Monday, November 28, 2011

The Takers

The Takers, by Robert Ackworth
January, 1979 Ballantine Books

They Lived By Movieland's Golden Rule: Do Unto Others...Fast!

Sporting the dumbest cover blurb in history, Robert Ackworth's The Takers seemed to offer everything I'd been searching for in a trashy novel set during Hollywood's Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s. It was a doorstop of a book, coming in at nearly 600 pages of tiny, tiny print, about three movers and shakers at the fictional Regency Pictures studio, with a focus on their lurid sex lives. Ultimately though the novel fell flat due to lack of characterization, lack of plot, and lack of description.

The three protagonists are Howard Stanton, who comes to Hollywood in the final years of the silent era and becomes Regency's top star through the '30s and '40s; Michael Baines, several years younger than Howard, an actor who too follows his dream to Hollywood and becomes a Regency star in the post-WWII era; and finally Tracy Gordon, a brunette sort of Marilyn Monroe who becomes Regency's sex goddess of the '50s. Howard Stanton gets the majority of the novel, with the Tracy Gordon sections taking up the least. At any rate all three of them connect in one way or another, with Michael Baines a huge fan of Howard's (yet still hoping to trump him one day as Regency's top star), and Tracy Gordon falling in love with both of them.

Stanton's tale in the '30s was the highlight for me, due to my interest in that era. He hobknobs with Regency's top star (like Baines later in the book, Stanton hopes to trump the current star when he arrives in Hollywood, and of course succeeds), and also becomes a surrogate son for the acting president of Regency. As his star climbs Stanton becomes friendly with a variety of ladies. I should mention here that Ackworth takes special relish in tossing graphic sex scenes into the novel, which gives it a nicely lurid touch. Sometimes it's laughable because the scenes just come out of nowhere, with no connection to the preceeding or following sections, as if Ackworth went through his manuscript and said, "I'll put a sex scene here....and another here..."

Stanton eventually falls in love with Leni Leibhaber, a sort of anti-Marlene Dietrich in that she's 100% pro-Hitler and spends all of her sequences denouncing the US and saying how great Germany is, thanks to the Nazis. All this of course occurs in the pre-WWII years, and despite her Nazi tendencies Stanton's still in love with her. (Also despite the fact that Leni spends a suspicious amount of time with her female assistant.) So then, we have with Leni Leibhaber a sex-crazed character who happens to be a lesbian Nazi; as I say, The Takers had all the makings of becoming a trash classic.

The problem is, it's all so boringly presented. Ackworth doesn't bother with scene-setting or placing his characters in a colorful world. He barely describes anything, and also given that he also doesn't pay much attention to characterization, it leads to colorless characters in a colorless world. Leni should leap off the page but in Ackworth's hands she's kind of dull, which is insane when you think about it. Not to mention that Ackworth hardly ever describes the films his characters work on, even down to the plots. Given the super-production of studio pictures back then, you'd figure Ackworth would have a field day describing the sets and everything, but he only comes close to this once, when Michael Baines first arrives on the Regency lot and walks through it, looking at the sets. But even here Ackworth is conservative.

Shortly before WWII Leni returns to Germany and refuses to come back to the US, so Stanton has no choice but to divorce her. He then marries another actress whom he's fallen in love with in the meantime; another blank slate of a character, this one named Georgina. By this time Baines is more in the storyline, coming to Regency to start off in bit parts. Unfortunately his storyline is a carbon copy of Stanton's, which we just read a few hundred pages ago. It's pretty much identical, with Baines lusting for stardom, hooking up with random ladies for some explicit sex scenes, and hoping to become top dog at Regency. Only Baines is drafted into WWII, so his storyline gets a bit different when he becomes a soldier on the battlefront; sadly Ackworth's powers of description fail him in these scenes as well.

Tracy Gordon too shares the same storyline, with the only difference that she's a girl, so Ackworth can write her sex scenes from a woman's point of view. She loves Stanton (who is divorced again) but marries Baines; the two men have a long rivalry for her. Eventually Baines and Tracy also divorce, which sets the scene for the 1962 reunion for the trio -- the novel opens in that year, with Regency about to celebrate it's 4oth anniversary, but it's a melancholy, dispirited affair, as the days of the studios are over, besides which all of the bosses and moguls from that time are long gone anyway.

But there's no plot here, no forward momentum. It's sort of like the same story over and over again. Even down to the small details -- Stanton loses his virginity (as mentioned, Ackworth leaves no sex scene unexplored) as a teenager to a whore; a few hundred pages later, Baines loses his virginity to a whore. The scenes are identical. Stanton falls in love with an actress who turns out to be involved, yet he can't get her out of his mind. Baines a few hundred pages later falls in love with an actress who turns out to be married, yet he can't get her out of his mind.

Perhaps this is Ackworth's theme, the banality and repetition of the lives of Hollywood celebrities, but it makes for a dull affair. Even the lesbian Nazi is boring, and that is the most unkindest cut of all.


Tim Mayer said...

I had the dubious distinction of watching the trailer for THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT in a big theater over and over again in 1977. Because it played before STAR WARS, which my friends and I saw repeatedly that year (no DVD's or even VHS in those dark days before the empire). So why do I mention it now? Because every time I read a review for one of these pot boilers, all I can hear in my head is the audio track from that damn trailer.

francisco said...

hey talking about The other side of midnight, Sidney Sheldon had an style similar to that of Burt Hirschfeld or Harold Robbins?

Joe Kenney said...

Tim, that's pretty cool, thanks for posting. I'd love to see The Other Side of Midnight on the big screen. It comes the closest to being a trashy novel caught on film...most likely because it IS a trashy novel turned into a film.

Francisco, unfortunately I can't answer your question, as I've never read any Sidney Sheldon. Martin Boucher over at the Sleaze Factor blog could provide you an answer, though!