Hollywood: The Oral History 
edited by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson.
Faber, 739 pp., £25, November 2022, 978 0 571 36694 1
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In April​ 1973, on a Pan Am 747 jumbo jet from London to LA, I took my seat in the upstairs dining room opposite a Cincinnati salesman and his wife. He sold screws – really. Just as improbably, I had sold my first novel to the movies. The tablecloth, the silverware, the crystal wine glasses, the Chateaubriand being carved in front of us at five hundred miles an hour felt extraordinary, a swank unreality that matched my elevated mood. I was 32. I was going to Hollywood. I was making a movie. I was going to be a screenwriter.

I thought about Dad up there among the clouds and hoped he was looking down. He could finally stop worrying about me ‘making a buck’. A couple of years earlier, Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Feet, a short film I’d written with the director John Hancock about touch football in Central Park, had been nominated for an Oscar. (It played with Woody Allen’s Bananas at New York’s Baronet Theatre to brisk business.) In a giddy moment, we’d even taken out one of those bow-wow fuck-off ads in Variety thanking ‘the Industry’ for our nomination. My trajectory seemed as straight and clear as the plane’s flight path on the cabin TV screen. The days of word counts, deadlines, kill fees, dud plays were behind me. From now on I would spend my literary life alternating between writing novels and adapting them for the silver screen. As the song says: ‘Go out and try your luck/You may be Donald Duck/Hooray for Hollywood.’ America had always been a percentage play, and Hollywood was the fabulous embodiment of the nation’s faith in pluck and luck. To a society that fancied itself a Redeemer Nation, the bonanza of stars, paydays and lush life were proof positive that the system worked. I liked my chances.

Although I was born in Los Angeles and spent my earliest years in the Arcadian bliss of Coldwater Canyon, where my father had built a house, I’d never been back as an adult. I had also never had a first-class air ticket, never written a full-length screenplay and never been met at the airport by someone handing over $500 in cash. Because I had been surviving abroad on the equivalent of $100 a week and had no American reserves, this piquant financial arrangement was part of the deal with 20th Century Fox negotiated by my expert lawyer, Alan U. Schwartz, who represented Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, Truman Capote and Mel Brooks. ‘May the Schwartz be with you,’ Brooks joked in Spaceballs. He already was.

As the plane began its descent, swinging over Santa Clarita, down across the Santa Monica Mountains, then banking briefly over the Pacific, I glanced out of the window at the suburban sprawl scattered like so much confetti over the gnarly green terrain. In the distance, the tall white cluster of buildings that formed downtown Los Angeles poked through a corona of smog. Coming into view below was my destination: the 480-acre subdivision established in 1887 and named ‘Hollywood’ by a real estate speculator’s wife because, she said, ‘holly brings good luck.’

And so it did. The strange new flowering on this once pristine expanse of apricot and fig orchards was the film industry, whose first studio sprouted in 1911, offering the American public a new kind of mass nourishment: distraction. The moving image was big magic and big business. (By 1917, when the average yearly income was between $800 and $1000, Charlie Chaplin’s salary was $670,000.) East Coast filmmakers hurried West to seek maximum sunlight and maximum separation from Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, which demanded copyright payment or else a bullet in the expensive newfangled movie cameras. The canyons and ravines of the Hollywood Hills were the natural redoubts against the Patents Company goons; nonetheless, armed cowboys often stood guard while the cameras rolled. By 1924, there were eight major studios in Hollywood. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hollywood produced on average eight hundred films a year. By 1930, 65 per cent of the American public, or three out of five citizens, went to the movies every week. The nation was spellbound.

It was this climate of enchantment that I was trying to winkle out in my novel The Autograph Hound. The picaresque pursuits of its celebrity-hunting busboy, Benny Walsh, showed him assailed, seduced and driven crazy by the proliferating imagery of Hollywood’s razzle-dazzle, its voodoo of escape. Benny was some kind of buoyant sleepwalker, mesmerised by the lives and narratives of celebrated others. His adulation was also an alienation. As an existential quandary, his predicament wasn’t too far from my own struggles as both a theatre critic and the son of a movie star. Now, as the plane touched down on the sun-bleached runway, I felt an exquisite excitement. I was out of the audience. I was in the game. I was a player. Hooray indeed.

