The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Brett Ratner: Hollywood's newest book publisher

March 26, 2009 | 12:10 pm

Ratpress1_3Brett Ratner has a library full of books about filmmakers and their work experiences. So it's hardly a surprise to discover that the director behind the "Rush Hour" films has decided to start publishing books himself.

He's just launched a new series of film books through his Rat Press imprint, including a James Toback memoir about his friendship with NFL running back turned actor Jim Brown, as well as two interview books from longtime Playboy Q&A king Lawrence Grobel -- a collection of interviews with producer Robert Evans and an updated account of Grobel's fascinating 1978 interviews with Marlon Brando.

"If I wasn't a publisher, I'd still be handing out copies to my friends anyway," Ratner told me the other day. "I gave a copy of the Toback book to the Hughes brothers, because they're really interested in Jim Brown. I've given copies of the Brando book to Warren Beatty and Jeff Berg. To me, these are stories from some of the great characters who helped me understand the movie business. The whole idea is to have a series of books that makes a part of Hollywood history available to everyone."

It's no coincidence that the books are all about Hollywood characters who were in their prime during the 1960s and early 1970s. "I grew up in that period, which for me was the greatest time for creativity in the film business," said Ratner. "But what all these guys have in common is that they're great storytellers. When you read about Toback living with Jim Brown for two years, you feel like you're right there, getting to see the parties and the orgies. These guys all had a great time, not just in their social lives, but they had a great time making movies."

Having read the new volumes myself, I'd say the best of the three is Grobel's Brando interviews. Toback's book, titled "Jim: The Author's Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown," is -- as advertised -- more about Toback than Brown. Originally published in 1971, it offers some vintage glimpses of late '60s Hollywood nightlife, but its tough-guy philosophizing feels pretty dated. Grobel's book on Evans, "Robert Evans in Conversation with Lawrence Grobel," doesn't break any new ground, but it delivers some intriguing nuggets about the making of "The Godfather," notably that it was Brando who recommended that Pacino play Michael Corleone (Evans' first choice was Alain Delon).

Longtime Evans fans have probably heard most of the stories before, but it's always a pleasure to hear them told in Evans' inimitable voice. When Grobel asks Evans how he met Ali McGraw, he explains that he fell in love with her watching dailies of "Goodbye Columbus." "I got her to fly out for one night to look at Arthur Hiller's 'The Out-of-Towners,' " he says. "She came here, never saw the movie, never left my house. Until she dumped me three years later."

Grobel's Brando conversations, which are for the most part culled from his voluminous 1978 Playboy sessions, are totally fascinating, not just because they capture Brando's often-baffling eccentricities, but because the interviews sweep back the curtain on the whole tug of war gamesmanship of celebrity journalism. When Grobel asks, in an earnest tone, why Brando has finally agreed to do an extensive interview, the actor bluntly reminds him that he's only spilling his guts because Playboy chief Hugh Hefner gave Brando $50,000 to help get Indian activist Russell Means out of jail.

Why did Brando understand the contradictions of celebrity journalism better than anyone? Keep reading:

Even 30 years ago, long before tabloid TV and TMZ were a gleam in anyone's eyes, Brando had a shrewd grasp of how celebrity journalism operated. As he tells Grobel: "I was very slow in realizing that money was the principle motivation in any interview. Not necessarily directly, but indirectly. We're money-bound people and everything we do has to do with money, more or less. I am a commodity sitting here. You're making money, your publisher's making money, and I suppose, in some way, I'm making money. If money were not involved, you wouldn't be sitting here asking me questions, because you wouldn't be getting paid for it.... I'm paying a debt, so to speak. People look for the money questions, the money answers, and they wait for a little flex of gelt in the conversation."

When Grobel argues that the public has a genuine interest in movie stars, Brando retorts: "You know perfectly well that you don't interview out-of-work movie stars and people who can't get a job. I just happen to be lucky and have had a couple of hits and some controversial pictures, but I was down the tubes not long ago."

Grobel: "And no one's wanted to interview you then?"

Brando: "You can see it on the faces of the air hostesses' expressions, you can see it when you rent a car, you can see it when you walk into a restaurant. If you've made a hit movie, then you get the full thirty-two-teeth display in some places, and if you've faded, they say, 'Are you still making movies?' "

Brando was incorrigibly candid. He says he hated being directed by Charlie Chaplin. When asked to name his favorite comedians, he dismisses the Marx Brothers, rattling off Richard Pryor, Don Rickles and Moms Mabley instead. He gives a hilarious account of meeting JFK at a Beverly Hills political fundraiser: "He was table-hopping, as he had to, and he said, 'How are you, nice to meet you' -- he didn't say that, but he had his shtick. I said to him, 'Aren't you bored?' He looked at me and said, 'No, I'm not bored.' I said, 'You've got to be bored.' He thought I was being hostile. But then he realized that he was bored having to do that, going around, people gawking at you."

And, of course, Brando was perhaps the first great actor to display open disdain for the Oscars and the host of other faux awards that have come to dominate our celebrity culture. "They're ridiculous," he tells Grobel. "We have Golden Globes. They should have an award for the fastest left-handed standby painter who's painted the sets with his left hand at great speed and dropped appreciably less paint on the floor while doing it."

Grobel reminds Brando that he even turned down an NAACP Humanitarian Award. "Yeah, I did," he says. "I don't believe in any awards of any kind."

Grobel: "You did, however, accept the Academy Award in 1954."

Brando: "I've done a lot of silly things in my day."