Don Simpson: Hollywood Death
In the eighties, Don Simpson was one half of the hottest production team in Hollywood. But he died of a drug overdose midway through the following decade. Simpson’s death, while not exactly surprising given his lifestyle, sent shock-waves through Hollywood. In the June 1996 issue of Movieline magazine, David Thomson examined the phenomenon of death in Tinseltown.
Warning, this one is morbid and gruesome. Not for the faint of heart.
If only Don Simpson could have stuck around a little longer. If only he could have been there, able to hear and see it all–his funeral, I mean. To realize the respect in which he was held. To be like a ghost at his own wake. Doesn’t a man who has tried hard, and died trying, really deserve that? But as it was, the producer of Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance and Crimson Tide had no other out but dead at 52, in his own bathroom, attempting to massage God knows what casserole of chemicals through the congested system of a body that was knocking 250 pounds. And this after he’d woken up one morning to find a dear friend, a doctor, dead in the pool house. After he’d been cast aside by his longtime partner, Jerry Bruckheimer. After he’d been named as an obsessed devotee of sadomasochist sex in the best-selling (L.A. area only) You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again. Along with which, apparently, he had just been on the telephone for several hours, in the course of which James Toback had read him an entire screenplay in the hopes that Don could get it set up somewhere. You have to be pretty sick, pretty near the edge, to let anyone read a script to you over the phone– even if it’s Some Like It Hot. Face it, this was not the happiest, sweetest way to go.
I mean, you can see the guys with the gurney trying to maneuver that body out of the bathroom. You can imagine the indignity, not to mention all the speculation about suicide–as if suicide, as such, had any meaning in a culture where the death wish is so much the prevalent thing.
But if Don had only known … In the weeks that followed there were terrific pieces on him in Los Angeles Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker. We are talking quality ink, the best embalmer of all. There were people saying he had been a hero as a producer, a rare, existentialist spirit, a man on the cutting edge. God almighty! If Don had only seen the full page Steve Tisch took in Variety, with the really lovely picture of some antique tomb with a marble statue deep in a forest somewhere, with just this text from Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
I can imagine Don’s flab just melting away, just fucking magicked off, in that superb appeal to paranoia and vanity. If only Don could have been there to read the obits. He’d never have got that close to the edge, would he?
The way I see it, that is the opening to the essay, done in the ecstatic slimeball-ese of some gossip flack–we don’t have to name names–so that it’s insinuating, camp and utterly hostile all at the same time. Now I see the piece proceeding in a series of distinct voices hovering between the ludicrous and the heartfelt, all of which the reader can place in the babble of Hollywood. Right after the valedictory to Don Simpson, for example, we go to Nathanael West. You see, I was looking in The Day of the Locust, because I just felt that West was into the death wish long before most people. What did I find?
Tod examined him eagerly. He didn’t mean to be rude but at first glance this man seemed an exact model for the kind of person who comes to California to die, perfect in every detail down to fever eyes and unruly hands,
‘My name is Homer Simpson,’ the man gasped, then shifted uneasily and patted his perfectly dry forehead with a folded handkerchief.
Isn’t that terrific? And we just cut from there without a comment–a sort of kiss-of-death edit.
Now, at this point I think we need to have a short, grisly account of some notable Hollywood deaths. Nothing arty or tasteful–just the raw sense of sudden death overtaking some great beauty. The Jayne Mansfield death has always worked for me. After all, Jayne was a lot more “star” than star–she was the fabrication, the phantom of fame, the human balloon blown up just a few inches beyond wholesome, graspable sexiness.
Jayne’s death is basically herself in a packed car. She has just finished doing her act at Gus Stevens’s Supper Club in Biloxi! Isn’t that priceless? Biloxi, Mississippi. It’s terrific always to put a star down in the hinterland–you get instant frisson, like E.T. being far from home. And Jayne only got the gig as a replacement for Mamie Van Doren! Is that “The Twilight Zone,” or what? Anyway, she is in a Buick with the attorney she was fucking at the end, plus three of her children–these are the kids by Mickey Hargitay–and four dogs, all Chihuahuas. There is a student they have hired to drive, and it is in the early hours of the morning, on the road to New Orleans, when the car hits a trailer truck. That takes the top off the car. The kids in the back are short enough, they survive. But the top of Jayne’s head is sliced, and her wig is found in the wreckage. I have seen great photographs of this–one of Jayne’s body under a coat beside the car, and another of one of the dead dogs, with liquor bottles, the wig and blood trails down the side of the car. The archetypal Hollywood death.
