We’ve lamented the death of Hollywood in these pages on numerous occasions. Now it’s official. John Calley, super-producer and studio don, has breathed his last. Will Hollywood and the movies ever get another like him? By RICHARD POPLAK.
No one has said the following about hack überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer: “Working with him is like rolling in feathers”. So it was with John Calley, the Hollywood executive who counted among his best friends John le Carré and Mike Nichols, and who passed away this week at the age of 81. The feather comment came from screenwriter extraordinaire Jay Presson Allen, and by all accounts, it described the man to a tee.
John Calley’s filmography is mind-boggling. From puffy, overblown nonsense like “The Da Vinci Code”, which grossed almost $800 million worldwide, to sensational small pictures like “Catch-22” and “The Cincinnati Kid”, Calley made a lasting mark on Hollywood in a career that spanned almost half a century, and encompassed massive changes in the nature of the art form.
He didn’t make his mark so much as a producer, although he won numerous awards and handled some fine pictures, but more as a studio executive during the 1960s, 70s and 80s when the old guard were making way for a new breed of bright, daring filmmakers, hell bent on jazzing up the medium for a new generation. Scripts for “Mean Streets”, “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Exorcist” crossed his desk. He greenlit them all, and changed Hollywood forever.
Calley, born in Jersey City in 1930, had the perfect background for a studio exec. His father was a car salesman. He did a stint at NBC, and was swept into Filmways, a production company that was more used to making lowbrow TV comedy than cerebral cinema. There, Calley produced a string of films that were notionally about World War II, but were really about Vietnam, like “Catch-22” and “The Americanization of Emily”. The films were nominal hits, but they signalled a new era, when young men like Martin Scorcese and Stanley Kubrick were entrusted with difficult material by younger men like John Calley.
Indeed, it was a heady time and in 1969 Calley was brought into Warner Brothers, where he would eventually become chairman. He oversaw a staggering roster of high level product, including “All The President’s Men” and Richard Donner’s “Superman,” the first attempt at a meaningful superhero adaptation. But in 1980, after trying to assemble a will with his lawyer, Calley walked into Warner Brothers and quit cold turkey with seven years left on his extraordinarily lucrative contract. Like a mafia capo, he couldn’t divest himself entirely from the business, and continued to consult and produce the odd hit, like “Postcards from the Edge”. He lounged on his boat, fell in love with the late David Lean’s wife, Sally, and tried to forget Hollywood.
Hollywood didn’t—couldn’t—forget him. This was the exec, after all, who ushered through, and made a hit of, “Chariots of Fire”. Thirteen years after quitting Warner, super agent Michael Ovitz came calling. United Artists, the grand old marquee co-founded by Charlie Chaplin, was on the ropes. MGM wanted to prepare it for sale, so Calley was brought in to “put rouge on the corpse”, as he put it. After engineering hits from seemingly nowhere, like “Leaving Las Vegas” and “The Birdcage,” he became a Hollywood legend once again.
In 1996, Calley moved on to Sony, which was in severe disarray and couldn’t beg for a hit. Unflappably, Calley delivered them Tom Cruise and “Jerry McGuire” and the world had the catchphrase “show me the money.” He stepped back from running the studio, which is now in remarkably good health, in 2003, but kept producing for them.
One of his primary skills was the ability not just to manage notoriously difficult personalities, but to actually engage with them, to befriend them in a way that wasn’t expedient or craven. This meant he and Kubrick enjoyed a long and fruitful friendship. It also meant that he bedded some of the most beautiful women in the world, including Julie Christie and the innumerable starlets that are the unofficial perquisite for studio executives.
That said, it never seemed as if Calley was ever particularly happy in high-pressure Hollywood, signing cheques for tens of millions of dollars, betting on long shots directed by and starring a string of crazed egomaniacs who required constant stroking. When he won his lifetime achievement Oscar, he said of the executive’s life: “You’re very unhappy for a long period of time. And you don’t experience joy. At the end you experience relief, if you’re lucky.” Not exactly an endorsement.
But John Calley presided over a Hollywood golden age, and made some fine, fine pictures. He leaves us with his astonishing filmography, secure in the knowledge that he ushered in at least a dozen lasting artistic monuments. Much of what Calley produced defined his era, and defined the medium. As they say on the film set: “That’s a wrap.” DM
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall