Bonded by the bottle

Michael Wood

  • Writers in Hollywood by Ian Hamilton
    Heinemann, 326 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 434 31332 7

The writer, grizzled, sun-tanned, wearing only desert boots, shorts and sunglasses, sits outdoors in a wicker chair, checking a page in his typewriter. The picture appears on the covers both of Ian Hamilton’s Writers in Hollywood and of Tom Dardis’s Some Time in the Sun and instantly announces several elements of a familiar legend. Even in black and white the image is full of warm shadows, and the uncropped version fills out the legend a little further. The desert boots are missing from the Hamilton cover and so is the landscape above the writer’s head: a hillside gracefully cluttered with dark pines and white villas, a reminder that California and the Mediterranean inhabit some of the same reaches of fantasy and even geography.

The writer is only half-working, or playing at working; his real place of work must be elsewhere. He is not at home, because they don’t have weather like this at home, at least not all the time. Couldn’t California be the writer’s home? Of course, it is the home of many writers. But not in this legend. Hollywood is not serious, it can never escape its mixed condition of moneybarrel and dream, land of locusts and last tycoons. ‘One day one leaf falls in a damn canyon up there,’ Faulkner growled, ‘and they tell you it’s winter.’ The figure we are looking at, as it happens, is Faulkner, photographed at the Highland Hotel, Hollywood, in 1944. It would help if he was writing The Big Sleep, as he was late in that year: the sunny patio begets Philip Marlow’s dusty office and his mean, incomprehensible streets, another California.

The legend has faded now – fortunately, since it did so much damage, and not only to famous sad cases – but it is important to understand its terrible appeal. Just think: Hollywood allowed writers to fail and then despise the system they failed in; to succeed and despise themselves; to despise others for lacking the know-how they possessed; to dip into glamour without believing in it; (more rarely) to live very well by doing a job decently; (not least) to avoid, sometimes permanently, what they regarded as their real work.

Ian Hamilton’s intelligent, well-informed and often funny book is a history of this legend and what lurks around it. Hamilton’s wit is discreet, a matter of careful phrasing rather than the large gesture. ‘Big-name wrecks’, for example, ‘celebrity drunks’, or the delicately restrained suggestion that Selznick was ‘less earnest but more fanatical than Goldwyn’. Hamilton’s commentary on Hollywood drinking lore is shrewd, undeceived, uncondemning. For instance: Faulkner and the writer/producer Nunnally Johnson meet for the first time, Faulkner cuts his hand opening a pint of whisky, allows the blood to drip into his hat, swigs half the whisky, hands the bottle to Johnson, who drinks the other half, and the two men go off on a binge, to be discovered three weeks later in an Okie camp. Hamilton asks: ‘Do we believe any of this? Almost certainly not. Most Hollywood “legends” were the work of screenwriters trained in the manufacture of big scenes: the two taciturn Southern gentlemen bonded by the bottle, the blood dripping into the hat, the half-pint knocked back in a few swallows, the three weeks (three weeks) in an Okie camp ... ’ Still, probably Faulkner and Johnson did get on well enough. ‘More than likely,’ Hamilton says, they ‘did bury a few drinks. They may even have stayed up all night.’

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