Ben Stein's Diary

Scam City

Hollywood loves to see itself on screen.

By 1.6.14

UPI
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Sunday
So, I am lying here in bed with Julie Goodgirl, and I am thinking about something.

“Why do so many movies get made about con men and so few about people who actually build something real?”

Last night, Big Wifey (who is actually thin) and I watched American Hustle. It is about an FBI scam/sting to bribe some government officials — perfectly good people — and pretend it’s an Arab sheik who is doing the bribing. It stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Jen Lawrence and it is breathtakingly powerful.

The heroes, if they can be called that, are all scammers: a scamming guy who defrauds people out of money to supposedly get them loans and never does, an FBI agent who is totally insane and just wants to scam the whole world to make himself a big name, and the scamming beautiful girl, Amy Adams, whose breasts we almost see more or less in every scene. Not quite but almost.

I won’t spoil it by telling the end, but we love the scammers at the end. And we really love them. Not just like them. LOVE THEM. Or at least if we suspend judgment we love them. If we don’t think about their victims, we love them.

This comes on the heels of two viewings of The Wolf of Wall Street and at least a hundred viewings of The Great Gatsby. In Wolf Leo DiCaprio is a lovable scammer and of course Jay Gatsby was trading in fraudulent or stolen bonds. That’s how he got so rich.

And, of course, the woods are full of movies about criminals. I just watched as much as I could of Casino for the umpteenth time. (I auditioned for that and came to meet Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. Didn’t get the part, though.) And in a way, Rhett was a scammer, blockade runner, not a builder or a fighter.

So, why do we love these movies so much?

Several answers:

First of all, we as Americans do not get to pick the movies that get made. We get to watch what Hollywood offers us. And Hollywood LOVES scammers.

Why? Because Hollywood is all about confidence men and women. It takes unbelievable effrontery and drive to get a movie made. I mean it takes gall to get a movie made. There is overwhelming competition. There are a billion naysayers. There is a limited pot of money for production. Yet dreamers and schemers start out with just an idea and a few pages and they get a hundred million dollar movie made.

They sell the sizzle, not the steak, as my old pal, the genius Hollywood veteran, Al Burton, says.

So, when Hollywood sees a good story about a man who sells confidence, they see themselves and they like it.

Second, movies are, well, movies, and they move. That means they like vitality. And a really motivated con man is a vital, juicy character. Same with con women.

Running a real business is exacting, daunting, repetitive work. Even in Silicon Valley. Running a scam — especially if you might get caught and put in prison — is exciting, and movies are about excitement. Building GM is a long, often boring story.

Plus, we people in Hollywood are very largely the minorities. To get ahead, we sometimes may have to cut corners and so we do and we admire people who are good at it.

Now, I am not a complete idiot. I know very well that all people of all races and in all businesses do scams and cut corners. But here in LA, we admire that. We don’t condemn it. We like it. It may well be the same in West Texas. I am not sure.

Plus, on a national level, we admire con-men politicians. After all, who could be a bigger con man than Barack Obama. He promised us peace in the Middle East. A health care plan that would work and would save money. An America respected because we were weak. Tax cuts. Maybe we got a smattering of those but what we mostly got were promises. But we still like him (I don’t but some do) because in part we admire his brazenness. Plus, until recently, he had a lot of vitality. That seems to have disappeared now that Obamacare has hit the wall of reality.

Anyway, Hollywood is largely about scammers and con men. It was my main livelihood for about 25 years and the scams were beautiful and ugly, cheap and expensive, but, wow, were there a lot of scammers. My favorites were men who told me they went to Yale Law School and just MADE IT UP!!! There was one I met who claimed to have been valedictorian of the class of ’70. But I was valedictorian! (Not by grades, not even close. There was a once in a lifetime election and I won. That was when I was a big anti-war radical, man.)

So, Hollywood is the original in the Xerox machine and it reproduces itself in mass culture. The con man as major character is a big part of that original. The joke or maybe the best part of it all is that movies are an unbelievable bargain. A few dollars to be transported to a glorious fantasy world far more lush than anything we will ever experience? A few bucks to see beautiful people take their clothes off? To get to luxuriate in the warm waters of the screenwriters’ and directors’ and art directors’ and casting directors’ genius ? That is the best bargain on the planet. Movies are so great these days that the price is a steal. 

Now, I have to swim.

I swam and then I got dressed and opened my Sunday New York Times and there was the most perfectly horrifying front page combo ever. The lede (as we journalists call it) was about New York State moving slowly (maybe quickly) to legalize marijuana. The story next to it was about al Qaeda running wild throughout the Middle East and North Africa as Obama turns American attention away from the Middle East and North Africa.

So… violent, sadistic, sick, twisted Islamic reaction is taking over a huge chunk of the world? What is the solution, Mr. President and Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea? Get high. This truly is foreign policy run by subhumans. Proof positive is Secretary Kerry actually thinking he can talk the Palestinians into liking Israel and not burning to destroy it. Again, intelligence of a subhuman level.

And there you have the collapse of America in two headlines. The collapse of humanity. We’ll just be hallucinating when they chop our heads off so we probably won’t feel it anyway.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.