JULY 19, 2021
SHORTLY BEFORE COVID-19 banned us from movie theaters, feature films about Hollywood were once again enjoying a resurgence: James Franco’s The Disaster Artist (2017), Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), and Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name (2019). Before this triptych, Hollywood had made some 200 films about Hollywood over the 100-year period between 1917 and 2017. Steven Cohan does more than tell us about them in his 2018 book, Hollywood by Hollywood: he inspires us to search them out on various streaming services. Screening just four titles a week starting soon after the pandemic’s onset, we could have completed Professor Cohan’s assignment just in time to return to our favorite cineplex (assuming you have been vaccinated, of course). Then there is the Hollywood novel — an equally capacious genre that no commentator has fully mastered, though a number of writers have done their best, including Justin Gautreau in his new book, The Last Word: The Hollywood Novel and the Studio System. These cinematic and literary engagements with Hollywood are complementary and might best be understood and enjoyed together: Gautreau hints at this, but the delight of discovering such intersections is still largely left for imaginative aficionados to discover on their own.
Despite the many changes experienced by the motion picture industry in recent decades, Hollywood remains deeply embedded in the American psyche. Most readers of this review can rattle off a list of favorite films about Hollywood: David O. Selznick’s What Price Hollywood? (1932) and A Star Is Born (1937), Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Humphrey Bogart and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and Robert Altman’s The Player (1992). All rank as Hollywood classics. Most of us have our own, more personal list of favorites: mine starts with Mack Sennett’s Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913) and includes Maurice Tourneur’s A Girl’s Folly (1917), Walter Wanger’s Stand-In (1937), the Bette Davis vehicle The Star (1952), and Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002). Many others have been virtually forgotten, and Cohan’s ambitious book does a superb job of reviving those ancient memories. Finally, there are those Hollywood movies that we’ve missed altogether. Cohan inspired me to see Bombshell (1933), with the original platinum blonde movie star, Jean Harlow. One might learn to appreciate her comic timing, but the studio publicist (played by Lee Tracy) is hopelessly annoying and dominates the picture. Nevertheless, he proved to be a significant addition to the genre, for this character type reappeared in such later films as A Star Is Born (1937). Inspired to see the young Bruce Willis in Blake Edwards’s Sunset (1988), I was disappointed: one does not have to pursue a feminist reading to recognize that the film’s comedic voice is off-key. But then, it’s always interesting to rummage through Hollywood’s attic of imperfect films.
The first section of Cohan’s book highlights motifs and themes that are shared across time periods and subgenres (comedy, drama, musical, etc.). The central trope is a knowing self-reflexivity: as Cohan notes, Hollywood’s movies about Hollywood always promise to provide “an insider’s sense of authenticity.” Anyone who has worked on location can smile at The Last Shot (2004), which features Alec Baldwin as an FBI agent turned faux-film producer and Matthew Broderick as his director-sidekick. A silly film, it effectively conveys the ways outsiders — even ruthless Mafiosi — can throw caution to the wind when they sense an opportunity to become involved with the movie biz. Hollywood makes so many movies about Hollywood because Hollywood insiders love to tell stories about the industry’s quirks and shenanigans; that is what they know, and if they can’t tell those stories themselves, they love to see films about them — the more outrageous the better. This attitude was certainly on display at a preview of Altman’s The Player, which I was lucky enough to attend with the director of development from a medium-sized production company. Brimming with well-connected Hollywood types, the theater seethed with anticipation, which quickly turned to a special kind of ecstasy. My friend proved his mettle by whispering the names of the real-life screenwriters who were pitching parodies of credible projects to Griffin Mill (the studio mogul played by Tim Robbins). The movie played for months in various Westwood theaters.
In the second half of his study, Cohan organizes his analysis historically but with an elasticity that foregrounds specific topics and themes. For instance, he examines three Hollywood movies set in the blacklist era — The Way We Were (1973), Guilty by Suspicion (1991), and The Majestic (2001) — situating them within successive waves of interest in this Hollywood nightmare, which shattered friendships and ended careers. Each movie may pull its punches as it takes on McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, but they do so in somewhat different ways, often focusing on the sad (but not too sad) fate of well-intentioned liberals. Cohan also puts Wag the Dog (1997), The Last Shot (2004), and Argo (2012) in conversation with each other. These movies embrace related story lines that suggest the ways that Hollywood fakery can be real, outrageous, and perhaps even heroic. Cohan looks at Argo as a movie about Hollywood rather than a political thriller: CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) wants to create a fake movie production as a cover to whisk American hostages out of Iran. After sharing his scheme with special-effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), Chambers responds, “So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot without doing anything? […] You’ll fit right in.”
