Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hollywood novels

Hollywood’s big night of self-congratulation culminated with the Oscar for best film going to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Sean Penn used his best actor’s acceptance speech to épater la bourgeoisie who oppose gay marriage. The morning talk shows graded and ranked the starlets’ gowns. The stuff that dreams are made of, the politics of futile leftist gesture, the glamorous marketplace of well-toned flesh—as long as Americans think of Hollywood in trivial terms it will seem trivial. Novelists have tried to construct a different picture, but not always successfully. Before any of the eight-and-a-half pound statues were awarded on Sunday, Frank Wilson Jesse Freedman had considered the “two most enduring” Hollywood novels, noting his “inability to connect” with either of them. He didn’t explain his reaction to The Loved One, but described The Day of the Locust as “surprisingly incomplete” and “curiously undeveloped.” Hollywood and the movies have exercised a pull on writers’ imaginations since Harry Leon Wilson wrote Merton of the Movies, which founded the genre in 1922. If Waugh and West don’t do it, there are several other good Hollywood novels that Frank Freedman might want to read instead. Three stand out.

Brock Brower’s Late Great Creature is the story of a horror-movie star, the product of the European stage like Bela Lugosi, but in talent more closely resembling native-born Lon Chaney. Born in 1900, Simon Moro is a contortionist genius who can shape his body into an imitation of anything, from a man-sized flapping raven to the dead. A bankable star of German cinema before the rise of Hitler, he is relegated in Hollywood to playing monsters or Nazis. “The bad Nazis I didn’t mind,” Moro says. “I could do them as objective reality, Brechtian, if not as a real character. Build up a loathing in the audience that was healthy. But the good Nazis.” The ones who turn against Hitler and die bravely. “They were migraines, maybe eight different pills I had to take to sleep at night. Such lies. The studio was trying to bank some sympathy for me, for after the war, that was the idea. My de-Nazification. But all I wanted to do was see that the public didn’t forget.”

After the war, though, his career fizzles. As the novel opens, Moro is sixty-eight and making a low-budget adaptation called Raven. Cast in the title role, he is working for the first time in eight years. The director, a veteran of beach movies, worries about the loss of the definite article. “Sure, it frees you a little more from the original,” he says, “but a straight Poe title really helps that Family rating.” Moro stages a sort of dramaturgic coup, wresting control of the film from the director for his own purposes—namely, to expose moviegoing for what it really is, a socially approved dangerous voyeurism.

Darcy O’Brien was the only child of cowboy star George O’Brien and Marguerite Churchill, a leading lady of the silent era. He was also a Joyce scholar, an English professor at Pomona College, when at thirty nine he published A Way of Life, Like Any Other, the story of a boy’s growing up with two Hollywood actors who were the spitting image of O’Brien and Churchill. After a glowing evocation of the star’s feted life (“great banquets . . . with steaks so big they drooped over the plates”), O’Brien gets down to work. The parents divorce and fail in their different ways to adjust to growing obscurity and enforced idleness. The mother, who makes Norma Desmond seem like a carefree lunchtime companion, bathes naked in front of her son, takes a string of lovers, threatens suicide, gets drunk every night, disappears from his life for years at a time, and finally—blessedly—dies. His father never remarries. He retreats into Catholicism and cares for his ex-wife’s elderly mother, letting the house fall to ruin while “he would lie abed, hour after hour, leaving undone the simple tasks that distinguish man from brute, the farmer from his animals.” To get his life moving forward again, his son looks up his father’s only living friends—an automobile salesman who interested him in the John Birch Society, and the director John Ford. His father seeks to dispense fatherly wisdom, but because his intellectual development was stunted by becoming a star, he has no wisdom to dispense: “The anus was an important thing. My father always washed it thoroughly with soap and warm water after defecating, unless he was caught in a public place, and the upshot of it was, he had the anus of a man half his age. If I wasn’t taking care of myself down there, I had better hop to it.” O’Brien conclusively proves that, while it may be many things, film acting is not A Way of Life, Like Any Other.

Larry McMurtry’s Somebody’s Darling was the occasion of the one and only fan letter that I have ever written to a novelist. Having greedily consumed his last three novels immediately upon publication, I could not wait to get home with my new purchase of McMurtry’s latest. I stayed up most of the night reading it. My laughter was so hard that, leaving me breathless, it developed into a full-blown asthma attack. I ended up having to go to the ER. I took Somebody’s Darling along with me and coughed with hilarity into my oxygen mask. Afterwards I sent McMurtry the bill. He replied with a postcard: “Dear David: Thanks for writing. I’m glad I made you laugh, and will definitely keep trying.” Nothing about covering my bill.

Jill Peel is a director who has risen from the bottom of the film industry. She continues to feel a deep respect for the technical artisans, the makeup artists, editors, costume designers, cameramen, sound engineers, script girls, best boys, gaffers, and grips who supply the magical and dependable craftsmanship behind successful Hollywood movies, although they are insufficiently recognized even by the industry that wrings its bread from their sweat. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences confines the technical awards to a separate night and smaller banquet hall. Go to the home page of the Oscars and try to find any news of them. For McMurtry, though, who values craftsmanship above all other qualities in fiction, it is they who are responsible for whatever significance the movies may have. Jill is one of them, and the novel takes up the question of what happens to a craftsman of undaunted integrity when she finds herself a commercial success, a hot commodity. Among the things that happen: she lights out for Texas (where else?) with a sixtyish screenwriter, a different kind of product from an older Hollywood, in tow. No novel manages to say more about the “art” of the movies, because no Hollywood novel is less concerned about dreams and more about the waking human comedy.

