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Jon Robin Baitz

Jon Robin Baitz

Posted: December 5, 2007 09:10 PM

They Were Wrong


My first job in Hollywood was as a gofer for a fading Hollywood producer in 1981. He resembled a sartorially driven Toad of Toad Hall, and he had made and lost a few fortunes in both the music and movie business from the early sixties up until the late seventies. He had been agent, record company owner, and now was a tax-shelter promoter, and the genius inventor of a very dubious "tax product" consisting of the hilariously over-appraised master recordings of children's bible story records, records to be sold at K-Mart for peanuts. ("Sodom & Gomorrah - what it was like!!!" Usually written by me and several drug-addled Boho playwright friends of mine.)

The law looked at his gig, and shook itself out of its customary lethargy. By the time I got to the scene, my guy was dancing one step ahead of both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the good offices of the IRS. My first directive on my first day at the job was to "never ever pick up the phone, always let it go to the service." Advice I follow to this day.

Toad of Toad Hall was fueled by Dostoevskian despairs and Bellow-like hungers. His inner monologue was "I want, I want, I know not what I want." He was too smart to buy the glamour, having come out of the south side of Chicago and fought his way up into the dream factory, yet he collected Picabia paintings and handmade shoes. He loved his kids and was generous and loving to them. He had a great and wildly entertaining contempt for the earnest and the straight, the believers and the good-guys. He despised the powerful and the tanned, having been one of them once, and his crowd consisted mostly of fellow travelers in the hustle and jive business that thrives on the edges of the movies.

One of his best friends was a producer who was famed for running out of Harrods with a toaster, one step ahead of store security. He fired me one fall day in 1984, in the lobby of the Washington Hilton after I laughed at a joke someone made about him. (An actress, the ex-wife of one of his cohorts, she had won an Oscar a decade prior. He had been goading her about her retreat to Virgina farm country. )

My guy was in the capital to try and deflect the onslaught from the government. It didn't work. He had gotten it totally wrong. Totally. They were not going to be distracted by a Lenny Bruce type from a sunny canyon, a grifter with a good lawyer, and they took him on without relenting. It turned ugly and then it turned worse. The trips out of the country (to Grand Cayman, etc), were no longer funny, but deadly serious. Each day's take was perhaps the last. The last centime the man would ever make. His comedic rage about the business turned into something harder and more paranoid. He seemed less Bellow and more Edward G. Robinson as the deal got harder to hold together. The lawyers letters. The lawsuits. The charges.

After he fired me, (a relief, and he meant it as such), I wrote a play about him. My first. He came to see it, and remarked, "Well, I'm a lot worse than the guy in the play" and took off into the Hollywood night. Soon thereafter, he escaped to Paris with his gorgeous Estonian wife, where he ignored the pain in his gut just long enough for it to be too late to fix. He came back to L.A. to die.

I loved and respected him, and he taught me my first lessons about good taste, plot lines and most importantly, the criminal mind in Hollywood. Like those in the Pentagon or other places where power invariably loses touch, in Hollywood, the most fatal mistake a leader can make is to underestimate the adversary. And though my guy wasn't in the same league as the Murdochs and the Redstones, the underlying pathology has certain immutable similarities.

As an amateur sinologist of Hollywood manners, I am making a pretty safe bet: that right now, the studio guys are figuring out who amongst them is going to get humiliated first. Because somewhere up in Parnasus, it's starting to become abundantly clear that they thought they were untouchable. And now they know: they were wrong. About too many big issues.

The Studio Heads thought that there was no way the writers would be able to organize themselves coherently. They were wrong. They thought the writers would be too scared to give up the rich deals, and the option payments and the easy living. They were wrong. They thought the writers didn't have the earnest and heartfelt certitude to maintain solidarity for a day, let alone five weeks. They thought that the studio machinery and the big media outlets they owned could control and get ahead of the story. And they were shocked and appalled to see how wrong they were about that. They were wrong.

They were wrong about who the writers are, and now they know it. And now we watch. Watch as the factions amongst the studio players start to push and pull in a quiet and volatile war for primacy. Watch as the moderates on their team, who are aware of the ticking clocks, aware of the crews who are suffering, and the cost to their industry, try to slowly wrestle the gavel away from the hard-liners. Watch as the peace-makers and diplomats continue to press for resolution, emboldened but with patience and calm, but also, with long memories. Especially if they feel they are being played.

And the peace makers in this story are not pacifists. If you get my drift. As this week ends and an agreement is not reached, I wouldn't look to any day in what is left of this unfortunate year for a resolution. The hard candy of bad faith negotiating and slightly amateurish pageantry from the studio side has done nothing but further strengthen the resolve of the writers. Like my beloved old boss and mentor, they stepped forward in contempt, and in greed, and now we watch the proverbial chickens come home to roost. I think this labor action should serve to put the purveyors of mega-new media corporatism on notice that the old game, the old trope of "schmucks with Underwoods" is at this point, in the 21st century, almost entirely denuded of any truth or viability.

And now? What next? Now it is up to one group of slowly awakening studio heads to find a firm and politic way to introduce another group of paleoconservative media barons to the hard and bitter fact that it is a new day and a new ball game. And the old bets are all off.


Read more thoughts about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike opinion page