BLACKLISTING MYSELF: MEMOIR OF A HOLLYWOOD APOSTATE IN THE AGE OF TERROR
By Roger L. Simon
Encounter Books, $25.95, 250 pages
REVIEWED BY SONNY BUNCH
In the pantheon of Great Screenwriter Memoirs, there is only one name — William Goldman. Mr. Goldman has won a pair of Oscars and is the man behind such disparate classics as "All the President's Men," "The Princess Bride" and "Misery." In his two memoirs, "Adventures in the Screen Trade" and "Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade," the reader is treated to an inside look at A-list Hollywood from a man unafraid of telling tales out of school as well as a crash course in what makes a screenplay tick. They are both entertaining and educational.
Roger L. Simon doesn't quite penetrate that rarified air with his new autobiography "Blacklisting Myself: Memoir of a Hollywood Apostate in the Age of Terror." The star power simply isn't there: Whereas Mr. Goldman has written movies directed by Clint Eastwood, Rob Reiner and George Roy Hill (and starred Mr. Eastwood, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and dozens more A-listers), the biggest names that Mr. Simon brings to the table are Paul Mazursky and Richard Dreyfuss (with a dash of Woody Allen and Warren Beatty thrown in for good measure).
But if you came to this book looking for the inside scoop on celebrities, you're missing the point. Mr. Simon's is a far more intimate story, less about Hollywood than the intellectual evolution of a man who celebrated the excesses of the '60s and '70s, realized the emptiness of those decades and the values they represented, and drifted rightward as the world around him changed.
"Blacklisting Myself" can be divided into two sections. The first three-quarters of the book focus on Mr. Simon's life as a writer: His forays into crime novels with the liberal sleuth Moses Wine and his screenwriting adventures; his interaction with other mystery writers and the efforts of the KGB to recruit him; the shady characters he encounters during his time in Hollywood.
The last chapters feel more like a series of standalone essays than part of a coherent narrative, though they do meld together to form a battle cry for those on the right interested in shaping the movies consumed in popular culture. This is the red meat that many readers will be drawn to, although I can't help but guess some will be disappointed by his pronouncements (even though Mr. Simon's analysis of the problem confronting conservatives in Hollywood is spot-on).
"For the most part, Republicans are lousy filmmakers" writes Mr. Simon. "There are exceptions, but not many. Clint Eastwood, who keeps his politics out of his films for the most part, is the exception that proves the proverbial rule." He goes on to criticize conservative film festivals as amateurish, embarrassing affairs as well, and mocks the obsession on the right with Michael Moore, "as if focusing on this narcissistic liar-filmmaker would make his documentaries go away, rather than just publicize them further."
The lack of quality material created by conservative filmmakers — atrocities like last fall's "An American Carol" come to mind — compounds the more insidious problem facing those on the right in Hollywood, namely a bias by the gatekeepers against conservative (and especially Republican) thinkers. The new blacklist "operates through an almost invisible thought control caused by a post-Orwellian 'liberal' conformity so pervasive that a formal blacklist is unnecessary. … In some ways, this new, less overt list is worse, because there is nothing concrete to rebel against, no hearings, no committees, no protest groups pro or con, no secret databases."
Because there's a dearth of high-quality right-of-center filmmaking out there, liberals feel justified in further excluding (and openly mocking) conservatives in pitch meetings, at lunches and over cocktails. That sentiment runs all the way to the studio execs who greenlight projects, meaning that the few conservatives who do work in the industry do so quietly, maintaining plausible deniability by keeping quiet during meetings or weakly chuckling along at the "Chimpy McHitler" slurs of the past eight years.
Mr. Simon's mantra — one shared on Andrew Breitbart's new right-leaning entertainment industry blog, Big Hollywood — is that conservatives can't be content to whine about liberal bias in the entertainment industry. Instead, they need to show they can compete in the business by making good movies.
In other places, Mr. Simon's analysis isn't as good. He dismisses Mr. Redford's Sundance Festival (and it's lesser-known sister, the Sundance Institute) as having done nothing for film, perhaps allowing his disdain for its liberal sensibility to blind him to the great work that comes out of those programs. For a primer on the importance of Sundance, check out James Mottram's "The Sundance Kids," which, on its opening page, gives some idea of the influence of that quaint Utah institution: He ties Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects," "X-Men"), Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction"), Sofia Coppola ("Lost in Translation"), Steven Soderbergh ("Sex, Lies and Videotape," "Ocean's 11"), Kimberley Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood") and Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums"), among others, to Mr. Redford's creation.
Are these directors uniformly liberal? Sure. But ideology can't be allowed to distract us from the fact that they are all undeniably talented and amongst the most interesting American filmmakers working today.
While, there's little in the way of juicy details — again, stick with Mr. Goldman if you want stories of the stars — the memoir aspect of "Blacklisting Myself" works because of his first-person perspective into the zanier side of the New Left. Smoking rocks with Timothy Leary in an East Hollywood crack den; participating in the creation of an international cabal of mystery writers that appears to have ties to the KGB; being among the first group of Americans to see China after Nixon reopened relations with the People's Republic.
Mr. Simon's trip to China culminates in an interesting tidbit on self-censorship, a practice well known to many in the industry; even though he was a dyed in the wool liberal at the time, Mr. Simon came to realize that post-Cultural Revolution China more resembled a jail than a livable country. Still:
"I wanted to preserve my reputation as a cutting-edge radical and liberal and struck a balance in the book that I wouldn't have today."
Self-censorship to maintain street cred: This is what the regime in Hollywood hath wrought.
• Sonny Bunch is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.