At the Party

Christopher Hitchens

  • Hollywood Babylon II by Kenneth Anger
    Arrow, 323 pp, £5.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 09 945110 7
  • Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan by Robin Wood
    Columbia, 336 pp, $25.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 231 05776 8

In the Forties and Fifties there used to be a series of Confidential books – Washington Confidential, New York Confidential and so on – turned out by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer. The fearless duo, shrouded in their macintoshes and trilbies, would bring the naive reader the straight dope from the lower depths. They practised the same combination of rough-hewn populism and right-wing politics as a Mickey Spillane thriller or a contemporary Reader’s Digest. And their technique was to dwell in a wet-lipped manner on all the subjects – interracial sex, narcotic indulgence, the doings of deviants – that they most affected to deplore. Tersely, not to say badly, written, these books found the same nerve of prurience and titillation that the Sun or the National Inquirer have since learned to exploit on a grand scale. And the same technique, of somehow being present at a wicked party while keeping your own morals intact, has served other breathless and heavy-breathing narrators very well since.

Kenneth Anger has been this kind of wallflower at the orgy for years. The dragon king of gorgeous Hollywood has him in thrall. His snappy chapter-headings (‘Closely Observed Blondes’, ‘Babylon Boozers’, ‘Hollywood Drugstore’) give a promise that is always kept. A sample from another chapter (‘The Magic of Self-Murder’) conveys the hectic vulgarity of his style:

Lupe Velez, the ‘Mexican Spitfire’, was one of Hollywood’s livest wires. She was born Maria Guadeloupe Velez de Villalobos south of the border, educated in a San Antonio convent, and broke into films in 1926. She made a great impression as the tempestuous leading lady in Doug Fairbanks’s The Gaucho. She livened up D.W. Griffith’s Lady of the Pavements considerably, all the while enjoying a well-rounded private life: after an affair with John Gilbert, she took up with young buck Gary Cooper ...

You can feel Nemesis coming on with every drop of a name. Sure enough:

Her bedroom was chock-a-block with gardenias and tuberoses; it glowed with the flicker of several dozen candles. In this shrine to her own death, La Lupe, gowned in silver lamé, pencilled a farewell note to the father of her fetus, opened a bottle of Seconal, and swallowed seventy five of the little buggers. She lay down on the bed, hands clasped in prayer, in what she envisioned as a final photo tableau of exquisite beauty. That photo was never to be taken. The Seconal did not go down well with her spicy Last Supper. She puked, leaving a trail of vomit from the bed to the bathroom, where she slipped on the tiles and plunged headfirst into the toilet.

This recalls the relish and pungency of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post (‘Headless Body in Topless Bar’) and also, in its early sentences, the ill-starred career of Juanita del Pablo in The Loved One. Anger doesn’t make the Waugh connection, but he’s by no means deaf to literary allusions as long as they serve his turn. I had no idea, until I read this book, that Big Bill Tilden, star of so many tennis-playing schlock movies, was the model for Ned Litam, Lolita’s tennis coach. Nabokov, who had divined the man’s passion for ball-boys, simply rendered ‘Ma Tilden’ backwards. Anger clinches the story with habitual callousness: ‘Big Bill’s sex life was in his fingers – his Mama’s hysterical hang-ups had made him impotent. When after years of furtive boy-love, the law’s thick fingers finally closed on him, the accusation by the Beverly Hills police was for “fondling”. What the officers had glimpsed through the window of Tilden’s parked car was a handjob administered to a willing kid.’

There’s a compulsive aspect to Anger’s book. One turns the pages with a kind of automatic avidity. Did I know about Margaret Sullavan (‘a very fucked-up lady’) before? Do I care that her best performance was in Frank Borzage’s Three Comrades? At any rate, it’s interesting to learn that her wretched biography, written by her daughter Brooke Hayward, was entitled Haywire – much like the heading under which Bob Woodward interred John Belushi.

I remember being given a tour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills by a screenwriter friend a few years ago. With unmistakable civic pride he pointed out the house on Cielo Drive where (putting an end to the Sixties for some people) the Sharon Tate murders took place. In Timothy Leary’s charming home – he’s married to the heavenly sister of one of Charley’s Angels – I had pointed out to me the patch on the carpet where Belushi threw up on the very night before he checked out. Certain bars and restaurants proved to be the favoured passing-out resort, or nose-candy emporium, for this or that star. At a time when the rest of America seems obsessed with fitness, diet, health and beauty, it’s a sort of relief to find an outpost of over-indulgence. Or it would be, if one didn’t get the impression that the natives think it’s expected of them. Kenneth Anger is only one of a host of glitz columnists and showbiz moralists whose simple, enduring tale is that ‘it’ (where ‘it’ is money, fame, Eros, beauty, success) doesn’t bring you happiness. This moral seems to need continual replenishment for Middle American readership; surely because it permits the depiction of vice and licence, and allows it in a context that reinforces ‘standards’.

