Tag Archives: Hollywood

Complicit: Winnie M Li

“What latest studio head or screen icon will find his past circling back on him? In horror films, there is the silent horde of the undead, dragging the villain down to a well-deserved fate.”

Winnie M Li’s second novel, Complicit is a post MeToo# tale mostly told from the point of view of Sarah Lai, a 39 year-old Chinese-American woman who teaches film at a NY community college. Once upon a time, Sarah bucked her Chinese restaurant owning parents’ ambitions for their daughter and launched herself into the film industry. But now, 10 years post that experience, Sarah has no ties to that period, except some memories and a tiny mention on IMDB. What went wrong?

Sarah loved film, and we wince while she teaches her mostly untalented students as they try to create screenplays. It’s clear that this job, although secure, is not what Sarah wanted. Sarah is contacted by New York Times journalist Thom Gallagher who wishes to interview her about her experiences with film mogul British billionaire Hugo North and actress Holly Randolph. Sarah admits to herself; “In some way, I knew it was coming.”

The novel takes the form of Sarah’s narrative and interview notes between Gallagher and various sources. When Thom interviews Sarah, she goes back in time to her early days in the film industry and her first ‘break’ when she worked initially as an unpaid intern for Sylvia Zimmerman, the owner of Firefly Films. While working at Firefly Films, Sarah met director Xander, a not untalented man whose loose script for the film A Hard Cold Blue, is carved into shape by Sarah. Sarah’s work load expands over the course of a few years moving from the title of PA and then AP. Xander’s film makes it to Cannes where it garners the attention of Hugo North. North is looking to invest and expand to the film industry, and so he buys into Firefly Films and instantly changes the name to Conquest Films.

But it’s not just the name of the company that changes. Domineering Hugo North loves to party and loves to break down inhibitions: so it’s cocaine and girls all the way. Xander is happy to be on board and Sarah, always the quiet one on the fringes, finds herself bowing to pressure, and joining in. In one memorable scene, Hugo and Xander flick through piles of photos of actresses for Xander’s next film. The moment, complete with crude comments, seems more about screening potential sex partners than actresses:

If you told two-hundred plus actresses that they would be summarily judged just like that, declared en masse to be inappropriate for a lead role, their hearts would be crushed. But aspiring actors never suspect the cold reality of the business, they’re too bewitched by the illusion that the industry peddles about itself: that if you’re talented enough and passionate enough, you’ll get your big break one day.

When production moves to LA, it’s fairly obvious where Sarah is headed, but the attraction of watching this slow train wreck does not lessen for that knowledge. A sticky web surrounds Sarah, but she thinks she has choices… well she does, but those choices will have unpleasant consequences which ever way she moves.

The tale, with its bitter, unsavory truths, unwinds through the memory of Sarah’s experiences. Hugo North is a vile man who gets what he wants, but then wants new toys. People like Hugo North do not exist in a vacuum. He throws money and coke at people and gets what he wants–if someone has moral scruples, no matter, there are plenty of people who don’t or who are willing to park their morals at the door and turn a blind eye. The title Complicit says it all, and I loved the way the author shows that no one comes out of this story without a stain.

There are those who turn a blind eye to events and others who known damn well what is going on but pretend otherwise. Some things we cannot bury, no matter how much we obscure them with gift bags and PR statements and smiling photographs. The truths live on, even though their traces can only be found if we’re looking: in the comments that were edited out, the glances in unpublished photos, the meetings that took place behind closed doors but were followed by strange silences. Or one-way messages, never returned,

So we are all seeing it now. I saw it then, too.

But I pretended I didn’t.

review copy

Advertisement

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Li Winnie M, posts

The Barbarous Coast: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 6) 1956

“Jerkiness isn’t as respectable as it used to be, even in LA. which is why they had to build Vegas.”

In Ross Macdonald’s The Barbarous Coast, Lew Archer tangles with organized crime and decadent Hollywood. Archer is called to the exclusive Channel Club on Malibu Beach by nervous middle-aged club manager, Clarence Bassett. Bassett is being threatened by George Wall, a young married man, who is looking for his missing wife, Hester and claims that Bassett knows where she is.

Before Archer even meets Bassett, he runs into George Wall trying to crash the club in a desperate attempt to talk to Bassett who refuses to see the very upset husband. Archer also meets Tony Torres, ex-fighter and now the gateman at the Channel Club.

The job to protect Bassett turns into a job to find Hester–after all the two things are connected. Hester was part of a diving show, and at one point dove with Gabrielle Torres (daughter of Tony) and her cousin Manuel. Gabrielle was murdered a year ago–found shot dead on the beach, and Manuel, once a boxer too, is now banned from the profession and has served a jail sentence. Life seems to be looking up for Manuel; he’s now an actor calling himself Lance and works for a gangster named Carl Stern. Tony Torres used to be close to his nephew and now has nothing to do with him. According to Tony:

A boy gets ants in his pants, you can’t hire no exterminator for that.

Archer’s investigations are often circular, and this one is no exception. Archer senses that Gabrielle’s unsolved murder is connected to Hester’s disappearance, and as usual, Archer’s instincts are correct. There’s a tawdry, rancid stench of shop-worn glamour to the Hollywood crowd in these pages. On one level, there are these young people, the ones with the looks, Hester, Gabrielle and Lance and then there’s the moneyed crowd pulling the strings, gangster Carl Stern, producer Simon Graf and his certifiable wife Isobel, who bounces in and out of institutions. Then there’s Bassett who hosts the rich and famous while nervously trying to keep them happy, entertained and the drinks flowing.

This is probably my least favourite Archer novel so far. We don’t get much of Archer’s philosophy (always enjoyable) and the tale lacks the usual moodiness. I didn’t buy the murder wrap-up. Many of the characters are flat, but Tony Torres is well-created, and Bassett was fun. This is a story of moral corruption and how the pretty and the young who have their looks, their youth, and their bodies to sell, are exploited as playthings by the rich and famous. All of this moral corruption is laced with the trappings of Hollywood and supported by organized crime. Naturally, the young and beautiful end up dead or kicked to the curb when their attractions fade or pall.

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Macdonald Ross, posts

If This Was Happiness: Barbara Leaming

“Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.”

Rita Hayworth’s life is a study in contrasts: she was an incredible beauty, a phenomenal dancer, and a glittering screen presence. As the Sex Goddess, she was the chosen pin-up for American servicemen. Married and divorced 5 times, at her peak she was a highly paid actress, and yet there were periods during her life when she had no money for food. One husband threatened to throw acid in her face, another walloped her in public. Men chased her, wooed her, wed her and promptly cheated on her. How could someone so beautiful so lithe, so exquisite, be so mistreated by the men who wanted to possess her?

Barbara Leaming’s biography of Rita Hayworth, If This Was Happiness begins with background information about Rita’s father and aunt, Eduardo and Elisa Caniso. They came from a family of Spanish dancers, and arrived in America in 1913. “Although silent films were already beginning to encroach on its appeal, vaudeville clearly dominated American entertainment, and the Cansinos ” were a celebrated and highly paid vaudeville dance team.” By 1915, they earned 1500 a week. Eduardo and Elisa and his sister had a tight relationship which was not infiltrated or diminished by Eduardo’s marriage to 19-year-old dancer, Volga Hayworth.

As I read about Eduardo and Elisa, I heard these alarms bells in my head and wondered exactly what the relationship was between brother and sister. I decided I must have a dirty mind, but then later as I read how Eduardo molested Rita, I wondered again just how far back that behaviour went.

Eduardo and Volga’s first child was Margarita (later Rita), and they also had 2 sons. Eduardo tried to break in Hollywood, but his strong accent hampered his success. The family lost all their savings due to “bad investments” during the depression, and by the age of 12, Rita became her father’s dancing partner. She never graduated from high school and only completed the 9th grade. By age 13, with her parents lying about her age, she was travelling down to Tijuana, the sexual relationship between Rita and her father (she was not allowed to call him ‘father,’ in public) was established, but her “sexually provocative” performances on stage did not mirror the reality of the “shy, withdrawn” child. This dichotomy defined Rita for the rest of her life.

There began a curious phenomenon that would be observed repeatedly throughout her career: While silently and obediently taking orders, doing exactly as she was told, Rita would seem somehow to blank out, to withdraw deeply into herself.

It was quickly understood that Rita was the family’s money maker. At 16, she landed a contract with Fox, and headed for stardom, she was courted by 39-year-old Eddie Judson, a man who claimed to be Hollywood savvy and who made “the rounds of fashionable nightspots.” Rita and Eddie eloped and when Rita married Judson, she traded one domineering man, her father, for another. It was Judson who took control of Rita’s metamorphosis; he arranged painful electrolysis treatments to alter her hairline and her hair was dyed auburn. One person quoted notes that Judson tried “to push her to have affairs with people” (including Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, who was so obsessed with Rita he had her spied on) to further her career. Orson Welles didn’t shy away from calling Judson “a pimp. Literally a pimp.” The marriage didn’t last long, but Judson flagrantly cheated on Rita and left her penniless. To quote Rita: “I married him for love, but he married me for an investment.”

There was an affair with Victor Mature, but then Orson Welles entered the picture after seeing a photo of Rita and seeking her out. In some ways, it seems as though Rita’s marriage to Orson was the high point of her life, perhaps both of their lives, but then Orson was cheating. Divorce number 2. Rita’s third marriage was to Prince Aly Khan, another man who lavishly courted Rita–a woman whose value always sunk the minute that ring was on her finger. Prince Aly Khan’s playboy lifestyle did not end with his marriage so there was divorce number 3. Orson Welles noted that:

After Aly, Rita was on a downward path, a steep toboggan ride.