I was living in a cottage at the back of a friend’s walled California Tudor house in Santa Monica, on a slip street off an arroyo that dipped down to the four-lane Pacific Coast Highway. Before the war, the house had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian screenwriter Salka Viertel, confidante of Greta Garbo, for whom she wrote five movies. Viertel was then the highest paid screenwriter at MGM and her home was a magnet for European refugees and American artists who gathered at her Sunday afternoon salon. Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, W.H. Auden, Sergei Eisenstein, Hanns Eisler, Arnold Schoenberg, Lionel Feuchtwanger, Franz Werfel and Bertolt Brecht rubbed shoulders with Peter Lorre, Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx and many others. Brecht and Christopher Isherwood had briefly lived and worked in the cottage where I was pounding out the first draft of an adaptation in collaboration with my director, Sydney Pollack. Isherwood now lived on the palisade just above the street. The memory of this creative cross-fertilisation still hung over the house and added to the lustre of the natural world’s dizzying fecundity. ‘John, you gotta come to my house. It’s just like New York,’ Joan Rivers gushed to me at a party that first week in Los Angeles. ‘I’ve got plants in my garden that die.’

Late at night, when the sense of anticipation rendered me too excited to sleep, I would walk to the end of the road, inhaling the delectable air, filled with the scent of honeysuckle, gardenia and bougainvillea. I’d listen to the rattle of the palm fronds and watch the moonlight bounce off the shifting sea. From the roadhouse on the highway below a neon sign flashed the word ‘EAT’. During my eight months of scuttling back and forth between London and Hollywood, the sign would take on the weight of metaphor.

Hollywood was a steep learning curve, and not just when it came to screenwriting. To get the next weekly tranche of $500, it wasn’t enough to request the money from the 20th Century Fox accounting department – I had to present receipts. Who knew? I didn’t have hotel bills. I drove a borrowed car. I knew only a few people in town to take to dinner. I called around. My friends were dieting or their kids were sick or they were too tired but offered pot luck at their house. I was stymied. If I wanted to save all the money I was contractually owed – enough to last me a year of London living – I had to cheat to get it. I was reduced to asking local supermarkets for their till receipts. Ralphs Fresh Fare said no; Safeway shined me on; the cashier at Gelson’s gave me the dry wash and motioned forward the trolley behind me. ‘But, you don’t understand, I’m at 20th Century Fox and I’m –.’ ‘Why didn’t you say so,’ the cashier smiled, then stuffed a shopping bag to the brim with receipts for me.

Hollywood was a company town. The studios owned the means of production and I learned fast that a lot of its labour was alienated. In my ongoing contractual negotiations with the 20th Century Fox lawyers, I began to see why. Even at the outset, the studio contract announced the spirit of Hollywood movie-making: not so much a collaboration as an armed conflict, as Joan Didion once said, ‘where one antagonist has a contract assuring him of nuclear capability’. In my case, 20th Century Fox in its wisdom didn’t want to give me credit for the novel I’d written and which I was now being paid to adapt. The boilerplate was a masterpiece of legal punctilio, longer than the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution combined. It took a couple of weeks finally to disabuse the studio of its imperial whim. During that time, I’d been contacted by the Broadway composer Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl), who wanted to adapt the book for a musical. The offer led to another startling discovery in the fine print. The studio owned the rights to my book for ever. To the new Hollywood lingo I was learning – ‘gross’, ‘adjusted gross’, ‘net’ – the phrase ‘turn around’ was added. If the studio didn’t make my movie, it had the right to sit on the property until the End of Time or to sell it to a prospective buyer after adding onto the original purchase price all the expenses, including ‘overhead charges’, accrued developing the project – a magical piece of accounting jiggery-pokery that made any future exploitation of The Autograph Hound virtually impossible. They didn’t call the company ‘fox’ for nothing.