Anger ends this book with an unoriginal diatribe against the Great Actor himself. He takes us over the usual jumps of Ronnie’s career, coming to the (I think) uncontroversial conclusion that the man is a credulous, menacing dolt with less charm than at first appears. I learned little from this chapter except that Bonzo the chimp died the day before the premiere that made his (and Reagan’s) names. Real buffs will be impressed to find that Myrna Loy recently denounced the President on Legends of the Screen, saying that ‘he’s destroying everything now I’ve lived my life for.’ And what was that, exactly?

Robin Wood’s book doesn’t live up to the very limited terms of its title, which must have been imposed upon it (since neither Reagan nor Vietnam appear even in the index) by a publisher worried about lack of market appeal. There could be no bolder contrast with Anger than Wood’s anguished Canadian, marxisant, gay reading of sexual politics in the cinema. Not for him the mere surface of things – handjobs, overdoses, Mama fixations. He evidently thinks that film is a very serious field of contestation, even though, as he unwittingly insists, it isn’t:

While this book is concerned with the analysis of films, I wish it nevertheless to be political, in a sense at once wide and precise. To be political is today the only way to avoid the trivial. The cogency of this should be obvious on various levels. For a start, we face the possibility of imminent extinction: the end of our civilisation, the end of the human race. In such a situation, to quibble over which film is better acted, better photographed, or more entertaining, which director is the more skilful technician, and whether a or b has the better special effects, seems trivial indeed, though the exercise – the distraction – is still practised all around us, and not just in the daily newspapers.

The fact that I agree with Wood about the nuclear threat, and probably about much else, makes me more rather than less irritated by this kind of prose. If it’s a ‘quibble’ to dispute the quality of acting or photography, then it’s a quibble to argue over the merits of Cimino and da Palma, as Wood does for page upon page. The habit of underlining ordinary words as a means of imparting a false sense of depth or urgency – he does it for construction, possibilities, feel, experience and used as well as political – is, I’ve found, an infallibly bad sign. So is the facile resort to Barthes. Wood’s prolixity makes him difficult to quote with ease, so I can’t apologise for the length of this next stave:

Barthes’s concept of ‘myth’ can be defined by means of the famous example he offers. In a barber’s shop, at the time of the Algerian uprisings and attempted suppressions, he picked up a copy of Paris-Match; on the cover a black soldier, in uniform, was looking up, presumably at the French flag, and giving the salute. A simple image conveying, on the surface, a simple statement: here is a black soldier saluting the flag. But beyond the simple statement (the level of denotation), this simple signifier carries a wealth of surreptitious meaning (the level of connotation): the blacks are proud to serve the mother country, France; they are dignified and ennobled, and their lives are given meaning, by this service; imperialism is justified, indeed admirable, as it brings order, civilisation and discipline (embodied in the uniform) to the lives of the subject races (‘natives’ being by definition lax, unruly and childlike). In other words, the simple, seemingly innocent and ‘real’ image (black soldiers do, after all, salute the flag of the country they serve) insidiously communicates at unconscious levels a political (here deeply reactionary) statement.

Those ‘levels’ again. One sees, despite the chaotic punctuation, what is meant. One also sees what Sherlock Holmes meant in his equally famous first words to Dr Watson (‘I perceive that you have lately been in Afghanistan’). But whereas Holmes was deductive, and Barthes inductive, Wood is merely intuitive. If the photograph can bear that weight of interpretation – even the French flag is ‘presumed’ – then the image could equally well be an irony, a valediction, a challenge or even a joke.

Wood takes it as a licence to ‘read’ practically anything into a motion picture, and to read in a very imperious manner. How’s this for a point about Martin Scorsese and the absence of family life in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver? ‘The only family in Taxi Driver is Iris’s (strictly off-screen and marginal); neither Jimmy Doyle nor Francine Evans appear to have any parents; Jake LaMotta’s are mentioned but never seen, and are allowed no explicit influence on the film’s events. It is as if Scorsese felt compelled to resist and repress any confrontation with the ways in which the individual is constructed within and by the family.’ It is also ‘as if’ Scorsese knew damn well that the customers weren’t interested in Jake LaMotta’s folks. For someone so keen on studying the operations of capitalism, and for someone so committed to the horror-film genre, Wood is ethereally indifferent (perhaps because of his fixation with the auteur) to the remorseless calculations of the box-office. Anything that obstructs his critique of the family is secondary. For him, horror and family, especially the ‘patriarchal’ family, are synonymous. He employs King of Comedy, of all movies, as a peg for his post-Freudian programme. This is that ‘men and women can achieve equality, if women, and some men, are willing to fight hard enough for it, and “the phallus” can become quite simply the penis, all its metaphorical extensions stripped away, hopefully by mutual agreement.’ The agenda seems intriguing; at once too ambitious and too modest. Where it fits in with King of Comedy is more than I can say.

The treatment of sex-roles and cross-dressing is the only overlap between these two books. Anger’s brusque, philistine attitude, which allows him to exhibit a large number of full-frontal nudes while seeming to disparage the way Hollywood ‘uses’ women, is nicely offset by Wood’s outrage at the way the very lens ‘appropriates’ and ‘mediates’ the female. In their different ways, then, both efforts represent an oblique compliment to the greatest single adjustment in American life and mores – the women’s liberation movement. But it takes a deal of deciphering, from howling journalese in one instance and tiresome encodings in the other, to reach this simple conclusion.