Rita returned to America to revive her film career and she was quickly wooed by Dick Haymes, a singer with a long string of debts and a fading career. It’s hard to say which marriage was the worst but if I had to pick, I would say this was it. The marriage brought public humiliation when Dick Haymes, who should have known he owed Rita a great deal, walloped her across the face in a nightclub. Rita had already damaged her career by her European marriage to Aly Khan, but public scandal, contract issues, along with child neglect charges landed on her head when she took Dick’s advice continually. Whoever named this man did so aptly.

Rita’s last marriage to film producer James Hill seemed a repeat of all the mistakes of the past. By the time she was in her 50s it was evident that there was something wrong with Rita and alcohol was blamed before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was finally reached.

The book is a sad read. IMO the author was too kind to Orson Welles, “We’re such a cruel race of people,” groaned Welles, with reference to those who told Rita about” his extra marital affairs. (An interesting way of objectifying one’s own behaviour.) I would have liked to have known whether or not Rita had any female friends. There are a couple of names mentioned but its not clear whether these were deep friendships or just light social acquaintances.

Men flocked to Rita like bees to honey but then treated her like shit. This is a woman, damaged in childhood, who outwardly had the world on a plate, but whose relationships were all destructive in one way or another:

“I think if you take ego and vanity out of sex,” Welles would explain, “you would find that the actual amount of sexual activity would be reduced drastically. I’m thinking of men in, particular more than women. A man is to a great extent operating on other juices than the sexual ones when he’s chasing around.”

Here she is driving Glenn Ford crazy

Gilda clip

4 Comments

Filed under Leaming Barbara, Non Fiction, posts

Temptation: Douglas Kennedy

When Douglas Kennedy’s novel Temptation opens, David Armitage is a struggling screen-writer. He’s had marginal success but doggedly hangs in there–all this made possible by his wife Lucy. She was an actress who landed a role in a sit-com pilot, and the role caused the couple to relocate from New York to LA. The sit-com never materalised. Lucy made a few commercials here and there, but finally with no money in the bank and bills to be paid, Lucy turned to telemarketing while David holds marginal hours at a book shop. They have a child, but things aren’t great:

But as the years accelerated–and we both started to cruise into our late thirties–we began to regard each other as our respective jailers.

But then David gets a call from his agent, Alison; someone is interested in David’s script. From here, things for David change rapidly. One success sails in on the heels of another. Soon there are new cars, a new house, new furniture, and then Lucy realises that soon there will be a new wife. …

Temptation arrives in form of Sally Birmingham, a “young executive” at Fox television. They meet for a business lunch and the speed at which David betrays and ditches Lucy is staggering. Next comes the bitter divorce, and soon Sally and David are the hottest couple in Hollywood. It’s clear that ambitious Sally sees David as career arm candy, so naturally his relationship with Sally hinges on his success–not that David, too caught up in his ballooning celebrity, understands that.

Dickhead David never shoulders the moral weight of his bad behaviour, and as his success continues, we know that Karma awaits…

It all unravels so beautifully beginning with a sleazy, big mouth broker named Roberto Barra, ‘Bobby’ who promises 100% return on investments within 6 months. Bobby’s aggressive, demeaning treatment of women is appalling, and yet at no point does David stop and think about Bobby’s moral behaviour and how perhaps Bobby’s ill-advised and disgusting attitude towards women may signal judgement issues. The red lights are flashing, but David is blind.

Hmmm. All I could think of was Thackeray’s Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond.

Then reclusive billionaire, film buff Philip Fleck invites David to his private island to discuss business and it’s all downhill from there.

A number of Douglas Kennedy books have been made into films: The Woman in the Fifth, The Big Picture (amazing) , The Dead Heart (the wildly insane Welcome to Woop Woop which is one of my all-time favourite films). Temptation is a slick, highly readable written novel and with its Faustian approach to the rise and fall of David Armitage (yes, we want to see him squirm), this book screams to be adapted too. Some of the character’s names drove me nuts: Bobby Barra, Brad Bruce and Philip Fleck–but perhaps Kennedy picked these names on purpose, modeling on the picaresque novel. Kennedy is particularly adept at creating the inner moral dilemma and how the journey from ignorance to acceptance of one’s flaws is costly, painful and yet ultimately strangely liberating.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Kennedy Douglas

The Late Show: Michael Connelly

The Late Show brings us a new series from author Michael Connelly and this time, instead of Harry Bosch,  it’s Renée Ballard, a detective in the Hollywood Division. Renée and her partner, Jenkins, work at night, “the midnight shift, the late show, moving from case to case, called to any scene where a detective was needed to take initial reports or sign off on suicides. But they kept no cases.” She’s been shelved and transferred to this shift following a sexual harassment complaint, which was thrown out, against Lt. Olivas. Ballard is still bruised from the experience, but she’s dealing with it, working hard, and trying to do her job.

