Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sunday Book Review – King of the Sunset Strip

Watch Scriptshadow on Sundays for book reviews by contributors Michael Stark and Matt Bird. We try to find books that haven't been purchased or developed yet that producers might be interested in. We won't be able to get one up every Sunday, but hopefully most Sundays. Here's Michael Stark with his review of "King of The Sunset Strip."

Genre: True Crime / Memoir
About: Young Hollywood actor leaves the Mickey Mouse Club for Mickey Cohen’s gang. Think Public Enemies meets What Makes Sammy Run with a dab of The Freshman thrown in.
Writer: Steve Stevens (who has constantly worked in Hollywood for over 50 years) and journalist, Craig Lockwood
Staus: According to the book, Steve’s son, Mark, had written a screenplay, but I can’t find the development stats anywhere. Trust me, this one would make a great flick.

“Someone’s gonna die cause some broad is banging a bullfighter? It ain’t gonna be me.” -- Mickey Cohen on both Sinatra’s and Bugsy Siegal’s women troubles.

Hey there, Hi there, Ho there!!! Welcome to another sporadic Scriptshadow Sunday Book Review, where we brave paper cuts and funky, old paperback stench to bring you the books we wanna see turned into movies. It’s our way of helping our nation’s starving writers, the dying logging industry and all those underdeveloped development gals.

With my own bookshelves bare and not enough scratch for a coffee to beard my word thieving ways at Barnes and Noble, the search for my next column brought me back to a place I vowed never to return to -- the damn library. I asked the bookish blonde behind the counter what was good. She dutifully told me to go take a hike in the biography section…

…Where I got jumped by the stunning, Saul Bass reds and blacks of this little honey’s spine. Hypnotized, I read the blurbs and knew I had found the one! King of the Sunset Strip instantly intrigued me cause it’s about two of my favorite subjects: Old Hollywood and true crime noir.

It’s the late 50s in the city of angels, mere moments before the Raging Bulls and Easy Riders would seize power. The mighty studio system still ran the town and it was all so deceptively glamorous and magical like Cuba before Batista fell.

19-year-old, Steve Stevens, a graduate of the Hollywood Professional School and the Mickey Mouse Club, is getting a little too long in the Ultra-Brite-white tooth for the kid roles he’s been playing. He knows damn well that not every child star makes the transition to the adult’s table. For every Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor, there’s the cautionary tale of a Bobby Driscoll (Treasure Island and the voice of Peter Pan) who ended up dead at 31, just another junkie on skid row.

(Actually, Driscoll’s story would make a great movie too if Disney would allow the slight besmirch of their hallowed name.)

Waiting around his pad for his agent to call (No 4G or answering machines back then), Stevens was way closer to going broke then breaking in. But, then, a mysterious piece of fan mail arrives under the slot that will change the spin of his axis forever. An admirer named Mr. Michael invites him to his ice cream shop, saying “You play tuff guys real good.”

That Mr. Michael, for those gangland challenged, turned out to be the colorful, celebrity criminal, Mickey Cohen, the East Coast, Jewish mob boss who was sent out West to keep an eye on Bugsy Siegal. Ax ex-boxer and Chicago enforcer, Cohen pretty much organized all of the organized crime in the great state of California.

Cohen, a skilled blackmailer, had so much dirt on the denizen of Tinseltown, that the media had to protect themselves, painting him as a modern day Robin Hood. Newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, was a close friend. Or perhaps Cohen knew who Rosebud was? Even the FBI stayed away – supposedly the mob had the cross-dressing goods on J. Edgar too.

He was a bulletproof survivor, who lived through gang wars, feuds, assorted attempted hits and all forms of federal prosecution. The man was definitely charismatic but also totally ruthless.

Does it seem a little contrived that a notorious mobster would send a young actor a fan letter? Well, put that in the truth is stranger than fiction department, cause it happened. When adapting the screenplay, this may have to be finessed a bit. Stevens played a lot of juvenile delinquent roles and Cohen must have seen a little bit of his younger, scrappy self in those portrayals. Childless, perhaps he was looking for someone to groom.

Stevens starts hanging with the mobster and the mentoring begins. A natural charmer, the kid soon wins over Mickey’s gang of tough thugs with his heartthrob smile and autographed pictures of Annette Funicello.

Against the warnings of his friends, Stevens is soon a junior member of their little crime family. The flash, the cash and the hot women were just too enticing. Now, Stevens wasn’t exactly an innocent. He had an ulterior motive too. Cohen knew everyone from the Rat Pack to studio chieftains to then Senator Richard Nixon. Being seen with the smooth criminal might just kick-start his career – if he doesn’t get kicked in the head first.

With all the sexy star treatment came some real, fucking serious danger too. Cohen was Public Enemy Number One for good reason. His hair trigger temper was infamous.

Not only did he have the cops in his pocket, but most of L.A.’s best maitre d's as well. At the exclusive Villa Capri, while Stevens is starstruck by his fellow diners, Cohen overhears a rude comment, extracts a champagne bottle from the bucket and proceeds to wail on the loose-lipped fella with it. After the lug is knocked unconscious and dragged outside, Cohen nonchalantly returns the bottle to the shocked patrons, sits down and puts the napkin around his neck.

The gentleman mobster was sometimes something of a sociopath.

My favorite scene is when Stevens accompanies Mickey and his goons to a comedy club and the brave (or perhaps suicidal) Don Rickles unleashes his trademarked “Mr. Warmth” tirade on the gangster. The kid and the gunmen are shocked silent, waiting for a reaction from their boss. Is he gonna a grab a baseball bat and show the disrespectful comedian just how it’s done in Brooklyn? Finally, after what seems like an eternity of deliberating, Cohen doubles over in laughter. The usual mercurial mobster can take a joke tonight. It’s one of the many moments that will kill on the screen.

When Steven’s parents get into a little scrape with some hooligans in the apartment upstairs, he calls in his first favor from his “Uncle Mickey”. Goons are quickly dispatched to take care of business. It’s another good, comic scene, cause we only hear the ruckus of broken furniture and ass stomping from his parent’s living room below.

Now, favors in the mob have to one day be returned. Stevens is soon dragged into some rather unsavory and increasingly dangerous errands for his uncle.

When he botches one of them up, Cohen explodes. To make sure it doesn’t happen again, he uses a little negative reinforcement, unmercifully kicking the living shitlights out of the kid. Good thing there weren’t any auditions that week.

In a parallel plotline, Stevens lands a juicy role in the B-movie, High School Caesar, as a sycophant patsy to the vicious JD running the school – a part he’s been basically preparing for the past two years. Shooting on location in a small Missouri town, he thinks he’s finally escaped from Cohen’s grasp till two goons from Kansas City come down to watch over him and show him a good time.

Returning home, the errands Mickey has him running get more and more dangerous, one landing him a savage beatdown from the LAPD. Another has him witnessing a near gangland slaying of a skimming nightclub owner.

With friends avoiding him and his acting career faltering, Stevens realizes that hitching his star to Cohen’s wagon might not have been the brightest idea. Hey, did you do anything stupid when you were 19? With more hit attempts on the gangster’s life and the FBI closing in, the kid may not even get out of there alive.

King of the Sunset Strip is a quick zip gun of a read, but it ain’t James Elroy. It’s more the chatty memoir of a very talented schmoozer. Thus, If it’s gonna get made into a movie, I suggest taking a few liberties and have it merely “based on a true story.” Also, we need to focus more on the famous gangster. After doing some research, I’m shocked that Hollywood has never made a movie solely about Mickey Cohen before. Both Bugsy and L.A. Confidential feature him in smaller roles.

As the book is told through Steven’s POV, we need to have more scenes cementing Cohen’s reputation – His scandalous Hollywood shakedowns, his escalating war with Jack Dragna, the Senate Select Committee on organized Crime and, of course, his involvement with Johnny Stompanato.

Stompanato was Cohen’s bodyguard and something of a legendary chick magnet. The sex tape Cohen recorded of Stomp and Lana Turner made the mobster a load of dough. He pressed copies of the starlet’s ecstatic squeals and sold them at fifty bucks a pop. When Turner’s daughter murdered Stompanato, the ruthless businessman pressed up a few thousand more. I have yet to see one of these platters turn up on Ebay.

There’s plenty of material to flesh this film out, including Cohen’s own autobiography and Brad Lewis’ Hollywood's Celebrity Gangster. As biopics need clear arcs to keep them from meandering, Mickey’s friendship with the Mouseketeer is the perfect frame, keeping the crux of the tale in this two or three year period.

While clearly the comedic elements make it reminiscent of the charming Brando & Broderick team-up, The Freshman, (Man, why isn’t the great Andrew Bergman making movies anymore???) it could also aim towards a more sweeping crime epic like L.A. Confidential.

Either way, I’d love Brian DePalma to take a crack at it. He can atone for The Black Dahlia and prove he can make yet another Untouchables. Step up to the plate, sir. Step right up!

For Discussion: What Biopics would you like to see? And, please tell my fucking tightwad editor to give me a damn book allowance. GA rural libraries aren’t the finest funded these days.

Stark’s further rants and ramblings can be followed in his blog: