American Dream Machine is the story of two talent agents and their three troubled boys, heirs to Hollywood royalty. It's a sweeping narrative about fathers and sons, the movie business, and the sundry sea changes that have shaped Hollywood and, by extension, American life.
Beau Rosenwald—overweight, not particularly handsome, and improbably charismatic—arrives in Los Angeles in 1962 with nothing but an ill-fitting suit and a pair of expensive brogues. By the late 1970s he has helped found the most successful agency in Hollywood. Through the eyes of his son, we watch Beau and his partner go to war, waging a seismic battle that redraws the lines of an entire industry. We watch Beau rise and fall and rise again, in accordance with the cultural transformations that dictate the fickle world of movies. We watch Beau's partner, the enigmatic and cerebral Williams Farquarsen, struggle to contain himself, to control his impulses and consolidate his power. And we watch two generations of men fumble and thrive across the LA landscape, learning for themselves the shadows and costs exacted by success and failure.
About the Author
Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, and other publications. He is a founding editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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American Dream Machine
By Matthew Specktor
Tin House BooksCopyright © 2013 Matthew Specktor
All right reserved.
They closed down the Hamlet on Sunset last night. That old plush palace, place where Dean Martin drank himself to death on Tuesdays, where my father and his friends once had lunch every weekend and the maître d’ was quick to kiss my old man’s hand. Like the one they called the other Hamlet” in Beverly Hills, and the regular other Hamlet” in Century City . . . all of these places now long gone. Hollywood is like that. Its forever institutions, so quick to disappear. The Hamburger Hamlet, the one on Sunset, was in a class by itself. Red leather upholstery, dark booths, the carpets patterned with a radical and problematic intaglio. Big windows flung sun in front, but farther in the interior was dim, swampy. Waitresses patrolled the tables, the recessed depths where my father’s clients, men like Stacy Keach and Arthur Hill, sat away from human scrutiny. Most often their hair was mussed and they were weeping. Or they were exultant, flashing lavish smiles and gold watches, their bands’ mesh grain muted by the ruinous lighting, those overhead bulbs that shone down just far enough to make the waitresses’ faces look like they were melting under heat lamps. And yet the things that were consummated there: divorces, deals! I saw George Clooney puking in one of the ficuses back by the men’s room, one time when I was in.
Unless it was somebody else. The one thing I’ve learned, growing up in Los Angeles: it’s always someone else. Even if it is the person you thought it was the first time. I helped him up. I laid my hand on the back of George Clooney’s collar. He was wearing a blue jacket with a deeper velveteen lapel, like an expensive wedding singer. This, and white bucks.
Are you all right?”
Yeah.” He spat. They make the Manhattans here really strong.”
We were near the kitchen, too, and could smell bacon, frying meat, other delicacieslike Welsh rarebitI would describe if they still had any meaning, if they existed any longer.
I’ll buy you one and you can check it out.”
I helped him back to his table. I remember his touch was feathery. He clutched my arm like a shy bride. Clooney wasn’t Clooney yet, but I, unfortunately, was myself.’91? ’92? The evening wound on, and on and on and on: Little Peter’s, the Havoc House. Eventually, Clooney and I ended up back at someone’s place in the Bird Streets, above Doheny.
Why are you dressed like that?” I said.
Like what?” In my mind, the smile is Clooney’s exactly, but at the time all he’d said was that he was an actor named Sam or Dave or (in fact I think he actually did say) George, but I’ll never know. Why am I dressed like what?”
Like a fucking prom date from the retro future. Like an Italian singer who stumbled into a golf shop.” I pointed. What the hell is with those shoes?”
Hey,” he said. Check the stitching. Hand-soled.”
We were out back of this house, whosever it was, drinking tequila. Cantilevered up above the city, lolling in director’s chairs. Those houses sell for a bajillion dollars nowadays, but then it was just some crappy rental where a friend of a friend was chasing a girl around a roomful of mix-and-match furniture, listening to the Afghan Whigs or the Horny Horns or the Beach Boysmy favorite band of all time, by the wayor else a bunch of people were crowded around a TV watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on videocassette. It didn’t matter. Mr. Not-Quite-or-Not-Yet-Clooney and I were outside watching the sun come up, and we were either two guys who would someday be famous or two rudderless fuck-ups in our midtwenties. He was staring out at the holy panorama of Los Angeles at dawn, and I couldn’t get my eyes off his shoes.
