High Life

The Next Bela Lugosi

October 11, 2012

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The Next Bela Lugosi

“Your future is in Hollywood—I can make you the next Bela Lugosi,” said James Toback looking at me straight in the eye. Jimmy Toback is a hell of a fellow. An obsessive with an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and other data, he directed such great films as The Gambler, Fingers (which made Harvey Keitel into a star), wrote the screenplay for Bugsy, and has just wrapped Seduced & Abandoned, starring Taki and Alec Baldwin, not necessarily in that order. S&A is going to Sundance and our hopes are high. Jimmy says that I came out fine, “the only man in Cannes among the movie crowd with some dignity.” It’s a bit like calling someone an intellectual because his bookcase is bigger than his TV.

Jimmy was a tennis player before he became a film director. He came up against Arthur Ashe at a junior tournament and held his own, breaking Arthur’s serve right away. Then he dropped 12 games in a row. Shaking hands at the net he asked the future Wimbledon champ if he was worried when down 2-love. “Not at all,” said Ashe. Jimmy decided the movies were his calling. Talking tennis at the Norman Mailer awards last week, I told him about having played Dick Raskind twice, beating him on clay and losing to him on cement, as hard courts were called back then. Raskind was an ophthalmologist who went to Yale and then played on the circuit for a while. He then changed sex and played under the name Renée Richards. “He did it for the rankings,” said Jimmy.

“It’s a bit like calling someone an intellectual because his bookcase is bigger than his TV.”

Toback has lost a fortune on the green tables, but when he enters a room his presence turns it into a crowded cocktail party. At the Norman Mailer Center’s annual awards he held court about Seduced & Abandoned, tennis, the coming elections, underwater explorations of Nigerian lakes, why Brits drink—he was once married to Mimi Russell, the Duke of Marlborough’s niece—modern celebs’ insatiable appetite for the limelight, and other such matters, including the reasons why young girls go to bed with older men.

I take a table every year with Michael Mailer, who produced Seduced & Abandoned, and this time there was a bonus. Oliver Stone and I made up after thirty-five years of sniping at each other. “I’ve finally seen the light,” I told him, “and I’m now a pacifist without even being bisexual.” He burst out laughing and invited me to the Boom Boom Room downtown. What would Norman Mailer have made of a black-tie gala in his name at a fancy hotel? One never knew with Norman, but he most likely would have loved it. All of his nine children were there, and writers such as Gay Talese, Garrison Keillor, Joyce Carol Oates, and Robert Caro got up onstage and regaled us with Mailer stories. Alec Baldwin was the Master of Ceremonies and did a hell of a job moving things along at a fast pace. I sat there drinking and asking Mrs. James Toback why attractive nice women always marry bad boys.

The Mailer Center supports and celebrates writers. It provides monetary and educational support to early and mid-career scribes. Most of the speeches had to do with good writing, a hard thing to find in today’s visual and texting culture. According to the greatest Greek writer since Homer, the trouble with modern American writing is that it confuses literature with spectacle. Publicity does to literary talent what the Sirens did to old Odysseus—or to his crew, rather. We need an Odysseus to blindfold the writer and plug up his or her ears and keep out the hucksters and schmoozers. What amazes me is the number of rubbish writers whom critics apotheosize for breaking all the rules of good writing, and then some. Being nimble and pithy is one thing; writing lazy, incomprehensible short sentences is another.