The Late Show

The book opens with a call to the home of a woman whose credit card appears to have been stolen, and then it’s onto Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center for the vicious beating and torture of a young woman (later discovered to be trans gendered), but before Ballard can press for forensic tests, another victim arrives from a quadruple murder that occurred in a Hollywood Club called the Dancers. When that victim, a waitress at the club dies, Ballard goes to the club to talk to witnesses.

So we have three crimes: a credit card theft, the beating and torture of a transgender person, and a multiple homicide at the club. The shooting at the club is odd. How are the victims related? –they’re an assorted trio of felons, a bookie, an enforcer, and a drug dealer, all in the same place at the same time, shot to death. And the drug-dealing waitress was “collateral damage.”

“Did anybody in here tell you they saw the waitress get hit?”

Jenkins scanned the tables, where about twenty people were sitting and waiting. It was a variety of Hollywood hipsters and clubbers. A lot of tattoos and piercings. 

“No, but from what I hear, she was waiting on the table when the shooting started,” Jenkins said. “Four men in a booth. One pulls out a hand cannon and shoots the others right where they’re sitting. people start scattering, including the shooter. He shot your waitress when he was going for the door. Took out a bouncer too.” 

Ballard is supposed to pass off the cases she works on the Late Show to the day team, but this is a driven detective who, still smarting at an unjust transfer, wants more.

She manages to wrangle holding onto the transgender torture case, but since the victim is in a medically induced coma, many questions are unanswered. Ballard’s partner Jenkins is distracted by his wife’s illness, but Ballard, who likes to go solo in her personal and professional life, starts investigating both the club shooting and the torture cases on her own. …

I thought I knew the direction the plot was heading, but I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. When it comes to crime enforcement, author Michael Connelly obviously has respect for the profession, but not every cop is idealized, and many flaws fester under the badges of some of the characters in these pages. The book’s visceral tone draws the reader into Ballard’s cases, and there’s a sense of immediacy–we are there with Ballard, an intriguing protagonist, who is strong enough to lead a series. It’s fun to think that we know how all the procedures of police work, but occasionally, only occasionally, there were too many details. But apart from that niggling issue, The Late Show is a pageturner.

Review copy.

16 Comments

Filed under Connelly Michael, Fiction

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
Review copy

11 Comments

Filed under Babitz Eve, Non Fiction

The Filthy Truth by Andrew Dice Clay (with David Ritz)

The Diceman Cometh… back.

“I wanted to show the world that a comic could be as big as a rock star.”

There was a time in the late 80s when I swore that one day I’d see Andrew Dice Clay in concert. In those years he was everywhere–the raunchy hottest comedian around; his shows were rude, crude and lewd–the sort of comedian bound to offend someone. In fact, even saying that you were an Andrew Dice Clay fan raised eyebrows. No matter, I love a good laugh and my sense of humour has always been in the gutter.

the filthy truthIn spite of my intentions to one day attend a Diceman concert, it never happened. Most of Dice’s fans are aware of the ‘controversy’ that buried Dice’s career–Dice was slated to appear on SNL (yes, that supposedly cutting edge comedy programme) when one of the cast members boycotted the show. The boycott was joined by Sinead O’Connor, and then MTV slammed a lifetime ban (lifted in 2011) on Dice following the 1989 MTV awards (come on, if you make Dice a live prime-time TV presenter what the hell do you think is going to happen?) and then the Puritanism snowballed from there. Dice, at the top of his game and able to sell out tens of thousands of seats in minutes, suddenly became a hot PC potato. He disappeared, reappearing briefly in a sadly harnessed performance for a drab television sitcom.

Frankly, it was startling to see how Dice’s career was eviscerated practically overnight. William J Mann’s book Tinseltown documented the witchhunt that threw Fatty Arbuckle to the ‘moral reformers’ and ruined his career. Perhaps we could expect scapegoating in the 1920s–those days of imminent film censorship, but it is startling to see the same sort of thing occur again in the 90s. And let’s not forget that Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder before emerging, an innocent man, from no less than 3 trials. The most Andrew Dice Clay can be accused of is bad taste, and I bet he’d gladly admit it.

If the press didn’t understand that the Diceman was a character who amplified certain attitudes that millions of people had–not only amplified those attitudes but actually made fun of those attitudes by making fun of himself–then the press had its head up its ass.

I’ve missed Dice over the years, but I’ve had the occasional Dice Nostalgia Night with a rewatch of one of the many Dice concerts or even his cult film: The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and I was delighted to see Dice in the role of a disgruntled ex-husband in Woody Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine. Could this mean that the Diceman is back?….

The Filthy Truth, Andrew Dice Clay’s memoir, begins with Dice at the lowest point of his life. He’s “lost millions” and with two marriages behind him, “broke, grinding through the toughest decade” of his life, is about to play to an audience of 16 in the back room of a Las Vegas sushi bar–a far cry from the days when he sold out two consecutive days at Madison Square Garden–the only comic in history to do so. Dice says of the experience in the back room of the sushi bar,  “that night was the beginning of the ride back,” The book then moves from Dice’s childhood in Brooklyn, through the beginnings of his comic career, the formation of his Dice persona, the struggles, the successes, the marriages, the pinnacle of his success and his fall.

