Review of “Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions” by Ed Zwick, featuring the director’s personal insights.
Numerous publications have been written about Hollywood, yet very few offer an insider’s perspective. Director Ed Zwick, known for films like Legends of the Fall, Glory, and The Last Samurai, has penned a captivating memoir that offers a clear view of the movie industry. It serves as both a guide for aspiring filmmakers, with practical tips presented in straightforward lists, and as an entertaining read for the general public, who will undoubtedly be drawn to the juicy gossip and insights into the complex power dynamics of the entertainment world.
Zwick’s writing is energetic and compassionate, with a clear focus on keeping the story moving. He acknowledges early on that he struggles between crafting a compelling narrative and maintaining connections with the Hollywood elite, whom he has little interest in associating with. Fortunately for the reader, the storytelling takes precedence. Zwick’s career began in television in 1976 and by the late 80s, he was tackling his first major studio film, Glory, which depicted the American civil war. The studio demanded a recognizable star for the film and chose Matthew Broderick, who was riding high on the success of his film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This decision proved to be a “never-ending nightmare” for Zwick, and was just the beginning of what he describes as “horrific experiences” with actors. These experiences would continue to plague him throughout his career.
The book excels when it delicately separates the glamour of the movie-star industry from the process of creating films. Although they rely on each other, fame and storytelling are portrayed as distinct businesses. Zwick appears just as confused as others when it comes to the inner workings of the movie-star side. The power dynamics are captivating. Some actors are highlighted in a positive light: Denzel Washington is both hardworking and kind; Claire Danes (known for her role in Zwick’s production company’s show, My So-Called Life) is a rare talent; Tom Cruise, while eccentric, is described as “courteous and enthusiastic”. On the other hand, Anthony Hopkins is praised for his “English manners”, which may come as a surprise to those from Wales.
The author mentions other instances that are not portrayed as positively. Zwick recounts having difficulties with Brad Pitt, who was apparently anxious, while filming Legends of the Fall. He also vividly describes Dustin Hoffman spending hours talking about a draft script while pedaling on a stationary bike. However, he attempts to soften or explain the seemingly rude or appalling behavior in his anecdotes. For example, he mentions that although Hoffman may have been boring, he eventually makes a great point. Similarly, while Matthew Broderick comes across as a nightmare, Zwick speculates that he may have been under a lot of pressure at the time and has since apologized. In another instance, Julia Roberts agrees to star in a production of Shakespeare in Love, but then insists on casting an unavailable actor as Shakespeare and ultimately pulls out as sets are being built. Zwick suggests that she may have been young and scared, although he also notes that they have not spoken since. Years later, the situation takes a darker turn when Harvey Weinstein’s company Miramax acquires the rights and completely excludes Zwick from the project. Weinstein is portrayed as both a terrifying thug and a petty man, as evidenced by the credit Zwick receives appearing onscreen over a horse’s foot stepping in dung.
Half the fun of Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions is in reading between the lines. If this is the stuff that won’t get Zwick excommunicated from the parties he doesn’t want to go to anyway, then I’d love to know what he left out. The only lingering uncertainty I had was whether I really wanted the wizard’s curtain to be drawn back so far. Much of the magic of film lies in not knowing how its illusions are conjured up. When peeking inside is as enjoyable as this, though, it is hard to resist.