LURID: True Hollywood Stories
Hollywood loves silvery stories about itself, carefully scripted rags-to-riches sagas about the birth of stars, or fables about the triumph of artists over accountants. These stories provide a steady supply of the fresh meat the industry needs, enticing innocents out of the beanfields and boondocks and onto a Los Angeles bound bus.The newcomers are only vaguely aware that while a celebrated few might swim, most will sink without trace. And drowning is never easy. The non-swimmers, resisting fate, might bob up and down for weeks, months, even years until the false hope, fading beauty, debilitating addiction, and sexual abuse overwhelm them and they’re finally dragged under by the dead weight of their broken dreams.
There's an appetite for their stories too. As a feature, not a flaw, many of these cautionary tales are told by the drowned themselves — screenwriters bitter because their blinding literary talent remains unsung, unrewarded, while sycophantic hacks snag all the plum gigs. They waste their best years beating at the studio gates before admitting defeat, whereupon they pen a poisoned but passionate treatise to the industry that spurned them. Only then are they are free to die penniless, long before the movie version of their novel hits the multiplexes and makes other people wads of cash. Because Hollywood also loves sex, violence, addiction, and abuse. Such deviance is built into this town's DNA, and has been from the beginning.
One of the first disgruntled writers to write about the dark side of Tinseltown was Edgar Rice Burroughs. He'd had a close up view of the ugliness inherent in the industry when his epic adventure Tarzan of the Apes was adapted into a movie in 1918. Although it was the first film in history to make over a million dollars at the box office, Rice Burroughs was unimpressed by what he felt was a crude rendition of his hero. He retired to his 550-acre ranch just outside Los Angeles called Tarzana (yes, that Tarzana) to vent his grievances into the pages of one of his few contemporary novels, The Girl From Hollywood.
Published in serial form in 1922, The Girl From Hollywood weaves some of the more salacious aspects of the artist colony into fiction. As in his other work, Rice Burroughs navigates by a fixed moral compass. A square-jawed hero battle demons both internal and external to save the beautiful woman he loves from ruin at the hands of desperadoes. Although most of the action (which revolves around smuggling Prohibition booze and drugs) takes place on a ranch very much based on Tarzana, the dirtiest deeds are done behind the pink stucco walls of Hollywood bungalows and on studio lots.
Rice Burroughs pulls no punches when it comes to describing the corrupt and venial movie industry of the era. From salty comments about the treatment of bestselling writers on set (“I’m going to have trouble with that boob author, though”) to pity for stuntmen (“poor devils who risked their lives for five dollars a day”), his writing sternly resists the dazzle of the new incandescent studio lights.
His female characters aren’t so fortunate. Shannon Burke and Grace Evans are actresses, transcribing similar — and all too familiar —arcs. They both start out with honorable intentions. Shannon arrives in Hollywood from “a little town in the Midwest.”
She was fired by high purpose then. Her child’s heart burning with lofty ambition, had set its desire upon a noble goal. The broken bodies of a thousand other children dotted the road to the same goal, but she did not see them, or seeing, did not understand.
She’s drawn by the same force as Grace, who tells her fiancé Custer:
I have always felt that the stage was one of the greatest powers for good in all the world, and now I believe that some day the screen will be an even greater power for good.
Both Shannon and Grace are unlucky. Barely a decade into Hollywood movie-making, the lines between predator and prey have been clearly drawn and they're on the side of the songbirds. Early into her Hollywood career, Shannon is asked “for dinner and dancing” by a married director. She refuses, and another wannabe steps up:
The following day, the girl who had accompanied him was cast for a a part which had been promised to [Shannon] and for which [Shannon] was peculiarly suited.
Lesson learned. She subsequently meets director Wilson Crumb, who is just successful enough to be dangerous for the idealistic ingenues who draw his eye. Crumb's job title gives him complete power over beautiful young women: he can make their literal dreams come true. Their ambition — and the system— protects him from the consequences of his actions. What’s a red-blooded guy gonna do?
Rice Burroughs frames Crumb as an “evil adept.” Initially, he poses as “a gentleman whom she could trust implicitly,” a fellow artist whose encouragement means “once again her ambition lifted its drooping head.” He parcels out just enough in the way of bit acting parts that she becomes dependent on him for an income, without attracting the attention of anyone else.
Once she has “realized that she owed to him what little success she had achieved” he introduces a new element to their relationship, “a white powder, the minute crystals of which glistened beneath the light from the electric bulbs.” Initially, he tells her it’s aspirin, a quick pick-me-up available across the counter in any drugstore in the world. Soon she’s snuffing “five or six times a day.” Only when she’s hooked does he tell her “You little fool, you!... It’s cocaine.”
Addicted and fully in thrall to her abuser, Shannon has no choice but to spend her days in his bungalow, earning her fix by selling bindles of cocaine, morphine and heroin to her fellow unfortunates, her acting career on permanent hold. She eventually manages to escape, but Grace is next in line to take her place. Even more nefariously, Crumb snares his desperate victim with the line:
"I’m afraid I can’t use you,” he said; “unless"—he hesitated—“unless you would care to work in the semi-nude, which would necessitate making a test—in the nude”.
Of course Grace acquiesces. What choice does she really have if she wants to be a star? But her downfall is instantaneous. "As she went, she left behind all her self-respect and part of her natural modesty.”
The Girl From Hollywood is by turns a rollicking and a sobering read. On one level, the novel functions as a harsh cautionary tale for young Midwestern women tempted by Hollywood, partly because they have few other paths to fortune. Although his words are steeped in patriarchal values, Rice Burroughs uses his personal experience to urge wannabes to forget the stylized images in magazines like Photoplay or Screenland and think carefully about the sordid reality of trying to make their way in as a woman in an industry where your value is solely assessed by looks-and-youth-obsessed men. It's more than easy to drown.
Exactly a century later, the players have changed but the game remains the same in Winnie M. Li’s new novel, Complicit (published June 2022) which functions as both warning and gossipy good read. Her heroine, Sarah Lai, works in feature film development, sharing the same lofty intentions regarding movies and making a difference in the world as Shannon and Grace. From a very young age, she recalls being entranced by the “Technicolor dream, shimmering beyond the black-and-white threshold of my drab home... the impossible beings in an impossible realm... This world would always be more fascinating than my own mundane existence.”
Hooked, she defies her immigrant parents (who would prefer her to be an accountant like her sister) and carves a career in film production in New York, step by drudging, underpaid step. It’s the mid-2000s, so Sarah isn’t initially exploited for her looks, more her ambition, her willingness to perform shitty office tasks, to read endless scripts, to stay late in the office. She gets ahead by being dutiful, biddable, willing to put her own life on hold to meet the demands of her bosses. Compliance is a job prerequisite — not an issue for Sarah, all too familiar with submitting to her parents’ need for her to work in their family restaurant evenings and weekends.
Just as Wilson Crumb tightens the net around Shannon with bit parts that ‘might lead to something bigger,’ Sarah is initially seduced by her boss, Sylvia’s promises of more money and more credit “next time.” Sarah toils away, taking the strain, for years, supporting the career of both Sylvia and her wunderkind director, Xander. When Xander’s first movie wows at the Cannes Film Festival, it attracts the attention of billionaire real estate mogul, Hugo North, who fancies trying his hand at being a movie producer. He offers major investment in Sylvia’s company, eye-popping cash that will make all their dreams come true. Of course, she accepts.
Hugo, like many a ‘billionaire’ real estate mogul before him, is fond of the company of young, beautiful women. His new ‘movie producer’ job title gives him open access to swathes of nubile actresses and models, and he makes merry. An “evil adept” like Crumb, he’s more interested in the power he can wield over others than making art. His decadent hotel suite parties are less about networking, more about indulging his current favorites, and reminding others of the cost of falling out of his favor. Sarah is fully aware of the dynamic, but goes along with the vibe — the same one experienced by Shannon and Grace.
It’s the film industry. You don’t get anywhere without being social. If a powerful man offers you a drink at the bar, why would you say no? It would seem rude. And if this powerful man flirts with you... What is there to lose by flirting back a little? The odds are so stacked against you as an aspiring actor in this business, you use every trick in your arsenal to get what you want, to get cast.
Also like Crumb, Hugo understands that introducing cocaine into the equation alters the power balance in subtle but significant ways. Although Sarah is way too smart to get addicted — she knows the white powder isn’t aspirin! – her occasional consumption increases the hold her new boss has over her.
When everyone moves to Los Angeles to shoot Xander’s second movie, Hugo usurps Sylvia and his power plays get free rein. Sarah, albeit much less helpless than Rice Burroughs’ distressed damsels, still finds herself trapped in his schemes, forced to compromise her moral values and to throw others under the bus to save herself. Despite her education, her job title, and her worldliness, all of which should protect her, her ambition, her laughably pure desire to make movies drags her under while Hugo just... carries on. As in Rice Burroughs’ yarn a century earlier, the system supports the predator.
And yet... As a movie industry survivor herself, Li frames her narrative as part of the long-overdue reckoning of #MeToo. Years after the abuse that destroys her career and taints her love of the movies, Sarah has the opportunity to tell her story to a journalist. Li spices Sarah’s account with insider details on the mundane workings of the movie industry, a business involving computers, contracts, and coffee runs, like any other. As she unburdens herself of these painful truths, she dissects her own guilt and regret. She’s no longer dazzled by the incandescence and can see the role she played more clearly: how Hugo uses her dreams and insecurities both against her and as a tool to hurt others. She’s a young Asian woman and in his eyes that makes her:
...sexual meat for the desires of someone else. Everything that comprises you as an individual—your intelligence, your talent, your education, your years of experience, or an entire lifetime spent idolizing movies—all that is obliterated the moment you are unwillingly pushed up against a wall, grabbed, manhandled, or worse. It is a simple elimination of yourself as an actual person, with anything worthwhile to say... look at how we’re portrayed on-screen, our bodies on display, our ages slashed, our roles diminished. Maybe it’s no surprise, the image and the reality.
On the lower rungs of the Hollywood ladder, Sarah has the same power as women a century before her, the power only to say yes or no in a given moment, knowing that there are negative consequences either way. Only with hindsight can she truly understand what happened: when would a different choice have led to a different outcome? When would it have made no difference at tall?
Perhaps another century from now Hollywood will have cleaned up its act and treat both men and women with respect? No more prey and predators, just players. Complicit, The Girl From Hollywood, and other Tinseltown tragedies like The Day of The Locust and Valley of The Dolls will seem like dispatches from another planet. Until then, keep an eye out for the next Hollywood reject who turns their personal spotlight away from their stack of unproduced screenplays and onto a vicious roman à clef.
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