Twenty years ago James Ellroy’s neo-noir L.A. Confidential was brought to the screen, and it left a steady stream of thinly veiled fictions about Los Angeles culture and the stardom industry in its wake.
Hollywood is a constructed place of the imagination that has existed as a fantasy concept for more than 100 years and continues to hold sway: The allure of the golden age of silver screen is undeniable—the glamour, the scandal, the juicy backstage machinations. There’s the love letter La La Land, biographical documentaries like Showtime’s Becoming Cary Grant and a recent spate of period films, from Woody Allen’s roman à clef Café Society to the cautionary tale of Trumbo and the affectionate sendup Hail, Caesar!, as well as historical series like The Last Tycoon and Feud: Bette and Joan that both perpetuate and deconstruct Hollywood myth.
Nostalgia in nonstop supply on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) isn’t the only reason for the classic revival. “There had been a resurgence of interest in that era I think because people are able to see it more clearly,” says Mark Vieira, the photographer and film historian known for his tomes on Irving Thalberg, Jean Harlow, George Hurrell and most recently, Cecil B. DeMille. He credits a thirst for accurate information and new access to source material to cuts through the paparazzi and fake news noise.
“Unlike the puff pieces or the slash pieces we had before, it’s not through a distorting lens, tearing it down like Kenneth Anger, or glorifying it like some of the movie biographies where everything was sweetness and light,” he adds.
In his DeMille biography, for example, Vieira was able to tell the real story of The Squaw Man production sabotage and correct historical error because he had access to all the director’s autobiography interviews—the original transcriptions as well as the reel-to-reel recordings. Reconsiderations overdue and fresh—nearly half of it is new material never put in print before.
Told by shrewd observers, a slew of other recent books offer insight on the workings of classic Hollywood and provide a glimpse of the imagined inner lives of stars, their lives on screen and between the covers, fact and fictional. Fill your beach bag—all that’s missing is the sway of Sunset Boulevard‘s palm trees.
HOLLYWOOD PLAYS ITSELF
The new series The Last Tycoon has just made its debut on Amazon Prime Video, where Matt Bomer stars as dapper, aptly-named visionary producer Monroe Stahr. Kelsey Grammer is an Louis B. Mayer type impresario and his daughter is played by ingenue Lily Collins, herself no stranger to the stylings of the old-school studio system movies—she was lead starlet in Warren Beatty’s passion project Rules Don’t Apply, his 2016 Howard Hughes biopic.
In The Last Tycoon, the costume design comes from Mad Men‘s Janie Bryant and the drama comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel—inspired by his time in Los Angeles working for MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg, who was married to Canadian-born Norma Shearer. Shortly after a broke and rather washed-up Fitzgerald went to la la land to try his hand at screenwriting, Thalberg died of a congenital heart condition at the age of 37. Fitzgerald also died too young, and before the novel was completed. Tycoon uses this open-ended source material and its late 1930s setting to its advantage to explore issues facing the industry that have current parallels. At the time, for example, the largest secondary market for Hollywood films was Germany, where nationalism was rising. So the studios had to tread the line between espousing pro-American values while being careful not to insult the sentiments of their big export market, much the way Hollywood has to consider the tastes and sensibilities of the behemoth Chinese market and its lucrative audience today.
For a fictional take that does have an ending, Stuart O’Nan’s novel West of Sunset tackles Fitzgerald’s time as a script hack. “It’s the familiarity we have,” is how author O’Nan chalks up readers’ ongoing curiosity about the time period. “We think we know the story but haven’t spent a lot of time in legwork, tracking it down and really learning about it. You can come up with popular histories or even more academic histories that will bring a reader to a greater understanding of what that time was and what it meant, and it’s still is in some ways waiting to be unpacked.”
