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From Paris to Greenwich Village to mod London, Southern befriended some of the greatest writers, artists, and musicians of the day, spending hours sharing their pet indulgences. His status as a cooler-than-cool pop-culture icon was solidified by his appearance (shades and all) in the pantheon of heroes that populate the cover of the "Sgt. Pepper" album. Hill emphasizes that Southern created the "grand guy" persona to deal with an innate shyness; Southern's collaborator Nelson Lyon is quoted as saying that as Southern grew older, he became a victim of his alter ego, "trapped in the cliches and hip jargon" that defined him in the eyes of friends and colleagues.
In the 1970s, Southern became "unfashionable" in the movie industry, due to several factors (changing regimes, the death of the "small" Hollywood film with the advent of Spielberg and Lucas, a reputation as one who "indulged" quite a bit). His position as a "name" journalist-in-residence on Rolling Stones tours had the same sad, resigned air as Ken Kesey's travels with the Grateful Dead. Given the nature of his later professional endeavors (including the script of an unfunny 1980 hardcore porn comedy, "Randy the Electric Lady"), the sweetest surprise waiting for Southern fans in "A Grand Guy" is the revelation that he remained a productive and prolific writer during his "invisible" years. Though project after project went into turnaround, and ideas were hatched that seemed doomed from the start, Southern did produce completed screenplays for all of them. Some of the most valuable passages in Hill's book offer tantalizing glimpses at these heretofore unseen scripts, including a project instigated by Peter Sellers about a meek, mild-mannered Pentagon auditor who stumbles onto the labyrinthine workings of the international arms trade.
The dilemma central to Southern's life, post 1969, can be summed up in one question: why did he continue to labor on screenplays after it had become painfully evident that the mainstream movie industry (as well as the independent sphere, which he had helped to jumpstart with "Easy Rider") had no interest in his work? Throughout these lean years, Southern could have easily veered back into what he called the "quality lit game," given his well-respected status in the literary community. The most cogent explanation for Southern's peculiar decision to stick with the film world can be found in his 1962 essay "When Film Gets Good..." (included in "Now Dig This"): "It has become evident that it is wasteful, pointless, and in terms of art, inexcusable, to write a novel which could, or in fact should, have been a film."
Issues of creativity and expression aside, there was another, more concrete reason why Southern stuck with the movie biz: he acknowledged in an interview (also included in "Dig") that "it is highly rewarding in the financial sense..." Therefore, owing quite a bit to the IRS, he looked forward to scoring a "breakthrough" film project that would simultaneously solve his financial troubles and resuscitate his standing in the Hollywood community. The juiciest anecdotes in Hill's biography detail the curious way in which he pursued this breakthrough: in true self-destructive, Wellesian style, he hooked up with a variety of collaborators who were immaculately talented, but were further along in their alcohol- and drug-dependency than he was (Hill sketches Southern as a functional "user" whose biggest weaknesses were drink and Dexamyl - used to complete manuscripts on short deadlines): William Burroughs and a far-gone Dennis Hopper on an adaptation of Burroughs' "Junky"; Larry Flynt and Hopper on a biopic of Jim Morrison; singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, another "grand" soul, on the aforementioned "Telephone."
The only thing missing from Hill's excellent biography is the voice of the Master himself. Although the book's subtitle emphasizes Southern's life and art (and it is obvious that, after a certain point, his behavior in public became his "art") sadly there are few quotes from Southern's published work. Therefore, the uninitiated are urged to supplement "Grand" with a look at Southern's finer writing, preferably "Red-Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes." Those who are content to know Southern's work through viewings of "Strangelove" and "Easy Rider" will still be in for a treat, though, as they encounter "a certain yrs tly" (as Southern often referred to himself) and the "ultrafab" folks with whom he shared his life and times.