Looking Back With Insight: Oliver Stone’s Masterful Autobiography

December 3, 2020 § Leave a comment

The first time I encountered Oliver Stone–close to twenty years ago, at a restaurant in the Valley–he was so loud and obnoxious that he drowned out the conversation I was having with my lunch partner. ‘Ugh,’ I thought, ‘What an asshole.’ But age has calmed him considerably, and when I heard him speak at a screening of “The Doors” last year he was thoughtful and incisive.

Because I knew little about how Stone transformed himself from Yale dropout and Vietnam War vet to A-list screenwriter and director, I decided to listen to the new memoir Chasing The Light, which covers his first 40 years. It’s excellent, possibly surpassing the high bar set by John Huston for a director’s autobiography (An Open Book, 1980), and filled with insights about writing, directing and the changing nature of the movie business.

For me, the most impressive sections concern his mismatched, complicated and neglectful parents, who met in Paris at the end of World War II, quickly married and returned to New York, where Oliver, their only child, was born in 1946. His repressed, Depression-scarred Jewish father and much younger, flamboyant French Catholic mother had a marriage marked by infidelities and incompatibility that deeply hurt their son. So did their bitter divorce when he was fifteen, yet Stone tells their story with understanding and compassion.

The other highlight of Chasing The Light is Stone’s account of directing, back-to-back, his first two films: “Salvador” and “Platoon”, both of which had harrowing, financially precarious location shoots. Those who don’t make films will find the stories riveting; those who do will be triggered as well as fascinated. In short, it’s a great read, though I recommend Stone’s audio version for the full effect. Happily, a second installment seems to be in the works, and I’m especially looking forward to his account of making “The Doors”.

Remembering Carrie Fisher

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Carrie Fisher in 2013

Carrie Fisher in 2013


Carrie Fisher’s death on December 27th was an unexpected tragedy: she had suffered a massive heart attack on her flight from London on December 23rd, the nightmare scenario of every frequent flier. Why December 23rd? Why London? I soon learned she was flying back from filming the Amazon series “Catastrophe,” in which she plays Rob Delaney’s mother. As for the timing, it was obvious: she had made sure to get home in time for Christmas.

The death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, of a stroke on December 28th was shocking in its timing, though not as unexpected: Reynolds was 84 and had been in poor health. Although a mordant joke circulated that Debbie had managed to upstage her daughter one last time, her death underscored their devoted relationship: the two were next-door neighbors on a compound in Beverly Hills and in daily contact.

Both women became famous for films they made at 19: Reynolds for “Singing in the Rain” and Fisher for “Star Wars,” yet their careers couldn’t have been more different. Reynolds was a studio creation, an MGM musical star whose cabaret act lasted more than fifty years. She wanted a similar career for her daughter, bringing her onstage to sing from the age of 13, but despite an excellent voice–strong, bluesy and jazzy–Fisher blazed her own trail. After a stellar film debut in “Shampoo,” in which the 17-year-old fed, interrogated and seduced Warren Beatty in two riveting scenes, she beat out every young actress in Hollywood for the role of Princess Leia. “Star Wars” would have been enough for most people, but Fisher went on to write books: five novels (including Postcards from the Edge, which became a feature film) and three memoirs, one of which, Wishful Drinking, became a one-woman show.

Beyond her published writing, Carrie Fisher was for decades a sought-after screenwriter, not only on original work but on other people’s screenplays. Punching up scripts was her bread and butter and she did it well, adding jokes and fleshing out characters in the “Star Wars” series and in comedies like “Hook,” “Sister Act,” and “Made in America.” She also wrote for the Academy Awards, among many other TV shows. Despite her excellent acting in films like “When Harry Met Sally,” to me she was a writer first and an actress second.

It was through writing that I had my only encounter with Carrie Fisher, at a literary event in the mid-2000’s. It was a small, private gathering so I expected to meet her, but when she arrived–late, badly groomed and out of sorts–I knew it was not to be. As the anxious hosts huddled around Fisher, I sensed she would have rather been anywhere else, yet she had dragged herself to their house after sprinkling glitter in her unwashed hair. I can’t pretend that her brief reading was good, but after joking about the glitter she pushed through it, and probably with more difficulty than any of us knew. Her mother, a tireless trouper, taught her well.

