Get Shorty

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Hollywood is such a perfect setting for an Elmore Leonard novel that his numerous fans will wonder why he waited so long to stake his claim there. Leonard is famous for his convoluted plots shaped by the unpredictability of human character; and no place on earth are people more unpredictable than in Hollywood. As only Southern Californians seem to know, Hollywood is not even Hollywood anymore: it is only a name symbolizing the American film business, a name that suggests incredible wealth and glamour to the rest of the world and looks good on business cards and letterheads. “Hollywood” can be Beverly Hills, Bel Air; Brentwood, Malibu, Century City, Marina Del Rey, Culver City, Encino, Newport Beach, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Tokyo, Hong Kong, or lower Manhattan. Motion-picture deals get made in airplanes flying thirty thousand feet in the air, on boats headed for Mazatlan, in stretch limousines, in restaurants, at kitchen drainboards over lines of cocaine, in swimming pools, hot tubs, and king-size beds. Much of the business is conducted over the telephone at all hours of the day or night between people who might be anywhere—and probably are not where they say they are, or in any case will not be there for long.

With car telephones, answering services, messenger services, and fax machines, “Hollywood” has become ever more fragmented and attenuated. Many of the famous studios are empty shells that rent their offices, sound stages, and equipment to anyone who has a script and the money to assemble a cast and crew. In the old days, it was an easier place to write about for novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon, 1941), Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust, 1939), Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run?, 1941), and Raymond Chandler (The Little Sister, 1949). Hollywood had not been exploded by the forces that are changing the world into Marshall McLuhan’s “global village.” Now it takes a writer such as Elmore Leonard who has a high tolerance for chaos to do Hollywood justice.

Get Shorty is only ostensibly about crime: The loan shark theme is a ploy to get the central character, Chili Palmer, into the filmmaking theme. As Chili explores this brave new world, the reader is introduced to it as well. Chili learns that film scripts are rarely bought outright but optioned for a pittance. In this case, Harry Zimm, whose greatest hit was a horror film called Slime Creatures, has paid a screen- writer five hundred dollars for an option on a melodrama entitled Mr Lovejoy and is trying to take the second step in the process of putting a film together: finding a star. Chili quickly becomes Zimm’s associate, not because of any filmmaking ability he possesses but because he can provide the muscle Zimm needs to keep some unhappy creditors at bay.

Chili Palmer and his nemesis, Ray “Bones” Barboni, are specimens of the heavy-weight criminal types who are attracted by the money and gaudy life-style of Hollywood, which has long been a magnet for thugs, grifters, con artists, prostitutes, pimps, blackmailers, and drug dealers. Raymond Chandler covered this ground in The Little Sister, but Hollywood of the 1940’s was like the Emerald City of Oz compared with what it has become since those innocent days.

Harry Zimm is a specimen of the independent producer, who typically has nothing but an office and a telephone with an answering service or, if he is relatively successful, a cute secretary-receptionist who cannot spell or take dictation and whose fingernails are far too long to permit her to operate a typewriter. Harry calls himself ZigZag Productions: “Zig for the maniac, escaped lunatic and dope-crazed biker pictures.… Zag for the ones featuring mutations fed on nuclear waste, your slime people, your seven-foot rats, your maggots the size of submarines.” Harry lives on alcohol, tobacco, and barbiturates. He is always in debt and always dreaming of finding the magic script that will jet him into the realm of big-budget, studio- financed feature films such as Rocky or Jaws or E.T. He is already over the hill, though, and does not know it. Re has not kept up with changing tastes. Hollywood is a young man’s town. Filmmakers have to be able to guess what will appeal to an audience of fifteen-to twenty-five-year- olds—they are the ones who buy the tickets and the ones who will go back to see the same picture a dozen times if it strikes their unpredictable fancies. They not only do not mind but actually...

(The entire section is 1864 words.)