The Player: The ‘90s Heyday of Screenwriter Michael Tolkin

It started as a bit on one of the late-night shows: the host walked down a random block in Hollywood and asked strangers how things were going with their screenplay. Every single person had an answer. 

This gave fellow screenwriter Michael Tolkin an idea, not for a script, but a novel: a serial killer is going around Hollywood killing writers of unproduced screenplays, but the cops can’t break the pattern because everyone in the city was writing a script.

Eventually, this idea morphed into The Player, a macabre satire about a power-hungry studio executive whose life spirals out of control after he murders a frustrated screenwriter. While the novel didn’t initially prove a best seller, it quickly caught the attention of the industry it skewered (torched, really). It was optioned and made into a film only four years later—ironic, considering the original title was Turnaround—with Tolkin himself taking on scripting duties.

Released thirty years ago this April, The Player proved a huge critical and modest commercial success, serving as the triumphant return to Hollywood for director Robert Altman’s after a decade spent in artistic exile following several notorious (but fascinating) flops. Rather than playing things safe in order to make something with wide appeal, the maverick director doubled down on his signature touchstones: a massive ensemble cast (in this case, dozens Hollywood A-listers, most of whom play themselves), dizzyingly overlapping dialog, “collaborative improvisation” and some truly bravura filmmaking (the crown jewel: the seven minute and 47 second single-take tracking shot that opens the movie).

But for as much as The Player is rightly regarded as a quintessential Altman picture, it is equally a Tolkin picture, and not simply because he adapted his own source material. One of the poster children for hot ticket screenwriters synonymous with the studio system depicted in The Player, Tolkin’s work as both a writer and director during that period resulted in several films that married high concept premises with deep psychological, spiritual and political complexity and literary sensibility. 

The son of television comedy writer and studio executive, respectively, Michael Tolkin was very much to the manner born (his brother Stephen is also a writer and director, the two of them playing brother scribes in The Player). He cut his teeth writing journalism as well as for television (early credits include episodes of Taxi, as well as the Animal House spinoff Delta House) before making the jump to film with his script for 1989’s Gleaming the Cube, directed by Graeme Clifford.

On its face a high-octane action vehicle for budding heartthrob Christian Slater, as well as one of several pieces of media attempting to cash in on the newly resurgent popularity of skateboarding (Cube features the sport’s GOAT, Tony Hawk, prominently throughout), the film is, in actuality, a surprisingly serious and politically astute murder mystery about a troubled teen’s attempts to avenge the murder of his adopted Vietnamese brother at the hands of hardline anticommunist weapons dealers; its clear-eyed examination of the unhealed scars of Vietnam, together with its sunburnt California backdrop, calling to mind late ‘70s neo-noirs as much as the flashy teen skate movies of its day. Author and screenwriter Jack Pendarvis nailed it when he referred to the film as “Cutter’s Way for teens!”

Around this same time, Tolkin began writing The Player, using the money he made from Gleaming the Cube to take the time needed to complete it. Once published, the book’s rights were purchased by producers as a potential starring role for Chevy Chase (whose father, Ned, was the novel’s original publisher) or directorial project for Mike Rydell. Those plans fell through and it was given over to Altman after his planned adaptation of short story writer Raymond Carver’s oeuvre, Short Cuts, hit a wall (the eventual success of The Player giving Altman the stroke he needed to get that film made a year later).  

At one point along the way, it was suggested to Tolkin that he direct The Player himself, but as he recounted to actress Illeana Douglas on her podcast in 2017, “I didn’t want to fail at something I’d already succeeded.” At the time, he was also knee-deep in post-production for his own directorial debut, one of the most beguiling and philosophically frightening films of its decade (or since): The Rapture.

Inspired by the rise of Christianity fundamentalism of the day, the 1991 film centers on spiritually unmoored and sexually adventurous telephone operator Sharon (Mimi Rogers) as  she becomes a born-again Christian after experiencing visions (alongside a growing number of people across the world) of the forthcoming Day of Judgement (aka The Rapture). After a shocking tragedy befalls her family, Sharon and her young daughter spiral into desperation and madness, resulting in her committing the most horrific of all crimes. It’s at this point that the film leans fully into its supernatural premise, closing out with one of the most unforgettable and devastating—yet, somehow, vindicating—endings in all of American cinema.

A heady, haunting amalgamation of erotic thriller, spiritual drama, psychological character study, and cosmic horror (in which the Christian apocalypse is properly examined through the lens of eldritch terror), audiences unsurprisingly steered clear of The Rapture, although critics leaned positive on it. It has since gone on to achieve minor cult classic status, although the members of said cult—including yours truly—are as rabid in their proselytization as the end-times evangelists within the film itself.