That is the perfect setup for a quick crosscutting sequence where we could have a lot of fun. The principle is this: we go from some of the most illustrious, gorgeous on-screen deaths straight to the morbid, lurid deaths of movie people in real life, the sort of deaths that movies don’t do. The range is unlimited, and you can ask around to get some favorite death scenes. But here’s an outline just to give you an idea:
First: Bonnie and Clyde, with Beatty and Dunaway just ripped to bits in unison by the fusillade that is their one uncompromised orgasm. Remember their bodies heaving and twitching while they’re coming to pieces’? Then: Jean Seberg in the backseat of her sealed Renault in a Paris suburb, where she’d been for nine days–in September!
Or try this one: James Cagney in White Heat, on top of the oil tank, shouting in his mania. “Made it Ma, top of the world!” and going out in one stunning explosion of fire and light. Then: John Garfield, dying in the prolonged but not tedious process of humping a young woman. We don’t need to name her, but you have to picture the hard-on that will never wilt and the sheer delicacy of extrication. So long as the wording is tasteful. I think we can convey the comic mishap that death can be. It is a few moments before the woman realizes he is dead and not just happy.
Or how about this? John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, coming out of the John with Modesty Blaise in his hand and seeing Bruce Willis standing there with the gun. What’s going to happen? Willis’s Pop Tarts pop in the toaster, and it’s as if the noise of them fires the gun. Travolta goes back into the shower with red sauce all over his shirt and the unbelievable saintly look on his face. Cut to: Ramon Novarro, nearly 70, found in his own Hollywood Hills home, naked on his bed, battered extensively, his wrists and ankles tied with electric cord, and on the mirror, the message, “Us girls are better than fag-its.” The killers were brothers, male hustlers, looking for money. They were themselves so bloodied in the murder that they abandoned their own clothes and put on some of Ramon’s.
Here’s my last example: William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, walking out of Norma Desmond’s life, but reclaimed by her imperious bullets and pitching forward into her pool, still doomed to tell her story. And then we cut to this: William Holden’s William Holden, dead four or five days in a pool of blood on the floor of an apartment in an Ocean Avenue. Santa Monica building in which Holden had been part owner for many years and where he often went to be alone. The actor had fallen down drunk and hit his head on a table. He’d tried to stop the bleeding with tissue, but had passed out, and never recovered to tell the story.
Here we cut to the glum figure of Humphrey Bogart in a sodden tan trench coat standing apart from the glossy black umbrellas at a little graveyard near Rapallo. This is the opening of The Barefoot Contessa, We are at the funeral of the great and lately late star, Maria d’Amata (Ava Gardner}. The rather larger than life white stone statue of Maria that stands above her new grave is so finished you can believe the publicity machine had it ready while she was alive, just in case. (In the story, the statue is the adoring tribute of Maria’s unfortunately impotent husband, and like much funerary alabaster, it is on the virginal, or untried, side.) The Barefoot Contessa tells us the story of Maria d’Amata by having Bogart, Maria’s writer/director, shift our attention from one person to another among those gathered at Maria’s grave site. Moviemakers have always loved funeral scenes just as much as the Hollywood community has loved the real thing. After all, funerals are Hollywood’s most hallowed parties, where the cocktails are called mortality, posterity and history.
Now we move into a rapid-fire survey of your big-time industry funerals.
When Valentino died, in August 1926, he lay in state at Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home in Manhattan. Over 100,000 people filed past to see him, on his back, eyes closed, hair slicked down, in the single bed of a bronze coffin on a raised catafalque. There was a railing and a low, cushioned ledge where familiars could pray for a few moments. The floral tribute included one arrangement of 4,000 scarlet roses sent by Pola Negri, who had announced–amid swooning attacks–that she and Rudy had been set to be married. The funeral was attended by many stars and celebrities. One newspaper actually managed a photograph of Valentino being greeted in heaven by Caruso. Paramount– Rudy’s studio–yielded to the public pressure to keep his pictures playing. For in the very old days of the quaint picture business there had been a notion that a deceased star’s films should be withdrawn–out of respect for death!
When Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder executive at MGM, died in September 1936, it seemed destined. He had always had poor health, yet he had worked so hard; he was the pioneer of self-destruction in the cause of better pictures. MGM was closed the day of the funeral: all its stars were expected to attend. Other studios observed a five-minute pause as the service began at the temple on Wilshire Boulevard. A message was read from FDR. Grace Moore sang the 23rd Psalm. Rabbi Edgar Magnin–the burier of all the lofty dead–ended his oration with these words: “The love of Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg was a love greater than that in the greatest motion picture I have ever seen– Romeo and Juliet.” (One of Thalberg’s last productions, with his wife, the 36-year-old Shearer, as Juliet.) The floral tributes included a throne of gardenias from Louis B. Mayer–Thalberg’s boss, his friend, his “father,” and his rival. Above the throne there was a cage that held a live white dove. Insiders remarked that L.B. had thrown away the key; death had imprisoned Irving–and liberated Mr. Mayer.
Jean Harlow’s death, in June 1937, was among the least pretty. She had uremia and kidney failure and her body became a bloated horror. But her funeral, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, was as much of a sweetener as possible. The studio stars were there, and there was a sense that this was, for the public, the first great Hollywood funeral. (Valentino had been buried in New York. Thalberg was “only” an executive.) There was $15,000-worth of lilies of the valley and gardenias to cover the coffin. MGM makeup people–Jean’s confidantes on pictures– helped the morticians make her lovely anew. She wore a wig–she had been shaved in the hospital–and the famous pink silk negligee she had worn in Saratoga, the picture left unfinished at her death. MGM didn’t waste time. They found a camera-double and a voice-double, shot some more scenes, and still had Saratoga in theaters by July 23rd. It proved to be Harlow’s biggest-grossing picture.
And so to the death of Louis B. Mayer himself in October 1957, six years after MGM had kicked him out. The little tyrant was taken away by cancer, the conclusion to those last years of bitterness against the studio he had made. Who can know, in all the stress on health in Hollywood, how far yearning affects the organism? If you believe in it enough, can you will others dead? But if your belief is so terrible, perhaps it strikes back at you.
Mayer was a has-been when he died, but some were surprised how many people came to the funeral. There were several explanations: that if you give the public what they want, they’ll turn out; that plenty had come to be sure Mayer was gone; and that there were people who’d been staying alive just to be at this funeral. And so, Jeanette MacDonald sang “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” One of Mayer’s daughters, Edie, sat there wondering whether she’d been cut out of the will–she had. Spencer Tracy, under contract to the studio, grimly read the eulogy several screen-writers had labored over.
Boom, we cut out of the L.B. Mayer affair into the terrific open-air burial from The Godfather, the one where Don Vito himself is being put to rest–as if diligent killers and protectors of order could ever rest! We’re at this posh cemetery, out on Long Island, and the screen is filled with these Italian guys in their dark suits. There is so much sinister intent and respect around it could be a scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. There’s the family and the enemies, and–get a load of this–after Michael has said, like a psychic, that the betrayer will be the one who carries the invitation, the sad-eyed Tessio comes over to Michael with the whispered how-about-a-get-together? How long has Tessio been in the Mafia that he doesn’t know how Mafia movies work? Doesn’t he grasp the rule that Michael and the script know? Is he volunteering, or is this his unconscious death wish?
But we are loving it, because we want death, and this funeral is the apt intro to the big finish–the scenes of baptism crosscut with the executions of the enemies of the Corleones. And we enjoy all the staged ways the enemies get hit, looking as innocent as actors hitting their marks, gazing up and taking the bullets in the face. There never was a medium until movies that could give you so much knockout, lifelike death.