I liked Pollack. He had swag. He answered to the moniker ‘King P’ and looked the part of a Hollywood high-roller. (His big hit at the time was They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; he went on to make Tootsie and Out of Africa, for which he won an Academy Award.) He pulled up for our first session at Mabery Road in a red Ferrari, which he said Warner Brothers had just given him. He was dressed in blue jeans and a denim work shirt open to the third button. He was muscular, genial, unabashed. That first day, I recall, he was full of exhortations about art and entertainment and stories about his best friend, Robert Redford, who had starred in his latest film. His second home, he told me, was in Utah, near Redford’s. He got there by aeroplane, his own, of course, which he also piloted. ‘I’m confident we’re going to have something good,’ he said at the end of the week, by which time I was in his thrall. That’s the thing about confidence men: they give you confidence.

A couple of weeks later, walking along Malibu Beach, full of enthusiasm about our script and strategising how best to whip up studio excitement, Pollack said: ‘Maybe we should make the novel into a bestseller’. How you did that, he explained, was simply to buy up all the copies from the bookstores that reported to the New York Times. I asked what happened to the books. Pollack shrugged. ‘Warehoused, I guess. Or burned.’ Did I baulk? Show outrage? I’d like to say I did, but I didn’t. Luck, they say, is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And this was my big chance: a ‘creative deal’, a tight script, an A-list director, a green light on the horizon. Hollywood was all about the action: it turned everyone into a gambler. The most exciting thing was winning a bet; the second most exciting thing was losing it. The salmon in me was going upstream. I was high on hope, Hollywood’s special chemical element. It was agitating. It was exhausting. It was intoxicating.

On the day King P handed me our bound first draft, with only the novel’s title and the 20th Century Fox logo on the red cover, he gave me another piece of news. His deal was a ‘development deal’. Now that he had fulfilled his obligation, earning a cool $50,000 in the process, he was off to make The Yakuza, his Japanese crime syndicate saga. In my jejune mind, King P and I were a team, an artistic marriage of sorts. This being Hollywood, he turned out to be just sleeping around and getting paid for it. I and my ‘basic material’, as scripts were called at the studio, were passed to his friend, the director Mark Rydell, who was so smooth Gucci wore his shoes. (‘I love what you do’ were his first words.) There were more trips, more late-night calls from the producer, more huddles, more oleaginous words, more rewrites. On the basis of the Pollack draft the film had acquired two expensive stars: Alan Arkin and Goldie Hawn. This raised our ‘above the line costs’ and therefore economies were required. The studio decreed the story’s setting be changed from the claustrophobic hubbub of New York with its assault of ricocheting light and crazy-making imagery to airy Los Angeles with its billboards and sunlit empty streets. To the studio, the rewrite made economic sense; to the drama, it made none. The story lost its panic and propulsion. We wanted that green light; we bit the bullet.

I gave the Los Angeles version to our German set designer, Harry Horner, a man of intellect and taste with whom I’d become good friends over the intervening months. When he handed it back, Harry didn’t mince words. ‘It’s not as good,’ he said. In the manic studio juggernaut – availability dates, casting meetings, above and below the line costing, production schedules – the notion of good had somehow dropped out of the discussion. The only thing that mattered was getting the script made. That was the goal, the win, the point. And we did it. We got our green light! The green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock had nothing on the radiance and elation of ours. In my mind – I blush to recall – I was already working on an Oscar speech.

And then, a week or so later, Gordon Stulberg, the recently appointed CEO of 20th Century Fox, stuck his oar in. He felt the film had no foreign market sales. At a stroke, the new broom swept us away. We were old news. Toast. Losers. The producer and director moved on to their next projects. I went home and back to freelancing. I’d wasted the best part of my writing year waiting for a ‘Go’, which proved as hapless a vigil as waiting for Godot.

In​ 1944, after his success as the Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939) had yielded Dad only second banana roles, he sold his Coldwater Canyon house to Betty Grable and moved back East for good. On screen, with the camera’s naturalistic requirements, his gorgeous fuss came across as overwrought; his low comic energy could only be contained as an animal. ‘How many lion parts are there?’ he quipped when he left town. On Broadway, he was in his element. He had an audience; he could be himself.

