With one close friend and partner in hedonism — producer Don Simpson –dead, and another — Warren Beatty — enjoying domesticity and fatherhood, writer-director James Toback (whose extraordinary “Black and White” opens today) looks like the last of the larger-than-life Hollywood filmmakers.
It’s hard to imagine any of today’s up-and-coming independent filmmakers — let alone the colorless business-school types who run the studios — marrying and divorcing the granddaughter of the duke of Marlborough, teaching literature at CUNY, financing a movie with cash won at Vegas gaming tables, rewriting a lost (handwritten) script from memory in 40 hours straight, or threatening a studio head with assassination.
Toback, a celebrated New York character and irrepressible raconteur –whose screenplay for “Bugsy” was nominated for an Oscar — has done all this and more.
As he walks through Midtown, bearded, baseball-capped and bearlike, stories of Hollywood and Harvard, Las Vegas low-lifes and London high society, pour out.
His life and obsessions have provided material for his movies — a body of work admired as brilliant and brave by some critics and dismissed as pretentious and undisciplined by others.
Warren Beatty says his old friend “has a self-effacing way of alternating between the witty, the vulgar and the profound.”
And it’s true. Toback’s conversation slips from the literary virtues of “my friend and mentor” Norman Mailer to the coming impact of digital technology on film (he fears it will give talent-hating execs even more power), to the nature of female sexual desire.
The grandson of a man who owned — and gambled away — most of Columbus Circle, and the son of a president of the League of Women Voters, Toback was born and educated in Manhattan before going to Harvard, where he nearly died of a huge LSD overdose. (The episode is at the heart of “Harvard Man,” the script he hopes to make next).
After getting a graduate degree from Columbia and teaching literature at CUNY, Toback became a magazine journalist.
An assignment to interview Jim Brown, the football player-turned-actor-turned-activist, led to an orgiastic year living at Brown’s house — one which Toback recounted in a widely praised book titled “Jim.”
It was only after a second near-death experience at 28 — he nearly drowned in Broad Beach, Calif. — that Toback decided film was his true artistic calling and began his first screenplay for Karel Reisz’s “TheGambler.”
He’s since helmed nine movies, including last year’s “Two Girls and a Guy.”
Now 56, Toback’s wildest days are over. An evening with him can still turn into what one New York film executive called an odyssey — “you’re at a meeting with Toback, and 12 hours later you’re still out with various interns, show people and bookies, and you don’t want to go home.”
But Toback says he’s conquered the raging gambling addiction that once left him millions in debt.
Remarried and living again in New York, he’s also forsworn the womanizing that provoked a notorious article in Spy magazine and provided some of the best lines in his movie “The Pick-Up Artist.”
When asked about his own colorful sexual past, Toback lets his movies do the talking.
“Everything I wanted to say about picking up girls, I essentially dramatized in the tone that I wish to use in ‘The Pick-Up Artist,'” he says. “Everything I wished to say about the subject of sexual duplicity I dramatized in ‘Two Girls and a Guy.'”
As anyone who sees “Black and White” will recognize, James Toback still has plenty of obsessions to explore in his unapologetically personal way.
“Black and White” takes a daring, unsparing but often very funny look at one of the most fascinating cultural phenomena of our time: the conquest of white, teenage America by hip-hop culture.
And it features the kind of cast that only someone like Toback could assemble and control, with Mike Tyson playing a surprisingly charming version of himself, and supermodel Claudia Schiffer delivering a genuinely impressive performance.
Those who know Toback credit his charm and capacity for friendship, despite all the stories about feuds and furious phone calls.
As his old pal Beatty told me from his home in L.A., “Underneath all of the theatricality, there is an essential sweetness to Jimmy — he’s a very nice boy who is devoted to his wife and mother … and is never, never boring.”
Toback is particularly proud of the involvement in “Black and White” of Wu-Tang Clan, whose improvisations and authentic gangsta dialogue, he says, helped his film “tell the 100 percent truth about the hip-hop life.”
Toback knows he’s taking a chance by throwing together professionals and non-actors, but he’s never shied away from risk.
“It’s not as if I’m making war movies,” he says. “I make movies that are
connected to the worlds that I know and the people I know.”