High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess, Charles Fleming

Doubleday, 1998, 294 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48694-4

Everyone’s fascinated by Hollywood.

Not that there isn’t something to be justifiably fascinated about: The lovely, sunny weather. The movie business, with its public displays of fame and fortune. The glamour of the stars. The women, the men, the mansions, the cars… Who in North America -oh, even the world!- wouldn’t jump at the chance to be part of the Known Universe’s biggest Dream Factory?

But even then, most people will almost immediately add that celebrity doesn’t mean happiness-as demonstrated by the sob-stories of the tabloids. How many times has Hollywood has been compared to a soulless ambition-devouring monster? How many people have failed miserably in their dreams and ended up broken by Tinseltown? Great power does not exist in a vacuum: it takes away from others.

The life and death of Hollywood producer Don Simpson is not as much the subject per se of High Concept as it is a springboard to examine the “culture of excess” that surrounds Hollywood. Prostitution, drugs, vanity or simple unbridled spending are staples of the industry and Don Simpson indulged in all of them.

To casual moviegoers, Simpson might best be remembered as one half of the Bruckheimer/Simpson duo of Hollywood producers. In almost fifteen years, they brought to the silver screen a string of “high-concept” blockbusters: FLASHDANCE, BEVERLY HILLS COP and its sequel, TOP GUN, DAYS OF THUNDER, CRIMSON TIDE, BAD BOYS, DANGEROUS MINDS and (posthumously for Simpson) THE ROCK. But at the image of these flashy, loud, often violent movies, Simpson lived a life in overdrive: High Concept follows Simpson from his childhood Alaska to sunny California, where he made his first big hit with AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. Then he teamed up with Bruckheimer (Simpson was the hyperactive creative guy; Bruckheimer was the calm, nuts-and-bolts person) and went on to glory.

But if Hollywood magnifies success, it also extracts a terrible price from anyone with even the slightest moral flaw. Simpson found himself in the position of the high school nerd suddenly surrounded by money and debauchery. His downfall was inevitable.

Charles Fleming makes an icon out of Don Simpson. In successive chapters, he examines the excesses of Simpson and places them in a context “devoid of negative consequences… In another industry, Simpson’s excesses would have resulted in a firing, a suspension, a forced stay in rehab, intervention by his superiors or abandonment by his peers. In Hollywood, though, Simpson simply became another show business character.” [P. 11]

High Concept is the condemnation of an entire industry. Tinseltown created the false paradise that ultimately destroyed Don Simpson. “Hollywood fiddled while Simpson burned and after his final self-immolation, fiddled on.” If you want dirt, Fleming dishes out the dirt. But this is well-documented (10 pages of notes), contextualized dirt. With the benefit of hindsight, we get full access to Hollywood’s most notorious drug dealers, madams and over-indulgers. If Don Simpson is forgotten for a few pages, well, that’s the way the town is all interconnected. Because it always comes back, one way or another, to Simpson.

Fleming’s style is wonderfully readable, mixing anecdotes with more pondered insights and tentative conclusions. While certain chapters are weaker (Doctor’s Orders) than others (Hollywood High), the whole book is solid, crunchy reading. This isn’t tabloid gossip; this is a serious look at a diseased industry racing to destruction, much like Don Simpson.

Ultimately, though, High Concept is a powerful cautionary tale. I can see this book being used, much like Peter Biskind’s Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll, as a source-book for every Hollywood-hating fundamentalist. The remainder of us will be reminded of the price of success… and what if we found ourselves in the same situation?

Because at the end of High Concept, I’m still a guy from Ontario who would jump at the chance of making a few million dollars in Hollywood. As, I suspect, would anyone.

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