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One Bitter Hack Takes On The Hollywood Establishment With Compelling Results.

By Zachary Woodruff

AUGUST 10, 1998: 

Sex, Stupidity and Greed, by Ian Grey (Juno). Paper, $15.95.

WHY ARE MOVIES so bad? When film critic Pauline Kael posed this question in a 1980 essay, the answer was complicated. It involved the studio structure, the dumbing-down influence of TV, and the tendency for movie executives to make all their decisions based on bean-counting techniques.

In the nearly 20 years since, the answers have become even more complex. Too complex, if Ian Grey's Sex, Stupidity and Greed is any indication. Grey's sprawling book can barely list all the problems pervading our movie culture, let alone dig deeper into the forces giving those problems momentum. But what a list! In a series of utterly disconnected chapters, he touches on everything imaginable, including misused technology, profit hiding, breast implants, consequence-free screen violence, and the ruination of movies that have to be repeatedly re-cut to get the "correct" rating.

Reading Sex, Stupidity and Greed is akin to channel-surfing through a series of cable stations all focused on a particular variety of cynicism. To say Grey--who once wrote 3,000 short movie reviews for a video guide that never got published--seems bitter barely scratches the surface. As pointed out by one of his interview subjects, he's "downright millennial." Yes, Grey says, the world does owe us good movies, and its inability to provide them suggests our impending doom. But the vertical integration within the industry--wherein the studios and the magazines that review their output are all owned by the same parent companies, and everything is geared toward "blockbusters" with merchandising tie-ins--has turned us into an audience of infants who can't articulate why movies leave us feeling so numb.

Count Grey among the inarticulate: He flubs key details, claiming Joe Eszterhas wrote Fatal Attraction (that's Jagged Edge, Ian) and confidently predicting Titanic, unreleased at the time of his writing, would be a flop (oops). Some of Grey's short chapters barely qualify as paragraphs, and as Wes Craven reminds him during an interview, he often "pushes the linkage"--that is, tries too hard to reduce everything to conspiracy. As another interviewee points out, it's impossible to pin down the root of the evil, which often lies in the system itself, or in the bad taste of well-meaning executives.

But for all its weaknesses, Sex, Stupidity and Greed is thoroughly enjoyable. Grey's non-stop wail against the industry, to whose product he's addicted, mirrors just about every complaint you've ever had at the movies. Why do these big special-effects movies have such lousy stories? Why do independent films with just a hint of gay sex get NC-17 ratings while loathsome, big-studio crap like Basic Instinct gets an R? And why aren't there antitrust actions against all these conglomerates?

The book reads best when Grey avoids giving his own answers. Instead, he interviews everyone in sight--even his own therapist. Discussing his pet peeve about all the actresses who get breast implants, she informs him that while augmentation indicates "a narcissistic, infantile inability to find some sense of self-acceptance," it might also serve an evolutionary purpose if it helps women find a better mate. He also interviews a caterer (and gets some damning dirt on Faye Dunaway), the remarkably successful B-movie actress Julie Strain, a biographer of Tod Browning (the creator of the aptly metaphorical Freaks), and a scribe who makes a good living rewriting scripts that have already been tweaked by dozens of others and will never see the light of day.

But the most telling interviews are with the insider-outsiders: horror director Wes Craven; schlock director John Waters; and Heathers director Michael Lehmann, who has spent a large portion of his career trying to recover from Hudson Hawk. The feather in Grey's cap is an interview with actress Sean Young, whose career died a fiery death when the media labeled her as nutso after a bad affair with James Woods. At this point, Young couldn't care less whether she breaks the unspoken Hollywood rule of keeping dirt and negative opinions to herself.

That seems a central problem in Hollywood: People are so afraid to say what they think, that pretty soon they don't even know what they think. That Grey has been able to track down so many people who do is what makes Sex, Stupidity and Greed a compelling read.

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