Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream

Daniel Fuchs’s The Golden West is best read as an author’s requiem for the Hollywood he loved.


Among the common tropes about Hollywood is that screenwriting is a Faustian bargain, in which authors compromise their talents for the consolations of a steady wage. Certainly, there’s some truth to this; from the early days of the industry, writers have spun scripts for money while lamenting the demeaning nature of the work. To Tennessee Williams, who wrote for MGM in the early 1940s, screenwriting was a ridiculous exercise that made him “feel like an obstetrician required to successfully deliver a mastodon from a beaver.” William Faulkner hated Hollywood so much he once reportedly fled to Mississippi after asking permission to work on a script at home. Partly, all this is a reaction to the culture of the studios, where writers like Williams and Faulkner were at once prestigious catches and proof that talent was another commodity to buy and sell. (“I have the best writer in the world–for peanuts,” Jack Warner said of Faulkner, whom he was paying $300 a week.) More to the point, screenwriters seldom have control over their efforts, caught as they are between meddling executives and image-savvy stars.

“The making of a picture,” Raymond Chandler noted in 1945, “is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.” Perhaps that’s why so much Hollywood literature is so cynical, from Chandler’s The Little Sister to Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust–although privately, West occasionally took a different point of view. “I am grateful rather than angry at the nice deep mud-lined rut in which I find myself at the moment,” he wrote in 1939 to Edmund Wilson. “The world outside doesn’t make it possible for me to even hope to earn a living writing, while here the pay is large (it isn’t as large as people think, however) enough for me to have at least three or four months off every year.”

Of all the writers who ended up in Hollywood, none would have understood this better than Daniel Fuchs. Unlike West, for whom screenwriting was, at best, a way to subsidize his fiction, Fuchs not only found work in California, he embraced it, rhapsodizing over the “phenomenon” of the movies, which he saw as “teeming with vitality and ardor, as indigenous as our cars or skyscrapers or highways, and as irrefutable.” In a sense, he represents an anti-West, discovering beauty and inspiration in Hollywood even as his contemporary sought out the grotesque. Born in 1909 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Fuchs moved to Brooklyn at age 5 and published his first novel, Summer in Williamsburg, in 1934. Within three years he had completed two more novels, Homage to Blenholt and Low Company, while working as a permanent substitute teacher in New York City public schools. Although these books were re-issued in the 1960s as The Williamsburg Trilogy, they originally sold few copies, and it was only after Fuchs began to turn out short stories for Collier’s and The New Yorker–“vaudeville-virtuoso mimicries and performed entertainments,” he would later call them–that he drew the attention of the studios. He came to Hollywood in 1937 and remained until his death in 1993, winning an Oscar in 1955 for his story for Love Me or Leave Me. Reflecting on his legacy as a writer in a 1989 essay in Commentary, he struck a perplexed note:

A man sits in a room, writing novels. Nothing happens. They don’t sell–four hundred copies apiece, the last one a few more. The reviews are scattered. Twenty-five, thirty years later they are resurrected and brought out again. I am rediscovered…. I don’t know what to make of it. At bottom I know the books are not first class and I privately wonder at the acclaim.

Fuchs’s Commentary essay is reprinted under the title “Strictly Movie: A Letter from Hollywood, 1989,” in The Golden West, a new volume of his Hollywood writings, which appeared sporadically throughout his lifetime, like communiqués from a distant shore. Selected by Christopher Carduff, and with an oddly cranky introduction by John Updike–“Fuchs,” he tells us haughtily, “in his modesty and optimism construed his tortuous Hollywood labors, with their dozen credited scripts, as a species of singing”–The Golden West gathers nine prose works, six of fiction and three of memoir, spanning half a century. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a grab bag; of the pieces here, only four, totaling barely sixty pages (or less than a quarter of the book), have never been collected, while another four are reprinted from Fuchs’s 1979 miscellany The Apathetic Bookie Joint. Yet with the exception of “Dream City, or The Drugged Lake,” a brief bit of 1930s Modernism that, all these years later, comes off as flat and unoriginal, the book has an unexpected flow, a rhythm that reverberates from selection to selection like, in Fuchs’s phrase, a “melodic line.” It’s not just a matter of the collection’s uniform subject matter. Rather, The Golden West is also distinguished by an astonishing consistency of tone and language, a point of view that animates both the essays and the stories, making the book feel like an extended narrative. Regardless of genre, every piece is written in Fuchs’s unmistakable voice, amused and gently diffident. Ultimately, then, The Golden West is best read as a kind of suite, the author’s requiem for the Hollywood he loved.

What gives this such resonance is Fuchs’s equanimity, the idea that, for him, Hollywood truly was a land of opportunity. It’s a notion to which he returns frequently, proclaiming his gratitude “for the boon of work; for the joy of leisure; the happy, lazy days; for the castles and drowsy back lots; for the stalwarts I’ve come to know, John and Bob and Sam; for the parties at Barney’s, the times at Phil’s, the flowers, the sycamores, the blessings of the sun.” If that seems idyllic, Fuchs offers no apologies; unlike West, he’s not a writer of LA noir. Neither, though, does he cast the dream factory in anything but a realistic light. “Critics and bystanders who concern themselves with the plight of the Hollywood screenwriter,” he notes, “don’t know the real grief that goes with the job. The worst is the dreariness in the dead sunny afternoons when you consider the misses, the scripts you’ve labored on and had high hopes for and that wind up on the shelf…. It’s the same when you write for publication…. Of course, the difference is that in the movies you get paid when you fail and there is that to carry you over.”

