Hello, He Lied, Lynda Obst

Little Brown, 1996, 246 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-316-62211-7

We’ve seen quite a few books about Hollywood actors. We’ve seen an substantial number of books on Hollywood directors. Screenwriters take delight in writing books about themselves. The only “big” credits we seldom read about are producers.

(With one important exception: The flashy crash-and-burn career of Don Simpson -TOP GUN, FLASHDANCE, etc…- has resulted in one chainsaw biography (Charles Fleming’s High Concept), but there was nothing typical about the drug-fuelled life of excess he led, nor anything ordinary in his producing career.)

This paucity may be justifiable. Producers don’t have a set job description: They buy scripts, finesse stars until they extract a commitment, put together an offer for studios, arrange for financing, supervise operations on the set, arrange marketing campaigns, try to ensure awards for their movies… it just goes on and on. Maybe producers just don’t have enough time for writing books about what they do.

Now, at least one producer has slowed down and published an autobiographical account of her own experience in Hollywood. Lynda Obst’s account is in many ways a disappointing account of what a typical producer does, but at least it’s better than nothing.

After a perfunctory introduction that explains how she came to land in Hollywood (in short; her then-husband moved), Obst starts to explain the pre-movie life of producers. It may very well be the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve read about Hollywood this year. Turns out that the life of a producer is enough to make a casual cinephile wonder in awe at how anything gets done in Hollywood. Producers will buy scripts, try to interest stars, go in meetings with studio head, try to satisfy large groups of people and get them to agree to spend million of dollars on creative projects. The tiniest things can cause a deal to collapse, sending everyone back to square one. When you factor in the fact that everyone is on tight schedules, well, things have a tendency to become very complicated. Obst’s frustrating experience with the OUTBREAK project is enough to make you swear off ever moving to California.

All of the above has to be accomplished in cooperation with people with more power than intelligence, using a highly sophisticated set of social codes and ritualized small-talk. Obst thinks she’s being witty in describing how things get done in Hollywood, but for any outside reading up, it’s just disheartening; if government was run like this, there would be a revolution in a matter of days. (Oh, wait…)

The rest of the book is a mixed bag: Obst includes a chapter on the place of “Chix in Flicks” that, again, is as depressing as it’s self-serving. It’s immediately followed by a chapter about life on location, which is actually funny and informative; I don’t recall reading about these things elsewhere, and that’s worth something.

As far as the whole book goes, though, it’s not a completely satisfying reading experience. Throughout the book, Obst includes segments and anecdotes she obviously finds funny. Alas, you must have to be an insider in the industry to be amused, because everything comes across as markedly less amusing that she must think it is. A few anecdotes fall completely flat. Others simply don’t make sense. Sign of the author’s place in the Hollywood food chain, there isn’t much here that’s self-critical or even highly critical of the industry. You’d think that a really shrewd observer could be able to step back and point out the problems… but Obst actually seems to enjoy all of the insanity. Furthermore, would it be cynical to point out that Obst’s Hollywood oeuvre isn’t anything worth crowing about? It’s not as if her movies (BAD GIRLS? ONE FINE DAY? Even THE FISHER KING?) are exceptional or uniformly better than others…

Still, Hello, he Lied is an interesting book. It focused on an under-appreciated role in the Hollywood machine and might even serve to illuminate the dark recesses of the industry. It’s not much of a funny book, as much because of its stylistic shortcomings as for its discouraging subject matter. I just wish there was a better book on the subject.

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