The moral of his story: Movies can teach

Can amoral Hollywood really provide moral instruction to those of us sitting in the dark? Robert Cort C’68,G’70,WG’74, the producer of 52 films, including “Three Men and a Baby” and the soon-to-be-released “Against the Ropes” starring Meg Ryan, not only thinks so, he’s written a novel, titled “Action” (Random House, 2003), that proves it.

“We who make movies have a role and a responsibility,” he explained in a telephone interview. “Today, we are in a fallow creative period. We are not making movies that provide emotional substance.”

Cort will expand on those ideas and talk about his book in a lecture, “Movies: America’s Secular Religion,” that is part of the Penn Humanities Forum’s year-long investigation of belief on Tuesday, October 28 (see “What’s On”).

A tale with a Hollywood ending

In his novel, Cort deftly wraps 50 years of film history around a fictional family that always seems to be in the right place at the right time. It’s a roman a clef without the clef—almost everyone is real, from Mike Todd and Elizabeth Taylor to Steve McQueen and superagent Mike Ovitz.

Cort never sugarcoats the mostly egregious behavior of his characters or downplays the Machiavellian politics, but at the same time he adheres to all the old moral imperatives: power always has its price, the bad guys get their just desserts and in the last chapter, the hero finally hits his first hole-in-one. Now that’s a Hollywood ending.

To tell the truth, use fiction

Cort started out to write a non-fiction history and had spent a year and a half doing research before switching to fiction. “I was a history major at Penn,” Cort explained, “trained by Lee Benson [professor emeritus]. But I’ve spent my whole career in the world of storytelling and I realized that the only way to convey the emotional life of people—to tell readers what is going on in the hearts and guts of the people I’ve worked with—was in fiction.”

Cort realized that a fictional device—three generations of the Jastrow family, described as minor Hollywood royalty—would provide the broad canvas he needed to trace changes over half a century. “Besides,” Cort added, “how many people want to read a history of Hollywood? I’m a whore for an audience—and you can write that down.

“I don’t think I played fast and loose with anybody’s reputation,” Cort claims. But critics have pointed out that some of his most unsavory characters are long-since dead or, like Michael Ovitz, out of power.

The real insider’s guide

“Action” could be called “Project Greenlight” for the literarati, a behind-the-scenes look at how Hollywood works from a real insider. “I really wrote it for two audiences,” Cort said, “for those intrigued by Hollywood, because we wield enormous influence, but also to let people know what a producer does, what a director does, what an agent does.”

Cort came to Hollywood in 1975 as a management consultant. A year later he went to work for David Begelman, a former agent and later president of Columbia Pictures, whose role in a check-forging scandal was chronicled in David McClintick’s best-selling 1982 book “Indecent Exposure.” “That was the best non-fiction representation of Hollywood I ever read,” said Cort. Of course, Begelman has a big role in “Action” too.

The fact that “Action” has not yet appeared on the best-seller lists doesn’t faze Cort. “I am thrilled that it was taken seriously,” he said. “The only people who didn’t like it were film historians. It got better reviews than any of the movies I’ve made.” The New York Times called it “a sprawling book that manages to be both entertaining and smart.” Peter Lefcourt in the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The serendipity of success and failure, the ecology of power, the intangibility of talent are elements not just in the book’s themes but in its brushstrokes. Cort has the wardrobes, the restaurants, the golf courses, the argot of the business down pat.”

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Originally published on October 16, 2003