Budd Schulberg Remembers How Hollywood Was Run—and What Made Him Run from It
As a toddler in Hollywood, Budd Schulberg played in the Paramount back lot the way other kids enjoyed sandboxes. As a teenager, he got his first shave in the studio barbershop and sold newspapers from the back seat of a limousine belonging to his father, B.P. Schulberg, head of Paramount in the 1920s. The senior Schulberg was deposed in 1932. By then young Budd, realizing that “there could be fame one moment and obscurity the next,” left Hollywood for the East Coast. After graduating from Dartmouth, he returned to read scripts for David O. Selznick and write fiction, often about the world of movies. His first novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, was a savage commentary on the industry (for which Louis B. Mayer branded him a “traitor”). In later years Schulberg wrote the screenplays for A Face in the Crowd and On the Waterfront. Now, at 67, he has written a bittersweet recollection of his youth: Moving Pictures, Memories of a Hollywood Prince (Stein & Day). In his home in East Quogue, Long Island, where he lives with his fourth wife, Betsy, 41, and their son, Ben, 22 months, Schulberg talked of Hollywood past and present with Fred Bernstein of PEOPLE:
What kind of con artists did you see in Hollywood in the ’20s?
There was a hotel, the Alexandria, where hookers posed as silent screen stars. Fast-talking pimps made as much as a hundred bucks a day escorting suckers from out of town to the rooms of “Gloria Swanson” and “Norma Talmadge.” The poor butter-and-egg man in from out of town was too excited to know the difference.
What do you remember most vividly of the city itself?
It was a small bustling town of dingy three-and four-story buildings. There was a smell of peppertrees and orange blossoms. Beverly Hills was then practically nonexistent. And the Beverly Hills Hotel, where everyone makes deals now, was an old-fashioned resort for white-haired ladies. They might not have let my parents in if they had known we were movie people.
How were movie people different?
There was a real circus atmosphere around the lots. The attitude was anything goes. Once I saw Gloria Swanson and a director going down Wilshire Boulevard in a Pierce-Arrow with members of an orchestra following in a second car, playing Swanson’s favorite songs.
It’s said that in Hollywood, under the tinsel you find more tinsel. Is the town really that phony?
Yes. In order to be successful and survive, people are forced to switch loyalties. I always think of the New Year’s Day in 1930 when our house was full of people uncorking champagne and the New Year’s Day, 10 years later, after my father had left Paramount, when no one even called.
But wasn’t your father pretty callous at times? Didn’t he have to be?
One of his many chores was to bring the unruly stars of his studio into line. One night after Pola Negri had locked herself in her dressing room and refused to work, he came home shouting “Oh, that goddamn bitch! How I’d like to wring her neck. That double-crossing Pola Negri!” I heard it so often, the epithets became part of their names.
Didn’t your father have affairs with two of his leading ladies—Clara Bow and Sylvia Sidney?
With Sidney, I think they were in love. Only that didn’t come to me until much later. At the time, all I wanted to do was break them up. I even thought of ways to kill her. I didn’t realize that it wouldn’t bring my father and mother back together.
What do you remember best about the famous Hollywood hype?
Press releases, of course, were made up out of whole cloth. Once in high school when I did publicity for Paramount, I was asked to write about what stars did before they came to Hollywood. I spent weeks asking them and then was told by the studio to make it up. Another time director Mickey Neilan had an actor dressed up as President Wilson, standing in an open car and praising a new film. I think the guy was arrested, but it probably just helped the picture.
How did the child stars, like your young friends Jackie Coogan and Mickey Rooney, fare under the studio system?
I don’t think there was one who didn’t feel cheated. Their parents looked upon them as a meal ticket, and they were going to make sure the kid didn’t get out of line. The way the parents played up to the producers was pretty rough.
After you wrote On the Waterfront, you had trouble getting a studio to back it. How did you first know you were going to have problems?
Elia Kazan, the director, and I took the train to L.A. to talk to Darryl Zanuck, then head of 20th Century-Fox, about the picture. When we arrived, there was nobody at the train station to meet us. Elia said, “Who needs a limo? Let’s take a cab.” When we got to the hotel there were no flowers in the room. Elia said, “Who the hell wants flowers?” But I knew we were in trouble. It’s the symbolic language of the town.
Were women given a chance in the old Hollywood?
Not really. Twenty years ago Sherry Lansing, who’s now the president of 20th Century-Fox, would have risen as high as story editor, and that’s all.
Have the abuses of the old system disappeared with the trappings?
In fact, the system may be even more destructive now. In the old days, there was more stability. My father might have had a DeNiro on a seven-year contract. Now it’s the one-picture deal. And one picture can make you or break you.
In that respect, it’s a land of incredible opportunity, isn’t it?
Well, yes, it’s still a gold-rush town. One hunk of glitter—one idea—and you’re rich. Look at how Sylvester Stallone became an overnight star.
How do you account for all this?
I don’t think a young carmaker could go to Detroit and sell the head of an auto company on a new model for 1982. But in Hollywood, people who have not had a chance to learn their trade are being given millions by the studios. I think that means more schlock gets to the screen.
Are you saying the old movies were better?
Yes. Most pictures today aren’t even as well constructed as the B movies of my father’s day. Filmmakers seem to have lost the art of storytelling. Maybe it’s the influence of film school. But they get so entranced with the technique of making pictures that they’re not concerned with content.
But aren’t there marvelous films being made today?
It sounds ridiculous, but I can’t think of any pictures that I’ve really loved in the last few years. I liked The China Syndrome, Kramer vs. Kramer and some of Apocalypse Now. I think The Four Seasons should probably have been made for TV. I admired Raging Bull for its acting and technique, but not for its content. But I don’t think movies are as good today.
Feeling as you do, will you get involved with movies again?
I already have. A Question of Honor, a TV movie I wrote, will air this fall. I’m also working on a remake of A Face in the Crowd, and writing a film about football coach Woody Hayes, which will say a lot about America. You know, I’m really torn. Sometimes, Hollywood seems more trouble than it’s worth. But then, the pay is very, very high. I’m almost embarrassed by what I earn.
How are you received these days in Hollywood?
Now they send me flowers.