Why am I dressed like this?” My new friend wrung his hands together limply. I ought to sell that fact to a tabloid, to prove Clooney is gay. I was at a function,” he said.
What kind of function? A convention of Tony Bennett fans? A mob wedding?”
I don’t remember what he said next. I think he said, I was in Vegas, and I asked him how much he’d lost. I probably gave him a sloppy kiss. I knew it was you, Fredo! There was an empty swimming pool nearby. It must’ve been February. Italian cypresses rose up in inviting cones, the scalloped houses dropped off in stages beneath us, and eventually the whole hill flattened out into that ash-colored plane, that grand and gray infinity that is Los Angeles from up above: God’s palm, checkered with twinkling lights and crossed with hot wind.
I can never remember the words to this one . . . ”
What,” I said. It’s mostly moaning.”
They’re all mostly moaning.”
George and I went digging into the old soul music catalog, to prove our masculine bona fides. None of those Motown lite, Big Chill-type classics that turdscaped so many of my father’s late eighties productions. We went for the nonsense numbers, the real obscurities. We sang Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” The Whap Whap Song,” Oogum Boogum,” Lobster Betty.” A couple of those might not have been real, but we did ’em anyway.
Thanks,” he said. I was up for The Doors but I never got a callback.”
We spent the rest of the night drinking and singing. People blame Los Angeles for so many things, but my own view is tender, forgiving. I love LA with all of my heart. This story I have to tell doesn’t have much to do with me, but it isn’t about some bored actress and her existential crises, a troubled screenwriter who comes to his senses and hightails it back to Illinois. It’s not about the vacuous horror of the California dream. It’s something that could’ve happened anywhere else in the world, but instead settled, inexplicably, here. This city, with its unfortunate rap. It deserves warmer witness than dear old Joan Didion.
Don’t do that, man.” My voice echoed. I clapped my friend on the shoulder. Don’t do the pleading-and-testifying thing. You’ll hurt your knees!”
I’m all right.”
By the time we were done, we were deep into the duos, those freaky-deaky pairs from Texas or Mississippi: Mel & Tim; Maurice & Mac; Eddie & Ernie. Those gap-toothed couples who’d managed to eke out a single regional hit before fading back into their hard-won obscurity. My new friend seemed to know them all, and by the time we were finished I didn’t know which of us was Mel and which Tim, which of us had died in a boarding house and which, the lucky one I presume, still gigged around Jacksonville. Him, probably. He was dressed for it.
I should get going,” he said, at last.
Right.” Not like either of us had anywhere to be at this hour, but he needed to go off and get famous and I needed to find my jacket and a mattress. A man shouldn’t postpone destiny. Later.”
We embraced, and I believe he groped my groin. After that I never saw him again, not if he was not, as I am now forced to consider, George Clooney. I just watched him climb the steps out of the swimming pool, into which we’d descended in order to get the correct echo, the right degree of reverb on our voices. This was what it was like inside a vocal booth at Stax, or when the Beach Boys recorded Good Vibrations” at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. So we told one another, and perhaps we were right. For a moment I remained in this sunken hole in the ground that was like a grave slathered with toothpasteit was that perfect bland turquoise colorand sang that song about the dark end of the street, how it’s where we’ll always meet. But I stopped, finally. Who wants to sing alone?
This is what I remember, when I think of the Hamlet on Sunset. This, and a few dozen afternoons with my dad and half brother, the adolescent crucible in which I felt so uncomfortable, baffled by my paternity and a thousand other things. Clooney’s cuffs; the faint flare of his baby-blue trousers; the mirrored aviator shades, like a cop’s, he slipped on before he left. It was ten thirty in the morning. I held a bottle of blanco by its neck and looked over at the pine needles, the brittle coniferous pieces that had gathered around the drain. Clooney’s bucks had thick rubber soles and made a fricative sound as he crossed the patio, then went through the house and out. I heard the purr of his Honda Civic, its fading drone as he wound down the hill and left me behind with my thoughts.