The book includes details of several sexual encounters, and this is when the book is at its weakest. Unlike Dice’s jokes, these encounters don’t come with a punch line, and the stories just read as titillation rather than interesting or even erotic. The details of Dice’s family, known as the Originals are wonderful; you just knew that he had to come from some pretty extraordinary people, and Dice’s parents (his mother especially) come to life in the pages. There’s the sense that Dice had an incredible career that was unique for a number of reasons, and Dice always seemed to be able to gauge the right moves at the right moment–that is until he drastically underestimated the power of Moral Righteousness and “the orchestrated campaign” which finally dragged his career into the undertow.

I ran down to the newsstand on the corner and picked up the paper. And right there, in a five-word description of the Diceman Cometh, I read, “The Demise of Western Civilization.”

I was half amused, half amazed that the Times took me so fuckin’ seriously. But I wasn’t upset. I was actually glad for the attention. Let the press write whatever the hell they wanna write. I work for the fans, not the press. All the press could do was bring me more fans. I didn’t see then–and remained blind to for months to come–the power of the press to fuck me up.

It’s clear that Dice, born and raised in Brooklyn, was always a ‘character,’ as we read of his childhood (he was a “third-rate student and a first-rate clown,”), how he “dated” his mother’s fur coat, his first and last trip to a bordello (“the madam looked like Bela Lugosi in drag,”) and worked at a men’s clothing shop selling cheap suits “a little better than papier-mâché.” But it didn’t take long for Dice to realize that he was not going to have a traditional career, and so we follow how he developed his first act and made the decision to move to L.A. where he built his routine at the Comedy Store. Reading the book gives the impression that Dice is in the room telling his story complete with frank admissions of mistakes and failings, and there’s the sense that a fall will occur as we hear about the houses bought, the huge gambling losses, the purchase of a car for sixty-nine thousand in cash, and the night he played Vegas with three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars worth of chips stuffed in his pocket.

Included in the book are snapshots of various celebrities who befriended Dice or gave him a kind word along the way–including  Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Murphy, Mickey Rourke, and Eminen.

The Filthy Truth will appeal to all the fans out there who’ve missed Andrew Dice Clay and are still cheering for him. Those familiar with Dice will know what to expect in terms of language and subject matter, so readers can’t bitch when they find the first four letter word. Dice’s role in Blue Jasmine signals his triumphant return, but his fans never forgot him in the first place.

I got up onstage and I took my sweet fucking time lighting my cigarette with a flick of the Zippo and an over-the-shoulder back of the-head drag. I opened with the nursery rhymes.

Review copy

 

6 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up: Richard Hallas (1938)

“And I knew there was something I had to do and something I had to wait for, and it wasn’t till I saw it that I knew.”

Richard Hallas was the pseudonym for Eric Knight (1897-1943)–the man who created the character of Lassie. I’m still trying to get my mind around that. Lassie Come Home is …well… touching and a bit weepy, but here’s You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, pure noir fiction, a superbly dark, hardscrabble tale of crime and moral corruption. Eric Knight was born in Yorkshire but emigrated to America in his teens. He was a Hollywood screenwriter, but in 1943 while a major in “the film unit of the U.S. Army Special Services,” he was killed in a plane crash. You Play the Black and Red Comes Up, published in 1938, was his only crime novel.

you play the redAlthough the book begins in an Oklahoma mining town, this is primarily a California novel. The book begins with the narrator, Dick, leaving his midnight shift to discover that his wife, Lois, has run away from the family-owned roadside diner with their child.  The tiny roadside diner is an iconic American image–a drab place of tarnished, shriveled dreams where the owners wait, hoping for customers as life passes them by. There’s a quaintness to this particular diner that’s submerged by its sad ordinariness. While Dick mentions that he’d “painted the front in blue and yellow squares like a checkerboard so that the truck-drivers on the way down to Dallas would always remember it,” we know that the diner is bigger in Dick’s mind than to the drivers who pass by on the highway. Dick immediately guesses that Lois has run off to Hollywood as she’s “crazy to get in the pictures” and has cousins living there. Perhaps we don’t blame Lois for ditching the diner and the long, lonely hours.

you play the blackDick doesn’t hesitate, he hops aboard a westbound freight, laying on the top of a box car and watching “the glow of the smelters a long way off” slowly fade as he gains distance from the town. He’s in the company of a “bunch of floaters” all headed for California and the myth that “there was a man there going to be elected Governor who would take all the money away from the millionaires and give fifty dollars a week to every man without a job.” In one town, police herd hoboes out of jail and onto the freight train beating the men with their billy sticks as they mount into a box car. The train trip becomes a hellish journey with the strong bullying the weak, the old and black.

