Hollywood Babylon– It’s Back! – Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince (Blood Moon 2008) – A Real Life Review

 

hollywoodbabylon

The original version of “Hollywood Babylon” first appeared in France in 1959.  An incredibly scandalous reveal of Tinseltown that had to wait until 1965 for a US publisher brave enough to put it out.  Within ten days it was banned and did not appear again until a decade later.  Written by American film-maker Kenneth Anger ,who claimed to be in the know concerning scandals, the first volume had an emphasis on the stars of early Hollywood and the silent era.  A second volume appeared in 1984.  Many of Anger’s claims have been strongly denied if not always completely unproven so they have hung around as rumour and urban legend.  The books are sleazy and compelling in equal measures, I’ve read both over the years. 

So enthused by the format were Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince that in 2008 they claimed “it’s back” with another volume of scandal, rumour and sleaze ranging from the Hollywood in its hey-day to modern Tinseltown. (Tom Cruise certainly does not get off lightly here).  Anger was decidedly angered by Porter and Prince muscling in on a direct copy of style, format and general grubbiness.

Truman Capote (a source of a number of the scurrilous titbits in this book) reputedly said that gossip will become the literature of the twenty-first century (and he should have known being a tremendous gossip himself) so maybe what we have here is literature in its purest form.  Movie heart-throb Rock Hudson (another gossip) said “In Hollywood you can keep a mistress, or a boyfriend, maybe both.  You can go gay, bi or pan-sexual.  Just don’t tell anybody and don’t get caught.  What do you expect when you bring the world’s most beautiful people together in the same town?”  This quote does seem to be the raison d’etre for this book.

It’s not an easy read.  By adopting the style of the original and of classic scandal magazines from “Confidential” of the 1950s to the National Enquirer it has ended up as vague, repetitive writing, keen to go off on tangents, with grainy black and white photography which may or not provide proof to their claims.

It will rouse strong emotions.  I read a (withdrawn) library copy and there’s a chunk of pages which have been roughly ripped out (hence the withdrawal and not by me I hasten to add).  I know where there’s another copy (hopefully undefiled) and will be keen to see what has been so forcefully extracted (oddly enough  from the contents it seems to be the end of a section concerning Lucille Ball!)

The lips are pursed and the dirt is dished throughout.  Some may be familiar stories and there’s a great deal of emphasis on who slept with who, who was secretly gay, and what was the size of the equipment they were doing all this sleeping around with.  Thus Ivor Novello is linked with Winston Churchill, Mick Jagger with Eric Clapton and James Dean and Marilyn Monroe with just about everybody.  Does any of it matter?  Of course not, but there is still something compelling in this catalogue of stories with dubious provenance that kept me reading even when I felt quite grubby doing so.

I recently watched on Netflix the documentary film “Tab Hunter Confidential” in which the 50’s heart-throb movie star and singer puts into context his hiding of his sexuality in a calm, admirable way.  It is the weird attitude of Hollywood and its hypocrisy (recently brought into focus with all those accusations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey) which has brought about all this net curtain-twitching from Porter and Prince.

This book is one of a sizeable output from Blood Moon Productions who on their website claim to be “applying the standards of today to the Hollywood scandals of yesterday” and they do this in volumes dedicated to performers such as Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, Peter O’ Toole, The Gabor sisters – the list goes on, including even politicians (Donald Trump: The Man Who Would Be King is a recent Porter and Prince work).  Scanning down this back catalogue on bloodmoonproductionscom I couldn’t help but think “Ooh, I’d like to read that” on quite a few occasions.  I know it’s all a far cry from the literary blogger I strive to be (Ha Ha!) but sometimes I just can’t help looking to the gutter for inspiration!

threestars

 

Hollywood Babylon It’s Back!” was published by Blood Moon in 2008

Advertisements

Mae West: An Icon In Black And White – Jill Watts (OUP 2001)- A Real Life Review

realives

maewest1

“It isn’t what I do, but how I do it.  It isn’t what I say but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it.”

This, in her own words sums up perfectly the Hollywood legend, Mae West (1893-1981).  It explains why she was successful and also why she encountered problems, particularly with censorship, throughout her career.  It also connects her with, in Jill Watts’ words her links to “African-American tricksterism and signification” (more of this later, although as a British reader of this book I’m still a little vague on the details).

maewest4

Mae West began on stage at a very young age and alternated between Vaudeville (fairly respectable) and Burlesque (less so).  She created the character of “Mae West”, which cemented herself into American and European culture.  She wrote plays.  “Sex” (1926) landed her in prison for obscenity (after it had been playing for a year).  “Diamond Lil” (1928) established her as a major star.  At one point she was reputed to be the second wealthiest American after William Randolph Hearst.  Hollywood (eventually) beckoned (when she was nearly 40) when old pal George Raft pushed for her to be in his “Night After Night”.  In what must have been one of the rarest and earliest examples of Hollywood reverse inequality Raft starred in the movie for $191 a week whilst West co-starred for $4,000 a week.

maewest7

Hollywood, initially nervous of her controversial reputation began to see her potential and began greenlighting a series of films which began with “She Done Him Wrong” (1933) her biggest and best during which she wielded extraordinary power for a woman in the Hollywood studio system.

maewest6

Cary Grant and Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong”

Nowadays we would find little sexually outrageous in West’s output but she regularly overstepped the boundaries of the Hays Code of censorship, brought in to return respectability to the movie world.  We might, however, express surprise at the existence of her much raided and closed down theatrical show about homosexuality featuring a  cast of drag queens in 1927, as it probably seems at least five decades ahead of its time.  Much of the obscenity was implied (cue much reading of scripts in courtrooms to spot the implications) and was indeed mainly because (back to my opening quote) to how things were said by Mae and what she was doing when she said them.

This is the second book about Mae West I’ve ever read.  Mary Beth Hamilton’s “The Queen Of Camp” didn’t really bring the star to life for me in the way I thought it would.  I enjoyed this more but again have reservations.

Watts begins her very thorough and quite academic study of West’s life and career by citing two rumours that were commonplace during West’s lifetime.  Firstly, that she was actually a man and secondly that she had African-American heritage and was in the terms of the time “passing as white”.  The first rumour was firmly disproved at the time of her death and has probably much to say about how a powerful woman was viewed.  The second hinges on, and this is not known definitively, whether she had an African-American grandfather.  Immaterial of this, Watts argues, is the performer’s  heavy borrowing for her character “Mae West” from African-American traditions and the quips and the use of language for which she became famous is a form of “signification” and that the character is based upon “the trickster” of African-American folk tales.  West’s famous “shimmy dance”, her walk and love of blues were adapted from her experiences in black nightclubs.  Her total acceptance of African-American friends and lovers was unusual at the time and she carried this consistently through her private and professional life.  Her play about mixed relationships even began a tour of the South and led to a lynch mob after her leading male.

True, nowadays, we can cite racism in her films which cast African-American actresses as her maids but their relationship was different to most films and something bordering on equality was often implied if not explicitly stated and she was known to be adamant in her support for casting even within the limits which mainstream Hollywood set.  There’s also the issue that for a time in her early career she performed in “blackface” in an act termed as a “coon shouter”.

maewest10

Mae West, Gertrude Howard and Hattie McDaniel

It is these issues which makes up the “Icon In Black And White”of Watts’  subtitle and provides the focus for her work.  It is all very interesting but perhaps I should have read a more general biography first.  Watts, however, does not stint on biographical detail.  We end up knowing as much about West’s private life as she chose to reveal (actually very little despite her continual sexual witticisms and bravado), there’s quite thorough break-d0wn of the plot of her films and we get a good sense of Mae West the person, the character and the star.

This was one extraordinary lady and I think perhaps over the last generation her star has waned a little.  “She Done Him Wrong” is a superb movie and at the other end of her career there’s much entertainment to be had (most of it unintentional, or was it?) in her last film, the pretty disastrous “Sextette” (1979) with Mae’s final outing as an 86 year old sex goddess.  I want to read more about her thanks to Watt’s depiction of a woman born both decades ahead of her time and yet very much part of it.

maewest5

Mae West and friends in “Sextette”

threestars

Mae West: An Icon In Black And White was published by Oxford University Press in 2001.

American Dream Machine – Matthew Spektor (2013)

spektor

Is there anybody out there who would be interested in reading fiction which features George Clooney as a character?

clooney

 

Perhaps not then……………..!

But this is the audacious start of “American Dream Machine” which did have me involved right from the start. The narrator recalls a night getting drunk with a pre-fame George Clooney, a good little vignette which perfectly sets the tone for this Hollywood novel. It’s a tale of two generations dominated by the larger than life, in every sense, film agent Beau Rosenwald. Narrated by his son, there’s a continual blurring of fact and fiction which is very effective. As well as Clooney, real-life characters such as Jack Nicholson and Danny De Vito make appearances and names are dropped frequently.

 

It is as if Spektor has created a parallel universe where fictional movies are being made alongside the stars’ actual films. This is all done seamlessly. The entertainment industry dominates these lives and there is the continual search for “the next big thing”. This is carried out amongst personal lives which are steeped in secrecy and failure. None of the (fictional) characters emerge unscathed. For me, the first generation of Beau and his associates works better as midway through I was beginning to lose interest in the machinations of these alpha-males. Ultimately, I found it hard to care for the characters. This diminishes the power of this tragi-comedy. Shakespearean references abound and it is clear that Spektor is not afraid of writing on a grand scale. For me, however, like Beau’s Hollywood movies, this novel does not quite live up to its hype.

threestars

American Dream Machine was published in 2013 by Little, Brown)

The Author Strikes Back – Carol Branston Interview

imagesN8KPZ1YTA Murder They Wrote Special!

