The Innovators 1980-1990: Jock of Gold

Film still for The Innovators 1980-1990: Jock of Gold

A prince of Hollywood vulgarity, producer Don Simpson demonised himself, but he also invented the modern blockbuster, argues Shawn Levy

To love Hollywood movies you must embrace vulgarity. Pneumatic actresses, unctuous executives, loud music, obnoxious machinery, legions of supernumeraries, mountains of food, oceans of drink, excesses that would give pause to Caligula - and that's just the wrap parties. Nowhere is hedonism practised as an aesthetic form so excellently as in Southern California, and it's therefore little wonder that the region's most prominent industry sometimes seems little more than an ongoing riot of over-indulgence.

On the one hand, you have the annual product: ten months, more or less, of horrifying lowest-common-denominator indulgences of violence, sex, slapstick and freeze-dried plotting, followed by two months of breast-beating sentimentality and sobriety, after which everybody turns around and gives the person standing next to them a prize, the most coveted of which is a golden statuette of a naked bald man covering his genitalia with a sword. On the other, you have the people involved: vainglorious, pampered, spottily educated and indifferently mannered, making their stupendous livings on the basis of the public's mercurial tastes and coating their inevitable insecurities in eccentricity and bullying as though to make their status seem in some way their due - royalty, in other words, without the sanction of primogeniture.

It's easy to decry what Hollywood is all about, but when you consider that entertainment, after aeronautics, is the chief US export, it also seems hopeless. People like what's vulgar about Hollywood. And though cineastes and cinephiles rail against the industry's characteristically low-brow products, it's like the geeks at a posh high school holding an anti-pep rally before the big homecoming football game: the sideshow becomes part of the larger spectacle that the paying crowds enjoy, a bit of a laugh before the serious business of escapism. Hollywood has, in fact, been compared to a high school - one with lots of money.

Extend that metaphor to individuals, and the late producer Don Simpson would have been a good bet to win the class vote for Least Likely to Succeed. He had the tools - he was a keen shaper of stories, had a sharp eye for new talent, and understood the spasms of the popular marketplace almost viscerally. He was, too, an Olympian of vulgarity: his life story (as recounted in Charles Fleming's 1998 biography High Concept) reads like a police report, filled with hair-raising sexual episodes, astounding escapades with booze and dope and crass and cruel fits of temper thrown at employees, waiters, maids and friends. He hired publicists to throw parties for him and verbally abused screenwriters in front of crimson-eared journalists. His vanities included plastic surgery, crash diets, new-age retreats and the purchase of multiple wardrobes, the better to match his ever-fluctuating weight. The toxicology report filed with his autopsy detailed a pharmacopoeia that would stagger a Scrabble champion: chlordiazepoxide, desmethydiazepam, trimethobenzamide and a few other unpronounceable goodies. He lived a life mixed of equal parts Monroe Stahr, Fatty Arbuckle, Robert Downey Jr and Harry Cohn: a perfect Hollywood animal, in other words.

So you wouldn't say Simpson was an unlikely mogul because of who he was but rather because of where he came from. Born in Seattle, Washington, in 1943, he grew up mainly in Alaska. That he emerged from this background to serve as president of production at Paramount Pictures and gross billions of dollars as an independent producer is akin to being a little boy from Reykjavik and becoming the most celebrated matador at the Feria de Sevilla. In the unlikely gap between his origins and his achievement, Simpson resembled far more the moguls who built the Hollywood movie industry - furriers and butchers and handglove salesmen and undertakers with names like Goldwyn and Warner and Mayer and Zukor - than he did his peers, the film-school poseurs who parlayed jump cuts into first-look deals and the MBAs who learned to stab one another in the back in talent-agency mail rooms. With his cocksure attitude, his self-made past, his instinct for the jugular and his ability to turn shit into gold, Simpson must have struck the old-timers he met as someone more like themselves than any of their own offspring, biological or corporate: his arrival on the lot at Warner Bros, where he got his first real Hollywood job in 1972, might itself have made a nice, if familiar, scene in a movie.

It wouldn't, however, have been a Don Simpson movie. From the time he first got on the payroll at Warner Bros, through his brief tenure at the top of the Paramount mountain and his high-flying days as a partner, with Jerry Bruckheimer, in the famed (and self-dubbed) Visionary Alliance, to his death by misadventure in 1996, Simpson was interested in only one sort of movie. A Don Simpson movie was a riot of motion and noise, focused on a comely young star, crammed with trendy music and fashions, and built around an underdog-makes-good story - with a few setbacks thrown in to stretch the drama out to the optimal 100 minutes. Simpson's oeuvre reads like a litany of the worst sort of Hollywood drek. Between 1983 and his death he co-produced Flashdance, Thief of Hearts, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Days of Thunder, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, Dangerous Minds and The Rock.

How could anyone go forth with such a slate of projects and not carry with him at least a sliver of self-loathing? It's partly because Simpson's movies were an extension of the man and his tastes. (As proof, consider that he cast himself in Days of Thunder as an Italian racing-car driver named Aldo Bennedetti.) He liked big, obvious women, cars, homes, offices, clothes and, perhaps most of all, movies. "I buy my popcorn," he once said, "and watch a movie and want to feel something." And, as his personal life attests, it took quite a stimulus to trigger a sensation in him.

But Simpson's body of work was not only a sensational act of self-expression. It was a concept that imposed itself on the whole of Hollywood movie-making. Simpson worked high in the corporate structure of contemporary Hollywood, and as an affect of his obsession with the smallest details of his films he not only codified his mini-genre, he made an industry template of it. Love or hate him for it, Simpson was a key inventor of the high-concept film, and his ability to blend together fleeting cultural fancies, manufactured celebrities, adolescent wet dreams and expensive effects machinery into excellent schlock - billion-dollar schlock - was a kind of genius. It's no exaggeration to claim that Simpson invented the modern Hollywood blockbuster - though whether he's being rewarded or punished for it in the next life is open to debate.

In the late 70s, working under Michael Eisner and Barry Diller at Paramount Pictures, Simpson drafted the most influential statement of purpose in recent Hollywood history, a document that validated the sort of film-making which sets the André Bazins of the world gnashing their teeth but which lines up the civilians outside the multiplexes from Tulsa to San Remo to Rangoon. "The pursuit of making money is the only reason to make movies," he declared. "We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. Our obligation is to make money." But surely prestige counts for something? "To make money, it may be important to win the Academy Award, for it might mean another ten million dollars at the box office."

Simpson's memo was a mind-blowing rejection of every ounce of Hollywood treacle and cant about higher purposes and the public good, a naked embrace of the marketplace as the raîson d'ètre of the studio system. It's almost disappointing, then, that he went on to explain that what makes money is good movies - or, rather, good ideas for movies. "A powerful idea is the heart of any successful movie. The creative premise is what first attracts people to the product."

The concept, in other words, is the medium, not the cast, not the script and certainly not the director. Though the first could enhance the film (as long as it wasn't too pricey) and the second could sharpen it, the last held considerable potential to destroy it. As he told a journalist some years after writing his treatise, Simpson took exception to those who saw the director as the chief transmitter of meanings: "I don't believe in the auteur theory. The movie is the auteur. It tells us what it needs to be. We're here to serve the movie as mistress. No one person, director or writer is above the call of the final result."

Again, it's no shock to hear a producer denigrate the contributions of writers, directors or even stars to the finished film. Producers come aboard with the original idea, and the best never lose sight of that idea throughout the picture's inevitably arduous passage to the screen. This was as true for Gone with the Wind, Simpson knew, as for An Officer and a Gentleman, which he rescued from the Paramount slag heap. But close examination of the films Simpson produced demonstrates that his formula only worked if it was implemented on a grand, gross scale. Top Gun, the epitome of his technique, with a total worldwide gross of $344 million, reads like a haiku written on the side of an elephant.

