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High Concept

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If you read just the first two chapters of Charles Fleming’s devastating, depressing High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess, it might seem like a long, familiar magazine article. It’s no secret that Simpson, who produced Flashdance, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder with partner Jerry Bruckheimer and died of a heart attack caused by a massive drug overdose in January 1996, was one of Hollywood’s baddest boys — and proud of it. Much has already been written about his decadent, drug-addled life.

But High Concept goes deeper than any magazine expose ever did. Fleming lays bare not only Simpson’s sordid life but also the tantrums, excesses, and demands of the executives, stars, madams, and hookers (including everyone from producer Tony Scott, Demi Moore, and Julia Roberts to Madam Alex and Heidi Fleiss) who were part of his world as he became an industry powerhouse in the ’80s. Beneath the grotesque details lies something more chilling: the tale of how people like Simpson have come to personify the American dream — especially in Hollywood.

According to Fleming’s highly readable, thoroughly researched, and unflinching book, Simpson grew up in Alaska in a blue-collar family and worked in advertising before landing at Paramount in 1976. There he learned to hold his own with such future titans as Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, and David Geffen. Simpson is credited with inventing the ”high-concept” movie, ”the hot first act with an exciting incident, and the second act with the crisis and the dark bad moments in which our hero is challenged, and the third act with the triumphant moment and the redemption.”

Simpson’s life mimicked that structure. While bullying writers and directors into helping him make movies like Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop, Simpson binged on cocaine, alcohol, and food while indulging in sadomasochistic sex with hookers, often watching while they were beaten up. He auditioned actresses personally and then propositioned them. After one reading, Simpson asked the actress, ”Okay, do you want to do some coke, or would you like to f— me?” He wore his Levi’s once and then discarded them for a new pair. He had collagen injections in his cheeks, lips, and chin, a forehead lift, stomach liposuction, a butt lift, and injections of fat into his penis to make it, as Fleming puts it, ”wider and more wieldy.”

Despite his self-abuse and often monstrous behavior toward underlings, nobody ever told Simpson no — as long as he churned out hits. He was fired from his job as president of production at Paramount for substance abuse and rebounded to make some of the biggest movies of the ’80s and early ’90s. His high-powered friends, including producer Lynda Obst, still defend and admire him. ”[I]f his life can be taken as a cautionary tale,” Fleming writes, ”the caution is this: Beware a life devoid of negative consequences.”

Indeed, Simpson would probably be thrilled with much of High Concept. He would be embarrassed, one imagines, by just a few details — like the fact that he hired hookers because, as he once told a friend, ”he couldn’t stand rejection.” Or that even though he liked to show off his gun collection and often threatened people with it, he was a failure at weekend war games. ”He showed up looking like General Patton,” recalls one Simpson friend. ”And the funny thing was, he was horrible…. He was always the first guy to get killed.”

Unlike his movies, Simpson’s life lacked the crucial third act in which the protagonist triumphs and redeems himself. Without a boffo ending, Fleming must rely on Simpson’s odd network of associates to eulogize him. ”Pretty sad, isn’t it,” said a woman who answered one of Simpson’s personal ads. ”He had everything, and he had nothing.” A