Writing to Live in Hollywood
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s <i>Pat Hobby Stories</i> and the Coen Brothers' <i> Barton Fink</i> are twisted, nightmarish takes on what happens when writers come to Hollywood—they're often crushed by the bureaucratic machinations of the small-minded...
Image by Courtney Nicholas
It’s safe to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a poor relationship with Hollywood. He had three periods of steady work with the studios: in 1927, at the height of his fame; in 1931, when he was in need of money for treatment for his wife, Zelda; and in 1937, when he was on contract with MGM making a paltry sum compared to what he was paid in the 20s. All of these Hollywood sojourns ended in frustration for both Fitzgerald and the studios.
Fitzgerald spent the last year and a half of his life in Los Angeles. At that point, his only steady income was from the piecemeal sale of the Pat Hobby Stories to Esquire. The Pat Hobby Stories are the collected tales of a desperate hack scriptwriter who shuffles around the studios of Hollywood scrambling for work to pay for his drinking. Fitzgerald died at the age of 44 from a series of heart attacks before he could effectively organize the stories into a cohesive work for Scribner. It wasn’t until 20 years after his death that the Pat Hobby Stories were collected into a single volume.
The Pat Hobby Stories are Fitzgerald’s final testament on Hollywood. In a twisted way, they are also his last nightmarish take on his own place as a great writer brought down by circumstance. Bruce L. Chipman pointed out in his book on Hollywood novels called Into America’s Dream-Dump that the Pat Hobby character is probably “the frightening image of what Fitzgerald saw himself becoming.” Like Fitzgerald at the end of his life, Pat is dependent on intermittent Hollywood jobs to make ends meet. But although Fitzgerald had suffered from debt and demoralization, he was nowhere near the depraved and irredeemable state that Pat Hobby has succumbed to. So Pat Hobby is not an autobiographical figure as much as a clown that allowed Fitzgerald to write about his plight as a writer who was writing to live, rather than as an author who was living to write. The distinction between the two is made clear to an east coast novelist by Pat Hobby in the story “Mightier Than the Sword.”
“Authors get a tough break out here,” Pat said sympathetically. “They never ought to come.”
“Who’d make up the stories—these feebs?”
“Well anyhow, not authors,” said Pat. “They don’t want authors. They want writers—like me.”
Here the difference between authors of literary pretension and writers in the studio system is showcased as a product of the amount of artistic autonomy that each maintains in their respective fields. In this dichotomy, Hollywood is painted as the destroyer of an individual’s artistic voice that operates only to serve the masses and procure huge commercial returns.
Like Pat Hobby, the Coen brothers’ film Barton Fink perfectly encapsulates this clash between art and commerce in the making of motion pictures, offering a whole new perspective to the term “film business.” Pat Hobby and Barton Fink are writers who are victims of the grinding machinery of the studio system. Pat is more or less a passive and accepting victim, while Barton is an artist new to Hollywood who tries to flout the commercialization of his work by writing with an individual voice. Barton—unlike Pat, but much like Fitzgerald—is a celebrated writer when he comes to Hollywood. And much like Fitzgerald was on his arrival, Barton is treated like a celebrity. Although, Barton is welcomed with great enthusiasm by the head of the studio, he doesn’t choose to capitalize on his cultural capital by going to parties and socializing with the Hollywood insider set.
Both Barton Fink and Pat Hobby also have to contend with producers that care nothing about art, and although Barton fights this situation, Hobby accepts it. Hobby’s facetious attitude regarding novelists in Hollywood belies Fitzgerald’s own resentment about his treatment by the studios.
Unlike Fitzgerald and Barton, Pat started in film and has no literary baggage. Pat doesn’t even serve the studio, his m.o. is to make money while doing as little work as possible. He’s not even a craftsman producing the studio vision, he’s a leech who has been created by the factory system of the movie industry. Pat believes the schlock of Hollywood is so bad that you can’t take pride in it, you have to milk the system just as it milks the public. He is the inverse of an artist. But through his character, Fitzgerald has his revenge on Hollywood by showing the world the byproduct of the studio system.
One way Barton Fink explores the ugliness of Hollywood is through the differences between writing for the screen and writing other forms of prose. Barton comes from the theater world. Although theater is a middle ground between novelists and screenplay writers, writers of theater are generally unfamiliar with the potential for wide ranging action possible in film. Jack Lipnick, the studio head in Barton Fink, has his own version of what works in the movies and brow beats Barton with it when Barton turns in a screenplay that was supposed to be for a B-picture, but Barton pumped it “full of soul”:
“Hell, I could take you through it step by step, explain why your story stinks, but I won't insult your intelligence. Well all right, first of all: This is a wrestling picture; the audience wants to see action, drama, wrestling, and plenty of it. They don't wanna see a guy wrestling with his soul—well, all right, a little bit, for the critics—but you make it the carrot that wags the dog. Too much of it and they head for exits and I don't blame 'em. There's plenty of poetry right inside that ring, Fink.”
