Hollywood and movies are the stuff of fantasy.
So it’s little wonder that during more than a century of moviemaking the Hollywood hills have grown thick with myths and legends about the world’s most popular storytellers.
Joe Williams, movie critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has written a book that sheds light on many of these myths. If you’re a movie fan who thinks you have a grip on the industry, “Hollywood Myths,” published by Voyageur Press, is likely to set you straight on a point here and there.
The 240-page glossy paperback is divided into five sections: legendary stars, odd couples, the final curtain (about famous stars’ deaths), mythic movies and the movie industry at large.
In his introduction, Williams doesn’t claim to be definitive — just “more accurate than the conventional wisdom.”
I was pleased his chapters on classic movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Casablanca,” “Jaws” and “The Wizard of Oz” report many of the same behind-the-scenes tidbits that my weekly column did when these movies were screened here by Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford.
But I learned a ton about other titles.
The chapter on “The Godfather,” for example, told me Paramount paid $80,000 for the rights to Mario Puzo’s novel before it was even published. That’s a bargain compared to $400,000 for “Portnoy’s Complaint,” a Philip Roth novel that was a bust as a movie.
Williams reports director Francis Ford Coppola’s top two choices to play Don Corleone were Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. Olivier, in ill health, bowed out.
Paramount didn’t want Brando, whose recent films had flopped. The studio lobbied for Ernest Borgnine, an Oscar winner for “Marty.” Others considered, according to Williams: Edward G. Robinson, Anthony Quinn, George C. Scott and (you’re kidding) Danny Thomas. Frank Sinatra lobbied for the part in vain.
Brando’s audition did the trick. His $50,000 pay sounds like peanuts today when you hear of multimillion-dollar salaries for many leading men.
Williams does not shy from controversy. His chapter on Woody Allen says people widely believe the director slept with his underage adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, while coupled with her mother, Mia Farrow.
Au contraire, Williams says. Previn was never Allen’s adopted daughter, and she was 21 when their romance began (he was 56).
Previn says she never regarded Allen as a father, stepfather or authority figure. The two have been married since 1997, years longer than Allen was with Farrow or Diane Keaton. The couple now have two adopted daughters of their own.
Williams also delves into the scandals of early Hollywood stars like Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin liked younger girls, too), teasing apart decades of misreporting and misconception. He also looks at more recent objects of rumor and scandal, such as Eddie Murphy, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise.
Marilyn Monroe’s death? Williams says don’t believe it was a suicidal overdose; he claims the fatal drugs were likely administered by enema. Her bedroom window appeared to have been broken from the inside, yet her doctor said he broke in from outside to discover the body.
Williams says the mob, the FBI, Frank Sinatra and both John and Bobby Kennedy figure into Monroe’s last days, and her house was bugged. Original police and autopsy reports, plus Monroe’s phone records, mysteriously vanished. Williams reaches no conclusion, except that suicide is unlikely.
Some of my favorite chapters are in the final Movie Industry section.
He reports U.S. movies make 67 percent of box office revenues outside the United States (up from 25 percent in 1987). That explains why summer blockbusters have more digital effects than dialogue. Movies also make more on rentals, downloads and DVD sales than theater ticket sales: $18 billion versus $10 billion, he says.
Another interesting statistic: Moviegoers age 12 to 24 average seven tickets at theaters per year, versus four for those 35 and older.
I was intrigued to learn Hollywood was named by the wife of a Kansas developer who had relocated to California. She had met a woman on a train who had spoken of her property in Ohio named “Hollywood” after a Dutch settlement. Harvey and Daeida Wilcox subdivided their California property and sold it to vacationers. Hollywood, an autonomous town from 1903 to 1910, banned movies and liquor.
Los Angeles annexed the town, and fledgling movie studios flocked there. By 1915 it was the film capital of the world.
Today Paramount is the only studio left in Hollywood. But the name remains synonymous with the movie industry.