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What Makes Budd Run?


Not many around have as much past as Budd or remember it so well; he's a walking dossier of twentieth-century modernism. Watching a tourist boat glide down the Hudson, he recalls how in 1929, he and his family set sail from Pier 54 on a transatlantic voyage: "It wasn't so much fun because George Bancroft was with us. He was one of my father's biggest stars, a titan of the silent screen. He gave orders that his wife could only awaken him from naps by rubbing his cheeks with peach fuzz. You should have seen the send-off! We were mobbed everywhere. After he started to slip, he wanted a raise. My father said that wouldn't be possible, but he was willing to renew his contract at the same rate, $6,000 a week. George turned it down -- $6,000 in the middle of the Depression.

"He never really worked again," Budd remarks, noting his own father's unhappy demise. Once the old mogul employed Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, and the down-and-out Sergei Eisenstein -- the auteur of Battleship Potemkin describing his idea for a movie set totally in a city of glass to young socialist Budd as the two whiled away an afternoon on a park bench. But B.P. gambled away all his money, dying "flat broke."

That was Hollywood, Budd says. Like the waterfront, it never changes. After writing Sammy, which exposed, not without tenderness, the messy Glick-ish Lower East Side striving behind the thin scrim of Hollywood's starry-eyed assimilation fantasy, Budd was more or less banished from tinseltown. It's not like he wasn't warned. B.P., while praising the book's "honesty," advised his son to destroy the novel, which would "mean the end of you in Hollywood." Recently, however, Budd has been what he calls "a little warm of late." Some of this owes to his recent deal with Ben Stiller to finally turn Sammy into a feature. Stiller, whose recent work reveals special graspy insight to make him a perfect Sammy Glick, would also direct the picture.

Also in play in the slow-motion plan to make Budd Tinseltown's hottest 90-year-old is his Spike Lee project. Citing A Face in the Crowd as the major inspiration for Bamboozled, Lee dedicated the picture to Budd and asked him to take a bow in front of a packed preview house at the Ziegfeld Theater. At the time, Budd was writing a script for Lee about the 1936 Joe Louis–Max Schmeling fight. "Very excited" about the project, Lee often called Budd with suggestions. Recently, however, the frequency of Spike's calls have dwindled. Knowing this hot/cold cycle to be the fate of many a screenwriter, including the protagonist of his 1950 best-seller The Disenchanted, based on a trip to the winter carnival at Dartmouth with his great friend, the dissolute F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose Social Security card he keeps framed in his office), Budd is not surprised. With seven decades of "development" in the can, he's downgraded the Spike script from "expectant" to "hopeful."

Rolling with such punches is a key to Budd's longevity. At this rate, he figures, he might "last forever," a prospect he views with mixed feelings. A recent Times obituary of 95-year-old Billy Wilder, a longtime friend, was yet another reminder of how he's "relentlessly moved up the list of not yet dead." The obit recalled the time Budd dropped by the director's Beverly Hills house in the fifties: "Billy was very charming, the Viennese émigré's charm, then he looks at me and says, 'So?' He wondered if I was trying to get him to do a picture. Out there everything is business. I said no, I really just wanted to say hello. Wilder started screaming for his wife, Audrey, to come down. 'Budd just came over to say hello!' he yelled. He couldn't believe it. That's always been Hollywood to me."

But you don't live forever by staying home, so Budd gets around, mostly to boxing matches, such as the Mike Tyson–Lennox Lewis fight in Memphis. Traveling alone, Budd was in high journalist form, knocking back his usual impressive bevy of vodka tonics, his notepad (purloined from the Yale Club) ready, lest Iron Mike reiterate his promise to eat the childless Lewis's children or stomp the testicles of newsmen.

Later, following Tyson's defeat, we found ourselves on the deserted streets outside the arena, running (Budd gamely keeping up) after the lone cab still plying the area. The taxi, driven by a grizzled African-American gentleman, was a creaking Dodge of late-seventies vintage. "Sure," the driver said, he could take Budd to his outlying hotel. Whereupon eight other cab seekers, patois-speaking Lewis fans with Jamaican flags, arrived on the scene, stuffing themselves into the taxi. People were sitting on each other's laps, arms and legs sprouting in every direction, and in the middle, peering through the cracked window, was Budd, a big smile on his face. Later, he would pronounce the cab ride "one of the best" of his entire life.

A few days after visiting Chelsea Piers, Budd went over to the book party for Jack Newfield's recent memoir. He was, of course, treated as an honored guest, with any number of hardy perennial New York political and media notables -- among them Fernando Ferrer, Jimmy Breslin, Al Sharpton, and Nick Pileggi -- paying tribute. While accepting compliments gracefully, Budd says he finds such lionization "embarrassing . . . like I'm a museum piece." Besides, fame is full of land mines. Also at the party was Victor Navasky, editorial director of The Nation and author of Naming Names, the 1980 book about the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee inquiry into the Communist presence in Hollywood. The book is not easy on Budd, who, along with Elia Kazan, director of Waterfront and Face in the Crowd, appeared at the hearings as a "friendly witness" -- i.e., he named names.

It is one more thing that doesn't change in 50 years, the hot button these hearings continue to push in the minds of the New York intelligentsia, especially the Jewish intelligentsia. These particular questions of conscience and loyalty, to both friends and ideals, raised by who did what at the hearings, will likely never be resolved. A wide-eyed delegate to the 1934 Soviet Writer's Congress in Moscow where he met Maxim Gorky and Andre Malraux among many others, Budd was a member of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1940. He initially fell out with his Hollywood comrades over the Sammy book. "There were several meetings to decide whether I would be allowed to write it," Budd recalls. "Finally, they said all right, but I'd have to submit the outline and subsequent chapters to John Howard Lawson, the party boss, for ideological review.

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