• David Mamet is a playwright (Glengarry Glen Ross) who also makes movies of his own (House of Games) and, from time to time, writes them for other people (The Verdict, The Untouchables). This unusual combination of inside knowledge and not-quite-amused detachment makes him the ideal person to write a how-it-really-works book about Hollywood, and Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Pantheon, 250 pp., $22) proves, not surprisingly, to be an irresistibly good read.
Mamet’s point of view is at once disillusioned and idealistic, for he is a passionate believer in the artistic potential of film who has nonetheless come to the unhappy conclusion that “films, which began as carnival entertainments merchandising novelty, seem to have come full circle. The day of the dramatic script is ending. In its place we find a premise, upon which the various gags may be hung.” In support of this grim thesis, he casts a chilly eye on the American film industry, salting his jeremiad with outrageous stories about the backstage behavior of the men and women who make the movies: “I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.”
When not writing dialogue, Mamet’s prose style proves to be unexpectedly and unpleasingly coy, but once you get used to it, you’ll find Bambi vs. Godzilla to be as good a book as has ever been written about Hollywood, by which I mean that I rank it with William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade and David Thomson’s The Whole Equation. The chapter on film noir is worth the price of admission all by itself.
• Joan Acocella, who replaced Arlene Croce as the dance critic of The New Yorker, actually spends a fair amount of time writing on other subjects. Her last book, for instance, was about Willa Cather, and Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints (Pantheon, 524 pp., $30), her first collection of New Yorker essays, is so wide-ranging that it barely makes space for dance at all. I can’t claim to regard it with perfect objectivity, since one of the pieces is a lengthy essay on H.L. Mencken occasioned by the publication of The Skeptic, my Mencken biography, so I’ll simply tell you that the other subjects of Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Louise Bourgeois, M.F.K. Fisher, Bob Fosse, Primo Levi, Dorothy Parker, Philip Roth, Italo Svevo, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Stefan Zweig, and that Acocella has pithy and mostly unpredictable things to say about all of them. If you read these pieces when they first appeared in the New Yorker, you’ll find they hold up very well the second time around.