Been avoiding reading fiction for the past few months, and I don't know why.
I have a stack of wonderful unread fiction that's so high it totters resentfully when I walk into the room. It's stacked because the four four-foot shelves where my unread fiction usually goes are completely full. Every time I see all those spines, they reproach me.
But . . .
I want to read nonfiction. I've been losing myself in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s, and loving every word. It began with Michael Sragow's painstaking biography of Victor Fleming, who directed much of "The Wizard of Oz" and virtually all of "Gone With The Wind" -- in the same year, 1939. Fleming made his first movie, "When the Clouds Roll By," in 1919 and his last, Ingrid Bergman's disastrous "Joan of Arc," in 1948. In between, he made films like "Red Dust," with Gable and Harlow, "Mantrap," "The Virginian," most of "The Good Earth," "Tortilla Flat," the brilliant Spencer Tracy "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and on and on and on. And he's never named on the short lists of the great American directors.
My kind of guy. Always in the service of the story.
Neal Gabler's An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood is a remarkable look at the first generation of movie moguls -- all with roots in a relatively small area of Eastern Europe -- who created not only the Hollywood dream factory, but also much of how Americans see (or saw) themselves, as well as how the world, for decades, saw Americans. The films these refugees made celebrated the nation that gave them success and power, and upheld values that "real" Americans may have talked about more than they embodied them.
Certainly, Louis G, Mayer, the extremely complex despot at the heart of MGM (and the subject of Scott Eyman's exemplary Lion of Hollywood), was largely responsible for the idyllic fiction of small-town America with its white picket fences and its all-white citizens. The "Andy Hardy" movies that Mayer secretly liked better than any of the studio's more prestigious releases (meaning Irving G. Thalberg's) defined a way of life that probably never existed, just as the gangster movies of Jack Warner's studio defined the sensationalized model of American crime.
Both images were enduring, but false. And perhaps most enduring of all, and equally false, was the image of impossible glamor. Case in point: the exquisite Anna May Wong, daughter of a Chinese laundress and the only Asian female Hollywood star until the 1950s, shunted mainly into roles as the evil Oriental femme fatale although the sheer force of her personality (and her remarkable beauty) shone through. Photographs like this one (or similarly idealized pictures of other stars) redefined female glamor as an unattainable ideal. I think that impossible perfection has haunted impressionable girls ever since.
In all, I've probably read twenty books about early Hollywood in the last six weeks, and I have no idea why. Maybe I'm incubating an idea for a book, although if that's true, the idea hasn't revealed anything of itself to me yet. But now that I look at it, I suppose it's ironic that I'm taking refuge from fiction by revisiting the dream factory of Hollywood, where no one kept their real name, where lives were invented from scratch -- where what was true was simply what you could get away with,