Easy Rider Terry Southern 

Anything but an easy ride

In A Grand Guy, Canadian journalist Lee Hill tells how a boy from Alvarado, Texas, armed only with talent and hip (and a talent for the hip), wends his way to avant-garde literary success, Hollywood script mills, the cover of Sgt. Pepper, and finally, it seems, heartbreak. It's quite a ride. But when Terry Southern started out as a player in what he memorably called the Quality Lit Game (after some time spent loitering around the Sorbonne on the GI Bill), he seemed destined for a no more exalted fate than to wind up as The Hippest Guy on the English Faculty, the sort who kept a little reefer in his tweed coat with leather elbow patches. With his early fiction drawing on Faulkner's rotting-magnolia gothic, Nelson Algren's police-lineup realism, and the feather-light touch of his future pal Henry Green, Southern cut through the era's stifling New Criticism orthodoxy by creating scary new worlds, twisted situations, and vivid characters with no plunges into purple prose, no relinquishing of craft or control. Flash and Filigree, The Magic Christian, and Candy (cowritten with Mason Hoffenberg, and the precursor of money and credit squabbles to come) remain high-water marks of satirical novels: You scarcely feel the knife going in. It was worthy work and an honorable '50s-style MO, and Southern's mastery became clear to those in the know: not overlooked, exactly, but definitely underground.

But one reason Terry Southern traveled so far was because the world was headed his way. Postwar affluence had made culture Big Biz, and, post-Ike, people hungered for a taste of the wild side. The Paris Review (Southern was a charter editor) and Evergreen Review introduced adventurous writing to the general reader; Esquire and Playboy were featuring new voices in spaces ordinarily reserved for the usual run of chloroform artists; you could even get an intelligent discussion of The Sot-Weed Factor at a cocktail party. And, of course, there was the public phenomenon of the Beats: photographed by Life, discussed in the New York Times, in extreme cases actually read. Even the film industry, long regarded by the avant-intelligentsia as the leading abattoir of talent, suddenly seemed subject to change: Something was happening, and Mr. Jones the studio head wanted in. Still, it took king-sized maverick Stanley Kubrick to send a telegram asking Southern (to whose works Kubrick had been introduced by Peter Sellers) to lend a hand with a movie called Dr. Strangelove. Several months of what Southern described as "tightening and brightening" followed, and his screenwriting career had begun. Terry Southern was about to become, as was said of Orson Welles, a man with a great future behind him.

It didn't seem like it at the time. Strangelove was not only a hit movie, it was an Event: any halfway with-it person was expected to have an opinion on it. Southern, past forty, was making the first serious money of his career, as well as enjoying the ancillary joys that accompanied Hollywood success -- drugs, sex, glamour, and, soon, residence in the rarefied air of the Beatles/Stones axis. He adapted Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One for the screen, sent Jane Fonda into space with Barbarella, engaged in high-priced script doctoring, saw both Candy and The Magic Christian turned into films -- so what if neither was all that great? Back in the Quality Lit Game, Candy was (after a brief ban in, of all places, France) scaling the bestseller lists in the US and, in pirated editions, Europe. Southern capped the '60s by cowriting Easy Rider, an enormous hit made for pennies that helped wrest control of American films from the dead hand of the studio execs and gave it, however briefly, to directors, writers, and actors. Terry Southern seemed poised to become an even more major player in the beckoning decade. Why didn't this happen?

The story of American cinema in the '70s has been ably told in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and in retrospect the era appears even more of a Golden Age now than then: Films like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and The Last Detail remain yardsticks by which today's films succeed or, more often, fail. The decade's unprecedented freedom and scope make the dilemma of A Grand Guy's protagonist doubly puzzling -- in such iconoclastic times, how could Terry Southern, of all people, stall? Nevertheless stall he did, and from this point on Hill's book becomes a grisly recitation of aborted "projects," with Southern condemned to churn out treatments and outlines and spec scripts that never made it past the story conference, languishing in the twilight limbo of "development" and the even more dreaded "turnaround." The reasons are sometimes easy to spot (don't make a movie of Junky if your producer actually is one; steer clear of Dennis Hopper); other ideas are so mouth-watering (an adaptation of Harry Crews' Car) that their failure to get lensed amounts to disappointment compounded by mystery. After a while it becomes faintly embarrassing to eavesdrop on Southern spurned once again by yet another Hollywood airhead (Chuck "Gong Show" Barris asked if "the sex and drugs" could be taken out of Naked Lunch). By the time, decades later, he started having the heart attacks and strokes that would finally kill him, Terry Southern was teaching a class in screenwriting at Columbia University, and he hadn't gotten a script in front of a camera for years.

Of course, Hollywood has been historically detrimental to writers, and the world is full of Chuck Barrises, but Southern also needed to shoulder his share of the blame. Fact was, the guy stuck with being a screenwriter long after lesser, or different, mortals might have used those outrageous paydays as getaways. This was not Faulkner hacking out Land of the Pharaohs for Joan Collins (after his Nobel, no less) then returning to Mississippi to write novels; for the second half of his life Terry Southern by choice wrote little that was going to be read by anyone other than bored, mercenary producers. He so neglected the printed page that when Texas Summer, his final novel (and the first in over two decades), appeared, the critics were baffled by its nostalgic hue and elegiac tone. Where was the slash-and-burn artist of yesteryear? It was like they'd never read a dying man before.


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