In addition to those three there are several more good novels about Hollywood or the film industry, all of which have been neglected in favor of (usually lesser) titles. Here is a full list:

• Katherine Albert, Remember Valerie March (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939). The first of its kind—the rise and fall of a film diva. Extremely scarce; deserving of a reprint edition.

• William Boyd, The New Confessions (New York: Morrow, 1988). A Scottish director goes to Hollywood, films Rousseau’s Confessions, gets blacklisted.

• Brock Brower, The Late Great Creature (New York: Atheneum, 1971).

• Robert Carson, Love Affair (New York: Holt, 1958). A film star, his career sputtering, marries a “beautiful narcissistic movie queen” to get back on top. Includes an early jape at the fashionable empty left-wing politics of film actors. By the writer of A Star Is Born.

• Richard Grenier, The Marrakesh One-Two (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983). A screenwriter tries to get rich by doing the script for a life of Mohammed. The Muslim countries bid for the location rights.

• Doris Grumbach, The Missing Person (New York: Putnam, 1981). “Fabulous Franny Fuller,” movie star, pin-up girl, sex symbol of the thirties and forties. See Albert above.

• MacDonald Harris, Screenplay (New York: Atheneum, 1982). A young man who accepts a stranger’s invitation to “get into pictures” finds himself transported to the black-and-white world of the silent movies where passion can be expressed only within the limitations of censorship.

• Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet (New York: Random House, 1945). As Hitler comes to power in Germany a movie musical is made in London about old Vienna and a girl who sells flowers in the Prater.

• Clive James, The Silver Castle (New York: Random House, 1998). The adventures of a street urchin in Bombay's slums to Bollywood film star and back again.

• James McCourt, Kaye Warfaring in “Avenged” (New York: Knopf, 1984). “Cégèste, why must the show go on?” “But where else would the show go?” “Ah, that is clearly a metaphysical question. It has no relation to the facts of life as we know them—celebrity, amphetamine, cocaine, and world-round roller coasters.” And yet the show goes on.

• Larry McMurtry, Somebody’s Darling (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978).

• Alan Marcus, Of Streets and Stars (Yucca Valley, Calif.: Manzanita Press, 1960). In the tradition of Day of the Locusts only funnier. Life among the grotesques who populate Hollywood, especially the “little people” of the studios.

• Darcy O’Brien, A Way of Life, Like Any Other (New York: Norton, 1977). Still in print in a New York Review Books edition.

• C. K. Stead, Sister Hollywood (London: Collins, 1989). A New Zealand girl deserts her family and decamps to Hollywood, where she has an affair with a producer, is arraigned before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and enjoys success as a scriptwriter. Along the way she meets Bogart and Bacall.

• Bruce Wagner, Force Majeure (New York: Random House, 1991). Title refers to the clause in a screenwriting contract that lays out all possible reasons for cancellation without pay. By the writer of Nightmare on Elm Street and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.


Frank Wilson said...

Hi David,
Thanks for the mention, but that was not me. It was my new blogging partner, Jesse Freedman, who wrote that post. However, I will probably take you up on your suggestions.

D. G. Myers said...

You think I might could play closer attention?

Jim H. said...

Do you know Gore Vidal's Hollywood? It sits on my shelf unread yet by me.

Jim H.

D. G. Myers said...

Haven’t read it. Sorry. It is on the Wikipedia list of Hollywood novels, unlike the other fifteen titles here.

Anonymous said...

Here are a couple of thoughts: No one excoriates an earlier 20th century Hollywood quite as effectively as Nathanael West in THE DAY OF THE LOCUST. Of course, one problem with writing any novel about Hollywood is to avoid writing a period piece that is entrapped in time-sensitive topical references. Also, with Hollywood being a constantly evolving (though unintentional) parody of itself, the novelist must also contend with the delicate balance involved in writing a parody of a parody.

Anonymous said...

Good afternoon.
I am quite pleased to have discovered your blog, which will become a daily addition to my reading list.
Your list of Hollywood novels might also include Nathanael West's THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, an excoriating look at a city, industry, and culture that is a constantly evolving parody of itself.

zhiv said...

Great post, great books, great site--today's my first dip in the water, having been led to it by Amateur Reader (who will clearly appreciate your appreciation of Yiddish lit--I can't help him much there).

You know your stuff. It's a real pleasure to read these posts.

I'll browse around and look for Richard Yates stuff, which you would seemingly cover--and I'm always interested in when people first stumbled on Yates. Anyone writing about Page Stegner and Ray Carver and reading Native Son of the Golden West (which I've never heard of, quite intriguing), must have an early Yates start date.

So, any thoughts on Disturbing the Peace as a Hollywood novel? A few of mine, in case you're interested:


Now back to reading your excellent site!

anb1 said...

Hi, David--
You and your readers might be interested to know that Overlook Press is reissuing Brock Brower's The Late Great Creature this fall. Come and like the page on Facebook!
ANB (a daughter of Brock)