Book 14: High Concept, Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess by Charles Fleming

February 4, 2009 at 2:01 am (Review) (, , , , , )

That Don Simpson embraced excess till it killed him seems to be the central thesis of Charles Flemming’s biography which is a pity since it misses some of the more intertesting elements of his life as a result. The least interesting things about Don Simpson are that he took the motherload of drugs and had a major thing for highly kinky sex with hookers. It was the 80’s and given the extensive lists Flemming provides of other players doing one or other of those things it was clearly pretty common. Famous people’s ‘this one time I took a ton of drugs and had a blast/bad trip’ stories are just as dull as anyone else’s. 

A more interesting element is what drove Simpson to this excess. It is clear that he was a man haunted by some spectacular demons. Flemming touches on his shyness, self loathing and fundamental narcicism. I have some sympathy for Flemming here in that he was clearly a complecated character and none of his close associates were going to co-operate with this biography (most remain to this day some of Hollywood’s most powerful). Which means that the psychological detail is sketchy at best. It’s clear that Simpson was highly unpredictable, poring scorn and vitriol on some while lavishing gifts and gandiose largess on others. He also had all the outward signs of a supremely confident narcicist but was papering over the cracks with coke and hookers. All of which can be hard to communicate but if you are going to try write a biography of a person like this you just have to. We needed to know more about where he was from who he really was but if Fleming knows he’s not telling us either. 

I found this a disconcertingly difficult read, the endless listing of excess just became really depressing. It’s hard to read about someone who should be living the dream (and who may have seemed to be), who is so obviously miserable. You want to shake him and tell him to grow up and cop on. All of which is made worse by the fact that I didn’t want to feel sorry for him. He started High Concept and now all Hollywood output is secondary to the big summer movie and the winter Oscar movie and there is so little of interest in between and I wanted to loathe him for his part in that. I love films and I like many hold him at least somewhat responsible for the mess they’re in but, in what make up some of the better passages of the book, Fleming covers Simpson’s moves around studios and difficulties with other producers and makes it clear that in the end the money guys didn’t get him or his style of film making any more than they get any other kind of film. The monster he created ate him too. 

While Simpson definitely had some problems with the studios it is clear that Jerry Bruckheimer helped him clear the path. It is in how this relationship developed and how the summer blockbuster came to rule the studio roost that I had hoped the bulk of the book would lie. They didn’t start it after all (we have Speilberg and Lucas to consider for that particular prize) but they did play a major role in manufacturing it’s current ubiquity unfortunately Fleming just occasionally touches on it rather than really getting in to it. Bruckheimer is the major hole in this book refusing then as I believe he still does to talk about Simpson’s life and I perhaps you can’t really understand any of that without him. Which begs the question why bother? 

Having finally finished this I closed the book dissasitfied. It told me plenty of what I already knew but little of what I wanted to know. If you want interesting Hollywood insider information read Peter Biskind.


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