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
If she were still acting, we’d cast the feisty Olivia de Havilland in the title role of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Read. On the eve her 101st birthday, de Havilland gamely filed a suit against F/X for allegedly defaming her reputation with a gossipy depiction of her in Feud: Betty and Joan. It’s just the sort of thing Evelyn Hugo would do. In the novel, the fictional aging star is a perfect composite of many female stars of the 1950s and 1960s. In the guise of confiding the true story of her life to a memoirist, she sets the record straight on how Hollywood manipulated her image in the last years before the old studio system died in the seismic cultural shift of the 1960s.
What it was really like to have one’s personal life closely controlled by publicity fixers? Fake dates between rising stars to hide less acceptable companions, marriages of convenience to please fans…Hugo tells all about studio cover-ups and truth behind the fawning headlines from a time when sexuality, race and female ambition in the wrong combination could be controversial. If the anecdotes sound familiar, it’s because they are all based on real scenarios: one, about a shattered relationship, sounds a lot like the real-life of story of how the head of Columbia broke up the romance between Kim Novak and Sammy Davis, Jr. Add to that the not-so-bygone sexism and morality policing of those in the public eye, and especially of women, and it feels as much like a historical dossier as an episode of TMZ.
Hugo’s take on the politics of celebrity, red carpet expectations and female sexuality isn’t alone on the shelf. Kate Alcott is the nom de plume of journalist Patricia O’Brien. Her latest is The Hollywood Daughter is set in 1950 and the cultural zeitgeist of Ingrid Bergman affair that rocked the nation. Her supposed immorality, when her affair with Roberto Rossellini so scandalized America, was denounced in Congress (as an “instrument of evil”—though a formal apology was entered into Congressional record in 1972) and by the Legion of Decency. Questioning everything is the daughter of Bergman’s beleaguered publicist, told in retrospect as she remembers her coming of age while the idea of what’s acceptable American womanhood are being debate in the media.
On that note, Canadian cultural professor Rebecca Sullivan’s book Natalie Wood is a fitting non-fiction companion. Sullivan considers Wood the emblematic actress of post-studio Hollywood and depicting shifting perceptions of American womanhood. She considers how her roles are deeply entwined with the fading glory of Los Angeles, the end of the glamorous stardom industry, and a revolutionary, post-war sexual politics.
REGRETS, THEY’VE HAD A FEW
Actor Peter Turner’s slim memoir Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool recalls his time in the 1970s with former lover Gloria Grahame, and again when she took ill in England shortly before her death in 1981. The book was reissued this spring in anticipation of Annette Bening’s upcoming take on the inscrutable Grahame (Crossfire, The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place), a fascinating actress who flourished in 1940s film noir and had a reputation as an off-screen femme fatale.
The feature film adaptation also stars Jamie Bell, Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave and will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September before hitting cinemas later in the fall. Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool should offer a reappraisal of Grahame’s Academy Award-winning talent and of her scandalous personal life (she married Nicholas Ray, then later married his son). And this meaty role, one she was born to play, may finally land Bening an Oscar of her own.
While at RKO, boss Howard Hughes was Grahame’s nemesis and forced her to make films she didn’t want to do (like Macao). One can only imagine the dinner table conversations in the Beatty-Bening household, what with Beatty’s long-simmering project on enigmatic inventor and mogul Hughes finally released last year.
They’re probably a lot less polite than Robert Wagner’s latest remembrance I Loved Her in the Movies. The Hollywood zelig—seriously, the man knew everyone—gallantly cover friends and onetime leading ladies like Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch, while the upcoming Miss D and Me is former assistant Kathryn Sermak’s memoir of the witty. In it a far more candid Bette Davis (out September 12) is in the last decade of the legend’s life when she was looking back on her career and had nothing to lose.
Layered in with the many nods, winks and inside jokes of the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! is a plot about fear-mongering and the Hollywood Ten, the most famous consequences of political bullying that Trumbo explicitly explored. Wryly played for laughs, the serious undertone that recalls the treacherous time isn’t treated lightly and is alert to the challenges of the present day in Martin Turnbull’s latest novel, Tinseltown Confidential. He has cleverly set his series in and around the Garden of Allah (the notorious West Hollywood complex where stars like Greta Garbo, Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart lived), and imagine the inner lives of stars and the powerful operators—the screwballs, rivalries, upward climbs and downward spirals that the House on Unamerican Activities precipitated.
