I’ve been devouring – a little late – High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess, Charles Fleming’s page-turning and hair-raising 1998 biography of the late Hollywood producer and ‘bad boy’, who along with his ‘good boy’ partner Jerry Bruckheimer were the most successful independent producers in Hollywood in the 80s and early 90s. Inventing, or at least formulating and trademarking, the so-called ‘high concept‘ blockbuster – such as Flashdance (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Crimson Tide (1995) and The Rock (1996).
Simpson, originally hailing Anchorage, Alaska, comes across as surprisingly compelling figure, in many ways monstrous and grotesque, yet strangely likeable, in all his human weaknesses and vanities: a kind of real-life, if slightly less believable, Bret Easton Ellis character – working right at the evil, cracked heart of the American Dream factory.
While working as a producer at Paramount in 1980, before going independent, he crafted a ‘Paramount Corporate Philosophy’ paper, which is gobsmacking in both its honesty and clarity about what Hollywood is – and isn’t.
“The pursuit of making money is the only reason to make movies. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art… Our obligation is to make money, and to make money it may be necessary to make history, art or some significant statement. To make money, it may be important to win the Academy Award, for it might mean another ten million dollars at the box office. Our only object is to make money, but in order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies.”
But you’ll understand why I particularly perked up when I came across an account of my namesake and Bruckheimer’s attempts to seduce a reluctant Tom Cruise into starring in a film they were producing that you may possibly have heard of, called Top Gun.
According to Admiral (Rtd.) Pete Pettigrew, the US Navy liaison they had hired to keep the USN sweet (Top Gun was made with the support of the Pentagon – who famously loaned them an aircraft carrier), it seems that those steamy locker room scenes the movie is now famous for, partly thanks to the dirty mind of yours truly, was Mr Cruise’s idea. He wanted the movie not to be about killing but about ‘sporting excellence’.
‘At their first meeting, Cruise, who had just finished shooting Legend and still wore his hair shoulder-length, expressed his concerns. Primarily… Cruise did not want Top Gun to be a movie about killing. He wanted to know about the “locker room” scenes and the locker room facilities at the Top Gun school, because… Cruise felt that’s where a lot of the action should take place. “He wanted to make this look like a sporting event, not about warmongering but about competition and excellence,” Pettigrew said…. Pettigrew expressed his doubts. The USN flying school at San Diego did not encourage competition…’
Disappointingly, the Top Gun trophy, central to the movie and the hotly contested object of desire for smouldering, slicked-back rivals Maverick and Iceman, was entirely the creation of the scriptwriters. It didn’t and doesn’t exist.
Despite the understandable reservations of Pettigrew, the idea was eagerly seized upon by Don Simpson – albeit for more fleshly reasons than those advanced by Tom. Pettigrew was overruled (as he seems to have been almost consistently) and his concerns over long-haired Tom’s yen for lots of locker room scenes were addressed in a typically blunt Simpsonian fashion:
‘When Cruise left the room, Simpson told Pettigrew, “Look, we’re paying one million bucks to get him. We need to see some flesh.”
And boy, did we.
Simpson was hyper-heterosexual – and if he were still alive, his aggressive sexual behaviour would likely be the subject of a plethora of #metoo accusations. But he was certainly not blind to male beauty, not least because he was a producer who longed to be a movie star. He was forever trying to improve and enhance his looks and was a high-rolling, early-adopter of metrosexuality. On the ‘cutting edge’, in fact.
In addition to his dandyish foibles (he would berate staff for pressing instead of fluffing his jeans), according to Fleming, between 1988 and 1994 Simpson had at least ten surgical procedures to enhance his looks. Including collagen injections in his cheeks and chin, a forehead lift and a restructuring of his eyebrow, to give it ‘sterner definition’; liposuction of his abdomen and a collagen injections in his lips and fat injection into his penis to make it bigger.
This latter procedure was, as is usually the case, a failure – penis enlargement ops are essentially a very expensive form of penis mutilation. But because it was Simpson’s penis the op had to fail on a big scale. “It had turned all black-and-blue, and it was very painful”, a source is quoted as saying. “There was a lot of swelling and fever. In the end they had to take out whatever it was they put in there. You can’t believe how pissed Don was.”
In yet another glimpse of the masculine future, Simpson was not simply all about the phallus either. His masculine self-consciousness was versatile – he also had a ‘butt lift’ op. Apparently he was particularly disappointed in his natural buttock bestowment.
“Every time I ever visited his office, he was always in there trying on jeans and complaining about his ass,” a friend of Simpson recalls. “He always thought it looked funny in pants.”
Simmo also struggled with his weight – binge-eating pizzas and entire jars of peanut butter, then switching to punitive diets. Essentially he was a constant work in progress, one fuelled by self-loathing and self-loving. And lots and lots of drugs, prescription and proscribed – particularly cocaine. The highness of his concepts was largely white-powder-fuelled.
A Top Gun sequel, called, Top Gun: Maverick, is due to ‘go ballistic’ this year and will star a Tom Cruise who, more than three decades on is still forever Maverick. Albeit Maverick with an increasing admixture of Sandi Toksvig.
The sequel will be helmed without Don Simpson, however. Like that other pop cultural, pill-popping over-consumer, Elvis, he died of massive heart failure on the crapper, in 1996, aged 52. Twenty one different drugs were found in his system, including antidepressants, stimulants, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Fleming reports that Simpson was spending $60,000 a month on prescription drugs alone.
The Elvis parallel doesn’t end on the crapper, either. Critic Peter Biskind argued in 1999 that Simpson was to “gay culture what Elvis was to black music, ripping it off and repackaging it for a straight audience”.
According to Biskind, Paramount, where Simpson started his career, was ‘the gayest studio’. While there, Simpson was instrumental in bringing American Gigolo (1980) to the screen. Produced by his future partner in crime, Bruckheimer, Gigolo is a definitively 1980s film that that even out-gays Top Gun.
This was because Paramount:
‘took gay culture, with its conflation of fashion, movies, disco and advertising… and used it as a bridge between the naive high-concept pictures of Spielberg in the 1970s and highly-designed, highly self-conscious pictures’.
‘High concept’, in other words, was highly camp.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mark Simpson’s Patreon page.
Special thanks to Simon Mason for sending me Fleming’s bio of Simmo.