On Hollywood

Growing up in Los Angeles meant that the movie business was all around me, but I never had anything to do with it and didn't pay too much attention. Nevertheless, my path has crossed that of Hollywood in some unexpected ways, but not always because of where I came from.

The oldest connection turned out to be one of the kids who lived across the street when my parents bought a new house in 1955. That was Brian Grazer, who later made a name for himself by producing two movies directed by Ron Howard, Night Shift (1982) and Splash (1984). His own connection with Hollywood came early, since his uncle, Bernie Kowalsky, was a busy director, especially of television shows like the original Mission Impossible. Night Shift had starred the then very popular Henry Winkler and introduced both Michael Keaton and Shelley Long, but Splash was Brian's first a substantial hit and now is especially significant for introducing Tom Hanks to the big screen. Eventually Brian's movies achieved blockbuster status, with Apollo 13 (1995, M$172 US domestic boxoffice), Ransom (1996, M$136), Liar, Liar (1997, M$181), Dr. Seuss' How the Rinch Stole Christmas (2000, M$260), and A Beautiful Mind (2001, M$171). A Beautiful Mind won the Academy Award for Best Picuture of 2001 but generated some small controversy because of how it revised and omitted some facts about John Nash's life and illness. What received less notice, though it did not go unremarked if one looked, was the way in which the movie misrepresented Nash's mathematical work. This is probably not Brian's fault; but it is certainly characteristic of what usually happens when Hollywood tries to tackle a "serious" subject.

None of that, of course, was evident in 1955. Brian was just one the principal kids in the neighborhood, so I saw a lot of him until his family moved out to the West (San Fernando) Valley around 1964, when we were both in junior high school. Even then we saw them with some regularity, since Brian's parents kept inviting my parents to their traditional Christmas Eve party. As time went on, however, Brian and I did not have much in common or remain very good friends, though it was interesting to see him every year. Eventually his parents divorced, and his mother planned to sell their Northridge house. He was missing from the very last Christmas Eve party out there, in 1981, because he was already back East filming Night Shift. After that, when his mother moved away, I actually never saw any of his family again -- except for his younger brother Gavin who has stopped by the old neighborhood a couple of times.

It was then an interesting surprise when Splash came out and I discovered that just about the most unpleasant person in the film was named "Dr. Ross"! His characterization by Eugene Levy played when this file loaded. Since I had already been in graduate school for some time, and was headed for a doctorate in philosophy the last time I saw Brian, I had little doubt that this was a tribute, or a reference, or whatever, to me. When I wrote Brian at his studio about it, however, I never got any answer. Perhaps he was afraid that I might sue him if he made any such admission, since it was not a flattering character of whom to be the eponym. Nevertheless, I don't mind being the original, in some fashion, for the unpleasant Dr. Ross.

My path next crossed Hollywood when I made some new friends at my junior high school. These included one Joseph Irving Hyams IV -- Jay Hyams -- who turned out to be the son of Joe Hyams (Joseph Irving Hyams III), a writer whose pieces had appeared, among other places, in Playboy magazine. Jay was part of a great group of friends, who I got to know for all too short a time. They had regular tournaments playing the board games Risk and Diplomacy, which was all great fun. Unfortunately, when we graduated junior high in 1965, Jay moved back East. It turned out that his parents were getting divorced, and his father, whom I never met, was going to be marrying the actress Elke Sommer (whom I never met either -- she was in the second Pink Panther movie, A Shot in the Dark [1964]). Jay's mother was too unhappy about all this even to remain in California. Although Jay and I maintained a correspondence for a little while, we soon lost touch. So I have no clue as to his future. Years later I actually bought a little book Joe Hyams had written on Zen Buddhism. The last I had heard anything about it then, he was still married to Elke Sommer and living in a large house in Beverly Glen. Now, however, I have been informed that he and Elke are divorced and he's remarried. Jay has written some books himself, including a book about James Dean written with his father (1994).

One night in 1980, I met Joel Coen at a party in New York. He said he and his brother, Ethan, had written a film script called "Blood Simple." They planned to make a trailer to raise money.

I told him I had a camera. I was hired. The film we eventually shot was a success. I became a cinematographer, then a director and producer.

Barry Sonnenfeld, cinematographer on Blood Simple, "A Momma's Boy Cuts the Cord," "House Call," The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2020, p.M12.

My third connection to Hollywood came from a most unexpected quarter. When I was living in Austin, Texas, in the late 70's, a good friend of mine in the linguistics department was Nan. She was originally from Ohio, but had come to graduate school at the University of Texas after living in New York City for some years. Her boyfriend there was an aspiring film maker named Joel Coen. Eventually, early in 1979, she and Joel got married, and he moved to Austin. When I moved out of my apartment that June, I seem to remember even passing on my bed to them, as they set up a household.

Unfortunately, their marriage didn't last out the year -- I just hope it wasn't because of my bed, around which my own first marriage had come to an end. I guess it wasn't a lucky bed for any of us. Indeed, it had an inauspicious beginning. When my first wife and I bought it at Good Will in Austin in 1975 and tied it to the top of our 1965 Volkswagen Squareback, we were almost immediately rear-ended while waiting at a light driving away from the Good Will store. The driver behind us simply rolled into us, so it was a very low impact hit, but it left a dent in the body of the car the whole rest of the time until the car was totalled, in a more violent rear end collision, in 1980.

I was away for the summer of 1979, and when I got back to Austin in the fall, I called up the Coen house. Nan was away, but Joel was there, with his brother Ethan. I went over, and the three of us actually went out to a movie. Now, in retrospect, I'd really like to remember which movie that was. I didn't realize until Nan returned to Austin herself that she and Joel had already broken up. He hadn't mentioned it. She was even already involved with her future next husband, whom she had met in the linguistics department. Joel and Ethan moved back to New York, where we see above that they met Barry Sonnenfeld.

These events were interesting in light of Joel and Ethan's first big Hollywood movie, Blood Simple (1984). It is set in Austin and is the story of a man who hires a shady private detective to murder his wife and her lover (!). The detective only pretends to do so, but then ends up killing everyone involved, except the wife, who manages, in what many critics referred to as the gross-out scene of the year, to kill the detective instead.

The Austin locations are striking and characteristic, and the house and neighborhood used are dead ringers for the house that Nan and Joel actually shared. We all rather liked Dashiell Hammett stories in those days, and it turned out that the title of the movie was an allusion to a line in Hammett's Red Harvest -- the story upon which the later classic movies Yojimbo [1961] and Fistful of Dollars [1964] were based, the subjects of a class taught at UT by my friend Lynn Burson. A later movie by Joel and Ethan, Miller's Crossing (1990) was a splendid rendering of Hammett's The Glass Key -- a meditation on friendship before Hammett got beyond his misogyny in The Thin Man-- a fact seemed rarely noted by critics.

Unlike many people living in LA, I was not working on a movie or television script. Nor do I hope to break into acting. But I did read Daily Variety over lunch, after teaching my morning classes, and I do treasure the peculiar connections that I have had to the movie business.

Now, of course, Daily Variety is no more, and I have retired and moved to New Jersey. I have actually posted a treatment for a movie, King Harald's Saga, The Movie, but have no more intention or ability to write a movie script than I would have before. I'm not likely to run into Joel Coen, or even Barry Sonnenfeld, at a party.

Living an hour or less away from Manhattan, I now have my own experiences of the place, which has often involved the disappointment of favorite bars and restaurants closing, including the Atlantic Chip Shop in Brooklyn, where I enjoyed a British version of fried shrimp and "chips" and deep fried Twinkies -- which I had learned about, to the horror of my wife, from seeing a food documentary while still living in Los Angeles.

I remember a couple of Nan's comments about New York, one that New Yorkers are so neurotic that they will talk to anyone. I'm not sure I have seen this, although I have found that sometimes giving money to panhandlers in Penn Station or near the Port Authority Bus Terminal encourages them to talk rather than go away. I've really never gotten into conversations in bars, where one might expect that, although a couple of bartenders have been very friendly -- as at one of the bar/restaurants that closed (Chevy's Mexican Grill on West 42nd Street).

Nan also said that she thought that New Yorkers were unfriendly on the outside but friendlier on the inside than Texans, who otherwise are overtly and famously more friendly -- even with the great motto, "Drive Friendly." I'm not sure I have seen this either, although I have definitely encountered unfriendly New Yorkers, including an old lady on the Coney Island Boardwalk who threatened to hit me with her walker. And "Drive Friendly" certainly does not apply to Manhattan. I have never made friends easily, either in California, Hawaii, Texas, in the East, or elsewhere. My remaining friends are those with whom I have been thrown together at times, mainly in college.

The Officer Involved Shooting in Fargo

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2020 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D., Postumus Friesianorum, All Rights Reserved

Note to "Hollywood"

"Nan" is a ficticious name. The real name of the person has been concealed at her request, out of respect for her privacy. I notice that the page on the Coens at Wikipedia mentions that Joel "briefly enrolled in the graduate film program at the University of Texas at Austin, following a woman he had married who was in the graduate linguistics program." His wife is not named there either, and the marriage is not otherwise listed with his "spouse(s)" among the statistics about him.

The name "Nan" was suggested to me by the "Natalie Lambert" character, played by Catherine Disher on the late, lamented, Canadian vampire/policeman TV series, Forever Knight. Catherine Disher has nothing to do with Joel Coen or my linguistics friend, but, well, she's nice; and her abbreviated nickname reminds me of the name of my friend, the "woman... in the graduate linguistics program."

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