Thursday, August 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg dies

On my way home from work last night I heard on the news that writer Budd Schulberg had died at age 95.

Budd Schulberg was the son of silent movie-era chief of Paramount Pictures, B.P. Schulberg. He was raised on studio back lots around the rich and famous of the day. It is said that his Dad, in order to show him what life is really like, made him sell newspapers on a corner. On the other hand, young Schulberg received an Ivy League educated.

For a while he was a member of the Communist Party but became peeved when the Party tried to tell him how to write his book, What Makes Sammy Run? He left the movement and banged heads with party activists the rest of his life.

I read What Makes Sammy Run? a few years ago with that little tid-bit of information in mind. I enjoyed it. As a Hollywood expose it works similarly to Billy Wilder’s movie, Sunset Boulevard, only it’s not nearly as operatic; there’s no dead monkey, no writer floating face down in the swimming pool, but, yes, there is a girl who wants to be a writer. Schulberg’s book is a darkly humorous story of the rise of an ambitious no-talent, Sammy Glick, and the people he tramples over on his way to the top. It serves as a Heads-Up to the rest of us: no matter where we live there are Sammy Glicks out there, in Hollywood, in Washington, or where you work and they will run right over you if you happen to be standing between them and what they want. It’s worth a read.

Budd Schulberg is most famous, of course, for writing On the Waterfront, which won him the Oscar in 1954. TCM ran the movie a few weeks ago when Karl Malden died. I stood right there in the kitchen and watched most of it on our little 11”. It is a beautiful work. Most film fans view the picture as an explanation of Schulberg’s decision (and director Elia Kazan’s as well) to testify about Communist influence in the film industry. Okay. But, beyond that, Waterfront is the story one brother who sells out another to the mob; a depiction of the betrayal by someone in a position of trust. He talks him into taking the short-end money and throwing a prize fight.

That scene in the back of the taxi between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando is one of the single greatest scenes in movies. You can watch it on You Tube. You don’t even have to see it in context with the rest of the film to get the punch: “You’re my brother, Charlie. You should have looked out for me a little bit.”

But we all know what to really expect when we make a bargain like that: “A one-way ticket to Palookaville".