October 17, 1950
New York City, New York, United States
Director, Screenwriter, Novelist, Producer
Michael Tolkin gives a good interview. While clearly an adept Hollywood player, he casually peppers his conversations with allusions to serious literature, philosophy, cultural criticism, art cinema, and American film history. Tolkin's film projects similarly reveal his status as a rare commodity in today's movie industry--a feeling intellectual. As a screenwriter, he pens tough-minded social satires without sacrificing compassion for his characters. Tolkin's worldview reflects a profound and rather refreshing ambivalence. He refuses to scapegoat potentially easy targets because he views all of us as accomplices in society's shortcomings. This journalist turned novelist turned screenwriter began to flex his muscles as a writer-director in several unconventional Hollywood films of the early 1990s. All of his stories to date have been set in Los Angeles, a city as central to his vision as New York is to Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese.The scion of a show business family--his father was a TV comedy writer, his mother a VP in Legal Affairs at Paramount--Tolkin was born in New York and transplanted to L.A. at age ten. He began directing plays in high school and went to college in Vermont. Tolkin moved to NYC and wrote feature articles for various publications including VILLAGE VOICE, DAILY NEWS and THE LOS ANGELES TIMES. He began his entertainment career rather inauspiciously as a story editor of "Delta House" (ABC, 1979), the unlamented, short-lived TV version of John Landis' 1978 comedy hit, "Animal House." He achieved a modest breakthrough in features as the screenwriter and associate producer of "Gleaming the Cube" (1988), an offbeat action thriller about a skateboarder (Christian Slater) searching for the killer of his adopted Vietnamese brother. A few years later, he followed up with several remarkable films set within a universe in search of values.Tolkin's directorial debut, "The Rapture" (1991), was a haunting story about a contented but unfulfilled sensualist who, practically overnight, becomes a born-again Christian preparing for the final reckoning. With a fine central performance by Mimi Rogers, the film is ambitious if flawed. Perhaps best described as a low-budget, fundamentalist variation on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Rapture" boldly and seriously contemplates spiritual matters rarely dealt with in Hollywood fare. An observant Jew himself, Tolkin refused to caricature the sincere beliefs of others. A major new cinematic sensibility had arrived.The absorbing and unsettling if more conventional "Deep Cover" (1992), meanwhile, directed with suitably edgy style by Bill Duke, presented a black narcotics cop who loses sight of which side of the law he is on. Tolkin's original screenplay (from his story) was rewritten by Henry Bean ("Internal Affairs" 1990) but it seems firmly set in the same morally slippery universe as his other works. As critic Gavin Smith noted in FILM COMMENT: "All his characters abandon or fall from the social mainstream and enact dramas of self-redefinition."Tolkin adapted his first novel, "The Player," for the 1992 Robert Altman film that brought the writer his greatest exposure and acclaim and revitalized the director's career. A highly reflexive, cynical satire of contemporary Hollywood, "The Player" was clearly the work of people who understood, hated, and loved the industry from the inside. Tolkin returned to the director's chair to helm his own screenplay for "The New Age" (1994), an examination of modern love and morality starring Peter Weller and Judy Davis as a financially overextended couple who open a chic boutique in L.A. The film, interesting and consistent in many ways with his earlier work, opened to mixed reviews and tepid box office.