The film actually opens with a music video: a montage of aircraft carrier action shots choreographed to Kenny Loggins' infernal song 'Danger Zone', one of the two hits digested whole by the film. (The other, Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away', won an Oscar for Best Song.) Immediately our swaggering hero Maverick (Tom Cruise) is established as both reckless and gifted; throughout the film the twinning of these traits is his simultaneous blessing and curse - a touch that must have struck the producer as positively Shakespearean. It gets him into Top Gun school, on the one hand, but dooms him to continual trespasses that eventually cost him the Top Gun trophy; it catches the eye of a comely physicist (Kelly McGillis) but reminds her to keep a prudent distance from him.

Indeed, despite everything that happens to him through the course of the narrative - losing the trophy, winning the girl, causing the accidental death of his only friend - this ambivalence never shifts or changes. Maverick starts out cocky and gifted; Maverick ends cocky and gifted. A similar consistency characterises the protagonists of Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance, The Rock and, indeed, all of Simpson's films. Built around movies stars, they do nothing to violate the audience's expectation of what those stars are like. Casting, in the Simpson formula, is a form of narrative. As for the narrative, it moves with the clockwork certitude of a tide table.

After the opening sequence establishing Maverick's duality he moves to Top Gun school and meets his antagonist Iceman (Val Kilmer) and his indulgent commander (Tom Skerritt). Out cruising for skirt one night, he meets Charlie (McGillis) and fails, in his arrogance, to woo her. Voilá plot point one: Charlie, as fate would have it, is a Top Gun instructor. Maverick's lust and work are now intertwined.

The film alternates sequences of Maverick's flight work and his romance almost systematically through the next hour, on opposing trajectories: as he does better with her, revealing his tender side and, finally, scoring, he does more poorly at school, continually losing out to the flawless Iceman and, finally, costing his flying partner Goose (Anthony Edwards) his life in a mishap. The death of Goose is, of course, plot point two. In a script that more closely paralleled events on planet Earth, it would be a life-shattering event. (And, to be fair, Maverick spends several minutes racked with ambivalence about it before zipping off to the Indian Ocean to shoot down three Russian MIGs in the film's hysterical and frightening coda.) But if Maverick didn't emerge as himself at the end of the film the audience would feel bamboozled - as would Simpson himself. His 100-minute foolproof methodology was based, he always insisted, on his own taste - and nothing in this film indicates he wasn't telling the complete truth. Top Gun is entirely repellent, without a single saving performance, storyline, joke, bit of dialogue or even action sequence, yet it made a superstar of Cruise and cemented Simpson's formula as the Hollywood gold standard.

The 80s were dominated by the sort of static, three-act storytelling exemplified by Top Gun. Simpson may have been among the first producers to make a religion of the format, but it was quick to spread through the industry and beyond, bizarrely, into the public. Screenwriting gurus, long attached to Hollywood like somewhat shameful barnacles, emerged into the light as stars who could help make you rich, like realtors or stockbrokers: Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Richard Walter. Their seminars and books reaped millions; every adult human being in Southern California seemed to be working on a screenplay - often with the likes of Top Gun as a model. If McKee, with his emphasis on "turning points" and "inciting incidents" and his careful deconstruction of film scenes, seems like Aristotle in comparison with the authors of such works as How to Write a Movie in 21 Days and 500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Script Reader, he is nevertheless trafficking in formulas and truisms that mesh comfortably with Simpson's from-the-gut approach. Both seek validation in the big idea that instigates the film, and both look to previous successes to figure out "what works".

But consider that Simpson came to formulate his position at the end of a decade in which Hollywood most openly embraced directors as artists and you see another strain in his thinking. Simpson was one of the key forces of the establishment in the era during which the studios regained their autonomy over the world of movie-making. He led the counter-revolutionary charge against the Coppolas, Friedkins, Bogdanoviches and Scorseses of this world, revoking their licences to create costly, personal works of art with corporate dollars and reasserting the pre-eminence of conceptualisation, departmentalisation and marketing - all traditional purviews of the producer and the studio.