Down the decades I’ve thought a lot about Dad’s choice. What he lost in Hollywood celebrity, he gained in Broadway longevity. He didn’t want to bide his time in California waiting for work; neither did I. Screenwriting took its own special skill, but it just wasn’t my skill set. In Hollywood, the writer had the illusion he was playing with house money, but the house almost always won. Hollywood boilerplate ensured the writer’s paydays but also his alienation. He was a cog in the wheel of production, a kind of literary piece worker who could be replaced at any time and his screenplay retooled. I wanted a body of work. I wanted the pleasure of broadcasting my own undiluted observations. In other words, I wanted to express myself. True, my audience and income as a freelance journalist could never compete with Hollywood numbers; but, whether an essay or a review or a book, the form and content of the final product would be incontrovertibly mine. Most Hollywood screenplays, as I’d learned to my cost, were essentially investment brochures, some kind of corporate agreement in which the writer’s voice and his vision were inevitably modified by business interests. To think you could beat the system was the triumph of hope over experience. After all, as Woody Allen once said about the industry, ‘if it wasn’t meant to be show business, they would’ve called it show show.’

King P, Harry Horner, Gordon Stulberg – all part of my Tinseltown fling, all dead now – return as ghostly presences in the door-stopping chronicle Hollywood: The Oral History. Based on more than three thousand cherry-picked transcripts, largely from the American Film Institute, the editors Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson have rearranged and zhuzhed up snippets of loose talk to tell the industry’s story – ostensibly in the words of people who helped to make it. Identified at the opening only by their job descriptions, the speakers float in and out of the wide-ranging gabfest in the context of no context. You can call this selective cut and paste job a ‘collage’; you can call it a ‘mosaic’; you can call it ‘découpage’; but you can’t call it ‘history’. It’s a fable made from facts, a work of non-friction.

To open this capacious volume is as disorienting as entering a noisy cocktail party where only a few people in the crowd are recognisable. Let’s begin by crashing the shop talk of the cluster of film pioneers – Allan Dwan, Lillian Gish, King Vidor, Hoot Gibson, Edith Head – who remember Hollywood as ‘a virtual wilderness’, when Sunset Boulevard was unpaved and pictures were called ‘galloping tintypes’. In those carefree early years, Hollywood was an Eden of enterprise: innocent, full of fun and goodwill. ‘There was no hierarchy,’ according to Dwan, a story editor turned director. ‘Here’s how you became a “corporation” back then: you sat down at a table and you got a lawyer and you applied for a corporation and suddenly you were a corporation.’

California’s first gold rush was in 1848; its second was Hollywood. Between 1910 and 1925, film industry grosses went from $10 million to $800 million. There were jobs and spondulix galore. Hollywood was where people went to get lucky. ‘Everyone jumped in or fell into it,’ Dwan recalled. For disappointed musicians, runaways, stuntmen, failed vaudevillians and stage actors, Hollywood was an open field on which to play. The film industry offered all comers a singular opportunity: the promise of a living and a new life. ‘I directed a picture when I was twenty,’ Lillian Gish said. ‘The opportunity was there for a woman if you wanted it.’ Edith Head cheated her way into her first studio job as a sketch artist by presenting a bogus portfolio donated by other people in her art class. ‘All I could draw was oceans,’ she recalled, adding: ‘It never occurred to me it was quite dishonest. And all the students thought it was fun too, just like a dare, to see if they could help me get the job.’

In Hollywood’s loosey-goosey beginnings, abundance lent the place a special atmosphere of frivolity, a capriciousness which extended even to its origin myth. Cecil B. DeMille, one of filmmaking’s Founding Fathers, recounted the saga of his California arrival to Charlton Heston, who is shoehorned into this Old Timers’ circle to tell the tale. DeMille, like so many East Coast film pioneers, went West in search of sunlight. Arizona was his destination. ‘When their train got to Flagstaff, it was pissing down rain,’ Heston said. ‘DeMille got off the train, looked around, and said “This isn’t the weather they promised us. Let’s get back on the train and keep going.”’ Heston went on: ‘If it hadn’t been raining in Flagstaff, “Hollywood” would now be “Flagstaff”.’

