Why Movie Stars Don’t Live in Hollywood Anymore

May 28, 2009 § 1 Comment

A century ago, when Hollywood was still a city in its own right ( it would be annexed to Los Angeles in 1910), it was also becoming the center of the movie industry, which was leaving downtown Los Angeles in search of greater space. By the time Cecil B. DeMille, Thomas Ince and Jesse Lasky began making films in Hollywood’s new studios, they were living here as well, on estates that appeared plucked from England, France and Italy.

Norma Talmage and Jesse Lasky's Hollywood Homes. Courtesy Tommy Dangcil, "Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards"

Norma Talmage's and Jesse Lasky's Hollywood Homes. Courtesy Tommy Dangcil, "Hollywood 1900-1950 in Vintage Postcards"

Actors followed, building grand houses on Hollywood Boulevard and northward. S. I. Hayakawa, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jackie Coogan, Janet Gaynor and Norma Talmadge all called Hollywood their home as well as workplace. (Most of their houses have been torn down, though a few remain on the residential stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that runs between Highland and Fairfax Avenues.)  Hollywood’s deluxe residential period occurred during the teens, but the area’s concurrent transformation from leafy hamlet to congested industrial city scotched any further development as a star-studded bedroom community. In the face of urbanization, the Silent Era superstars wanted to live elsewhere. But where?

It’s easy to forget that actors in those days bore more differences than similarities to their present-day counterparts, who come from every conceivable background. In the Silent Era, most actors were poor, uneducated men and women whose previous performing experience, if any, stopped at vaudeville. Without  the medium of film, they would have worked not as stage actors but as factory hands and maids.

In moving out of the Hollywood ghetto, “movies,” as industry folk were called, were forced to confront an unpleasant social reality. Both because of their lower class origins and employment in what was considered a louche medium, actors were shunned by their economic peers: the railway, newspaper, land and oil barons that made up the elite of Los Angeles.

This social drama was played out most vividly in the leafy residential district of Hancock Park, where such luminaries as Harold Lloyd, John Garfield and Mary Pickford bought mansions alongside those owned by the Chandlers, Van Nuyses and Gettys. Finding themselves perpetually uninvited to their neighbors’ parties, the stars soon departed for greener (and less judgmental) pastures. By the mid-1920s, they had established themselves as the aristocracy of a luxurious planned community five miles west: Beverly Hills. (Harold Lloyd, who invested heavily in real estate there, became so wealthy that he was able to retire from acting at an early age.)

In recent decades, movie stars have headed as far west as possible to live in Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades and Malibu. At the same time, some have headed back east, establishing  beachheads in the Hollywood Hills and Los Feliz. Some have even settled in Hancock Park, after 70 years of avoidance. The renaissance of this actors’ no-go zone can be credited to John Malkovich, who in the early 1990s bought and restored a decrepit Italianate house in Windsor Square. The fact that he tranformed it into a Moroccan villa brought consternation from his neighbors–some things never change–but not ostracism. Perhaps sensing the newly liberal mood, other actors–Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Kiefer Sutherland, Patricia Heaton and Kathy Bates, to name a few–bought houses and apparently found domestic satisfaction there. Nowadays the Hancock Park–which as recently as the mid-90s resembled a West Coast Greenwich, CT–is described in national magazines as “toney” and “trendy,” designations unheard of in the high WASP era. Where a dilapidated fixer once occupied every block, the houses have been beautifully and expensively restored–all except, ironically, Harold Llyod’s. But that’s another story.

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