By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
Succeeding in Hollywood by its byzantine rules and his own, Ridley has become a quintessential insider in the game while remaining its quintessential critic (a trick that Spike Lee never learned, or decided early in his career was impossible). Ridley loves kitsch -- karate movies, shoot-'em-ups, Las Vegas -- but he hates intellectual laziness. It's another seemingly paradoxical stance that makes perfect sense to him; the lowbrow can, and should, have just as much as integrity as the high. Think Howard Stern on a loftier plane. "We in Hollywood have the opportunity to do really good stuff, and people do crap," he says impatiently. "Not every movie's going to be great or make a hundred million dollars, but you shouldn't have The Wedding Planner. You shouldn't have Driven. It's just lazy. If you want to try really hard and the movie doesn't work, that's okay. Look at Vanilla Sky. I didn't like it. But it was really ambitious, and it was going after something. You don't blame people for trying to be interesting. But you look at something like The Wedding Plannerand you say, this is stupid. Even Scary Movie tried hard." He thinks. "But Scary Movie 2did not try hard."
I offer that sequels are lousy almost by definition, and he agrees. I go on to say, as gently as possible, that three years ago Ridley himself scripted not only a sequel, but a sequel three times removed -- Beverly Hills Cop IV. Was that, uh, art? "That was the worst thing I ever wrote in my entire life," he says immediately. "I did it because I wrote a number on a piece of paper, a figure, and I said to the filmmakers, 'You're going to pay me this amount of money.' And they agreed and I said okay." It was a typically brazen test of Hollywood conventions, in this case of its legendary bad taste, and Ridley prevailed. Or he didn't. The screenplay languished, and though he initially reasoned that he could pocket the money to invest in more quality projects in the future -- a time-honored tradeoff in the business -- he wound up not being as capable as he thought he was of being, well, lazy. Ridley is almost proud of using elitist Hollywood for his plebeian purpose of buying the American Dream by degrees: a nice home in the Valley, nice things for his wife and family. But in the end, he can't quite stomach selling out. "I actually gave up a lot of the money due me on Beverly Hills Cop IVbecause I said, 'I can't do this,'" he says, a little sheepishly. "I'm still working on it."
IF HE HAD TO CASH OUT OF THE business tomorrow, Ridley says, "I would take all my money and go to Vegas and drink and gamble." He and his wife spend a lot of time in that capital city of contradictions -- large money and no money, high suites and one-story motels, crown princes and trailer trash, a bulging horn of plenty packed into a relatively few square miles of wasteland desert. Vegas' downscale downtown is actually his neighborhood of choice. "When I get to Vegas, I look around, and as far as I'm concerned, everybody'sridiculous. And anybody who's not you is ridiculous."
What if he lost it all in Vegas? "Everybody loses. If I retired, I'd say, 'I've had a great run, I'm dying anyway. Fuck it, I'm in Vegas.' I'd be like Dean Martin, living in Hamburger Hamlet and falling apart. All these guys like Hemingway and Hunter Thompson, that's what they did -- drink, gamble, go to bullfights," he says half seriously, half wistfully. "When you do that, you know you're a good writer."
Las Vegas is central to his last book, A Conversation With the Mann, a grand fable set in the late '50s and early '60s about an ambitious black comic who dreams of scoring The Ed Sullivan Show, but who must navigate the treacherous waters of racism and contend with numerous personal demons along the way. The book swings like Sinatra and is over-the-top in its way, but it's by far the most earthbound Ridley novel -- the plot hangs around many real incidents and real people, like Emmett Till's murder and Sammy Davis' challenge of the color barrier in Vegas clubs. When Ridley talks about Mann, he comes closest to saying that his work might matter beyond its entertainment value. "I feel really good about getting that book out," he says. "I did a lot of research. I think the subject matter, not the book itself, is really important -- it's a black guy, it's the 1950s, and it's about struggle, it's about characters, it's about so many things. It was a weird time in America. There was all this great stuff around that I couldn't have enjoyed, like Jackie Mann, because I'm black. This was when America changed."
Jackie is not him, by the way ("no more so than any other character in any other book"), but he admits that the novel was inspired by trials of his own. He has likened his early time in Hollywood to taking a Freedom Ride. He once showed up for a big meeting at Brillstein-Grey and was mistaken for a courier; he sat in a story meeting with a white staffer who was genuinely surprised to learn that black people celebrated Thanksgiving just like the rest of the country. These aren't exactly the indignities suffered by Jackie Mann, but they're analogous. "The book is about 10 years of being in Hollywood. It's about 10 years of being a black guy in Hollywood, or hearing great Hollywood stories, 10 years of going to Vegas and also 10 years of good stuff of the entertainment business: 10 years of living." Many have wondered if A Conversation With the Mannsignals a new aesthetic maturity for Ridley, an ideological settling down. He adamantly says no; The Driftreturns to his signature noir luridness, set aboard the rail cars inhabited by hoboes, and his novel due out next year is science fiction.