Fast Fade: David Puttnam, Columbia Pictures, and the Battle for Hollywood
FFC rating: 2/10
by Andrew Yule
by Walter Chaw Andrew Yule's anecdotal biography-as-memoir of David Puttnam's rise as an independent movie producer and brief run as the head of Columbia Pictures, Fast Fade: David Puttnam, Columbia Pictures, and the Battle for Hollywood is a poorly-written vanity piece that offers a minimum of analysis en route to being tediously repetitive and at least 30 pages too long. Packed to the gills with quotes from Puttnam, his wife Patsy, close friend/director Alan Parker, and an extended cast of British and Hollywood production glitterati, the book finds Yule interjecting occasionally in the tiresome reportage style of a relatively talentless journalist incapable of offering anything in the way of a trenchant critique. Chapter flows into chapter, bound only by chronology and Yule's occasional stultifying transition, e.g.:
David probably did not realize it at the time, but The Mission marked the end of a major phase in his career. A very significant phase was about to begin.
Little commentary is provided as Yule reveals not so much a journalistic detachment as a reluctance to criticize a man he confesses won him over with his legendary charisma. This fatal closeness to his subject results in a collection of stories about David coupled with the opinions of those either friendly or neutral towards the self-important, dangerously ambitious and dishonest Puttnam.
Still, Fast Fade is an interesting read for Hollywood conspiracy theorists and those interested in the tragedy of how one man, no matter how flawed, tried to take on the Hollywood studio system and failed miserably. A David Puttnam and Goliath tale as told by Franz Kafka. Beginning with an account of David's independent days in England through to his involvement with the British Goldcrest studio, his championing of television commercial directors like Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott, Paul Weiland, and Alan Parker, and his first successes with the surprise hit Chariots of Fire and the artistically risky The Killing Fields, the first 171 pages of Fast Fade draw a picture of Puttnam as someone slowly discovering his artistic morality at the hands of critics who excoriated his Midnight Express (director: Alan Parker, writer: Oliver Stone) for its inaccuracies and bloody uplift. Although Puttnam fought the good fight in regards to the homosexual implications of that film's shower scene, the critical lashing so wounded the mogul that he began, so he says, choosing projects based upon their Miltonian "right reason."
The problem with pinning down Puttnam, though, is that what he says is very seldom what he means. His former boss at Columbia Pictures, Fay Vincent, says that David has no qualms about deceiving, proceeding to detail how Puttnam's compulsive lying led to a series of corporate embarrassments that ultimately resulted in his removal from the studio after just over a year into a three-year contract. It's clear that Puttnam, despite Andrew Yule's insistence on painting him as a flawed man of vision, is an almost universally despised and wholly insufferable egoist who got lucky on a couple of long shots, did a good deed by introducing the world to director Bill Forsythe (Local Hero, Housekeeping), and made countless bad decisions as the head of a major movie studio that seem to suggest the road to Hell (and bad cinema) is paved with good intentions.
Part II of Fast Fade details the mad rush and corporate backstabbing of Puttnam's days at Columbia Pictures as its president and head of production. The list of films Puttnam "greenlit" as "outside the package"--that is, having a completed and approved script at the start of financing rather than the more usual practice of finding a premise and a bankable lead first and stewing over such piddling matters as story and dialogue later--is a long and lamentable one. Puttnam describes the Jeff Goldblum/Cyndi Lauper stinker Vibes as his sole "home run" and stakes his Christmas of 1987 on the questionable talents of Bill Cosby and Cosby's dream project, Leonard Part VI. Having earned the ire of Dustin Hoffman over a failed project early in both Hoffman and Puttnam's careers, and later having earned the ire of Warren Beatty during their acrimonious competition for the Best Picture Oscar of 1981 (Beatty's Reds lost to Puttnam/Hudson's Chariots of Fire), Puttnam refused even to screen the Hoffman/Beatty mega-bomb Ishtar, a $40-million-dollar boondoggle it was the responsibility of Puttnam's company to promote and release. (Though it was already in production when Puttnam took power.)
David Puttnam will never be accused of having good taste in films. The ones in which he was intimately involved as on-site producer (That'll Be the Day, Cal, Lisztomania, Chariots of Fire, The Mission, The Killing Fields) are each marked by a sucking vacuum at their core where a heart should beat. That this fatal lack in Puttnam's production is a reflection of an essential absence of ingenuity in the man almost goes without saying. The universal dislike Puttnam seems to have earned can be seen in how every request for a personal assessment of the man by the book's author finishes with "the problem with David is..." If all the professional acquaintances in Puttnam's life are to be believed, the problem with David is that he is duplicitous, treacherous, mercurial, arrogant, deluded, pompous, a bad public speaker, garrulous to the point of treacherous, and particularly bad at picking projects with a big budget and star attached.
Throughout, we hold onto the fact that David's best friend in the business is director Alan Parker (The Wall, Angel Heart)--we hold onto it as proof that the man can't have been that stupid if he made one good friend in his time in show business. By the end, however, it comes as little surprise when we learn that a rift has developed even in this decades-long relationship. As Parker remarks philosophically: "He's warm, charming, concerned, helpful, and unbelievably generous, and he's cold spiteful, selfish, and mean. I know more about him than anybody and I now nothing about him." So, in addition to the acrimony the reader develops for Yule's inability to locate a point in his reportage that wasn't made in the first ten pages, is the acrimony the reader develops for Puttnam, despite Yule's best efforts to paint him as a misunderstood visionary invested in Hollywood purity. The highlight of Fast Fade, then, comes in a partial roll call of films fostered under Puttnam during his brief tenure at Columbia:
Zelly and Me--cost: $2.3 million, gross: $55,000
School Daze--cost: $5.5 million, gross: $14 million
Little Nikita--cost: $15 million, gross: $1.7 million
Stars and Bars--cost: $8 million, gross: $100,000
A Time of Destiny--cost: $9.5 million, gross: 1.2 million
Vice Versa--cost: $18 million, gross: $5 million
Leonard Part VI--cost: est. $40 million, gross: $5 million
That Puttnam had the good sense to pass on swill like Switching Channels and Annie II is not so much a statement of his taste as revealing of personal beefs Puttnam held against the filmmakers involved--not so much an example of Puttnam putting the quality back into Hollywood fare as an example of Hollywood's indescribable ability to unleash an infinite stream of bad movies, year after year.
If I had an inkling, but for a moment, that Yule was being sardonic when he wrote such things as, "One thing is certain: this is a man, for all his human failings, never to underestimate," I would be far more forgiving of the entire enterprise. Truthfully, now, is it even possible to underestimate Puttnam based on his track record? But Yule is deadly earnest in his doomed and indefensible position as defender of the Puttnam legacy, and Fast Fade is an interminable series of terrible lapses in judgment bolstered by weak arguments for Puttnam's dim-witted good intentions. The book might be worth a read if you're interested in seeing a prideful man being humbled repeatedly (speaking now of both Yule and Puttnam), but really it's just 370 pages of breathless, Liz Smith-ian gossip-page apology and meaningless demagoguery.
384 pages; January 1990; ISBN: 0385300069; Doubleday