The troubling things I learned when I re-reported Bob Woodward’s book on John Belushi.
I don’t think John had ever done a love scene before, and he was clearly nervous about doing it. He just lay there in bed trying to think up all the funny names for penis that he could: the Hose of Horror … Mr. Wiggly. … We were weeping with laughter it was so funny. It was just like watching a little kid stalling because he doesn’t want to eat his vegetables. “Oh, oh, wait—you know what else? Here’s another one …”
After a while we finally had to say, “Okay, okay, John. Now you have to do the love scene.” He was just stalling and stalling and stalling because he was so nervous.
Here’s the scene as written in Wired:
The script called for a love scene, in bed, in a hotel room. They were to be nude under the covers. John was very nervous preparing for the shooting and kept making jokes, trying to get them to remember all the known names for the male sex organ. They came up with many—“the hose of horror,” “Mr. Wiggly’s dick,” and “one-eyed snake in a turtleneck.” Brown didn’t mind the conversation, but she thought it was an inappropriate prelude to a love scene.
Twenty years later, when Brown told me about the love scene, she was still upset at how Woodward had portrayed it in Wired. “It was my first experience of getting tricked by a journalist,” she said. “Woodward appeared as if he really wanted to know what went on, and I actually had marvelous times with Belushi. But the thing that was depressing when I read the book was that he had taken the facts that I told him, and put an attitude to them that was not remotely right.”
Wired is like that throughout. Like a funhouse mirror, Woodward’s prose distorts what it purports to reflect. Moments of tearful drama are rendered as tersely as an accounting of Belushi’s car-service receipts. Friendly jokes are stripped of their humor and turned into boorish annoyances. And when Woodward fails to convey the subtleties of those little moments, he misses the bigger picture. Belushi’s nervousness about doing that love scene in Continental Divide was an important detail. When that movie came out, it tanked at the box office. After months of fighting to stay clean, Belushi fell off the wagon and started using heavily again. Six months later he was dead. Woodward missed the real meaning of what went on.
Woodward also makes peculiar decisions about what facts he uses as evidence. His detractors like to say that he’s little more than a stenographer—and they’re right. In Wired, he takes what he is told and simply puts it down in chronological order with no sense of proportionality, nuance, or understanding.
John Belushi was a recreational drug user for roughly one-third of his 33 years, and he was a hard-core addict for the last five or six, from which you can subtract one solid year of sobriety. Yet in Wired, which has 403 pages of narrative text, the total number of pages that make some reference to drugs is something like 295, or nearly 75 percent. Belushi’s drug use is surely a key part of his life—drugs are what ended it, after all—but shouldn’t a writer also be interested in what led his subject to this substance abuse in the first place? If you want to know why someone was a cocaine addict for the last six years of his life, the answer is probably hiding somewhere in the first 27 years. But Woodward chooses to largely ignore that period, and in doing so he again misses the point. In terms of illuminating its subject, Wired is about as useful as a biography of Buddy Holly that only covers time he spent on airplanes.
Of all the people I interviewed, SNL writer and current Sen. Al Franken, referencing his late comedy partner Tom Davis, offered the most apt description of Woodward’s one-sided approach to the drug use in Belushi’s story: “Tom Davis said the best thing about Wired,” Franken told me. “He said it’s as if someone wrote a book about your college years and called it Puked. And all it was about was who puked, when they puked, what they ate before they puked and what they puked up. No one read Dostoevsky, no one studied math, no one fell in love, and nothing happened but people puking.”
To get a sense of what Franken’s getting at, here’s a couple of sample entries from Wired’s index:
as Blues Brother, 16, 22, 89, 139-42, 146-47, 161-62, 181-82, 186, 206, 334-35
Tanner Colby is the author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America. Visit him at his website or follow him on Twitter.