Sunday, October 17, 2010


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,

Stranger than fiction.


  1. Leading a "thoughtful life" is very difficult. It requires constant thought and examination of your own motives and desires. For many folks, that seems to be too much work. It's far easier to allow "outside social forces" define your life, what you should like and dislike, what you should love and hate. Especially when you're constantly surrounded by media (movies, TV and, yes, even books) which ENCOURAGE you to be guided solely by your emotions, that it's our emotions that are the greatest and most valuable thing about "being human." (For reference, view the many late 60s Star Trek episodes where Kirk & Co. save the day via their emotions, and then the episode is wrapped up with a philosophical monologue about "what makes humans strong." All too often, the intellectual, the thoughtful, are scorned and vilified for being 'cold,' for not CARING enough.

    Leading a thoughtful life can be more difficult and more challenging than losing weight is for many people. :-)

  2. As I was reading your post, I was thinking about Judy Garland, Lindsey Lohan, and Miley Cyrus. The latter two are hardly comparable to the first in terms of talent but all three became the tools by which those who should have protected them, sold their childhoods away for material gain.

    The worst of the culprits are those who control Miley Cyrus and her alter-ego, Hannah Montana, both products of the Disney Channel. Hannah Montana, by night a rock star,by day a school girl, is marketed to girls in the first and second grade. Over the last 20 years, the baby-hooker look has been the predominant theme in what is offered for children. The sexualization of girls has spread from Hollywood to every neighborhood in the US. Flip through Vanity Fair or Cosmopolitan. The heavily made-up, barely dressed model selling perfume just might be 14 years old.

    Thirty-years ago, Hollywood sold young girls the idea that being stick thin is desirable and parents and school administrators learned all about eating disorders. We discovered the weight loss benefits of cocaine after teenage girls did. "Heroin chic" became the look in those same fashion magazines that now turn children into sex objects.

    It started the first time a female saw a female on the movie screen. Rhapsodizing over women who aren't real became the tie that binds generations of women.

    Ten years ago, men envied Tom Brady for his athletic skills. Now they envy him for his wife. In reference to your blog post yesterday, no matter how many times a 12 year-old boy throws the football, he can't work his way to the talent with which Brady was born. No matter how many times a girl refuses to eat or exercises obsessively, she isn't going to get Gisele's bone structure.

    Hollywood has cursed insecure people with the belief that no matter what they can do well, no matter how successful they are, it will never be as good as looking like someone on the silver screen.


  3. Everett -- The idea of "feeling" trumping intellect, thereby making us more susceptible to external images and enthusiasms (Nazism, anyone?) has been in the ascendancy since, I think, the sixties. Surely, Spock was the real star of "Star Trek" because everyone was rooting for him to find his emotional core. Having said all of that, I think it's harder to appeal IN WRITING to emotion rather than intellect, just as it's easier in film. Writing is essentially abstract -- squiggles that stand for words that stand for either reality or abstract concept, while film is as direct (or can be) as a pie in the face. Film can appeal to intellect, just as writing can appeal to emotion, but it takes a level of skill on the artist's part. Beth, couldn't agree more. The ideal of beauty has probably been more destructive than creative, and certainly it's been capitalized upon in singularly venal ways. Rita Hayworth was once quoted as saying she felt sorry for her lovers because, "They go to bed with Gilda and they wake up with me." Mabel Normand, one of silent film's first comedy stars, was probably the first Lohan, and Garland, fed uppers and downers by kindly old Uncle Louis B. Mayer, was the most famous. A lot of people don't know that Garland herself was damaged by the beauty cult -- all her life, she thought she was ugly. (And it's not just women; Laurence Olivier almost never made a film or stepped onto the stage without altering the shape of his nose.) And, of course, it's THE POINT that no one will ever look as good as someone on the silver screen. That's one reason we pay money to look at them.