I don’t know how I missed this, a lengthy piece on Elmore Leonard last week in the WashPost, pegged to nothing in particular. The writer, Neely Tucker, seems quite taken by the fact Leonard isn’t an asshole:
Walk through his house, a two-story thing on a nice-but-not-ostentatious street in this leafy ‘burb, and you’ll be hard-pressed to know you are in the house of a writer, much less a famous one. He works at a regular desk with an IBM Wheelwriter 1000 typewriter at the side. It’s in a nice room with some wooden bookcases and a television at one end. He doesn’t own a computer. Then there’s a family room with pictures of his five kids and 13 grandkids and three great-grandchildren and a lovely oil portrait of Christine. The kitchen opens onto a sunroom, and there’s the back yard with 40-foot fir trees and a small swimming pool and a tennis court with a sagging net.
He drives a VW Jetta.
There is no glory wall, no photographs of him with stars in his movies: Cheadle, Clooney, De Niro, Eastwood, J-Lo, Newman, Travolta. He doesn’t go to the Oscars. Until you get to the “business room,” a tiny thing off a hallway by the garage with a couple of bookcases lined with copies of his books, the only sign he’s in the business is in a wet bar off the kitchen: the iconic Annie Leibovitz photograph of him on a hard-backed chair on Miami Beach, all in black, wearing a beret and typing away.
He looks cooler than you could ever hope to be.
“One time when I was a kid, I picked up the phone. This lady said, ‘I have Clint Eastwood calling for Mr. Leonard,’ ” says his son Bill, an ad agency executive who now lives just a few blocks over. “I said, very calmly, ‘Dad, Clint Eastwood is calling from California.’ Everybody screamed. We kids ran to the other room and unscrewed the mouthpiece so we could listen in. . . . He was completely unassuming about Hollywood. He’d say, ‘They’re just people.’ Aerosmith — the whole band — came over to his house a few years ago. They all went swimming.”
This evening, he and Christine go to dinner a mile or so from his house. He gives the maitre d’ his name for the reservation. Goes right over the guy’s head. He tells Dutch he’s late and he’s missed his spot and he’ll just have to wait some more. Dutch, who could buy the restaurant, doesn’t say anything. He and Christine just stand there, looking like a couple of nice retirees, and then Christine flags a waitress she knows, and this lady gets them a booth.
It’s like going out with the egoless Zen master.
Please don’t misconstrue this — I’m as delighted by Leonard’s lack of jerkitude as any person should be — but it makes me sad that not going on the muscle with restaurant hosts and not having a glory wall of pictures of oneself mugging with J-Lo is somehow more noteworthy than doing so.
Every so often I run across the syndicated TV version of TMZ.com. Those of you familiar with it know their stock in trade — not celebrity news, but celebrity humiliation. (There’s a clip today of Andy Dick being carried, physically carried, out of a party, and whoever put that vomit risk in their car is either a hero or fool.) I’m intrigued by the show’s structure, which is familiar to anyone who’s ever sat through a newsroom staff meeting, because that’s what it is — a bunch of young reporter types pitch their stories to an older editor, who makes notes on a whiteboard. You get the sense of a platoon of spies, out to capture celebrities spilling coffee, looking offensively fat/skinny or, of course, being drunk. In that Andy Dick clip, which was filmed from a second-story window looking down on the action, you can hear someone nearby saying, “Are you getting this?” A man participating in the Dick-carrying action looks up at the camera and cries, “Dlisted!” — another gossip blog.
So what we have here is an army of paparazzi, feeding a digital Fleet Street full of gossips, dedicated to the twin propositions that a) celebrities are assholes; and b) we must publicly denounce them as such, preferably by being assholes ourselves (“Courtney Cosucka”).
I’m glad Elmore Leonard isn’t an asshole, but by the time you’re 82, it’s wisest not to be. Maybe that’s why he’s still doing his best work in his ninth decade.
In the story, Leonard makes the same point he makes with everyone who asks why it took so long for Hollywood to figure out how to make his books into decent movies:
Barry Sonnenfeld, the first director to figure out Leonard’s dark humor (“Get Shorty”), says his books are “medium camera-shot” stuff with no close-ups for punch lines, no cues to the audience something funny just happened.