After Jack berates him, Barton replies back, “I tried to show you something beautiful. Something about all of us.” But Barton’s problem is that the studio isn’t making movies to edify people, and Jack didn’t hire Barton for his abilities, he hired him for the cultural capital that he provides. Jack wants to throw a little culture into his product, “for the critics,” but he believes that too much of it will kill ticket sales. This situation is even more ironic because Barton wants to write for the common man, but instead his material is deemed too artistic for common tastes.
Fitzgerald had his own take on the kind of material fit for movies versus the material fit for novels. In his other Hollywood novel, the unfinished Love of the Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald has his hero, the artistic producer Monroe Stahr, distill the essence of what works in film. In the scene the novelist is once again a kind of straw man for Fitzgerald to bludgeon with his concepts, but here they are told in earnest as Monroe is depicted as possibly the only artist in Hollywood,
“I can’t get what I write on paper,” broke out Boxley. “You’ve all been very decent, but it’s a sort of conspiracy. Those two hacks you’ve teamed me with listen to what I say, but they spoil it—they seem to have a vocabulary of about a hundred words.”
“Why don’t you write it yourself?” asked Stahr.
“I have. I sent you some.”
“But it was just talk, back and forth,” said Stahr mildly. “Interesting talk but nothing more. . .”
“I don’t think you people read things. The men are dueling when the conversation takes place. At the end, one of them falls into a well and has to be hauled up in a bucket.”
He barked again and subsided.
“Would you write that in a book of your own, Mr. Boxley?”
“What? Naturally not.”
“You’d consider it too cheap.”
“Movie standards are different,” said Boxley hedging.
“Do you ever go to them?”
“Isn’t it because people are always dueling and falling down wells?”
“Yes—and wearing strained facial expressions and talking incredible and unnatural dialogue.”
The novelist feels he is lowering himself to work among philistines and his work reflects that. The writer here doesn’t put his soul into the screenplay because he doesn’t even care about films, similar to Barton, who admits he hasn’t even seen many films.
William Faulkner is loosely depicted in the film Barton Fink as the character W.P. Mayhew, a novelist who has succumbed to the bottle and cares nothing for his screenplay work. The real William Faulkner worked in Hollywood, had a horrible time, had an affair with a script supervisor, was almost fired for drinking many times, and was saved only by the endorsement of Howard Hawks. He hated working there and only did it because he would make more in a month than he did working two years on a classic like Absalom, Absalom. After ten years, he was finally able to stop working in Hollywood when he sold the film rights to his book Sanctuary for $60,000.
The difference in form between the Pat Hobby Stories and Barton Fink speaks the powerful standing that creative people have in the film business today versus the control that money-making studios had over Hollywood in the past. Fitzgerald was on the lower side of the hierarchy in his day, while the Coens are at the top of theirs—they can make exactly what they want. When Fitzgerald wrote the Pat Hobby Stories he was at the end of a devastating professional downslide. He had been fired from MGM and his literary output was all but forgotten. On the other hand, the Coen Brothers have stated that Barton Fink in no way represented their experiences in Hollywood because they have actually been allowed to do all the projects they want, the way they want. In Fitzgerald’s day, the directors, writers, and actors had no power. It was the studio heads that pulled all the strings.
Of all the irredeemable characters in Fitzgerald’s Hollywood fiction, Monroe Stahr of the Love of the Last Tycoon is the one person within the studio system who is trying to create worthwhile art. Monroe represents Fitzgerald’s ideals of individual creativity in the film industry, and of course he is crushed by the bureaucratic machinations of the small-minded participants around him. Because Fitzgerald did not have success in Hollywood, he had to turn to fiction to express his grievances about the business that rejected him. Like Fitzgerald with his Pat Hobby Stories, the Coens do a funny take on the impositions Hollywood makes on writers’ artistic contributions in Barton Fink, but the major difference between Fitzgerald’s and the Coens is that the Coens actually made a film. They are on the inside of Hollywood to the extent that they can get their movies produced—something Fitzgerald was never able to do to the same esteem he attained with his literature. Fitzgerald was like the novelist in the Pat Hobby Stories who is run out of Hollywood and his only recourse for revenge is to write a novel about his experiences, “When I do write a book,” he says. “I’ll make you the laughing stock of the nation.”
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