Another heaping of this history can be found in Glenn Frankel’s High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Former agent turned novelist Clancy Sigal died in July 2017 at the age of 90, just after his Black Sunset memoir of that time was published. It reads like a classic pulp novel, with enviable turns of phrase and plot twists, but it’s all true. And Sigal’s plot of censorship, personal politics and treachery isn’t in the past—political patriotism getting out of control is all too socially relevant today, as is the lack of decency fuelled by greed, anger and blind prejudice.
IN PRAISE OF COMPLICATED WOMEN
Consider the 1950s and its post-war melodramas celebrating domestic femininity and nuclear families, and then its opposite: the emancipated 1930s, particularly in that brief and glorious pre-Code time when morality censors of so-called bad behaviour on screen did not require characters be punished in the plot. As Megan McGurk outlines in her survey of nuanced woman’s pictures of the Depression era Sass Mouth Dames, any subversive message that undermines authority is more relevant for today than ever.
The entertaining novel Woman Enters Left by Jessica Brockmole mines the contrast with dual timelines of the late 1920s and 1950s, and covers two very different generations of female ambition in rapidly-evolving 20th century America. A young actress in the 1950s inherits the estate of her mother’s friend Florrie Daniels, one of the few female screenwriters at the time (modelled on real-life pioneers like Dorothy Arzner, who worked their way up from scenario girl to screenwriter).
She soon unravels the story of a fateful road trip undertaken thirty years prior between the best friends, à la Thelma and Louise. Reading old journal entries and passages of an unpublished script, she packs her own faded wicker suitcase and hits Route 66 to retrace their journey from California to Las Vegas and evaluate her own life. The novel offers much food for thought—there are subplots about the legacy of the Korean War and the radium girls – but it’s also a timely reminder about the kinds of films about strong and successful women that George Cukor and Edmund Goulding once directed and were enormously popular.
“Stories about smart, darting, resourceful women,” Brockmole writes, “doing more than blushing and sighing up at their leading men.” As actresses of all ages are demanding strong and empathetic heroines like Wonder Woman and more realistic depictions of women on screen, it couldn’t come at a better time.
BEHIND THE SEAMS
With a record-setting eight Academy Awards and more than 1,100 film credits to her name, Edith Head was one of the most prolific and influential costume designers ever to work in Hollywood. A terrific new mystery series set in and around the Paramount Studios wardrobe department debuted last year and casts Head as the partner in crime to Lillian Frost, a would-be actress turned amateur sleuth. Their first outing was Design for Living, set in 1937, and this summer’s follow-up is Dangerous to Know. It edges forward to 1938 and brings in real historical figures like Jack Benny and J. Edgar Hoover to solve a crime related to early Communist paranoia. Written in the pseudonym Renee Patrick by husband wife journalist team Vince and Rosemary Keenan, it’s meticulously researched, peppered with fun dishy bulletins from a fictional gossip columnist Lorna Whitcomb that set the tone, and it’s also a just plain fun whodunit.
STILL HUNGRY FOR BACKSTAGE DRAMA?
Biographical novels like C.W. Gortner’s Marlene pick up the strands, as does Platinum Doll, where Anne Girard charts the transformation of Carlean McGrew into Jean Harlow. Laini Giles’ latest in her ongoing series about forgotten actresses is The It Girl and Me, this one set on the periphery of the Jazz Age as a portrait of silent-era star Clara Bow told via her hairstylist. Alcott’s previous novel A Touch of Stardust considers the lives of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable during the making of Gone with the Wind—the epic movie shoot that’s also the basis for Susan Meissner’s Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, about two Selznick employees and their very different perspectives on the machinations of the company town. And in The Pictures, Guy Bolton puts a world-weary LAPD detective who moonlights as a fixer in 1939—to clean up all the messes made by real people to perpetuate the fantasy.