Last month I reviewed “Murder! Hollywood Style” by Carol Branston (published April 2015 by First Edition Publishing). I was very pleased to have a comment from Carol thanking me for the review and after a bit of correspondence between us I am delighted to welcome Carol for my first interview in my Author Strikes Back category. I am especially pleased because the review of Carol’s book has certainly been attracting attention. Just the other day it crept past Michael Rosen’s classic book of children’s poems “Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here!” to become my most read book review on the site. So, striking while the iron is hot and at the time when people are beginning to consider what books to take with them on holiday here is what Carol had to say about her book.

branston

What was the inspiration for Murder! Hollywood Style? (In my review I compared it to Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins novels and Carol commented that this was what she had set out to do as she thought it was time to reactivate this genre)

I never know when something is going to inspire me. With this novel it came from seeing an Unsolved Murder show and I immediately knew who had done it, and how it was done. So there I was with an ending. I love old movies especially flash backs and thought all I have to do now is write a story that leads me to my ending. So I did.

How does, in your opinion, the Hollywood you portray in the late 60’s compare to Hollywood today?

During the 1960s and 70s Hollywood totally changed. The big studios lost their clout. They didn’t have stars under contract any more. Financing came from banks whose only interest was the bottom line. Actors started their own production companies, they wanted a piece of the action. Independent films with lower budgets were given a chance. Censorship was still a very strong influence, but Doris Day was finishing her reign as the professional virgin. Carnal Knowledge and Midnight Cowboy were breakthrough movies for general audiences. Then came Blow Up and Clockwork Orange, and younger people suddenly realized they had a lot to say in a fresh new way. Creativity ran rampant. A thrilling time to be involved in any of the art forms. Personally I still love a movie with good dialogue, not just special effects. I seldom go to see these monstrosities filled with graphics. I can appreciate the work that goes into them, but… One English film I loved and still do is Sexy Beast. Every time I watch it, I love it more. The way it’s shot. The acting. Actually I can find no fault with it.

dorisdaysexybeast

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doris Day contemplating Sexy Beast!   (I never thought I’d write those words in a blog!)

Why did you choose Joe, the hairdresser, to tell the story?

I am a hairdresser and have worked in film and TV for a number of years doing both makeup and hair. When I was a kid in London I was an apprentice in a very chic salon off Bakers St. Funnily enough the woman who owned the salon worked on movies. At that time I had no idea I’d end up doing the same thing. We had clients that ran the gamut from Lady so and so, to very expensive Mayfair call girls. Quite an education at fifteen. So I know for a fact that clients tend to tell their hairdressers everything. When I started to write my book, Joe was able to connect my characters easily. He didn’t have to be there all the time but eventually he knew all that was going on. Now at this time in his life he finally had to get it off his chest. You see one unwritten law in the hair business is to keep a confidence, and he had certainly done that.

 I have a real soft spot for Karen van Dougall (In my review I referred to her as “superbly trashy super-rich Karen van Dougall who manipulates everyone but is often their only true friend”). How did she come about?

I’m so happy to hear you liked Karen, not many people do. She is a lot of fiction based on a lot of facts, like most of my characters. That era was breakout time for blue bloods too. They didn’t go to country clubs with their parents any more. New York was so diverse. If one was interesting, creative, unique, or beautiful it was easy to break into the supposed In Crowd. The more Far Out you were, the better! Everyone was experimenting with everything. I really believe the country was run by speed freaks. Some faded quickly others became household names, rich and famous in their own right. Karen loved to star, and she did, besides she was always very generous. I like her too. 

What’s next for Carol Branston?

I love the whole process of writing. Over the years I’ve travelled quite extensively for both work and pleasure, and have met incredible people and seen incredible sights. Luckily I wrote journals whilst doing this and have quite an extensive collection to go through. I know there’s a story or a series of short stories among the collection that hopefully will prove to be very entertaining. My other hope is to have Murder! Hollywood Style made into a Netflix Two- Part Movie. The 70s were so visual. I just know it would work. I want Gwyneth Paltrow to play Mrs. Rhodes. What do you think?

I think that’s good casting, Carol. That got me thinking………….Zac Efron for Nicky Venuti (imagine what that would do to the ratings!), Carey Mulligan for Valerie Rhodes and how about thinking right out of the box and offering the part of Karen van Dougall to Rupaul!? I’m subscribing to Netflix right away…………..!

