Editor’s note: Due to a technical glitch, last week’s Laughing Matters column is running a few days late.
Instead of writing about Trump’s latest insanity, I want to note an 8-part TV series on FX from which I have one degree of separation. It’s a bittersweet memory of 40 years but I still appreciate the humor. Hopefully.
Getting rave reviews, “Feud: Bette and Joan,” features battles between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during filming of the hit 1962 movie “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” (Susan Sarandon as Davis and Jessica Lange as Crawford are brilliant.) My degree of separation is that I once interviewed for a writing job with director, Robert Aldrich. (Played in “Feud” spot on by Alfred Molina.)
Aldrich was a grandson of U.S. Senator Nelson W. Aldrich and a cousin to Nelson Rockefeller, meaning “old money.” In fact, when he dropped out of college for a $50 a week clerical job at RKO Pictures he lost a stake in Chase Bank he would have inherited. (No wonder he drank.)
Working his way up the ladder, Aldrich directed such iconic macho movies as “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Longest Yard” and “The Flight of the Phoenix.” I, on the other hand, wrote comedies for teenagers and adults, such as myself, who never grew up.
Classically old Hollywood, the meeting was in a suite at the Ambassador Hotel. As I entered, Aldrich, 60-ish and a large, imposing man, was reading my script, “Cola Nuts,” a satire about the CIA and the KGB trying to restart the cold war. (I was ahead of my time?)
Aldrich welcomed me, “Jack, I’ve been making movies for thirty years and this is the funniest script I’ve ever read.” I got light-headed. Maybe he noticed, because he quickly said, “Please, sit.” Before my butt hit the leather couch, however, he added cryptically, “But nobody in hell’s gonna make your movie.” My light-headed state vanished.
During our small talk I tried to appear witty, until he leaned forward dramatically, “I just read your script. You’re funny seven different ways. Why don’t I talk and you listen?” I gulped.
Aldrich talked for two hours about “For Export Only,” a comedy he wanted to make about minor Mafiosi being deported to Italy following the 1950 Kefauver Senate Hearings. As the second in a three-movie deal with MGM, “Export” would be set in Italy and star Anthony Quinn, Peter Falk and Shelly Winters. As he rambled, my head was swimming.
Drinking scotch, Aldrich encouraged me to join him. I took a swig like Bogart but I actually looked more like Pee Wee Herman. Yuck, it tasted like lighter fluid. When Bob turned his back, I was tempted to pour it into the potted plant.
When I got home my answering machine was filled as friends wanted to know how it went. Suddenly, there was a knock. It was a telegram from Aldrich! I opened it nervously. “Mazel Tov, I’ve decided to hire you.” How did he know I was Jewish? (Probably because I gagged on the scotch.)
The second sentence was ominous, “Remember, we can fix anything but not silly.” Gulp #2. So, over the next three months, I diligently wrote a “serious” comedy about the meaning of friendship, etc, a la the 1964 Oscar-winning Zorba the Greek.
After Aldrich read the script he scheduled another meeting at the Ambassador. He began, “Jack, remember I told you not to be silly? (Duh, I’ve only been chanting it for months.) “Well, maybe I ‘over-sold.?” (Silently, I’m saying, “WTF?!”) Apologizing for the confusion, he handed me a cassette of the music he’d bought for the soundtrack, hoping it would help guide me.
I came home thoroughly bewildered. I took my tape player and the tape to the pool praying for insight. The song was “Shaddap You Face,” pizza parlor music, which was beyond silly! Given how hard I’d struggled for the past three months, I laughed so hard at the pool I was lucky I wasn’t committed. So I went upstairs and began the long process of a re-write. Only this time the lead characters more resembled Belushi’s “Blutarsky” from “Animal House,” than Quinn’s Zorba.
Now the bittersweet. Via an artfully worded telegram, Aldrich fired me. I was in shock as just then my mother called. Reluctantly, I read her the telegram. All I remember is she was impressed with Aldrich’s vocabulary. Sigh.
The movie before ours, “All the Marbles,” bombed so badly MGM bought out our deal. Yes the big fish got away but it was still a privilege knowing Aldrich who was fascinating and talented. (And courageous to have followed his passion over his family’s plans.)
The truth is, I think Bob wanted a drinking buddy as much as a writer, and I was definitely not that. I was basically a teenager. I still am, only now I’m a very old one, though wiser. Hopefully.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” is Sundays on FX at 10 P.M. Google: “Shaddap You Face” or click on link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFacWGBJ_cs. Jack is at firstname.lastname@example.org and not just Sundays at 10 P.M.