Afterwards her struggles with bi-polar disorder led to hospitalization and shock therapy, which in turn led to a career resurgence–more books, the “Wishful Drinking” show, two more “Star Wars” movies and “Catastrophe.” Fisher’s late work included a documentary, “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which aired posthumously on HBO last weekend. Intended as a tribute to her mother, the film now seems a testament to the kind of family values that aren’t supposed to exist in Hollywood. Of course they do, but the Fisher-Reynolds bond was exceptionally strong, and in the end unbreakable.

The Joy of Paper

October 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

In general, I abhor clutter, cleaning out my closets regularly and avoiding buying more than I need. The glaring exception is paper records, which I save by the boxful. Part of this is government-mandated: U.S. taxpayers are supposed to save at least 5 years of Federal and state returns (or is it 7?), along with receipts and other documentation. This is no small matter: careful record-keeping saved me when I was audited in the early 2000’s for a mistake my accountant made in calculating my business deductions. Because I could produce every receipt, the IRS determined that I owed no fines or penalties on the additional taxes I had to pay. But there’s another reason I save paper: as a writer, I need documentary evidence to reconstruct the past.

As a filmmaker, I need climate-controlled storage for my film and video footage, masters and hard drives, and because temperatures in my house fluctuate wildly, I have to rent a storage unit. My paper records also reside there, including all my manuscripts–or so I thought when I went through the boxes recently to try to find an old screenplay that a friend was interested in pitching for television. Although I found an early draft at home, the version I was looking for–updated a few years ago for technological reasons, i.e., cell phones–existed only on a CD. True to form, the CD was damaged, so down to storage I went to find the hard copy. An hour later, I’d opened every box, uncovering not only manuscripts but things I’d entirely forgotten I had kept: the correspondence from a brief long-distance relationship when I was 17; my high school poetry; my first attempt at a screenplay; and my abacus (lessons in which were required at my elementary school in Japan). This excavation provoked considerable grunting and cursing, to the probable consternation of the possibly homeless person who was hanging out with his possessions in the next unit. The only thing it didn’t uncover was the revised screenplay.

Because my father worked for a computer company, I’ve been hearing about the “paperless office” all my life. It’s a laughable concept in light of everything I’ve lost due to technology: short stories stored on floppies; saved mail when I’ve changed computers or servers; a novel when my computer crashed; and now this script. Clearly the answer is to keep hard copies of everything; if worse comes to worst, I can always scan or retype it.

Ironically,my travails coincided with a NYT article about Marie Kondo, a Japanese household organizing expert who, in addition to teaching folding techniques, advocates getting rid of everything that doesn’t “spark joy,” from socks to kitchen utensils. As for papers, she simply throws them all out, on the principle that “they will never spark joy, no matter how carefully you keep them.” My happiness-inspiring report cards, diplomas and awards notwithstanding, Ms. Kondo has apparently never encountered a writer, let alone the IRS, whose MO is the opposite of sparking joy. No matter: in light of the script I’m going to have to re-write again, I’m printing out everything from now on. But I am going to throw out those love letters, and maybe even that abacus.

Learning To Say No

September 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

di85A5o9T Today I said no to writing a script based on a promising story that interested me very much. My reasons were two-fold. First, my vision for the project–a thriller set in a specific timeframe–clashed with that of the man who proposed the project, who seemed increasingly to want a biopic based on his life. Second, it became clear that although he’s not a writer he expected to collaborate on the script, despite the fact that (as I told him at the outset) I write alone. Turning down the offer was the right thing to do, as anyone could see. But the fact that I should have said no sooner wasn’t obvious to me, and that’s what this post is about.

Thirty years into my career, it still seems more natural to say yes than no, a fact I attribute to my gender and upbringing. Women are socialized to be agreeable, to say not only yes but thank you for every morsel they’re offered in life and for years I did, to my detriment. Before striking out on my own professionally, I didn’t get promotions or raises. This was not because I was undeserving but because I had no idea of how to ask for them, or even that I should. Saying yes was the default setting in my personal life as well, which explains why I stayed in relationships that weren’t working–for me, that is. As recently as few years ago, I was talked into serving on the Hollywood Homeowners’ Association, a brief disaster that could have been avoided if I’d simply followed my instincts and said no.

It wasn’t until my son was growing up that I realized how different males are in this regard. When answering the question “Do you want…?,” he would automatically say no, and nearly every time. Though he often reversed himself immediately, his default setting was refusal. At the time I thought it was funny but in retrospect it seems quite serious: saying no gives you power, even if you happen to have very little of it.

These days I say no much more than yes. In fact, I just did it again, on a much smaller business matter. The asker seemed unperplexed by my refusal, which probably means it was no big deal for him. But it was for me.

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