Cohan recognizes that we lack a neat name for Hollywood’s films about itself and argues for the “backstudio picture” — a cinematic equivalence to the “backstage” musical. Whether the name will stick seems doubtful. The equivalent to the backstage is the backlot, and Hollywood movies, as he points out in another chapter, rely on many other iconic locations: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Bowl, the Brown Derby and Trocadero (or their contemporary equivalents), Malibu, and much more. Whatever we might call them, at their best these Hollywood movies invite viewers to become attentive, intimate insiders. The Star (1952) is exemplary in this regard. We are alone with Margo Elliott (Bette Davis) in a studio screening room as she watches her failed screen test, not once but twice. Her agony is excruciating, and we alone must share the experience with her. Likewise, The Star never tells us why Margo’s favorite perfume is “Desire Me”; we must intuit the answer. It is not merely the scent — she could imagine that it was secretly named for her. After all, Margaret Elliot’s initials are ME, so Desire ME = desire Margo Elliot. Late in the film, she steals a display bottle of “Desire Me” from a pharmacy, but it is filled only with water.
Such knowingness occurs on many different levels in The Star. Consider the case of Robert Warwick. The oldest film on Cohan’s list, Maurice Tourneur’s A Girl’s Folly (1917) stars Warwick as a somewhat vain but ultimately compassionate movie star. He befriends a beautiful country girl who dreams of escaping rural life and becoming an actress. After an embarrassing screen test, she is invited to stay on as the star’s companionate lover. At the last moment, however, the actor does the right thing and sends her back home with her mother — to her ever-patient farmer boyfriend. Warwick, a matinee idol, was essentially playing himself. Thirty-three years later, Warwick was given a small gem of a role in Ray’s In a Lonely Place, as alcoholic, old-time silent-era actor Charlie Waterman, whom screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) befriends — proving the troubled writer’s fundamental decency. As Steele reminds an arrogant young producer, the actor had made millions for his father-in-law (as Warwick once did). When the producer flicks his cigar ashes into Charlie’s drink, Dix belts him on the jaw. Charlie may have been a silent actor, but he eloquently recites Shakespeare to Dix as he falls asleep. Two years later, Warwick appears in the penultimate scene of The Star as the rummy RJ, reminiscing with Margo Elliot about the way Griffith directed using only a megaphone. Her agent tells RJ to “hold the Red Sea” and leads Margo off to meet a suave young writer, who regales her with a story very much like the story line of The Star.
Names and initials are crucial elements in Hollywood films and novels (I explore this at greater length in an earlier LARB review). Margaret Elliot’s initials do more than suggest her egoism; they are just one letter away from those of Norma Desmond — and, please note, in opposite directions: if we indulge in numerology, their sums are identical. Is this just coincidence? Margo is Norma’s inverted double. Indeed, The Star is obsessed with doubles and doubling. Screenwriter Richard Stanley (Paul Frees) is the inverted counterpart to Dixon Steele. In many respects, of course, Robert Altman’s The Player is an homage to The Star: it shares a similar sensibility and offers a similar kind of ending.
The literary and cinematic genres that focus on Hollywood are themselves a form of doubling. One could not readily exist without the other. This is one reason why it can be so fascinating to read a book and then watch the movie adaptation. Michael Tolkin’s novel The Player (1988) treats the murdered writer much more sympathetically than Robert Altman’s film variant does. Novelists will look after their own self-image, of course! Altman also rejiggers the plot to make the story much more of a Hollywood movie. What does that mean? At one point, producer Griffin Mill explains the essential elements of a successful movie — and Altman follows his requisite guidelines to the letter. Ray’s In a Lonely Place is a radical adaptation of the 1947 Dorothy Hughes novel of the same name. Dickson Steele is a fake writer and serial killer in the Hughes tale, and while these qualities are inverted in the film, they cannot be entirely effaced: doubts about Steele’s innocence inevitably linger and haunt the movie.
The full implications of doubling when it comes to motion pictures and Hollywood was thoroughly and brilliantly explored in Harry Leon Wilson’s novel Merton of the Movies (1922), which is why it has become the essential ur-text for both Hollywood novels and films. Justin Gautreau points out that The Saturday Evening Post first serialized the novel in 1922 — not 1919, as so many have incorrectly stated. He also points to earlier precedents from the 1910s: Robert Carlton Brown’s serialized My Experiences as a Film Favorite (1913 to 1914) and Edward J. Clode’s My Strange Life: The Intimate Life Story of a Moving Picture Actress (1915). Here silent film histories can tell us more: if Brown was arguably the first to write a novel about American moviemaking, it may well be because his magazine serial What Happened to Mary (1913) was the basis for the first motion picture serial of the same name — with a coordinated release. Although Gautreau makes light of My Strange Life, its achievements should be more fully appreciated in the #MeToo era, since its star encounters explicit, repeated sexual harassment. Gautreau elevates Rupert Hughes’s Souls for Sale (magazine serial, 1921; film version, 1923) as the first real Hollywood novel, a sugar-coated defense of Hollywood in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle scandals. Hughes (the uncle of Howard Hughes) is certainly an interesting figure: one of his earlier novels, Clipped Wings (1914), tells of a New York–based actress who flirts with the movies. Before Hollywood and the movies, there was the theater world — and novels such as Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900).
