During the 2023 Writers Strike, This Book Helped Me Understand the Depravities of Hollywood

As I covered the Hollywood strike this year, perhaps the best guide was a 1941 novel by a former Communist Party member about the dog-eat-dog scumbaggery of movie executives and the lying and artless bragging that Hollywood runs on.

Budd Schulberg testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, May 23, 1951. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Everyone in the business knew 2023 would be a big year for Hollywood’s unions.

Rumors across the town had it that the industry’s screenwriters and television writers, members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), were sure to strike — even if they didn’t want to, the studios were provoking it. Word had it they had been stockpiling scripts and churning out shows so that when the writers walked out, they’d have the programming to fill the airtime.

Having covered 2021’s near-strike by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) — the industry’s “below-the-line” workers, so-called because of where their names appear on production budgets — I planned to do the same for the industry’s writers. But having never written about the WGA before, I needed to do some research.

There are countless books on the union’s colorful history — the blacklisted writers alone produced enough memoirs to fill a bookshelf — but to save you time: Miranda Banks’s The Writers is a go-to among union members, Gerald Horne’s Class Struggle in Hollywood is a touchstone (when I met up with Lindsay Dougherty, the charismatic head of the Teamsters’ Motion Picture Division, she, too, was reading it), and Marc Norman’s What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting is the most fun of the bunch, strong evidence of how Norman wrote a screenplay like Shakespeare in Love.

But none of the nonfiction compares to What Makes Sammy Run?. The 1941 novel is by Budd Schulberg, who authored the screenplays for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Hollywood was in his DNA: his father was B. P. Schulberg, a Hollywood producer and exec, and his mother was talent agent Adeline Schulberg.

Budd kept coming up as I read about the blacklist era: apparently, the very active Hollywood branch of the Communist Party, of which he was a member, wasn’t thrilled with the novel. John Howard Lawson, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, told Budd to change it, prompting him to quit the party in protest. Schulberg eventually flipped on his former comrades, becoming a friendly witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), to whom he named names in between complaining about the party’s attempt to influence his book.

That’s indefensible no matter how annoying Lawson was — there is nothing lower than flipping on your former comrades — but boy was the party wrong about What Makes Sammy Run?. The book traces the titular Sammy Glick as he ascends from Jewish tenement dweller in New York’s Lower East Side, to a copy boy at the paper where the book’s protagonist drama-critic Al Manheim meets him, to screenwriter, and then, eventually, powerhouse producer and Hollywood player. Manheim becomes obsessed with the question posed in the book’s title: What moves Sammy, and where exactly is he going? The young hustler runs people down, he runs with death as his only finish line, he runs “without a single principle to slow him down.” By the book’s end, he runs the town.

The book also details pivotal scenes in early Hollywood labor history. Manheim witnesses the founding of the Screen Writers Guild, the WGA’s predecessor, of which Schulberg was a part. Kit Sargent, our protagonist’s love interest, is the driving force behind the organizing effort. While Sammy is little more than an embodiment of Schulberg’s political message, it’s these sections of the novel that provide a more complicated picture of the struggles of union work in the entertainment industry, where career considerations are rarely far from a writer’s mind.

Many argued that Sammy was based on producer Jerry Wald; on this, Schulberg demurred, saying that while Wald may have been one of the models, he was “not the only one.” Sammy’s Jewishness also led to accusations that the book was antisemitic, though Schulberg himself was Jewish. According to Samuel Goldwyn’s biographer, the studio executive even offered Schulberg money to kill the book, arguing that the writer was “doublecrossing the Jews.”

The book may be almost a century old, but I guess the industry — or at least, the worst of the industry, the slimeball executives Sammy so envies and eventually becomes — hasn’t changed much, because I found it indispensable for understanding Los Angeles. (I’m not the only one: a former WGA-West board member says that he used to read passages from the book to his fellow board members when discussing strikes or matters of writer unity). The ways of speaking, the hustle and dog-eat-dog scumbaggery, the lying and gossiping and artless bragging and plagiarism on which Hollywood runs — they’re all in Budd’s book. Read a Hollywood Reporter or Deadline column and you’ll hear Sammy Glick, even if the columnist doesn’t know it.

The novel, which I read on my flight to LAX, infected my way of speaking. Call it method reporting: to understand the studio heads, I had to become them. Soon enough, I, too, was speaking of “the town,” of what “everyone is saying,” or fantastically, exaggeratingly lying about myself and my reputation.

Unfortunately, the aping has stuck with me even after the strike. Last week a friend told me I’ve adopted Trump’s way of talking. I started to object that actually, this is the vernacular of the trade publications, a product of my immersion in Hollywood’s labor fights, my deep research. Then I realized: oh, right, Trump comes out of the same swamp as Sammy.