While the movie-makers were busy re-inventing themselves, they were also inventing an artform. ‘You learned to do what you had to do,’ the director Raoul Walsh said. ‘You made it work.’ With no budget to buy stories, directors just made them up; sometimes what began as a drama might end as a comedy, or vice versa. There was no dialogue to write or to remember. Actors were expected to ad lib. ‘You would actually have a script that said “Love Scene”,’ King Vidor recalled. ‘Just two words, and that was it.’ Nonetheless, silent films were noisy affairs. Music played under the actions; directors alternately barked orders over the dialogue or chattered to the camera crew. In those early days, film was shot at sixteen frames a second and projected at eighteen frames; there was a speedometer on the camera, especially important for comedies. Vidor remembered directors continually asking the cameraman: ‘What speed are we going?’ ‘Charlie Chaplin said to me once: “Nobody ever saw me run around, turn the corner as I actually do it, because those cameramen would drop down to half speed,”’ Vidor explained. ‘That slow cranking speeded him up double, made him faster. Everyone was constantly utilising different speeds on the camera to achieve a sense of “hurry up”.’

In this exercise in eavesdropping, some of the throwaway observations of the silent film folk are more entertaining than the big themes the editors are trying to tease out from the garrulous reminiscences. Working as a stuntman before he became a star of Westerns, Hoot Gibson recalls being paid $2.50 to fall off his horse in the morning as an Indian, and $5 to do the same thing in the afternoon as a cowboy. Although at first the players weren’t credited in the silent films, commercial demand inevitably meant the creation of ‘stars’ and publicity departments to magnify their aura, since, after all, stars had to shine. A large part of a star’s royal lustre was box office appeal: amperage which was honoured both off stage and on. When Pola Negri went from her dressing room to the set, the crew were required to stand to attention and in silence as she entered. Not to be outdone, according to Dwan, who directed both divas, Gloria Swanson had herself wheeled onto the set with another attendant holding an umbrella to shield her from the sun. ‘We’d have a little orchestra who’d play a little theme song just for her,’ Dwan said.

The upheaval of sound technology in the late 1920s brought new profits but also new problems. To Vidor, ‘it meant the end of movement, of pantomime’ in the movies. To the comedians sound brought a change of tempo. ‘It was difficult to keep the same kind of pace,’ according to Harold Lloyd, who chips in from nowhere. ‘They thought because you were making a sound picture you had to talk all the time. Verbal comedy was cheaper to do.’ On the studio floor, sound technicians suddenly dominated the process. The film camera, which rattled like a threshing machine, had to be encased in a padded glass booth that inhibited camera angles. And, as is well known, the technology put paid to many silent movie actors, including John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks, whose voices were too high for their heroic personas.

‘When talkies came in, the movies imported everybody from the theatre who knew anything at all about how to speak,’ George Cukor said. ‘It was like the parting of the Red Sea and they allowed a lot of people in.’ This expansion of personnel and technological innovation required a huge investment and major reorganisation of the business model into the much more hierarchical studio system. ‘They were going to turn movies out like sausages, and it turned out to be a very good idea: the assembly-line concept,’ Frank Capra said. ‘They weren’t our films then. They were called our “product”.’

Just as the geriatric jamboree of silent filmmakers starts to lose steam, Jeanine Basinger intrudes herself like an anxious hostess into the conversation and into ‘history’ by hustling the reader onto the next circle of prattling panjandrums gossiping about the major studios and their styles. Who better to lead off this hymn to corporate accomplishment than one of the darlings of the studio system, Katharine Hepburn, talking about MGM? ‘I thought it was like a marvellous school from which you never graduated,’ she said. ‘It was so comfortable.’

