All About Ed

REVIEW: ‘Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood’ by Ed Zwick

Tom Cruise and Ed Zwick attend the German premiere of "The Last Samurai" (Kurt Vinion/Getty Images)
April 28, 2024

It’s a rare book that opens with the writer admitting he’s an asshole, and different readers will, of course, respond differently to this unique authorial strategy. Do we hurl the book across the room? Toss it on the Weber and set it on fire? Drown it in the bath tub? Or do we, Looney Tunes-like, clip our nose with a clothespin, pour a stiff one, and continue reading with an exalted sense of what the comic writer Alex Heard called "hathos," a portmanteau of hatred and pathos: "A pleasurable sense of loathing, aroused by certain schlocky, schmaltzy, or just-plain-bad show biz personalities."

To readers of Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood, the new memoir by the movie and TV director Ed Zwick, I recommend the hathos option. Zwick challenges us, as I say, from the very start, on the first two pages.

"To be a director is to be a changeling," he writes. At one moment, the director is a "mere mortal" on the movie set; and then he "presumes to tell everybody what they’re doing wrong."

Sure, he can appear to be a good guy—helping his subordinates the way a camp counselor would—but before long they witness the unhappy truth. "I morph into a muttering Napoleon determined to bend the world to my will." He thus reveals his true self: "a heartless son of a bitch." Zwick repeats and rephrases this same confession throughout his memoir; it’s a leitmotif. He even compares himself to the monster in Alien—even worse than Napoleon, I think. Give him marks for candor, if that’s what it is.

To the more plugged-in segments of the movie-going public, Zwick is known as a reliable, workmanlike director of middlebrow titles of the kind that have fallen out of fashion in our present era of movie-as-comicon. More often than not his movies have been earnest, worthy, mildly boring, touched but not deadened by uplift, and glancingly related to social or political issues without overdoing it. Quite a few of them have been bona fide if not boffo hits, powered by movie stars of the top tier: The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise (2003), Glory with Denzel Washington (1989), Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio (2006), Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt (1994). Others were quickly forgotten (The Siege with Washington, Trial by Fire with Laura Dern). Some you’ve never heard of (Leaving Normal, Pawn Sacrifice).

Zwick’s career has followed a once-familiar trajectory. Journeyman moviemakers of the generation before his often got their start directing episodic television for the broadcast networks, which once upon a time were a thing—indeed, the only thing on offer, back when those cathode ray tubes bathed every American living room in radiation. (Whether the radiation or the TV shows were more dangerous to the public health is an open question.)

Zwick’s first success was a series on ABC called thirtysomething. The show ran for four seasons in the late 1980s. Its signal contribution was to confirm in the public mind the image of baby boomers, then entering their fourth decade, as whiny, entitled navel-gazers. Zwick and his co-creators could create scene after scene in which their protagonists did little but examine in exquisite detail their endlessly changeable emotions, their feelings about sex, children, politics, work, and, if things got really exciting, their feelings about all their feelings. A viewer could scarcely make it to the commercial break without a cringe or a gag.

Still, it was a hit. (Baby boomers loved it!) Hits, Flops, etc. shows that thirtysomething’s approach to life and art was Zwick’s also. Like so many people who claim to be self-loathing, Zwick thinks he’s pretty terrific, and he assumes we’ll agree. I would never second-guess any stranger’s mental health strategy, but Ed Zwick shows every sign of a man who has spent too many hours writhing in delicious agony on the therapist’s couch. Some passages of his memoir read like verbatim transcripts of a session that his therapist forgot to end (the shrink probably fell asleep).

Zwick’s father gets a heavy working over, as dads do in the recollections of analysands. By this telling the old man was a drunk, a feckless businessman, and an omnivorous philanderer. "My relationship with my father was agonizing at times," Zwick insists on telling us. "Alan Zwick was a classic narcissist … I couldn’t help but notice how people were drawn to him, because I was too. Toward me, he was alternatively [sic] affectionate, casually indifferent, and occasionally deprecating. There was something unattainable about his attention, even his love… ." And so on and so on, in the familiar cadence of self-involved reverie.

Poor old dad’s public lashing has a purpose. It’s Zwick’s way of explaining his own puppy-dog relationship with the movie stars he has known and, in unrequited fashion, loved. One after another he coddles them, offers them his servile affection, draws from them stellar performances; and then one after another they let him down, just as dad did—Brad, Tom, Denzel, all of them. Ordinarily this would provide material for a juicy memoir, but Zwick insists he will not trade in cheap gossip; the book’s epigraph comes from Marco Polo: "I did not tell half of what I saw."

And yet he will condescend to dish if it furthers one of the chief aims of any Hollywood memoir—getting even.

Through crocodile tears, for example, he laments that Julia Roberts, though already a big star at the time, was but a callow 23-year-old in the early ’90s, when he tried to woo her to star in an early version of the movie that would become Shakespeare in Love. So should we cut the kid some slack? Um, no. Zwick goes on to portray her as a manipulative, spoiled, lazy, concupiscent headcase whose interest in the movie was driven largely by her desire to have sex with Daniel Day-Lewis.

Once that objective was attained—I’m guessing it wasn’t too difficult—she was gone like a thief in the night. The project collapsed. Her double-cross and other erratic behavior wasted years of Zwick’s productive life and cost the studio millions of dollars. The script eventually fell into the hairy, matted palms of Harvey Weinstein, who later turned it into a hit, with little involvement from Zwick. He admits he never got to see the famous Weinstein bathrobe.

Zwick ends his book with an elegiac meditation on what he unfortunately calls "the life of an artist." It is nicely written and only occasionally pretentious, and for the first time the ritualized self-deprecation seems sincere. The summary tone also allows him to speed over the last decade of his career, which has seen a steep decline in his status as a director. The three movies he was able to get made since 2011 have all flopped—surprisingly, in at least one instance: a surefire Jack Reacher sequel starring Cruise. That movie’s poor box office, he suggests, was all the audience’s fault; it ignored the Zwickian cinematic subtleties in its craving for "red meat." And in a characteristic reverse insult, Zwick claims Cruise was miscast—as an action hero. "I certainly don’t blame Tom for not being six two."

And so he is back where he began, directing episodic television, with decreasing frequency and a phone that seldom rings: "I’m sitting at home, conspicuously not writing, waiting for the latest submission not to be read by a movie star, and a call not to be returned by an executive …."

Readers would have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by the poignancy of the scene. And then we recall the book’s leitmotif. The hathos returns. You can pity an asshole for only so long.

Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood
by Ed Zwick
Gallery Books, 304 pp., $28.99

Andrew Ferguson is a contributing writer at the Atlantic and nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.