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."
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