With its own police force, fire department, acting school, even its own dentist, MGM was like a little city, a citadel of business art churning out about sixty films a year. Here all the workers were on term contracts ensuring steady employment, steady incomes and for a long time steady growth. (Between 1931 and 1941, MGM’s gross of $93.2m represented three-quarters of the combined revenue of £128m of all eight studios.) ‘If you went to work for MGM nothing was impossible in your life,’ the composer Bronislau Kaper recalled. ‘Not just your working life, either. Anything you wanted.’ But the price of this security was personal freedom. ‘Toots, they owned you. You were a commodity,’ the screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart said, adding: ‘The first thing you had to learn was not to let them break your heart.’ Sometimes, the golden handcuffs pinched. ‘Those contracts allowed the studio to lay you off three months a year, without pay, and you couldn’t earn any money from any other form of employment because it was for exclusive personal services,’ according to Olivia de Havilland, who won an important legal victory for artistic freedom by challenging the accepted rule that studios had the right to suspend a contract player for rejecting a role.

At the top of this money tree was Louis B. Mayer. Forget about his antisemitism, his Red-baiting, his union busting, his temper tantrums which earned him the soubriquet ‘the monster of MGM’; among this collection of pros in this confected colloquium, Mayer is a mahatma of mass production. ‘He was a great man in his job,’ according to the producer Pandro Berman. Dore Schary, who was head of MGM production from 1948 to 1956, pushed the boat out even further. ‘Mayer had marvellous cocky guts, real chutzpah … A hundred stars, a hundred and ten writers, and a hundred directors or maybe fifty directors. Put ’em all under contract. You’re crazy to do that, but Mayer did it.’

Rising profits also meant the rise of the producer as the kingpin of the studio process to oversee budgets, schedules and scripts. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, Irving Thalberg is held up by all as the epitome of the creative producer, a man of taste and collaborative skill, whose model of excellence has long since vanished from the movie-making scene. ‘No profession of producer really exists today,’ Billy Wilder said. ‘Most producers make you feel that if only they weren’t quite so busy and not quite so involved in six enormous projects which are going to revolutionise the cinema, they could write your picture better. They could direct it better. They could possibly act in it. They could compose. They could photograph.’ Wilder went on: ‘The truth is that they can’t write it, they can’t direct it, they don’t know how to write a note of music. But today, if they can’t do anything, then they become the overseer of it all.’

Hollywood’s secret sauce has always been glamour, a word whose root is the Scottish for ‘grammar’. Almost all the energy of the studio workforce was focused on imposing this artificial order – a visual as well as narrative flawlessness – on its stars, who were the sugar to swat the fly of profit: ‘our insurance’, as the producer Hal Wallis called them. ‘The old star system kept the talent in front of the public, shaped a personality for them, created movie stories just for them, and kept their name and image there in the movie magazines and newspapers,’ Mervyn Leroy said. Some performers were born stars (Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand), some achieved stardom (Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe), some had stardom thrust upon them (Lana Turner, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck). ‘More stars than there are in heaven’ was MGM’s boast and, in a way, its accomplishment. At this particular stage-managed get-together, the conversation is at its most lively and extensive.

The book’s format as a kind of whispering gallery puts the reader in the role of snooper. Inevitably, this earwigging yields some rewarding deep-dishing: Mae West (‘When she’d get mad she would hum all the time, like a rattlesnake before it strikes’); Jerry Lewis (‘He did all the talking … The only thing that would stop Jerry Lewis was an elephant gun’); Margaret Dumont (‘She was absolutely bald. She wore a wig which Harpo used to steal’); Bette Davis on Errol Flynn (‘I just sat there and closed my eyes and pretended it was Olivier’). When listening in on all the cross-talk, whose dialogue and argument are themselves a glamorous rearrangement, it’s best to keep as close as possible to the astringent, clear-eyed Wilder. ‘I stay away from stars,’ he said, adding about Marilyn Monroe, whom he directed in Some Like It Hot: ‘My God, I think there are more books on Marilyn Monroe than on World War Two, and there’s a great similarity.’

By the late 1950s the first generation of buccaneering studio heads was dead; so was their slick business model, which for more than two decades allowed the studios to pick the pockets of the American public. In the Golden Era, the studios owned their movies, their talent and their processing labs and distributed all their product to movie theatres which they also owned. If that’s not a monopoly, then gallstones are jewellery. In 1948, the Supreme Court came to the same conclusion (the Paramount Consent Decrees). The studios were ordered to divest themselves of their theatres and to stop block-booking.