A Conversation with Matthew Specktor, author of American Dream Machine
American Dream Machine is set strongly in Los Angeles. It portrays the city in a way that’s incredibly vivid, it looks like LA, it feels like LA, a city that is famously hostile to writers. What role does place play in your writing?
LA seems to have suffered over the years as the object of satire, derision and hostility. In fact, with the possible exception of Chandler, it’s hard to think of a great writer who’s treated Los Angeles without pronounced ambivalence. Less Than Zero , The Day of The Locust , Play it As it Lays , The Player , What Makes Sammy Run . These books all organize themselves around a pretty jaundiced view of LA, or certainly of Hollywood. That’s fair: they’re all great books, and I think literature isn’t where you go for false optimism. At the same time, I wanted to treat Los Angeles very differently. I grew up here, and I wanted to shower as much thoughtful affection upon it as I could, the way that Philip Roth did upon Newark or Saul Bellow did upon Chicago, etc. I wanted to paint a more comprehensive picture of this place in its warmer, and more human, dimensions. To address not just glamor and disillusion, but also the more homely aspects of the movie business. Which in so many respects isn’t much different from any other.
The book is about a talent agency, and the movies. To what extent did the movies influence the book?
I went to the movies a lot when I was a kid. I went to screenings and saw films when they weren’t especially appropriate, for instance I remember a Woody Allen double bill of Bananas and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex taken in when I was seven or eight years old, and I think I saw A Clockwork Orange when I was eleven. I grew up on, in, and around the Los Angeles of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. There was always a sense of intimate relation, because of my parents’ work, the people who made the movies were always around . I worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency when I was thirteen (I was the second person to join what would become a traditionthe Summer Campers”), and I did coverage for their story department when I was in high school. The industry infiltrated me from a very young age. And as it is for any writer, I think, the challenge was what to do with it, with what was ultimately a very ordinary experiencethe regular human stuff of adolescence. Feeling awkward and overmatched within the adult world. Feeling bored. The intermittent apparitions of glamor that appearedcoming back from a movie theater where I’d snuck off to see Risky Business and immediately stepping into an elevator with Rebecca DeMornaydidn’t really change any of that. It was still just . . . teenage life, with its standard distresses.
Is Beau Rosenwald, your protagonist, based on anyone in particular? He’s someone who might strike readers as not necessarily likeable,’
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An Interview with Matthew Specktor by Dana Spiotta
Q: Let's start with the title. Can you tell me about it? There is an earnestness in the novelalmost a nostalgiaabout the idea of the American dream. Beau seems to have some purchase on it that isn't available to his son Nate. Were you thinking about the way the possibilities of America have declined since the 1960s?
A: The title came to me early, almost before I was sure how I'd apply it inside the novel. I was interested not just in the decline of the so-called American Dream (though yes, I was acutely conscious of how our material possibilities have altered in the last half century), but also in the mechanics of "dreaming" itself. The Dream Machine of the title isn't just the agency, but Nate, the narrator and the author. So much of our livesour political lives, as well as our private onesare motivated by speculation, hope, the things we merely imagine. This is why we read books, watch TV, and elect politicians. It's why we fall in love and raise families. All these things are predicated on our imaginative being, far more than on what we like to call "reality." Beau seems to belong to a time where the disjunct between the hoped for and the actual wasn't so overt, or at least so publicly so. Was anyone this cynical in the 1960s or 70s?
Q: Your depiction of Los Angeles of the 1970s is striking without being self-conscious. (Can we just agree that LA circa 1970-80 was the best/worst place in America?) How did you manage to write about LA/movie business without falling into all the clichés of the Hollywood novel? Is there something specific about the nature of the film industry and its relationship to our cultural memory that affects these characters? (In other words, could the novel have been about investment bankers and their sons instead?)
A: Well, I really fought to keep those cliches at bay. Mostly, I felt that by plunging into Beausuch a mercurial, problematic, and yet deeply human personality, always warm and engagedI could keep the slicker elements of Hollywood out of it. I don't think there's a moment in the book where he seems superficial, or false. (Crazy, perhaps, but that's another story.) He might not be educated, he might live in something of an eternal, desperately optimistic presenta quality I think IS specific to Hollywood, or at least it used to bebut he's never stupid or cold. And I think there is something about the movie business, with its deeply speculative nature, its relative lack of historical awareness that becomes, in the span of a generation, an almost paralyzing self-consciousness (it's different for Beau than it is for his sons). All of that seems very particular to Hollywood. Sons of investment bankers may shoulder a similar burden, but the historical consciousness runs a little deeper. There's rarely that radical change from one generation to the next.
