Blacklisting Myself: Memoir of a Hollywood Apostate in the Age of Terror, by Roger L. Simon (Encounter Books, 250 pp., $25.95)
The philosopher Diogenes is said to have wandered the streets of Athens with a lamp, looking for an honest man. Had he lived in Hollywood, he’d have needed two searchlights, a pack of bloodhounds, and a net. Or he could have just read Roger L. Simon’s new autobiography. Now, Simon is a chum of mine and I occasionally publish on his Pajamas Media website, so this positive book review is as riddled with suspicious relationships and quid pro quos as an Illinois political appointment. Nonetheless, I stubbornly maintain my innocence: Blacklisting Myself really is an amusing and insightful book.
It tells the story of Simon’s journey from being a sixties radical to becoming . . . well, I won’t quite say a neoconservative, because he won’t quite say it, but he is a supporter of American liberty, constitutional democracy, and a strong defense—in other words, a leftist no more. What makes his journey particularly startling is that it took place during a highly successful career as a screenwriter and novelist. He and Paul Mazursky were nominated for an Oscar for their 1989 adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story. Simon also wrote the 1981 Richard Pryor comedy Bustin’ Loose and adapted his own bestselling Moses Wine detective novel for 1978’s The Big Fix.
As a radical, Simon lays fair claim to having been the real deal. He espoused Marxism; palled around with Black Panthers, Abbie Hoffman, and the Patty Hearst kidnappers; and did his little all to help desegregate South Carolina by participating in the Yale Southern Teaching Program in 1966, an effort to teach black history and register voters in that state. He was no slouch as a Hollywood insider, either. He relates some wicked showbiz moments, such as Warren Beatty getting the kiss-up from presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter; Oliver Stone’s wife sobbing over the director’s visits to a Chinatown whorehouse; and his own surreal meeting, in a room decorated entirely in white, with a wildly narcissistic Barbra Streisand, dressed likewise all in white.
At the same time, he possessed one attribute genuinely rare in leftists—a sense of humor—and one almost nonexistent in Hollywood talent: an honest sense of himself. This humor and honesty lend a genuine depth to his political recollections. Though his visits in the seventies and eighties to China, Cuba, and the USSR taught him how Communism had turned those nations into “totalitarian world[s]” whose “perverted logic made Orwell’s Animal Farm look rational,” he kept his opinions largely to himself, because “I wanted to preserve my reputation as a cutting-edge radical and liberal.” Even when he was recruited for what seemed a Soviet-front organization, he went along partway as a career move. “Whatever schoolboy romance Marxism held for me had long disappeared down the ideological drain . . . [but] I knew it would be good for my career . . . alluding to my ‘KGB connections’ in Hollywood meetings.” Sometimes the lefty magic worked and sometimes it didn’t—as when Richard Pryor became his new best friend for life during the making of Bustin’ Loose, then avoided him afterward as “a white non-person” when it served his own career purposes.
Simon changed his politics for the same reason many of us did: he kept his eyes open and followed the truth where it led. While he was moving rightward, however, Hollywood was moving even further left, the passionate beliefs once held only by radicals becoming the offhand opinions of the mainstream LA elite. As a result, he became estranged not only from the business, but from the movies themselves. Did his political turnaround hurt his Hollywood career? Simon frankly admits that it may have just been the ravages of time: “Writers in their fifties are not the most sought-after commodities in the film industry.”
Simon has, of course, rebounded as the Pajamas Media pooh-bah, but he can still make devastating observations about the Hollywood Left. For all the amusing showbiz anecdotes in Blacklisting Myself, Simon’s best chapter, for my money, is his explanation of Hollywood radicalism as “The Rise of the Mini-Me.” Here, he discusses how lefty political postures can help an insecure Hollywood type create a “liberal wind-up Good-Guy . . . who parades as publicly as possible his unbounded altruism and devotion to the poor and downtrodden” while his real-life self continues to treat subordinates, associates, and colleagues like garbage. “A prime example is Sean Penn, who battered his wife, going off to save Katrina victims,” he writes.
Today’s Simon is no right-wing ideologue, however. He’s suspicious of the “whole galaxy of isms.” Still, the absurdity of holding onto pre-9/11 philosophies in a post-9/11 world is painfully clear to him, if not to many of his peers. And he’s philosophical about his youthful leftism, avoiding the convert’s zeal to condemn past sins: “This isn’t to say I regret what I did or wrote. I don’t. That was then; this is now. In fact, I’m glad to have participated in many of the events of my time. Those who stood aside missed something worth experiencing, even if in retrospect they would have to admit that this or that cultural event or political trend was nonsense or worse. It may have been, but it was the life of an era.”