It’s funny, when you’re in the dark you can’t get things very straight. Sometimes I knew it would be daytime, because I could see light through chinks in the boards. I tried to figure out when we’d get out, but I couldn’t tell where we were. Sometimes I’d smell desert and alkali dust, and I’d think we were in Arizona. Then we’d feel them coupling another engine and we’d be going up a mountain and we all like to froze to death because it went down to zero and only being crowded together kept us alive.

Once in California, fate, and fate plays a large role in this noir story, throws Dick into the path of eccentric, probably insane, movie director, Quentin Genter. This meeting leads to a number of twists and turns in Dick’s life, and while Dick sees Quentin as his friend, it’s apparent that Quentin is a collector of people, an expert in poison, and an arch manipulator.

Penniless and with no prospect of employment, Dick turns to crime to make an easy buck. This is another event that leads to yet another fateful meeting–this time with divorced lush Mamie and her friend Pat–women who’d “both decided to be blondes.” Mamie sticks like glue to Dick and while Dick is soon ready to move on, she may or may not have the knowledge to send him to prison. This uneasy alliance, with Dick unsure whether or not Mamie knows the truth about his criminal act, keeps him behaving, stuck with Mamie, and on edge. Are the comments she makes threatening or is he just reading this into the situation?:

Then I got to thinking she acted like she knew all about it anyhow. I kept going back over what she’d said and remembering her words. And one time it would sound sure as if she knew everything, and the next time I could prove to myself that she’d said nothing that wasn’t just an innocent remark. And that’s the way it went, back and forth, I could prove either way I wanted; things she’d done, and the next minute proving she could have done and said everything by chance.

That’s the way I sat there, not saying anything, and Mamie sitting there in her new dressing gown, brushing her hair and smiling. Then that got me to worrying whether her smiling meant she had me cornered or that it was just an innocent smile meaning she wanted to be pleasant and make up again.

That’s the way it was.  

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up is a quintessential California novel. California has always had a certain mystique and undeniable lure: from the Gold Rush to the dream of becoming a film star in Hollywood. This novel was published towards the end of the Great Depression, but that period in history is still seen in these pages–from the hoboes travelling west towards their dreams and opportunities to Dick whose poignant memories of his desperate parents become another dream to pursue for entirely different reasons. Everything that happens to our narrator once he arrives in California has a dream-like, hallucinatory quality to it, an artificiality, a movie set feel to it. Film director Quentin argues that everyone becomes crazy in California, and if he’s anything to go by, well there might be something to it. There’s a bit of a joke behind this, as I learned not long after moving to America. You can live in California and imagine that you know America. You do not. California is unlike anywhere else in this vast country. And yes, some Americans do think that California is off the deep end–an extreme place for its attitude and acceptance of beliefs rejected elsewhere in the country, so I was pleased to see that even back in the 30s, California was seen as an anomaly when compared to the rest of the country. Here’s Quentin on the subject of what happens to people when they come to California:

“It’s the climate–something in the air. You can bring men from other parts of the world who are sane. And you know what happens? At the very moment they cross those mountains.” he whispered real soft, “they go mad. Instantaneously and automatically, at the very moment they cross the mountains into California, they go insane. Everyone does. They still think they’re sane, but they’re not. Everyone in this blasted state is raving mad. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

Dick’s experiences in California begin with a hunt for his wife and child, there’s a detour to crime, and that’s when everything gains momentum. There are twists of fate: a change of fortune, love (with a possibly insane woman), and a cult (even then) but there’s also a lot of darkness and deceit. While often a noir character takes one false step that takes him deeper and deeper on the narrow path of no return, Dick’s one misstep creates ever-widening spaces of tainted relationships, hypocrisy, falsity and moral corruption. Quentin seems to be Dick’s friend but he’s a satanic figure, and if he’s a satanic figure then the novel has an allegorical quality. Told in a deceptively simple style by a narrator who accepts what happens to him, not in a naïve way, but rather after the fashion of an Everyman, You Play the Red but the Black Comes Up, a title that hints at chance, good, and bad luck concludes with a spectacular, and surprisingly moving ending. 

It was pitch-dark but I wasn’t afraid of losing my way. I knew where I had to go, and somehow it was like something would be sure to tell me how to get there.

One of my best of 2013.

17 Comments

Filed under Fiction

My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes

For its bleakness and its Hollywood setting, I loved My Face For the World To See (1958)–a dark tale of a tangled relationship between a married screenwriter and a very damaged would-be actress. At 131 pages, this New York Review Books release doesn’t waste words, and there’s the sense that this tale has been pared down to perfection. The story flings us right into the drama with an opening set at a beach house party with various Hollywood people in attendance. The screenwriter, who remains nameless throughout the story is bored and feeling alienated when he goes outside and spots a woman stepping into the ocean. He thinks he’s seen the girl before, but then again perhaps not. She looks, after all, like so many other pretty, leggy desperate young women who drift to Hollywood. He realizes that she is trying to commit suicide, so he pulls her out of the ocean, and the drama begins.