Gautreau’s opening chapters favor novels that critique Hollywood. He sees Souls for Sale as complicit with Hollywood’s effort to manage its self-image — as led by Will Hays, chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Against this trend, he lauds The Sins of Hollywood (1922) by one Ed Roberts, about whom very little seems to be known. As Roberts declares, “It was the upstarts, the poor uncouth, ill-bred ‘roughnecks,’ many of whom are to-day famous stars, and who never knew there was so much money in the world, who made the Sins of Hollywood the glaring, red sins they are to-day.” It is hard to classify Roberts’s screed as fiction, never mind a novel. Gautreau argues that Merton of the Movies works against efforts to self-manage Hollywood’s image, seeing it as more critical of Hollywood and the emerging studio system, but I remain to be convinced. Merton does not, as Gautreau would have it, sell his soul to the studios. Having a screen crush on a charming actress, he gradually discovers that she is a fraud and that what he admired most about her (her daring stunts in particular) are the accomplishments of her multi-talented stunt double, the Montague Girl. The Montague Girl befriends Merton and enables him to discover his real talent — as a comedic straight man. Of course, Merton Gill and the Montague Girl are meant for each other, as their rhyming initials make clear (numerologically, the initials are lucky 7 and unlucky 13). Beyond relishing Hollywood’s many ironies, Wilson celebrates farce comedy and the ways in which life throws us curveballs even when we get what we think we want. Its symbolic representative is Ben Turpin, the cross-eyed man, while the Montague Girl is Wilson’s emblematic heroine. Gautreau points to the play adaptation by George Kaufman and Marc Connelly, which briefly mocks Will Hays, but Hays appears nowhere in the novel. Hollywood loved — and still loves — Merton of the Movies. They turned it into a motion picture three times, and Franco’s The Disaster Artist deserves to be seen as its secret remake.
Embedding Hollywood novels of the 1920s and early 1930s within industry politics, Gautreau’s early chapters are little concerned with literary style — the tropes, motifs, and devices that might benefit from elucidation. This changes somewhat in later chapters, as Gautreau examines Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), arguing for the ways it works against the technicolor prettiness of many Hollywood “A” movies. He pairs the novel with Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, published in the same year. He sees Chandler as offering a new kind of Hollywood novel — one in which Hollywood is an absent but determining presence. He notes that Philip Marlowe worked in Hollywood’s Cahuenga Building in Chandler’s The High Window (1942) and that same building appears in the background of The Blue Dahlia (1946), a film noir on which Chandler received sole credit as the screenwriter. Yet to follow the logic of Gautreau’s argument, what is particularly intriguing about The High Window is that it revolves around the perfect duplication of an old, rare coin. The problem of the double — the core problematic of Hollywood literature and film — is at the novel’s core and leads to a succession of murders. The same can be said for Lady in the Lake (1943) and The Long Goodbye (1953). Urban noir novels set in Los Angeles are obviously related to the Hollywood novel, but do they take over the genre? Using Chandler and Billy Wilder as pivots, Gautreau sees critical engagements of Hollywood shifting to the cinema itself with films such as Sunset Boulevard (1950). As a result, he barely mentions the extraordinary Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, 1935; I Should Have Stayed Home, 1938), Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run?, 1941; The Disenchanted, 1950), or F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon, 1941; The Pat Hobby Stories, 1940 to 1941).
Gautreau’s book offers a series of quite informative and sometimes provocative case studies, but one unanswered question seems to be: When does the Hollywood studio system really end — psychically if not as a business model? Hollywood is reluctant to let go of the myth of Hollywood, as the movie variant of The Player and even the TV show Entourage (2004 to 2011; movie version, 2015) make clear. Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems to suggest its demise occurred around 1969 — the time of the Manson murders. If so, Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge (1968) could be considered the last great Hollywood novel of the studio era. It too is barely mentioned in Gautreau’s The Last Word. Gautreau sees the literary genre and its cinematic counterpart on a downward spiral, concluding that the novels that “had once threatened the industry’s wholesome image had become a lucrative avenue of filmmaking.” But how is that any different from Souls for Sale or Merton of the Movies?
Cohan’s account resists such a trajectory of rise and fall; for him, movies by and about Hollywood are a long-lived genre. “Its value on […] arises from its function in defining what Hollywood signifies as a place, an industry and a fantasy,” he writes. Looked at historically, it reveals the shifting but always “unequal status of gender in the industry’s ongoing sexual politics” and the ways it has “constructed its own exclusive whiteness.” Hollywood Shuffle (1987), which brilliantly underscores that exclusion, has now been complemented by Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name. Certainly, such analysis applies equally to the Hollywood novel. In this respect, one wishes that Gautreau had referenced Cecil Brown’s compelling Days Without Weather (1983), a black-authored novel about a mythic Hollywood studio that was turning out Blaxploitation pictures. Its angry indictment surely meets Gautreau’s gold standard for novels that indict Hollywood.
Charles Musser is a cultural historian, documentary filmmaker, and professor of Film and Media Studies, American Studies, and Theater & Performance Studies at Yale University. His books include The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (1990), Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (1991), High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Traveling Exhibition, 1880-1920 (with Carol Nelson, 1991), and Politicking and Emergent Media: US Presidential Elections of the 1890s (2016).