Friday, May 7, 2010
Book Review | High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess
by Thomas Delapa
In a town all-too-famous for its meteoric rises and falls, Don Simpson may not belong in the same orbit of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or even “Fatty” Arbuckle, but if any producer symbolized the revved-up, dumbed-down, testosterone-fueled Hollywood of the 1980s, it was Simpson, who died of a drug overdose in 1996 at age 52.
Gone but not forgotten, Simpson’s dubious legacy lives on in the ubiquitous male action flick, as well as in the blockbuster movies of mass distraction made by his one-time partner, Jerry Bruckheimer, including the soggy Pirates of the Caribbean saga. First published in 1998, High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess (Doubleday) is Charles Fleming’s vitriolic, blow-by-blow account of Simpson’s high—and luridly low—times in Hollywood’s fast lane, and it’s worth another look in the rear-view mirror.
Before he crashed and burned, Simpson was one of Tinseltown’s superstar producers, rising to mogul-dom just as New Hollywood risk and experimentation was running out of gas in the late seventies. At the studios—where it’s said you’re only as good as your last movie—Simpson was a guy who always got his phone calls returned.
Short in stature but not in ego, Simpson began his career at Paramount and Warner Bros., breaking out in 1983 with Flashdance, the first in a string of formulaic, dimly-plotted hits that appalled critics and seduced a new youth audience weaned on TV, pop music and the emerging MTV aesthetic. Simpson was a key player in turning “high concept”—catchy plots easily boiled down into one or two sentences—into lowbrow box-office gold. Over the next 15 years, Simpson and Bruckheimer zoomed to the stratosphere, cranking out big-budget hits like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, and Bad Boys, slowed down only by the thunderous dud of Days of Thunder. The team quickly exploited the allure of synthetic pop songs (pasted over the paper-thin plots), selling both Flashdance and Top Gun as essentially long-playing music videos, amped up with sexy hardbodies and hokey fairy-tale heroics.
But in Simpson’s story, there were no happy endings cut from a Tom Cruise movie. Behind the scenes, he became notorious for a lifestyle out of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, not the Hollywood Reporter. His prodigious drug use was an open secret, as were his sordid sexual escapades, which might even embarrass Tiger Woods. A serial womanizer, Simpson was habitually fond of prostitutes (notorious “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss counted him on her A-list) and S&M, and at least one of his former secretaries sued him for sexual harassment. As he aged and fretted over his looks, his addictions crept into all manner of plastic surgery and hormone treatments, which, as Fleming describes, eventually made his face look like “an inflated ball of Naugahyde.” For all his vain efforts—checkered by stints in rehab—Simpson in the nineties went downhill fast. Few were surprised when, on Jan. 19, 1996, he was found dead at his toilet, the victim of the “combined effects of multiple drug intake,” including cocaine. Michael Eisner, his former boss at Disney, said “I had been waiting for this call for 20 years.”
On his death, dozens of his Hollywood friends and cronies rushed to praise him. Screenwriter Joe Ezterhas, no stranger to hype, called him “a true American original.” Others were quick to bury him. In one of the most mordant Hollywood postmortems, director Robert Altman said, “Simpson was a bad guy, a bum. It’s a big plus for our industry that he’s gone. ...”
Altman—truly a cinematic anti-Simpson—is now gone, too. But since Simpson’s inglorious fade-out, it’s hard to say that Hollywood has gotten better. Flying solo, Bruckheimer has thrived, succeeding beyond even Simpson’s wildest dreams with booty collected from the Pirates franchise, National Treasure and the grimly metastasizing CSI TV series. The hyper-real, youth-skewed, post-narrative trends that Simpson seized on the eighties have exploded in the years since, juiced up by digital special effects. Then, as now, nothing in Hollywood succeeds like excess.