If the disappointing reception to The Rapture took some shine off of Tolkin’s rising star, the release of The Player the next year helped restore it. Nineteen ninety-two was a big year, as it also saw the release of Bill Duke’s neo-noir crime saga Deep Cover, which Tolkin co-wrote with Harry Bean. Hailed as an instant classic of the rapidly ascending hip-hop culture—thanks in large part to its Dr. Dre-produced soundtrack, which introduced listeners to Snoop Dog—today the film is recognized as a key work of Black American cinema, while its indictment on the United States’ government’s War on Drugs (at the time considered radical) stands it as one of the most clear-eyed and prescient films of its era.

As with The Player, the lion’s share of credit for Deep Cover goes to its director, Duke (as it should), but Tolkin’s fingerprints can be seen all over the film, particularly via its heavy religious overtones, such as a sacrilegious strip tease that occurs midway through (but also in the overriding themes of sin, guilt and redemption); noir bonafides (Tolkin has crime fiction authors Patricia Highsmith and James M. Cain as two of his biggest influences); and especially the Player-like rise to power given over to Jeff Goldblum’s ruthless yuppie lawyer-turned-narco kingpin antagonist. 

The second and, as of now, last feature film that Tolkin wrote and directed came along two years later in the form of The New Age. The L.A. set dramady combines The Player’s remorseless dissection of upper class moral rot and The Rapture’s sincere examination of metaphysical yearning into a slow burn story about a well-off married couple (Peter Weller and Joan Davis) and their financial, moral, and romantic disintegration.

Needless to say, audiences wholly rejected the scabrous film, which really is a shame, for while The New Age is an undoubtedly an uneven work—the satire of yuppie ennui and hypocrisy plays as thuddingly obvious at times (the high end clothing store the couple burns their money setting up is called ‘Hypocracy’, for crying out loud). But the sincere presentation of new age spirituality is genuinely unsettling; like The Rapture before it, it showed Tolkin to have a natural grasp of cinematic language, both films making fine use of depth of field, subtly intricate camera movement, and shadowy cinematography that come together create an off-kilter, but wholly hypnotic and entrancing atmosphere. 

Indeed, his two films serve as prime examples of a particular strain of non-genre 90’s cinema in which the most pervasive tone is one of implacable dread. Call it the Menace of Modernity, with both The Rapture and The New Age stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the more widely celebrated (or at least more frequently referenced) work of, among others, David Cronenberg (Crash), Atom Egoyan (Exotica), Paul Schrader (The Comfort of Strangers), James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), Neil Labute (In the Company of Men) and Todd Solondz (Happiness). 

The fiercely negative reception to The New Age may have put the kibosh on Tolkin’s career as a director, but he continued working as a screenwriter for the remainder of the decade, nabbing his highest profile credit on the long gestating disaster epic Deep Impact (alas, this was after Steven Spielberg had removed himself from the project). Like The Rapture, Deep Impact is a story about the end of the world via heaven borne destruction, albeit one that takes the secular view of things, replacing the hand of God with a giant meteor. 

Tolkin has spoken about how unhappy he was in Deep Impact as a finished film, although its success at the box office alleviated some of his initial disappointment. Yet, in spite of the movie’s success—and make no mistake, while it’s regarded as the other comet movie of 1998 when compared to Armageddon, it still made bank—it also signaled the end (as of now) for Tolkin’s time as a screenwriter for the movies. 

Tolkin has a few other feature screenwriting credits to his name, including 2001’s mostly forgotten one-bad-day thriller Changing Lanes and 2007’s dreadful adaptation of the Fellini-inspired Broadway musical Nine, both of which he co-wrote (he also did uncredited work on horror remakes The Haunting [1999] and Dawn of the Dead [2004]). But since the turn of the century he’s gradually moved from film to television, while also continuing to publish novels (2006 saw the release of a sequel to his most famous work with The Return of the Player). 

Since 2014, he’s written and directed several episodes of the Showtime drama Ray Donovan and created the true crime limited series Escape at Dannemora for the same network. Along with the anniversary of The Player, this month will also see the debut of his newest series, The Offer, a dramatization of the making of The Godfather that, fittingly, is also set amidst the backlots of the Hollywood studio system.

While Tolkin clearly hasn’t wanted for work since his ‘90’s heyday, the trajectory of his career is representative of the decline of Hollywood’s relationship with writers and writing. The past two decades have seen so many of the most popular and sought-after scribes move into television in response to the industry’s rejection of mid-budget productions in favor of expensive, IP-driven tentpoles, a shift so dystopian that it makes the homicidal Hollywood Tolkin created for the The Player now look like a utopia.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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