My face for the world to seeThe screenwriter, who’s in his late thirties, is well paid but not particularly happy. His wife of fifteen years, a woman he’s no longer attracted to, lives in New York with their child. He rents an apartment that’s a “little too bridal,” and has the occasional affair. He’s not a wolf by any means or a predator, but he’s used to being alone with his cynicism:

I thought of my wife. She was at a distance. The distance was in itself beneficial. I supposed I was being again uncharitable. She was what she was: I was what I was. That, when you came down to it, was the most intolerable thing of all. If only she weren’t, now and then what she was, always. If she’d let up a little or knock it off a little or hang it out for a good airing once in a little while.  God, marriage. No: it wasn’t marriage. There wasn’t, even on close examination, any other available institution, any other available institution you could substitute. There seemed to be nothing but marriage, when you thought of it, and when you thought of it, my god, was that all there was? That, and raising a family. That, and earning a living. That, and calling the undertaker.

This bleakly abbreviated view of the meaningless of life says a great deal about our narrator. He finds his tired marriage, strained by “something that resembled a truce,” suffocating; perhaps he married too young, and he has yet to find anything to substitute for any sort of meaning to his existence. Yet his attitude towards life extends beyond his marriage, and he hates New York, “that immense slum.” Hollywood isn’t much better as far as the screenwriter is concerned. He dislikes Hollywood and the money it generates. To him the town is “rotten” and its immense wealth has a “phantasmal quality.” In a town driven by money, power, and fame, all three leave him cold.

At this very moment, the town was full of people lying in bed thinking with an intense, an inexhaustible, an almost raging passion of becoming famous, and even more famous if they were; or of becoming wealthy if they weren’t already wealthy , or wealthier if they were; or powerful if they weren’t powerful now, and more powerful if they already were. There were times when the intensity with which they wanted these things impressed me. There was even, at times, a certain legitimacy to their desires. But it seemed to me, or at least it had seemed to me in the few years I had been coming and going from this town, there was something finally ludicrous, finally unimpressive about even the people who had all the things so coveted by all the people who did not have them. It was difficult to say why. It might have been only a private blindness, a private indifference which prevented me from seeing how gratifying the possession of power or the possession of fame could be. 

The meeting between the screenwriter and the young woman grows into a relationship. The woman lives in spartan circumstances, but she’s proud of what she’s accomplished while the screenwriter finds that he’s “wandered into a ‘unsuccessful’ life again.”  He senses that “something quite heavy, quite immovable, weighed her down.” When questioned, he’s frank about his marital status, and an affair begins–with the young woman accepting that what they have is a dead-end with no future. Not a great deal happens during the course of the affair–a few dinners, a disastrous trip to Mexico, and, of course, confidences, which include the woman’s troubled past, are exchanged.

Author Alfred Hayes chose to keep his two characters nameless–although there’s one point in which the woman refers to herself as Miss V. It’s much more difficult to write about a book in which the main characters are nameless, but what’s interesting here is that the lack of names adds to the general feeling of anonymity. These people live in Hollywood–a town, “true to its rhinestone self,” in which names are of paramount importance. The last thing anyone connected to the movie biz seeks is anonymity, but that’s exactly what these two characters have. The woman, of course, seeks fame–she wants to hit the Big Time with “my face for the world to see,” whereas the man doesn’t care for any of the usual gilt covered carrots that drive ambition in Hollywood. Then there’s the issue of the affair….  Why, oh why, would anyone be insane enough to get mixed up with this emotionally damaged woman? Yes, she’s attractive and available, but as the narrator points out, the town in swamped with beautiful, attractive women eager to make connections and more than happy to attend Hollywood parties. The screenwriter’s introduction to the young woman, her suicide attempt, should tell him all he needs to know. This is not a stable young woman, and an affair can only end in disaster for both of them. Why then, given the benefit of all the warning signals, does he take the green light and begin an affair? Vulnerability can be a weapon, and it can also be a magnet.

In Love is the story of two people in a relationship that sours even as it goes nowhere. My Face For the World To See, the finer book of the two, is the story of a relationship that goes to hell. Alfred Hayes has a self-interruptive style which is only occasionally apparent in My Face For the World to See whereas this style is pervasive in its repetitive uncertainty in In Love. This is a sparsely, beautifully written tale of damaged souls, with sentences that lap over our senses and recede slowly, leaving behind an emotional stain:

There was a noisy rush of water from the bathroom, and she appeared, ready for the evening, a smile she had chosen, I thought, from a small collection of smiles she kept for occasions like this, fixed upon her face.

Praise goes once more to New York Review Books for resurrecting a lost gem. How do they find their titles?

review copy

16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Hayes Alfred

I Should Have Stayed Home: Horace McCoy (1938)

“This is Hollywood, old man,” he said, “where morality never crosses the city limits.”

