October 27, 2005
The Real World: Warlord
Imagine an Uzbek warlord who takes time between mortar attacks to remove his clothes and display his manhood in the bunker. Now, imagine that he willingly does this for a camera operator, who films the chieftain and his family for an "Osbournes"-meets-"Sopranos" reality-TV show.
It sounds almost plausible in the age of "The Apprentice" and "Survivor." But, in fact, this is the setup for a fictional reality-TV show at the heart of Peter Lefcourt's new novel, "The Manhattan Beach Project" (Simon & Schuster, $24).
Lefcourt, who quips that he is "a card-carrying Jew," will discuss his latest social satire at the Jewish Book Festival, which will run from Oct. 30 through Dec. 11. The event is organized by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys and will feature a wide range of writers.
It will kick off with Bruce Bauman discussing "And the Word Was," his debut novel about the aftermath of a Columbine-type tragedy on the life of a doctor. Also appearing will be Ursula Bacon, author of "Shanghai Diary," a memoir about a young girl's journey from Europe to Shanghai at the time of the Holocaust.
Bookended by scenes at a Debtors Anonymous meeting, "The Manhattan Beach Project" takes off when a bankrupt CIA agent convinces a down-on-his-luck producer -- a fellow debtor -- to pitch a reality-TV series about the daily activities of a warlord in the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. The warlord has the typical dysfunctional family: a mistress, an angry wife who never leaves her room, a lesbian daughter, one teenage son who is an onanist and another who joins the Taliban. Unbeknownst to the producer, the rogue agent has turned the warlord's basement into a safe house for pirated videos, the ultimate no-no in Hollywood.
With or without a Jewish theme, "The Manhattan Beach Project" skewers Hollywood the way Tom Wolfe lampooned Wall Street in "Bonfire of the Vanities." Lefcourt shows the callowness of these show biz Masters of the Universe.
Over the past 30 years, Lefcourt has written and produced television dramas like "Cagney & Lacey" and miniseries like "The Women of Windsor," but it's his novels that most closely reflect his comic sensibility. His best-known prior book, "The Dreyfus Affair," depicts with dark humor a gay romance set in homophobia-ridden big league baseball.
"The Dreyfus Affair" has been optioned several times by movie studios but never produced, so Lefcourt is intimately familiar with the reptilian nature of Hollywood executives in the mold of Sammy Glick, and the difficulties in getting a project green-lighted.
Lefcourt cites no particular inspiration for "The Manhattan Beach Project," but says that he was "so attached to" producer Charlie Berns, hero of his first sardonic novel on Hollywood, "The Deal," that he wanted to bring him back. Berns, an erstwhile Oscar-winning film honcho, resurrects his career in "The Manhattan Beach Project" by entering the world of reality TV, which Lefcourt calls "the crack cocaine of the TV business. It's addictive, debilitating and noninformative.... It seems to have peaked, but it will be with us, in one form or another, for a long time, like a flu epidemic."
"The Manhattan Beach Project's" overarching metaphor, show biz as a top-secret, clandestine society, where anyone can be whacked, has always been apt, particularly in recent times. He's no fan of Michael Eisner and his ilk, and concludes his acknowledgments by sarcastically thanking Eisner for "going down with the ship."
Would Mikey have green-lighted "Warlord"? According to Lefcourt, Eisner would have "yellow-lit it" -- keeping it at arm's length "in case it blew up in his face."
Peter Lefcourt will read and discuss his book on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2:30 p.m. at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena.
Also at the festival: The Jewish Journal will co-sponsor a Nov. 30 event with author Ruth Andrew Ellenson, editor of "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt." For festival information call (626) 967-3656.