In interviews, Leonard says this was his advice to Sonnenfeld — no cutaways for the reaction-mugging. Maybe that’s the secret, but I thought “Get Shorty,” the film, fell about 17.43 percent short of the praise heaped upon it. Danny DeVito was all wrong for the part of the jerk movie star (it needed someone short and clueless and handsome, a Tom Cruise) and John Travolta — meh. For my money, “Out of Sight” was far superior, and the secret to that wasn’t a lack of close-ups, it was leaving the damn dialogue alone and underplaying it. Leonard’s dialogue is very funny, but it’s dry-as-dust funny — you laugh inside. “Freaky Deaky” opens with a drug dealer being called to the phone in his mansion, a turn-of-the-century showpiece he’s tricked out with his hideous drug-dealer taste, like a green-striped parachute over “the Jacuze.” It’s his girlfriend on the phone, who asks if he’s sitting down. You have to sit down for this, it’s important. He sits down in the chair next to the phone (this being pre-wireless days) and she says, “When you get up, what’s left of your ass is gonna go clear through the ceiling.”
See, he’s armed a bomb. It’s a pressure switch, and when the pressure’s off, boom. But he has a phone, right? So he calls the police. And the bomb squad shows up, and the bomb expert crawls under the chair and says, yep, that’s a bomb. That’s when it starts to get funny — the dealer starts complaining that he’s “got to go the toilet” and the cops just don’t give a shit about his comfort. He’s a drug dealer, they know it, he knows they know it, and what’s the hurry? Let him suffer. They start putting ideas in his head: Now don’t think you can dive into that Jacuzzi and outrun a stick of dynamite, you can’t do it. Then they leave the room. A beat, and …boom. Now that’s funny, but it’s not ha-ha funny. It’s the guy sitting on a bomb in his mansion, the contempt of the cops, “I got to go the toilet, bad.” Just copy and paste, Mr. Screenwriter, it’s easy money. That’s what Scott Frank did in “Out of Sight.” And then they got George Clooney, one of the great underplayers, and Ving Rhames, another one, and they managed to wrap a few steel bands around J-Lo’s ego, and voila. “Out of Sight” is a romantic comedy in which you don’t laugh, only smile.
You’ve heard all this before. I apologize. Very tired this morning. I had the hockey game on for company while I worked last night and finally had to turn it off — the hysteria in the play-by-play and the desperation of the play itself was too much to bear. Dorothy said Penguins in six.
She may be right. It might be Penguins in seven. (Or Wings in six!)
So let’s skip to the bloggage:
Geoffrey Feiger’s been on trial here, for campaign finance law violations, and a cursory look at the facts as presented suggest he was guilty, guilty, guilty. Not that it swayed the jury of his peers, who found him not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. (Most of you non-Michiganders probably know him as Dr. Kevorkian’s first high-profile lawyer.) I cannot tell a lie: I don’t care. The prosecution was flawed, and the Republicans (at the state and national level) have been hunting him for too long for me not to be cheered that he gave ’em the slip. The guy is the stone personification of the slimy lawyer, and yet, he’s easily one of the most amusing characters in town, and I’m glad he’s going to be in business a while longer. His TV ads are beyond belief, 30-second goblets of smarm talking about our great American justice system and his pledge to stick up for the little guy, blah blah blah, always punctuated by Feiger, his head tilted and eyes twinkling, smiling with the whitest set of teeth this side of Hollywood. (See here, here and, most spectacularly, here.) If I were the director, I’d add a little twinkle-sparkle effect in the last second. In fact, I bet he’s preparing a “thank you, American judicial system” spot as we speak, and I hope it includes it.
And speaking of court trials, I cannot tell another lie: If I were in a spinning class with someone who yelled, “Good burn!” and “You go, girl!” while the class was ongoing, I’d be tempted to dismount, pick up his stationary bike and slam it down to make my point. So, apparently, were members of this jury, who said as one: NOT GUILTY. Lance Mannion’s wife, the Blonde, and I were in an aerobics class with someone who did that, but it was a big room and he wasn’t quite that obnoxious. He was very big on spontaneous whoooos, however. The Blonde and I really hated that.
Finally, guess what’s on top of the NYT most-e-mailed list? This column: Put a little science in your life. Enjoy it as I did; I’m off to the gym, where nobody better mess with me!