I would like to thank Carol very much for agreeing to be the first in my The Author Strikes Back section. Hopefully, that would have whetted some appetites for “Murder Hollywood Style”. UK readers can buy the paperback or e-book from Amazon.co.uk by following the link here. Of course it is available from Amazon.com and most other book retailers.

Buy Murder! Hollywood Style here

My original review of the book can be found here-

Murder They Wrote Review – Murder Hollywood Style by Carol Branston

 

Murder! Hollywood Style – Carol Branston (2015) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YTbranston

Ever since reading Jacqueline Susann’s “The Valley Of The Dolls” at an impressionable age I have had a hankering for tales of Hollywood featuring actors who create an impression, fall in love, find fame hard to cope with, take drugs and begin a downward spiral. Nowadays, these novels are in short supply, the “bonkbuster” style having gone out of fashion. Jackie Collins has written more of a few like this and I always enjoyed sister Joan’s novels which followed along similar themes. Carol Branston has added her name to this list and by setting it in the period of the late 60’s/early 70’s has the opportunity to capture the hedonism of Hollywood at this time.

The novel begins with a murder, Nicky Venuti, who was just a few years before Hollywood’s golden boy, meeting his end by a knife in the street. This is the tale as to how this happened. Nicky’s character is dwarfed by a couple of the others. English rose Valerie Rhodes is catapaulted into fame when she co-stars with Nicky and the pair become high profile lovers.   It is Valerie whose rise and downward spiral is central in this book. She is somewhat unlikeable, passively floats from one situation to another and it is no surprise that she is soon shovelling pills down her throat. Nicky, also not terribly likeable, sees Valerie as a way of covering up his homosexuality. Both are weak and are soon victims of Hollywood. More likeable is the superbly trashy super-rich Karen van Dougall who manipulates everyone but is often their only true friend. This is the end of the swinging 60’s and sexualities are blurred as drugs, sex and booze are readily available.

The story moves along generally well in the build-up to Nicky’s demise. Some scenes are overwritten to the point of triviality and sometimes more significant scenes are just reported. Branston is keen to give us a narrator to relate to, Joe, hairdresser to the stars. I didn’t feel that this was necessary. I don’t feel that Joe adds anything to the story by being its narrator. You rarely get the sense of him and often forget it is him telling the tale. An anonymous third-person omniscient narration would have worked better . Joe’s rare interventions into the story do not really work.

I think Branston has a good go at conveying the feel of New York and Hollywood at this time, and is really quite effective when the story moves to Swinging London. There’s a kind of guilty pleasure when the characters hit upon difficult times and situations but in this kind of book that is to be expected. It does recall the days when Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins and their ilk were churning out novels like this although with boundaries being pushed back since then Branston is able to be more explicit in her depiction of the amoral at work and play.  threestars

Murder! Hollywood Style was published in April 2015 by First Edition Publishing 2015. Amazon has it available as both paperback and Kindle edition.

Thanks to Netgalley for providing this title for me to review.

 

My Favourite Re-Read Of 2014

 

Eight of the books I’d read last year were re-reads. These are all special books to me but top of the pile was……………betteandjoan

Bette And Joan :The Divine Feud- Shaun Considine (1989) – Last read August 2014

I haven’t read this book in a long time, probably not long after its publication date, but it has stayed in my memory since then and it was time to get it back off the shelves. For me, it is probably the best book about movie stars. Rather than a standard biography Considine takes the widely-held notion that these two divas hated each other before, during and after their much anticipated pairing in 1963’s excellent “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane” and tracks the two screen goddesses careers and the points they frequently touched and the vitriol such moments engendered. Joan Crawford, portrayed here as a man-eater with dubious mothering skills who lived her life every inch a star and Bette Davis, who considered herself a great actress before a movie star, who rarely forgave a grudge, who bullied those around her (and who may have had some hand in the death of a husband). The teaming of the two, past their prime, in the early 60s could only have been a match made in heaven or hell. It’s a wonder the film got made at all (intended follow-up pairing “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte” floundered until Olivia De Haviand took over from a Crawford worn out by Davis’ spite). There’s so many great anecdotes here, the women were peerless in put-downs and sniping one –liners. For me, its monster Crawford who gets my sympathy more often against monster Davis. With so much proof and evidence Considine doesn’t need to go too far down the sensationalist route, leaving that for the respective daughters (Christina Crawford’s “Mommie Dearest” is surprisingly underplayed here, even on matters of Joan’s career. Crawford Jnr states that when she was ill and working on a daytime soap her mother muscled in and took over her part. Considine makes no mention of this.) My interest in these two ladies has been thoroughly rekindled so I’ll have to read more about them – there’s plenty out there. But for now, this is one of the most entertaining slabs of entertainment non-fiction ever.