You see, what I am building to is this point about how movies by their very nature resemble death, and how our desire at the movies is, so often, just to peep over that line and get a look and a feel of death. For decades we had movies that were slaughter yards, piles of drop-dead corpses, like Auschwitz with Max Factor. Not just the Godfathers but The Wild Bunch, that whole era of mowing ’em all down. By now we are beyond the mere thrill of killing as such. The frontier is no longer killing, but death itself.That’s where the voyeur gaze is headed. What is death like? Couldn’t we get a look, just a hint? I wanna go to Death Valley, Daddy.
Think of Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply— aren’t these new love stories where your lover has gone, but, just for a moment in time, you can have them back in what is bound to be safe sex? Consider Flatliners, where these wildly bright kids are just tripping up to the edge and one step over. And there’s Glenn Close talking to us from out of her coma in Reversal of Fortune. Don’t forget 12 Monkeys. Not that I could ever work out the story, but I’ll swear that some of those people were dead, and some alive. Then there are those pictures, like Strange Days and Unforgettable, where, if you can get hold of the right cyberware or neurofluids, you can see a woman who’s already dead come back and get killed all over again. Now, that could catch on as a CD-ROM!
These are big themes as the millennium draws close. Death now is the trip and the turn-on. Look at the kind of photography we’re getting in pictures. You can say it’s the influence of MTV or the result of special effects edging out classical photography. Whatever it is, we are into a style now where the imagery is increasingly non-naturalistic, more and more fantasy-driven, ghostly–no longer just a record of appearance. Once upon a time, movies were a sensation because they let us share the sight of real things–even if in fantastic or fictional circumstances. But now we are seeing the unreal, the impossible, the electronic. It can be dinosaurs, morphins or James Dean and Marilyn Monroe dancing together at Rick’s Cafe– which they never did or could have done. I can’t stand most of what Oliver Stone does, but I will give him some credit: In films like JFK. he has found a way of showing the real and the merely possible on screen at the same time–so you’re not sure which is which. It’s the weird feeling you get inPulp Fiction when you know John Travolta is dead already, but there he is still walking out of the diner. I tell you, movies are going to do this more and more. Why? Us, sweetheart. We are fascinated with the big D.
“This is Norman Mailer:
“Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long. An emotion produced from the chum of the flesh is delivered to a machine, and that machine and its connections manage to produce a flow of images which will arouse some related sentiment in those who watch. The living emotion has passed through a burial ground–and has been resurrected. The living emotion survives as a psychological reality: it continues to exist as a set of images in our memory which are not too different, as the years go by, from the images we keep of a relative who is dead.”
In other words, whether we dream ourselves up there on the screen– the way Buster Keaton once climbed up into the light in Sherlock, Jr.–or let those illusory lives mingle with ours, as in The Purple Rose of Cairo, we are experimenting with ghostliness. This may be the most profound lesson for identity and human nature that the age of movies has for us. It reminds me of Sunset Boulevard and Citizen Kane. You see, there’s a way of regarding both those films as death wishes, or the dying dream of being at one’s own funeral. In Kane, when the great man dies he whispers his last word to us as a seduction, a mystery for us to solve. Only at the close of the film do we find out what “Rosebud” could mean. In between, Kane has run through his entire life, with the delicious advantage of hearing those left behind tell us about him.
Sunset Boulevard has two characters, a young man and an old woman, both “dead” in Hollywood’s eyes. The man is a struggling writer, the woman an ex-star. But they are lingering, moldering, slinking up the place; they can’t get a decent burial. So the writer drives his car into the garage of the big house on Sunset. Norma Desmond thinks he’s the undertaker, come to take her dead monkey away. She’s nearly right. Joe Gillis has the taint of death on him, and it won’t be long before the guys in the white coats come to fish him out of the pool and lake him to the morgue. Still, he has one ironic privilege: as a would-be writer he gets to tell the story. That part of him just doesn’t shut off–Joe Gillis is going to a hell where he will have to pitch hopeless stories forever.
As for Norma, she gets her comeback. She will be on the front pages again–on her way to a home for the criminally insane. But her comeback is her funeral too–in DeMille close-up, she comes down the staircase like vapor, looking into the lens and trusting that those other ghosts, the public, are there. Like all great stars, she is dead, dead attractive, a ghost who needs our warming thoughts.
David Thomson’s new book, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, has just been published by Knopf.