Writing for the movies liberated Fuchs from his “one-room Brooklyn apartment, with the Murphy bed swinging out of a closet,” as he described the home of one protagonist. But screenwriting also offered him an aesthetic–even a spiritual–dimension, the chance to connect with a larger audience than most writers could dream of. “In an interview in Life magazine,” Fuchs recalls, “Joseph L. Mankiewicz said (I quote freely, from memory): ‘The most electrifying thing happens in the movie house when you give the audience the truth.’ I knew exactly what he meant. You could almost tell the instant the picture took hold. An excitement filled into the theater, a thralldom. The people forgot they were sitting on the seats; they forgot themselves, their bodies. They lived only in the film.”

Given Fuchs’s proletarian roots, it’s not surprising that having the opportunity to engage with mass culture would provide such a powerful charge. At the same time, he recognizes that truth is nothing if not relative, especially when refracted through the seductive glimmer of a movie screen. “It had to be a carefully selected truth, carefully aligned and ordered,” he explains. “It had to be a truth that was worthy and could legitimately engage an audience. It had to have an opulence; or an urbanity; or a gaiety; a strength and assurance; a sense of life with its illimitable reach and promise. As a matter of fact, it didn’t even have to be the truth.”

This sort of paradox imbues The Golden West with a deeper level of nuance, where Fuchs’s optimism is subtly unhinged by a foreboding undertone. This delicate balance is most obvious in his fictional characters, who just barely mask their desperation with exuberance, as if playing at something might make it true. In “A Hollywood Diary,” first published in The New Yorker in 1938, a screenwriter waits for an assignment, only to be ignored when he gets one; the piece ends with him arriving at his office to find another writer in his place. The title story unfolds at a 1950s party, where Fuchs evokes a community in crisis, threatened by television and bad business, frantically chasing a chimera that may no longer exist. A similar ambience of disintegration surrounds “Triplicate,” also set at a party, at which an over-the-hill producer’s boorish pronouncements become a magnet of ridicule. And yet the ridicule isn’t Fuchs’s–not exactly. In fact, many of the producer’s comments echo his own attitudes toward California. “What people don’t understand about this place,” the producer declares, “is that the whole idea is not to make great pictures but to enjoy life in the sun…. People who complain that Los Angeles is sprawling and without roots and has no character are uninformed. It just means they haven’t been here long enough.”

For Fuchs, it’s all a matter of perspective, in which our successes, failures–indeed, our perceptions–are linked directly to who we are. “How illusory is the nature of desire,” he writes, “how wonderfully strange and various are the strivings of the hidden heart.” Such a notion is rendered explicit in the collection’s longest piece, a short novel called West of the Rockies, first published in 1971 and reprinted here in its entirety. Fuchs considered West of the Rockies “a failure,” and it does feel unrealized, claustrophobic, as if something is pulsing below the surface of the narrative. Paradoxically, however, this stifling quality is the very element that compels us, making the book a fitting centerpiece for the collection. The story of Adele Hogue, an aging leading lady who has abandoned a production to hide out at a Palm Springs resort, West of the Rockies is an inquiry into manipulation and longing, a look at how we betray not only others but ourselves. Adele is a first-class diva, the mother of three neglected children, a woman so damaged she can hardly bring herself to go outside. She is pursued by an unscrupulous junior agent, Burt Claris, with whom she has been sleeping, a man who sees her as a vehicle to a better life. Over the course of a few days, Adele and Claris circle each other, as the hot air of the desert smothers them like a blanket, and the press sniffs out their affair. Finally, they have no choice but to come together, because she needs the publicity and he has nowhere else to turn. Still, if this means they are using each other, not only do they understand that, they embrace it about themselves. “The morning comes,” she tells him. “You wake up and everything is fine. The moral is never to cut your throat.”

This cynical bit of sophistry seems more in line with West or Chandler than with a writer who embraced Hollywood. Yet it embodies Fuchs’s vision, albeit in a perverse way. Despite the grotesquerie of Fuchs’s portrayal of Adele and Claris (“She knew from her experience on the stages that anything she said would be picked up on the soundtracks, and whether it was for this reason or because of some other mental quirk, she formed the words to him, not speaking them or even whispering, just the lips moving soundlessly: I love you, I love you, I love you”), theirs is a happy ending. While his characters are capable of excess and reckless, destructive behavior, Fuchs never treats them with anything but empathy. Rather than give us Hollywood as we’ve been conditioned to imagine it, he offers a landscape richer and more human, marked by “wonderful moments which as they happen go by almost unnoticed but which return again and again in our thoughts to bemuse and warm us, the stir of smoking mountain panoramas, the ache of sweet summer days, of trees in leaf, of being in love, this prize, this treasure, this phantom life.”

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