Q: Usually Hollywood agents are depicted as cynical and money mad (eg Entourage). But Beau has a need to imprint himself on the world that goes beyond money. Beau is such a convincing character because you depict him as so eccentric and human. I found myself rooting for him even when he was doing awful things. He has great charisma, but he is also sometimes repulsive and self-destructive. How did you go about inventing him? Did you understand what motivated him right from the beginning?
A: You say it yourself, here. Beau's need to imprint himself upon the world goes beyond money. I think we ALL have a need to imprint ourselves on the world beyond money. That's why you and I write novels (unlessyou're not getting crazy rich at this, are you?),why we have professions and raise families, and why Beau was actually fairly easy to understand. He lacks means, in some respects: he's not very verbally intelligent, and seems to be missing whatever it is that lets some of us mediate our impulses a little better. He flies off the handle. But what he really wants is the same thing everybody does, or should: he wants recognition, absolution, acceptance of his flaws. And I gave him a lot of qualities that would make him hard to accept, from the beginning. I made him ugly to an almost alien degree. And then let him be humanized by his own experience. Which seemed a nice way of counterweighting the book's Hollywood setting as well.
Q: In American Dream Machine, you write compellingly about sons and fathers. The sons of very successful men have a special burden to bear. LA, as well as NY, is full of young men of privilege undone by the success of their fathers. Did you observe a lot of these struggles growing up in Los Angeles? What do you think makes the difference for the men who manage to make their own lives despite living in the shadows of their successful fathers' lives?
A: I suspect both of us observed those struggles. (As you say, Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s was the best/worst place in the country. We were there!) I wasn't too acutely conscious of them at the timeno doubt, I sort of pushed off thinking about them for personal reasonsbut yeah. Success is a burden, for those who achieve it, as well as for their families. I think we've all seen enough casualties of iton both coasts, and in European aristocraciesto accept this as axiomatic, and not specific to Hollywood at all. And I think it's helpful for the children of successful parents to have their own testing ground, a separate arena to enter. It's easier for Severin than for Nate, in the book, because the former is a novelist. The latter finds himself tempted into film. (And Little Will, who doesn't seem to have a vocation at all, winds up in the greatest amount of trouble.) But of course all of these three young men might just be aspects of one personality, namely my own.
Q: You write screenplays as well as novels. Which do you prefer and why? Do you think of yourself as a novelist first? What interests you about writing novels?
A: They're such wildly different pursuits. It's almost like being a musician and a sculptor, or maybe a musician and a bartender. I'm a novelist by nature, and a screenwriter mostly by trade. I get such delight from writing novels, as I do from reading them: I get insight, recognition, joy on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Movies don't provide that in quite the same way, much as I love them. They're delightful, but I don't use them to chart my own consciousness. Only novels do that. In that respect, I'm more like Severin than I am like his dad. Literature might not be as central to popular culture as film or TV, but it has such vitality. It's where I feel most alive.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The one reviewer when I purchased this book gave it a 5 star rating -- it must have come from the Author or his Mother. I've only read up to page 126 and can't read any further. As a reader I could not care any less about what happens to the characters of the story, perhaps it the style of nearly free thought writing. If I could get a refund I would ask for it -- save your money, there HAVE to be better books about the 70's Hollywood era out there to spend you money and time.
I can understand how the author might have a few enemies.
I thought it was me. Every time I sat down to read I'd start and before I knew it I was just glossing over words on the page. I was bound and determined to finish but struggled to get to p.200 at which point I decided I'm done. I think the writing and descriptions are wonderful but not much ever happens. I'm starting off theNew Year with a other book. Life is too short to waste my time.
The subject of the story sounded so interesting, I forced myself to continue reading in spite of the unlikable characters and slow predictable pacing. Unfortunately the ending was not worth the journey. Too long with little to say.
I thought that I would enjoy the setting but found that the story wasn't holding my interest. I tried to push through, but abandoned it half way in.