their movies.
They made really terrible movies. Columbia Pictures would make one good movie a year, by design. All the rest were “Rock Around the Clock”, or anything they could gather up. But then they’d make “It Happened One Night”, or something like that. Hollywood was never anything but a plebian industry.
But there were the great movies that came out of that Hollywood, a minority to be sure. But less…but more, more than today.
HEFFNER: Because of corporate dominance?
BROWN: Because of the insistence on the bottom line. Because movies are not made primarily by marketing people. The Sales Department now judges the quality and the appeal of movies. When I first went to Hollywood, the Sales Department was not permitted to read scripts. They couldn’t go to the dailies. They couldn’t see a rough cut of a movie. They were out there to sell it. What did they know? They go out and sell the movie. If it’s bad, that’s what they get paid for.
HEFFNER: David, do you think it could have gone on that way?
HEFFNER: Do you think things could have gone on that way?
BROWN: No, things change. If you don’t change, you break. Things change. Everything changes. What was true then is no longer true. Because the world has changed. Technology has changed.
The only constant in the entertainment world and in the literary world is the story. The story will always be there, whether on the wall of a cave or in the latest technology.
HEFFNER: And the new ventures that you’re going into – are they mostly in terms of Broadway?
BROWN: Well, no…they’re both. I have about four movies in development, too. I have one that I’ve personally optioned for almost 50 years, and that’s John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samara”.
I brought John O’Hara, one of the great authors of the last century, to Hollywood. I made several of his movies, “From the Terrace”, “10 North Frederick”.
And John was a great friend of mine and I always pledged that I would make “Appointment in Samara”, which, if you remember the book, ends in a suicide, hence the long delay in making it. Now I have Robert Benton, who’s written a script, very faithful to O’Hara and we’re out to actors and we have the money to make it and the suicide is in.
HEFFNER: You mean unhappiness can be…
BROWN: It’s not unhappiness because one thing about O’Hara’s book…”Appointment in Samara”, is the story of a love story. And, for those who do not remember it, it’s the story of a man on a wild self-destructive path and that man finally kills himself because he knows his wife will never leave and they are doomed. And the only way to save it is to spare her his presence on this planet.
HEFFNER: Now what appealed to you about that?
BROWN: The love story. And the period. It’s the, it’s the thirties when more people were out of work then working, when wealthy people were a distinct phenomenon, unlike today when there are 400 of them of more on the Forbes list. And in a small town, there’s this dichotomy of the wealthy and the, the once wealthy, that would distinguish the Depression, where a lot of us were once wealthy.
HEFFNER: What else is on the drawing board?
BROWN: Alex Cross’s…James Patterson’s books…I’ve produced two of them: “Along Came a Spider”, and “Kiss the Girls”. Now I’m working on “Roses are Red”. Hopefully with Morgan Freeman…
BROWN: …in the lead.
BROWN: And I’m doing a movie about a long-forgotten restaurateur of Hollywood…Mike Romanov.
BROWN: Not a real Romanov. But a fake Romanov who beguiled the world and Hollywood in particular. So much so that when he was exposed, people in Hollywood said, “But that doesn’t matter, we’ve all re-invented ourselves. We’re all Romanov”. And once, when he was there and I used to go to Romanov’s, the real Romanovs came into the restaurant, babbling in Russian and Mike, who was born in Siberia, or Brooklyn, depending on who you believed…threw up his hands and said, “Please, I cannot speak the Mother Tongue after what happened”.
HEFFNER: (Laughter) And on Broadway?
BROWN: On Broadway there’s Thornton Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth”…
BROWN: Now called “All About Us” with a musical score by John Kaner and Fred Ebb…a famous team that did “Chicago” and many other great musicals, and a book by Joe Stein, who wrote the book “Fiddler on the Roof”.
And I have another play…a property that I have just acquired, going back 60 years to my days as a boy editor of Liberty magazine…it’s called “Mr. Adam”. It’s this novella by a man named Pat Frank, long dead. It came to me recently. “Mr. Adam” is about a nuclear malfunction in peacetime, not a war thing, somewhere in Colorado and a young reporter discovers there are no people in the maternity hospitals of America. At a certain point they’re all empty. He goes to his boss. He said, “Check the foreign bureaus”, which he does. Nobody has been pregnant. There are no, there’s no one in any maternity ward. So they work backwards to the explosion…the nuclear malfunction. And presto…over the wires comes a pregnant woman. Wow. Wow. Who’s the man? The man is a nerd who happened to be at the bottom of a lead mine in Colorado at the particular time of the explosion. And he has made his wife pregnant. In comes the Pentagon, in comes the Secret Service. He is corralled in to the government…more contemporary today than it was in 1947, when I first published it. And I thought of it as a musical comedy then. I got a man named Harold Roan, but we couldn’t get it on. I remember one song he wrote. It was called “I’m a Busy Man”.
HEFFNER: You are a busy man, indeed. You’re going to do all these things David? And that’s the…I guess you have to say that that is certainly without tears, fears or boredom. No boredom for you.
BROWN: No boredom is because the world is a very lively place. I’m a news junkie. I get 10 newspapers a day and I read them…selectively, of course. Obituaries first.
HEFFNER: To see if we’re there. I always look at the obituaries first…
HEFFNER: …thinking if I’m there, why do I have to go further?
BROWN: Yeah. That’s my feeling exactly.
HEFFNER: Yeah. David, philosophy, is it all summed up here and in the other books you have written?
BROWN: This is…my book, “Brown’s Guide to the good Life” is a distillation of everything I’ve learned in 90 years of living. Of hard living and soft living. Of despair. Of defeat. Of victory, of all the things that go into the human experience. It’s all there and it’s short. It’s not threatening. You can pick it up. You can read it in one sitting. But believe me, 90 years go into that short book.
HEFFNER: You think that the business about being short and not threatening is important?
BROWN: Very important for me because people don’t have that much time. And I find when they pick up a heavy book, they tend to put it down again. I want, I wanted to create a book that you could not only not put down, but you could lift up.
HEFFNER: You seem to give so many directions in the book.
BROWN: I go about aging…although it’s not about old people. Because anyone who hopes to live a long life can read it. And it’s a very strange thing to be 90 and still have your marbles. The only thing that’s bad is the legs go first.
HEFFNER: Yeah. Yeah, I’m aware of that.
HEFFNER: You say you use your cane for camouflage.
BROWN: I use my cane to get into the handicapped restrooms of theaters which are very accessible and never crowded. And also to get to the front of the line in airports. “Oh, there’s a fellow with a cane. Let him up here”.
HEFFNER: Well, I found that to be true…true also, David, but mostly I find it keeps my balance and my balance tells me…
HEFFNER: …that we’re about to be told our time is up.
BROWN: Yes. I tried tai chi for balance. Didn’t work. I couldn’t master all those movements all at once.
HEFFNER: I was too lacking in balance to do it.
HEFFNER: David Brown. Brown’s Guide to the Good Life Without…all of these awful things…Tears, Fears or Boredom…is just a delight. And seeing you again is, too. A decade from now maybe we can come back here again.
BROWN: Absolutely. And I appreciate the privilege of being on you excellent program, which is almost as old as I am.
HEFFNER: (Laughter) Goodbye, David. Thanks.
BROWN: So long.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, today’s themes, please send $4.00 in check or money order to write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.