I hate Hollywood, but I love LA

A celebration and dissection of the Hollywood novel.

Being the only movie reviewer—perhaps the only person—in America with no filmmaking ambitions of my own, my fascination with the Hollywood novel may seem a little strange. Or maybe not so strange—if all aspiring film folk read these books, movies might never get made. Certainly, if the characters in Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls had bothered to read each other’s books before chasing the golden dream westward, they’d have been saved a lot of grief—for nothing ever works out well in the Hollywood novel.

Not that the inhabitants of these novels aren’t successful—they are invariably, wildly so. But at what price? On their way to fulfilling the American dream, they lose their integrity, their minds, their sobriety, and of course true love. Despite the ostensibly glamorous subject matter, reading the Hollywood novel can be a joyless task, an immersion into punishingly depressing

neuroses and pathologies. As a teenager I picked up Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, thinking to get in on a really groovy book about a ’60s movie star and ending up stuck with a disaffected bitch driving up and down the freeway. This schism informs most Hollywood novels—appropriately, since we choose to lay both our fantasies and our nightmares at Hollywood’s doorstep.

The classic structure for such a novel is simple: A young person, often male, often a writer, comes to town. He’s here, he tells himself and us, for the most sensible of reasons: a well-paying job. But in a subtexty kind of way, it’s clear he’s out to capture the big prize. Or at least he’d like to sit next to it for a while. The narrator of Schulberg’s fine What Makes Sammy Run?, Al Mannheim, fills his pages chronicling the ascendancy of the unforgettably driven (and named) Sammy Glick. But Mannheim’s own ambition is always there in the background.

This observational mode is typical of the Hollywood novel—the writer/protagonist/narrator watches the film colony in a kind of cynical, hard-boiled shock. As the observer observes, he often achieves a measure of success himself, which is to say he becomes implicated in the Hollywood power game. Sometimes this story doesn’t just belong to a character, as in Day of the Locust, or What Makes Sammy Run?, or Dominick Dunne’s An Inconvenient Woman, but to a Hollywood-damaged author himself, like F. Scott Fitzgerald.

There’s a handy cinematic metaphor for this mythic story: Sunset Boulevard. The young man visits the Hollywood icon (a stand-in for Movieland itself) and finds there a decaying bitch goddess, capable of the most callous decadence—and he himself becomes entrapped in her game. The celebration and reviling of decadence are the Hollywood novel’s raison d’etre. In fact, some of the most stubborn themes of high modernism are to be found here: the fascination with decay, the distanced observer, the emotional minimalism. These themes are torqued into a unique shape, displayed as they are against palm trees and casual sex, and further torqued by the Hollywood novel’s insistent hypocritical moralism: Geez, fame can really screw a guy up.

Or a girl. In Valley of the Dolls, protagonists Anne, Neely, and Jennifer don’t observe someone else going down the drain. Being women, they get to go down themselves. The book has been reprinted recently in a trade paperback edition that announces of itself, “I am no longer trash. I am pop culture!” At the time of the reprint, Village Voice critic Mim Udovitch wrote, gamely in the new academic spirit of the enterprise, “The equation of emotional dependencies with drug addiction in one comprehensive personality disorder is, if anything, more chic today than in Susann’s time; also prescient is the book’s protofeminism.” (Though I personally prefer the more old-fashioned Helen Gurley Brown plug: “MADDENINGLY SEXY. I wish I had written it.”)

All these girls seem to have is their bodies, their looks, and it’s these bodies they cater to, exploit, and finally destroy. The whole scenario is, in fact, rather unsexy—clinical, even. Still, it’s plenty explicit, and for Susann’s time, that had to have been enough. This feminine self-exploitation is a theme Gore Vidal deals with in Myra Breckenridge as well, though of course more ironically. “I am Myra Breckenridge, whom no man will ever possess.” Myra Breckenridge writes of “what it is like, from moment to moment, to be me, what it is like to possess superbly shaped breasts reminiscent of those sported by Jean Harlow in Hell’s Angel and seen at their best four minutes after the start of the second reel.” Myra Breckinridge is, in short “a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays….” Alas for Anne, Neely, and Jennifer, they never learn to say “motherfucker.”

After a while all this self-loathing begins to pall, begins to feel a bit pokey and midcentury—no matter how sun-drenched the locale. And in fact, the locale is just the problem: The overall frustration of these characters derives from the fact that they have come to conquer a place that is not a place, as anyone who has ever stood at the corner of Hollywood and Vine is all too aware. They have come looking for a Hollywood they can’t find. It doesn’t exist. Of course their dreams are doomed—they don’t even have the right address.

For an antidote, I turn to what I think of as the Daughters of Hollywood. These authors are the spiritual daughters of those who looked for the dream and found—gasp!–corruption and lies. But authors Eve Babitz, Carolyn See, and Francesca Lia Block don’t share that disappointment. Where their fictive parents sought a mythical Hollywood, these women live in the real world of LA. And ironically, they find it more enchanting and magical than their parents found the elusive and nonexistent Hollywood.

The quintessential Daughter, Slow Days, Fast Company author Eve Babitz, has written, “It takes a certain kind of innocence to like LA.” These fiercely intelligent writers aren’t innocent about sex or power or the horrors of Hollywood. Their innocence is, instead, an almost steely determination to be glamorized by Los Angeles and its dreamy occupants. Babitz never tires of telling the story of the babe, the groupie, the surfing, sex-crazed, blonde LA daughter, never the victim, always the reveler. Carolyn See, author of the magnificent, apocalyptic Golden Days, perfectly limns the hazards of the ’60s good life and celebrates her main character’s penchant for collecting unset diamonds.

Block’s Weetzie-Bat books also shine with a hard-gem glow. She has written a series of five works of “juvenile fiction” about a group of punk hippies who live in a shared house and decorate their lives with sparkles and candles and surfboards and good food. Block’s rebel kids, with wild California names like Witch Baby and Cherokee Bat, roller-skate up and down the LA thoroughfares, reciting the enchanted street names: Santa Monica, Sunset, and, yes, Hollywood. In these writers’ hands, Hollywood has finally become a real place and a dream, all at once.