Simpson's bold assertion of the power of money and the marketplace would have seemed common sense to the likes of Darryl Zanuck and Hal Wallis, but it sounded positively unreal in the 70s. And when his beliefs yielded billions in box office, he killed off the industry's most indulgent decade for good and all. Why dither around with temperamental and unreliable artists whose films could lose millions? Better to knead a concept into a script through multiple drafts, throw in some inexpensive young faces (Eddie Murphy, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Beals, Will Smith), hire a malleable young director, preferably from television or advertising (Tony Scott, Michael Bay, Adrian Lyne) and go public with something calibrated to satisfy a demand that you're already assured exists. Simpson's treatise made it OK again for Hollywood to embrace both an old-fashioned production-line mentality and sheer, guileless greed. No wonder executives like Eisner, Diller and Jeffrey Katzenberg were prepared to put up with his shenanigans.

But Simpson's notions, after proving initially fruitful, wound up metastasising into a gargantua that had itself to be tamed. By the end of the 80s Katzenberg, who learned the business in part beneath Simpson at Paramount, was parroting Simpson's own dicta back to the world in another famous memo, this one aimed at cutting back on the sort of behemoth pictures Simpson specialised in. It's a measure of Simpson's vision - not to mention his stature relative to Katzenberg's - that his ideas could be mistaken for a refutation of themselves and still dominate the industry's thinking a decade after their codification. Even in its passing, the Simpson philosophy was the given against which such contemporary phenomena as the American independent film movement would posit itself. It is what we currently mean by 'Hollywood'. (And it wouldn't exactly get laughed off the dais by the honchos at Miramax, either...)

But it wasn't all there was to the man. If Simpson's taste for vulgar gestures drove him to success in Hollywood, it also helped make him acutely aware of exciting cultural currents that first bled into Hollywood movies through his works. He is universally credited, for instance, with being among the first film-makers to recognise the power of MTV, not only as a marketing tool but as a font of new aesthetic ideas. He realised that his films could include wholly self-contained music videos that would then air on the cable music network as, in effect, free advertising. And he was sensitive to the fact that an audience that had grown accustomed to a steady diet of briskly cut three-minute pop promos would demand similarly hectic pacing from movies.

More intriguingly, he discovered in the gay subculture of the 70s and 80s a series of signifiers and motifs that he would allow to infiltrate his works - perhaps unconsciously, raging heterosexual that he was. Top Gun is, famously, the subject of a Quentin Tarantino rant about latent homoerotica, but Flashdance and Days of Thunder have their curiously ambivalent moments and themes as well. As Peter Biskind puts it: "Simpson was to gay culture what Elvis Presley was to rhythm and blues, ripping it off and repackaging it for a straight audience." In this, as in his embrace of MTV, Simpson was yet again a pioneer, if not exactly an outright inventor.

These aspects of Simpson's work serve as proof that the man wasn't only about money-making, philistinism and crudity. His first movie job, after all, was publicising Performance in San Francisco, at which he succeeded splendidly by providing free wine and reefer to a preview audience that, not surprisingly, embraced the movie as a masterpiece. He was a counterculturalist at heart - in his fictitious past he depicted himself as something of a child outlaw - and if he didn't express as much in his movie-making, he screamed it out loud in his private life. Hence the irony of his being the one who came to close the door on the great Hollywood auteurs of the 70s - bearing in mind, of course, that it wasn't as if they themselves hadn't already done much to presage their own mass demise.

Along with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, two coevals whose private lives and aesthetics would seem utterly opposed to his own hedonism and macho, Simpson was one of the handful of 60s people allowed to hold on to power after the indulgent 70s had given way to Reagan's 80s. To pull it off, he had to recant certain 60s values, to see in moneymaking the greater good and in arty self-expression a betrayal of mass desire. But then, the only hippies who suffered at his hands, truth be told, were the ones who felt they were entitled to make movies with $75 million budgets in the first place. Simpson never told the 70s auteurs they shouldn't make movies - he just didn't think a major studio should invest in them if they weren't money makers. (He refused even to entertain any of the projects brought to him by Pauline Kael when she'd been co-opted into working for Paramount by Warren Beatty.)

So he wasn't exactly Stalin, then. But you half-suspect that Uncle Joe - no stranger to vulgarity himself - would have liked him and his way of thinking and, maybe most of all, his films.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012