‘It’s a whole different game,’ Billy Wilder said. ‘The community that was Hollywood is gone. Now, if you want to make your picture, you write it at home. You rent some stages someplace, you shoot, and a week later, you walk out of it. It’s like going to the Ramada Inn.’ He continued: ‘You don’t live in the studio anymore. There’s nothing.’ Unionisation, blacklisting, censorship, rising costs all played a part in chipping away at studio hegemony. By the mid-1960s, the studio system had, to all extent and purposes, vanished. Risk-averse corporations swallowed up the failed studios and abdicated creative initiative to outside talent. ‘The business didn’t know what it was anymore,’ according to Michael Ovitz, the former chairman of the Creative Artists Agency, who became an industry powerhouse in this structural vacuum. ‘The studios were just banks.’

‘What we’ve lost is a habit, and having lost the habit, the habit is never really going to return,’ Gordon Stulberg said of moviegoing. In 1950, only 9 per cent of Americans owned television sets; by 1960, 90 per cent had them. The public no longer needed to pay to be entertained by the moving image; they could watch it for free in the comfort of their own home. Between 1960 and 1975 movie attendance plummeted from more than a billion a year to 580 million. Down the decades, the migration of the moving image has gone from the movie house to TV screen to computer screen to mobile phone. ‘Forget the big screen,’ the filmmaker Amy Heckerling said. ‘That’s dinosaur shit now.’

Out of this grumpy claque of bigwigs, Stulberg, who died in 2000, emerges like Hamlet’s father to call out both the overthrow of power and the murderer. ‘Little by little, we are wiring America,’ he said. ‘Between the installation of cable and the hitch-hiking of cable television … you’re going to find that the economics of this business is going to change in a fashion that was never anticipated.’ He went on: ‘The ability to milk a paying audience in the home has absolutely indescribable financial dimensions … it’s going to rend asunder the traditional forms of release as we know it.’

And,​ 23 years later, here we are: Hollywood’s business model has been turned on its head. The distributors have become the producers; algorithms, not star power, determine public taste. (As of 2022, 83 per cent of American and 58 per cent of British households had at least one streaming subscription, with the numbers steadily climbing during the Covid lockdowns.) The studios now mainly market blockbuster spectacles, which maximise profit margins at the expense of quality, turning ‘turds into Shinola’, as Stulberg politely put it. With the advent of larger TV screens and better sound systems, the moviegoing community has continued to shrink. ‘The release of a film is a trailer for the video sales,’ Robert Altman complained. This shift is as much a product of a terrorised culture’s anxiety as cost; the atomisation in the external world is reflected in our technology of enchantment, where on average citizens spend six or seven hours a day in front of screens, two and a half of them on social media.

Closing this gaseous book is rather like being the last to leave the party. You find yourself both overwhelmed by all the interesting people you’ve listened to and wondering what to make of it all. In the new equation of commercial filmmaking, the independent film – the expression of the personal idiosyncratic vision – seems to have been squeezed to the margins. Among the book’s penultimate words, in a chapter called ‘Monsters’, is a parting shot from one of the marginalised independent filmmakers, Alexander Payne. ‘Where can we see American experience realistically reflected on screen?’ he asked. It’s a fair question; the significant answer may be in the screen, not on it.

‘The movies somehow always survive’ are the book’s saccharine final words. But the power of the moving image has been co-opted by more sophisticated technologies with huge amnesiac potential. Nobody ever went broke selling Americans forgetfulness. The writing is already on the touchscreen display. TikTok, which nearly half of all Americans have signed up to, offers ‘infinite scrolling’, an addictive feature that allows the continual flow of its seconds-long videos, a loop of distraction. The spell doesn’t even need to be broken by the press of a finger. Society is in danger of being tickled to death. The damage is the digitised version of the Hollywood experience, which David Mamet once characterised as ‘like the beginning of a love affair: full of surprises and you’re constantly getting fucked.’

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