Film and TV

Why Has the Greatest Hollywood Novel Never Been Made Into a Hollywood Movie?

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Wed, Jul 10, 2013 at 3:59 PM
  • The original cast recording for Broadway's version of What Makes Sammy Run?: Yes, it was a musical.

It was a live television drama in 1949. It was a two-part TV series in 1959. It was even, improbably, turned into a lavish Broadway musical in 1964.

But a feature film of What Makes Sammy Run?

Never happened.

Never gonna happen.

See also: And The Best L.A. Novel Ever Is...

18 L.A. Literary Figures Pick Their Favorite L.A. Novels.

So what makes Hollywood run away from Sammy Glick? Why hasn't the greatest Hollywood novel of all time been turned into a Hollywood movie?

Bottom line: An industry that never hesitates to expose the worst side of business or politics doesn't want to look in the mirror.

And you can blame that reluctance on two giants of Hollywood from two vastly different eras: Louis B. Mayer, who ran MGM for 27 years, and Steven Spielberg, arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood today.

In the beginning, when the novel was first published in 1941, creating the timeless template for the no-conscience, no morals Hollywood hustler, Mayer denounced it publicly. Privately he vowed to run author Budd Schulberg out of Hollywood - something he nearly accomplished before Schulberg made a great comeback with On the Waterfront in 1954 and A Face in the Crowd in 1957.

More recently you can blame it on Spielberg, the prolific director who doubles as one of the three principals of DreamWorks SKG.

That's who Schulberg pinned the blame on before he died in 2009 at age 95.

"He said it's anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed," Schulberg told a British publication, The Independent, shortly before his death.

And since DreamWorks controls the film rights, it's likely that it will never be made into a film.

The amazing part about the Sammy shutout is that Hollywood has never shied away from cannibalizing itself when there was money in it. Sunset Boulevard in 1950 shined a gothic glare on the fate of big stars like Gloria Swanson who made the mistake of growing old. The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952 featured Kirk Douglas as a great producer and a terrible person. The Big Knife in 1957 portrayed Rod Steiger as an even more ruthless producer and Jack Palance as his star-turned-victim. As recently as 1992, The Player featured Tim Robbins as a studio exec who actually murders a screenwriter and gets away with it. And it's easy to see amoral agent Ari Gold in Entourage as the latest iteration of the Sammy Glick persona.

But the prototype for all those Hollywood heels never made it to the big screen. The closest it came was in 1997, when Ben Stiller approached Warner Bros., which then controlled the novel's rights. Warners told him to start developing the project if he would star and direct it.

"Ben was born to play Sammy Glick," says Jerry Stahl, whom Stiller hired to help develop the script. For more than three years Stahl worked with Stiller, playing with various ways of updating the story -- including moving it to the music business, injecting a drug-abuse angle and turning Sammy into a woman -- before deciding to keep Schulberg's original time, place and gender.

In 2001 DreamWorks acquired the rights. In true Sammy Glick fashion, it signed a $2.6 million deal with Stiller's production company to continue developing the project -- with apparently no intention of actually making the film.

"It just kind of went away," Stahl says diplomatically. "I guess the money fell through. Somebody in the studio went thumbs down."

Neither Stiller nor Spielberg returned calls seeking comment on the project's death.

But, Spielberg's queasiness aside, it's worth wondering whether the point of Schulberg's morality tale may be lost on modern audiences. Stahl recalls a dispiriting anecdote from its author: "Budd told me about some agent from CAA who told him, in all seriousness, that it was a cool how-to-get-ahead book."

See also: And The Best L.A. Novel Ever Is...

18 L.A. Literary Figures Pick Their Favorite L.A. Novels.

Contact the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net or follow him on Twitter @paulteetor. Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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