Last year, I read and enjoyed Horace McCoy’s (1897-1955) masterpiece They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? This was one of those novels I’d intended to read for some time, a title that had crossed my path more than once, so when I saw I Should Have Stayed Home by the same author, I knew I had to read it. When I say that the two novels are connected, I Should Have Stayed Home does not carry the punch of McCoy’s masterpiece. How could it? Nonetheless I Should Have Stayed Home is another look at exploitation–and once again it’s the exploitation of young would-be actors and actresses who’ve arrived in Hollywood and are desperate to be discovered. The big question in both books is how far are they prepared to go for fame, but while Gloria and Robert in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? opt for a dance marathon, Mona and Ralph in I should Have Stayed Home are still hoping for bit parts that segue into brilliant careers.

I should have stayed homeThe story is told by Ralph a young, naïve small town theatre actor from Georgia lured to Hollywood by a talent scout who promised a screen test. Once there, the promised screen test was taken, but there were no calls and now he lives in a small bungalow, barely able to make the rent, with bit part actress, Mona. Disillusionment has begun to set in but it’s not deep enough to make Ralph return home. While he acknowledges that Hollywood is “the most terrifying town in the world,” he’s not ready to give up, and that’s partly because he’s sent letters home bragging about his Hollywood success. With lies, he’s fabricated a scenario of success, and now he’s done that, he keeps hoping for that big break so that he won’t have to go home and admit the truth. Once again, McCoy paints a very bleak picture of Hollywood:

Feeling the way I did, alone and friendless, with the future very black, I did not want to get out on the streets and see what the sun had to show me, a cheap town filled with cheap stores and cheap people, like the town I had left, identically like any one of ten thousand other small towns in the country–not my Hollywood, not the Hollywood you read about. This is what I was afraid of now, I did not want to take a chance on seeing anything that might have made me wish I had stayed home, and this is why I had waited for the darkness, for the night-time. That is when Hollywood is really glamorous and mysterious and you are glad you are here, where miracles are happening all around you, where today you are broke and unknown and tomorrow you will be rich and famous.

When the novel begins, the days of not being called for a part have morphed into a crisis. Mona and Ralph’s friend, Dorothy–who lives in the same bungalow complex–has been arrested for shoplifting and sentenced to the women’s prison at Tehachapi for three years:

She had come out to Hollywood to crash the movies too, but she had crashed a department store instead.

Dorothy’s arrest sets off a chain of events that mark a turn in Ralph’s fortunes and also a bitter shift in Mona’s attitude, but whether these are good or bad changes remains to be seen. As a naïve and sexually inexperienced protagonist, Ralph doesn’t understand a great deal of what goes on behind closed doors, and he certainly is no match for the man-eating, wealthy socially prominent, nymphomaniac” Mrs Smithers, an obnoxious woman who uses a series of men as her gigolos. As Mona, who is a big sister figure to Ralph warns:

As innocent as you are, a woman would have to start taking your pants off before you got suspicious.

After a few hours in the company of Mrs. Smithers, Ralph realizes that “nobody can beat the movie game without help–and the quicker you play ball, the quicker you succeed.”  

The story includes rumblings of trouble in Hollywood. In one scene, an actress mentions the Scottsboro Boys, so this places the story in 30s. There’s also discussion about the Communist party, the Anti-Nazi league, censorship, blacklisting & anti-union sentiment. In one scene, for example, a publicist walks off his job over the film The Road Back (1937)–a very real film based on a novel by Erich Marie Remarque:

“This was in the Los Angeles Times yesterday” he said. ‘”This is from the movie column in that great reactionary journal. Listen ‘The German Consul, incensed at final scenes in The Road Back’–that’s one of our big pictures–‘incensed at final scenes in The Road Back, showing German youngsters being drilled as soldiers, has induced Universal to revise the film’s editing. At the same time, the studio will try to work in some more love interest.’ He took a few more sips of his coffee, looking at me. “That’s why I quit,” he said. Wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t see anything in that article to make you quit.”

“You don’t? Haven’t you seen any of those pictures in Life or Fortune about all the German youth being drilled in uniforms with guns and wearing signs across their breasts: “We were Born to Die for Hitler?”

“I don’t believe so,” I said.

“Well it’s true anyway. That Hitler’s going to start another war and why should the German consul get his bowels in an uproar because we show German kids drilling? I didn’t get sore about that, you understand, because the German consul’s bowels are always in an uproar about something. What I got sore about was the studio letting him tell ’em where to get off.”

I should Have Stayed Home was written in 1938. That was 5 years after Goebbels had Remarque’s books publicly burned and the year Remarque, who was living in Switzerland, had his German citizenship revoked, and it’s interesting to see McCoy infuse his novels with topical subjects.  This is a weaker novel than They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Ralph isn’t a strong enough character to carry the narrative, but it’s still a prescient tale of exploitation and corruption, and the insider’s view of the flexible politics of the studios gives great insight to Hollywood of the 30s. Review copy.

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McCoy Horace