Don Simpson: Hollywood Death

Inspired by Don Simpson's uncinematic demise, David Thomson contemplates Hollywood's longtime--and accelerating--love affair with funerals and death itself.

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If only Don Simpson could have stuck around a little longer. If only he could have been there, able to hear and see it all--his funeral, I mean. To realize the respect in which he was held. To be like a ghost at his own wake. Doesn't a man who has tried hard, and died trying, really deserve that? But as it was, the producer of Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance and Crimson Tide had no other out but dead at 52, in his own bathroom, attempting to massage God knows what casserole of chemicals through the congested system of a body that was knocking 250 pounds. And this after he'd woken up one morning to find a dear friend, a doctor, dead in the pool house. After he'd been cast aside by his longtime partner, Jerry Bruckheimer. After he'd been named as an obsessed devotee of sadomasochist sex in the best-selling (L.A. area only) You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again. Along with which, apparently, he had just been on the telephone for several hours, in the course of which James Toback had read him an entire screenplay in the hopes that Don could get it set up somewhere. You have to be pretty sick, pretty near the edge, to let anyone read a script to you over the phone-- even if it's Some Like It Hot. Face it, this was not the happiest, sweetest way to go.

I mean, you can see the guys with the gurney trying to maneuver that body out of the bathroom. You can imagine the indignity, not to mention all the speculation about suicide--as if suicide, as such, had any meaning in a culture where the death wish is so much the prevalent thing.

But if Don had only known ... In the weeks that followed there were terrific pieces on him in Los Angeles Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker. We are talking quality ink, the best embalmer of all. There were people saying he had been a hero as a producer, a rare, existentialist spirit, a man on the cutting edge. God almighty! If Don had only seen the full page Steve Tisch took in Variety, with the really lovely picture of some antique tomb with a marble statue deep in a forest somewhere, with just this text from Jonathan Swift: When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.

I can imagine Don's flab just melting away, just fucking magicked off, in that superb appeal to paranoia and vanity. If only Don could have been there to read the obits. He'd never have got that close to the edge, would he?

***

The way I see it, that is the opening to the essay, done in the ecstatic slimeball-ese of some gossip flack--we don't have to name names--so that it's insinuating, camp and utterly hostile all at the same time. Now I see the piece proceeding in a series of distinct voices hovering between the ludicrous and the heartfelt, all of which the reader can place in the babble of Hollywood. Right after the valedictory to Don Simpson, for example, we go to Nathanael West. You see, I was looking in The Day of the Locust, because I just felt that West was into the death wish long before most people. What did I find?

Tod examined him eagerly. He didn't mean to be rude but at first glance this man seemed an exact model for the kind of person who comes to California to die, perfect in every detail down to fever eyes and unruly hands,

'My name is Homer Simpson,' the man gasped, then shifted uneasily and patted his perfectly dry forehead with a folded handkerchief.

Isn't that terrific? And we just cut from there without a comment--a sort of kiss-of-death edit.

***

Now, at this point I think we need to have a short, grisly account of some notable Hollywood death. Nothing arty or tasteful--just the raw sense of sudden death overtaking some great beauty. The Jayne Mansfield death has always worked for me. After all, Jayne was a lot more "star" than star--she was the fabrication, the phantom of fame, the human balloon blown up just a few inches beyond wholesome, graspable sexiness.

Jayne's death is basically herself in a packed car. She has just finished doing her act at Gus Stevens's Supper Club in Biloxi! Isn't that priceless? Biloxi. Mississippi. It's terrific always to put a star down in the hinterland--you get instant frisson, like E.T. being far from home. And Jayne only got the gig as a replacement for Mamie Van Doren! Is that "The Twilight Zone," or what? Anyway, she is in a Buick with the attorney she was fucking at the end, plus three of her children--these are the kids by Mickey Hargitay--and four dogs, all Chihuahuas. There is a student they have hired to drive, and it is in the early hours of the morning, on the road to New Orleans, when the car hits a trailer truck. That takes the top off the car. The kids in the back are short enough, they survive. But the top of Jayne's head is sliced, and her wig is found in the wreckage. I have seen great photographs of this--one of Jayne's body under a coat beside the car, and another of one of the dead dogs, with liquor bottles, the wig and blood trails down the side of the car. The archetypal Hollywood death.

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