Julia Phillips' You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again is a book with a score to settle. Scores, actually. When it was first published in 1991, it was considered a scandalous, career ending book. Read 22 years after the fact it seems, not tame exactly, but certainly not measurably worse than any other book about Hollywood in the 1970s and 80s. The worst offenders in her book are protected by pseudonyms and the revelations about those she does name aren’t exactly shocking – particularly when you take into account that these are the memories of a crackhead. The only truly shocking thing about Lunch is that for all the posturing Phillips does about her importance to the “New Hollywood” era, she doesn’t actually do much to explain what she actually did to think she deserves that distinction.
Phillips was, in many ways, an admirable person. If even a fraction of the people on earth had the level of drive and ambition she had in her post-college through early Hollywood years, the world would be a very different place – a more productive and more richly artistic place. That she was tenacious enough to be a successful film producer is in itself amazing. There aren’t a ton of female film producers now; she got her start in the early 1970s and, at the age of only 29, became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Picture for producing The Sting. She would go on to produce Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, being fired from the latter during post-production as she descended to the depths of drug addiction.
During the course of Lunch, Phillips guides us from her childhood, spending much time describing her difficult relationship with her mother (a relationship which remains difficult even after her mother’s death), her fraught relationship with her producing partner and eventual ex-husband, Michael Phillips, and her long and ugly experience with addiction. By the time Phillips reaches bottom, she’s holed up in one room of her house, freebasing and barely alive while her daughter is in another room. Phillips spares no detail about her experiences with addiction, revealing both the expense of the addiction (approximately $120,000 spent on cocaine alone), the psychological toll of the often violent relationships she had with fellow drug addicts, and how even after going through recovery, she never truly “recovered” from her experience. One of the saddest passages in the book describes a rehabbed Phillips half-heartedly getting back into the producing game, all the fire that she had when she first started out having been extinguished by years of drugs abuse and time spent in the Hollywood wilderness.
Lunch purports to be a takedown of the Hollywood “Boys Club” and Phillips sketches many of the powerful male players with contempt, discussing at length the way she was underestimated and undervalued for being a woman, and viewing her gender as the primary reason for having been exiled from the centre of power and influence following Close Encounters. While there likely is some truth to Phillips' assertion that because she was a woman there was a degree to which those in power wanted to put her in her place, whereas had she been a man she would have been protected by them instead, it also has to be acknowledged that Phillips was a self-destructive mess who, had she not been in a position of wealth and privilege, would never have had even half the opportunities she did to turn her life around. Phillips’ gender may have been the reason why she wasn’t given a second chance, but that doesn’t make her any less responsible for having thrown away her career in the first place by choosing a life of decadence. It is unfair that men who behaved just as badly as she did were allowed to pick their careers back up, but that doesn’t absolve her of her behavior.
Phillips throws a lot of blame around and in the process reveals some fascinating insights into how the Hollywood game is played, but the greatest shortcoming of Lunch is that it fails to really establish how Phillips came to be a player herself, or the role that she played in the films that she helped get made. Want to know about the making of The Sting? Too bad. Lunch will tell you how the project first started to come together, and what it was like to win an Oscar (not to mention exactly what drugs Phillips took on Oscar night), but everything in between is skipped over without a word. More information is provided about the making of Close Encounters but, then, it has to be in order to justify the vitriol with which she relates her final falling out with Steven Spielberg, and to provide the context for the battle of wills she engages in with Francois Truffaut. There are a lot of holes in the narrative and as a result the book never truly comes together.
You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again is not a book devoid of value – when Phillips is able to reconstruct with some clarity the inner workings of behind-closed-doors Hollywood, the book can actually be quite fascinating. The problem is that those passages come in spurts and aren’t really representative of the book as a whole. As the book nears the end and it becomes apparent that it’s far too navel gazey to be the “real deal,” it actually becomes a bit of a tedious read. To be clear, I don’t doubt that Julia Phillips was a seminal figure of the New Hollywood era, but she really didn’t do a great job as explaining why.
Next Month: The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind