Mr. Blackwell Was My Neighbor

January 31, 2015 § 2 Comments

Mr. Blackwell

Mr. Blackwell

Kim Basinger in 1990

Kim Basinger in 1990

Grace Kelly in 1955 and Kim Basinger in 1998

Grace Kelly in 1955 and Kim Basinger in 1998

Many people have an Oscar fantasy, whether or not they have any connection to filmmaking. Most of these involve making a great speech that simultaneously expresses gratitude toward the deserving and snarkiness to the naysayers. But my Oscar fantasy concerns fashion: on the obligatory march down the red carpet, I respond to questions about my outfit and jewelry with, “They’re my own.” (Wait a minute!, you say. Writers and directors don’t wear borrowed gowns and jewels! Oh yes they do, even documentarians.)

If you’ve ever seen old newsreel footage of the Academy Awards from the days when ceremonies were held at the Roosevelt or Pantages, you’ll notice that all the actresses look gorgeous in their gowns and jewels. That’s because a) dressing well was a requirement of their contracts, and b) they’re wearing their own dresses. Even if they were lucky enough to have Edith Head or Adrian design something special for the event, actresses’ clothes were created for them, not six-foot models in Vogue.

This went until the 1960s, when the demise of the studio system coincided with a seismic shift in fashion. Suddenly it was hard to know what formal dress was anymore: long? short? pantsuit? (I’m leaving actors out of this discussion because black tie is pretty straightforward, variations in color and lapel size notwithstanding.) It was fashion chaos, and what ensued was a two-decade period where actresses came to the Academy Awards wearing everything under the sun, with memorable results. Leaving aside Cher and Bjork–because musicians tend toward outré fashion, no matter what the year–I particularly recall Kim Basinger’s 1990 white crinolined ball gown, which was strapless on one side and long-sleeved on the other. She designed it herself, and it made her look like a demented Cinderella. But it also added fun to the three-hour Oscar telecast.

This period of home-designed disasters might have gone on longer if not for the increasing power of Mr. Blackwell, a former fashion designer who found fame and fortune with his Worst Dressed List. Annually he would make the TV news with his round-up of the chief offenders of fashion, mostly actresses, though singers like Cher, Madonna and Britney Spears appeared regularly. It was a big deal. On the second Tuesday of each January, reporters from all the networks would gather at his house for live broadcasts about The List, which was widely discussed.

For sixteen years, I was Mr. Blackwell’s neighbor, living around the corner from his Italianate house on Irving Avenue. (His house happened to be down the block from the old Harold Lloyd house, which I wrote about in this post https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/harold-lloyd-lived-here/) My street had houses on one side, and with only a tall hedge dividing his back yard from my street I could hear the Worst Dressed media circus. Because I had a dog that I walked around the block least twice a day, I soon struck up a superficial acquaintance with Mr. Blackwell and his longtime companion. Whenever I saw them in their front courtyard, we would say hello.

Years passed. My dog died and I got another. My son grew up. By the early 2000s, I saw Mr. Blackwell less often, and then not at all. Then in 2005 I moved–only 4 1/2 miles away, but it might as well have been to a different city. I didn’t think about Mr. Blackwell until I saw his obituary in 2008, after which I forgot about him again. Then last week Jason Sheeler published an article about Mr. Blackwell inEntertainment Weekly, and the memories came rushing back.

It’s not online, but “Mr. Blackwell: The Original Red Carpet Bitch” (EW, Jan. 30-Feb-4 2015) does a good job of summing up the life and work of Richard Selzer, a.k.a., Mr. Blackwell. There was much for me to learn: his real name, for one thing, and the fact that he was from Brooklyn and first worked as a hustler on Central Park West. From there he came to Hollywood, where he was an unsuccessful actor and a somewhat more successful agent and fashion designer. The Worst Dressed List grew out of a column he started writing in 1960 for American Weekly magazine. Originally it included the Best Dressed, but no one cared about fashion successes: everyone just wanted the failures. By 1964, he was famous, and would be for the next forty years.

According to the article, toward the end of his life, Mr. Blackwell became obsessed with his legacy, and for good reason. By the time he died in 2008, the red carpet had been transformed from an amusing hit-or-miss collection of party clothes to a serious business. Kim Basinger exemplifies the change: eight years after her fashion fiasco, she won Best Supporting Actress in a celadon satin gown by Escada that received universal praise. (It had to, since it was copied from Edith Head’s stunning draped gown for Grace Kelly when she won Best Actress for “The Country Girl” in 1955.) Playing It Safe was the new rule of red carpet fashion, and still is. For the past twenty years, few, if any, actresses have worn their own clothes and jewelry to the Oscars, and a large industry has grown up around the stylists who dress them in borrowed finery.

Though there are few fashion disasters on today’s red carpets, there is also less fun and no surprise. No one wants to be laughed at, whether by Mr. Blackwell, Joan and Melissa Rivers, US Magazine or EW itself, and anything truly original would be an open invitation to ridicule. In the end Mr. Blackwell’s Worst Dressed List spawned cookie cutter gowns in safe colors, borrowed jewels from Cartier, Tiffany and Harry Winston, and an overall blandness. What a shame he isn’t around to see it.

Meet the Director: Yesterday’s Foreign Film Symposium at the American Cinematheque

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Ronit Elkabetz, co-director of "Gett," and Ruben Ostend, director of "Force Majeure" at the American Cinematheque 1/10/15/Hope Anderson Productions

Ronit Elkabetz, co-director of “Gett,” and Ruben Ostend, director of “Force Majeure” at the American Cinematheque 1/10/15/Hope Anderson Productions

Because my days are mostly spent sitting in front of a computer, playing Words With Friends, going to the gym and running errands, I sometimes think Los Angeles is wasted on me, since all those things could be done as well (and in the case of errands, more easily) elsewhere. Then I remember what keeps me here: films. It’s not just the variety and number of movies that come out each week; it’s the fact that many of them will never run anywhere else in the United States but here and New York. Sure, most will eventually turn up on DVD or online, but by then they’ll be competing with a flood of new releases, both theatrical and online. With greater numbers of films released each year, keeping up is nearly impossible.

But in Los Angeles I can see a great new film from Poland or Estonia as soon as it arrives, and on a big screen. It’s something that I’ve never taken for granted, any more than I take for granted the state-of-the-art sound systems and screens at ArcLight Hollywood, my neighborhood theater. In other cities, even ones that pride themselves on their cultural offerings, the situation is quite different: the Bay Area, where I used to live, gets big studio releases one or two weeks later than Los Angeles, the same as most cities across the country, while independent and foreign ones films open even later, if at all.

There are other perks to being here, too. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about “Force Majeure,” Sweden’s entry for Best Foreign Film.
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/force-majeure-everything-wild-isnt-and-more/ Yesterday, at the American Cinematheque’s pre-symposium reception for the Golden Globe nominees, I was able to introduce myself to Ruben Ostlund, the director, and tell him how much I loved his film. Although he was gracious, it probably meant nothing to him. But to me it was a vivid reminder of why, twenty-five years after moving to Los Angeles, I’m still here.

The Newly Announced Peg Entwistle Biopic

October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Still from "Peg Entwistle's Last Walk"/Copyright 2007 and 2014, Hope Anderson Productions

Still from “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk”/Copyright 2007 and 2014, Hope Anderson Productions

I was in New York a couple of weeks ago when two friends emailed within an hour of each other to tell me that a feature film on the actress Peg Entwistle had been announced in the trades. Tony Kaye (“American History X”) is slated to write and direct the film, and producer Arthur Sarkissian promises the result will be “in the vein of…Vertigo and…Seven.” http://deadline.com/2014/09/actress-death-hollywood-sign-movie-jumped-off-h-peg-entwistle-836778/

When I started researching Peg Entwistle’s life for my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign in 2006, the accurate public record of her life was tiny, consisting of three or four photos, her nationality at birth (English) and her suicide from the Hollywoodland Sign in 1932. The amount of erroneous information, however, was enormous. It included her career (she was not a wannabe starlet but a successful and accomplished Broadway actress); her background (she was brought up not in England but as a naturalized American in New York and Hollywood); her motivations for suicide (which were not as much professional as existential). Among the falsehoods was the assumption that Peg’s choice of the Hollywoodland Sign was a message to the film industry. It’s a great bit of symbolism, except that the Sign was nothing more than a billboard for the Hollywoodland tract at the time. Because I knew the history of the Sign and live along the route she took, it was obvious that Peg chose the Sign for two simple reasons: it was high enough to do the job and in 1932 so isolated that no one was likely to stop her. As I progressed in my research, the misinformation kept coming. Even the date on her death certificate was wrong–it appears as September 18th, the date her body was discovered. But because Peg went to the Sign on the evening of September 16th and could not have survived her fall for long, the date of her death was clearly September 16th.

Many of the lies about Peg came straight from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon , whose chapter on her tragic end was accepted as fact until I set about correcting it. I identified the book’s half-nude portrait of Peg as a fake, which should have been obvious since the only feature the model shared with Peg was her platinum blond bob, a ubiquitous hairstyle in Hollywood at the time. Yet everyone, including her family, had taken Anger’s word for it.

As a way of telling Peg’s story, I made a short feature film about her fateful climb to the Sign called Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk, incorporating the footage into my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign. After I put the short on YouTube in 2007, it caught the attention of tens of thousands of viewers, including James Zeruk, Jr., who was researching her life for a book. James helped me to find Peg’s family, who generously made available a trove of playbills, photographs and documents about her life. Most importantly, I was able to interview Peg’s half-brother, Milt Entwistle, then 92 and the only living person with direct memory of her.

Under the Hollywood Signwas released in 2009. Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk remained on YouTube until this year, when I pulled it off to release it on DVD and Vimeo, along with her biography, as Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of An Actress. http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361

Last year I published an ebook consisting of Entwistle family photos, the script of the biographical documentary and the production diary of Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk. http://www.amazon.com/Peg-Entwistle-The-Hollywood-Sign-ebook/dp/B00FSOGCV4
Zeruk’s book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide was also published last year.

Biopics can’t be entirely invented, and I can’t imagine whose work Tony Kaye will draw on for his script if not mine and James Zeruk’s. Because alternative secondary sources don’t exist and many of the primary sources can only be found in the Entwistle family’s archive, I await Kaye’s film, assuming it gets made, with considerable interest.

Art and Posterity in New York: Part II

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in "Sex With Strangers"

Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen in “Sex With Strangers”


"Split-Rocker" by Jeff Koons/Hope Anderson Productions

“Split-Rocker” by Jeff Koons/Hope Anderson Productions

Last week, between seeing the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney and visiting Koons’ monumental “Split-Rocker” topiary sculpture at Rockefeller Center, I attended a performance of “Sex With Strangers” at the Second Stage Theater. Written by Laura Eason and starring Anna Gunn and Billy Magnussen, the play explores art, media and success, both the old-fashioned and new, Internet-oriented kind. The title is taken from a fantastically successful blog (and subsequent best-selling books) whose author, a hyperactive young writer and roue named Ethan Strange (nee Kane), arrives at a rural writer’s retreat during a snowstorm. There he barges in on the only other resident, a talented but obscure writer named Olivia Lago, who is putting the finishing touches on her second novel.

Olivia’s first novel was badly marketed as chick lit and sold poorly, but it attracted its share of fans, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning author named Ahmet, a friend of both Olivia’s and Ethan’s. Olivia soon learns that Ethan’s reason for coming to the retreat is not his own looming deadline for a screenplay but meeting her, the author of the novel he loves. In short order, Ethan convinces Olivia to reissue it under a pseudonym and as an e-book, about which he creates an instant buzz via Twitter. He then sets about selling her new novel by providing an introduction to his literary agent. Ethan also quickly embarks on an affair with Olivia, who despite qualms about him and his past (both sexual and literary) is bowled over by his powers (both sexual and literary).

Who could blame her? Ethan is an immature jerk but a Jedi Master of the Internet. He knows how to get his work in the hands of readers, since his half-million Twitter followers hang on his every word. Applying his special brand of salesmanship to Olivia’s literary novel, Ethan launches a spectacular new career that is not only beyond her abilities but her imagination. Before Ethan, Olivia is like Emily Dickinson, destined (in the best-case scenario) for posthumous fame; after Ethan, she’s like Jonathan Franzen, widely read and financially successful but still literary.

Having gone to “Sex With Strangers” mainly to see Anna Gunn, I had deliberately avoided learning the plot beforehand and was more than a little disturbed by the parallels to my own life. I’m finishing a novel that I have little idea of how to sell, though so far no Ethan Strange has to come to my rescue. As the play makes clear, the old publishing model is dead: ebooks and marketing via social media are the new reality. Then there’s the Janus-faced Internet, which makes it possible for me to find historical materials for my documentaries, publicize them and (lately) sell and rent them to viewers. Yet it also cheapens my ebooks and documentaries, just as it has devalued music. Now that art is “content,” the perception is that it should be free. The sole difference between the real online world versus that of “Sex With Strangers” is that in reality, no one wants to pay for anything.

During intermission, I struck up a conversation about these topics with my seat mate, who told me he was a painter. When I asked what kind, he said, “Fine art. I work for Jeff Koons.” What a coincidence! I confessed that the Whitney retrospective had left me liking Koons’ art less rather than more, and asked what he thought of it. “I’m not a fan,” he said flatly. Though he praised Koons as an employer and a man and said that he enjoyed the camaraderie of working in the studio, he agreed that having assistants do all the sculpting and painting was unprecedented. When I compared Koons to Willie Wonka–“He has a chocolate factory but he’s not making the chocolate”–he offered, “Some people say he’s a charlatan.” He then showed me photos of his own paintings, which were technically and artistically superior to anything in the Koons oeuvre, and so different that I could hardly imagine the same artist creating both.

Seeing “Split-Rocker” in Rockefeller Plaza the next day, I felt some of my old delight in Jeff Koons’ work. But the parallels between him and Ethan Strange, and between me, my seat mate and Olivia, gnawed at me. Perhaps the real test of art comes after the artist’s death, when the Emily Dickinsons of the world rise up to reign supreme. But in the earthly realm, artists have to eat.

Related article:https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/art-and-posterity-in-new-york-part-i/

Art and Posterity in New York: Part I

August 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

"Play-Doh" by Jeff Koons/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

“Play-Doh” by Jeff Koons/All photos Hope Anderson Productions


"Split-Rocker" by Jeff Koons

“Split-Rocker” by Jeff Koons

I’ve been spending a lot of time in New York lately, which has been a welcome change from my usual summers in Los Angeles. My last trip in June was very theater-centric: four plays in seven days. This time, my visit was devoted to visual art: two days at MOMA, one at the Whitney and one at Dia Beacon, in the Hudson River Valley.

My first stop was the Whitney’s huge Jeff Koons retrospective, a mid-career exhibition that took up four floors and the sculpture garden. I went in hopes of overcoming my love-hate reaction to Koons’ work, but emerged hours later feeling lukewarm to cold about all of it. Nevertheless, seeing the sculptures and paintings at close range increased my admiration for their meticulous craftmanship: it’s obvious that a great deal of skilled labor went into each one. My negative reaction was aimed at the conceptual level–significant because concept is all that Koons does at this point. Regardless of medium, all his works are created not by him but by a team of artists, who (along with support staff) currently number 140.

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For years I’ve delighted in the balloon dogs and suspended basketballs of Koons’ early career, as well as the giant topiaries (“Puppy,” “Split-Rocker”) of the past twelve years. But at the Whitney, in rooms of lighted vitrines full of vacuum cleaners, sculpted blow-up toys, giant Play-Doh sculpture and large format photo paintings, the charm of Koons’ work faded. “Play-Doh,” a monumental and life-sized colored rendering that took a decade to make because of technological difficulties, was a particularly vivid example. Standing before it, my only thought was why? Similarly, his porcelain sculptures–such as “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”–were both technical marvels and conceptual blanks. Looking at them, I could glean no greater meaning than what appeared on their shiny surfaces.

The permanent collection acted as a palate cleanser for the Koons exhibit. I found solace in a room full of Agnes Martins (“The Islands”) and a wall of Ed Ruschas. Even the Warhol Brillo boxes seemed masterful in comparison to the Koons Play-Doh and pool toys. And Jean Michel Basquiat’s painting “Hollywood Africans”–regarded as a daring example of street art when it was new–seemed rigorously formal thirty years later, or perhaps just in contrast to the Koons retrospective.

"The Islands" by Agnes Martin

“The Islands” by Agnes Martin


"Hollywood Africans" by Jean Michel Basquiat

“Hollywood Africans” by Jean Michel Basquiat

I had a better experience with “Split-Rocker,” (top) Koons’ topiary in Rockefeller Center. Even more than “Puppy,” “Split-Rocker” is a multi-faceted delight: not only because of its dual pony/dinosaur face but because it looks radically different at different distances. It’s a grey-green monolith from a great distance, a huge flowering toy from middle distance, and a fascinating collection of flowering plants close up. There’s even a ribbon of mirror that reflects viewers.

Detail of "Split-Rocker"

Detail of “Split-Rocker”


It’s a given that Koons is the most commercially successful fine artist of his generation. The question is whether his work will be well-regarded, or even remembered, beyond his lifetime. Will he be another Marcel Duchamp or another Paul De Longpre, whose paintings were all the rage during his lifetime and instantly forgotten after his death? Questions of art, commercial success and posterity were very much on my mind when I had an illuminating encounter a couple of days later. More about it in Part II.

In New York, Vivid Reminders of Los Angeles

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Ed Ruscha's "Honey I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today" at The High Line/Hope Anderson Productions

Ed Ruscha’s “Honey I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today” at The High Line/Hope Anderson Productions

I spent the last week in New York, on a much-needed break from Los Angeles in general and Beachwood Canyon in particular. Or so I thought. On Day 1, riding the subway downtown, I found myself sitting next to a young woman having a cell phone conversation about her teaching job in Culver City. Later that same day, I sat in a Chinatown restaurant listening to three twenty-somethings discussing Burning Man and Coachella. It was as if Los Angeles had followed me to New York. But my biggest LA moment was deliberate: having learned of a new Ed Ruscha commission on the High Line, I hoofed it over to West Chelsea for a look. Entering the park at W. 23rd Street, I initially walked by the work because of its size: I didn’t realize it took up the entire side of a building. A word painting on a hot pink background, it reads, “Honey, I Twisted Through More Damn Traffic Today”–an LA sentiment if ever there was one. It was appreciated by a crowd of passersby as well as a steady audience on the bleacher-like seating across from it.
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Although today Ed Ruscha is an international star whose work can be seen in museums and collections worldwide, when I first became a fan of his work, in the early 90s, he was still considered a “California artist” by the New York art world, relegated by geography to a secondary tier. (Disclosure: I met him briefly during that time, along with Billy Al Bengston, though only I would remember.) The fact that his most famous paintings, including “Twentysix Gasoline Stations” and “Norm’s, La Cienega, On Fire,” depict Los Angeles didn’t ingratiate him with New York critics. Nor did the fact that he never lived in New York, having come directly to Los Angeles from his native Nebraska to attend what is now CalArts. (Born in 1937, Ruscha is probably unique among his Pop Art contemporaries in bypassing the NYC rite of passage.) His word paintings, “Another One of them Bikini and Chainsaw Movies” and “Another Hollywood Dream Bubble Popped,” don’t exactly bring to mind Manhattan. Neither does his famous photography collection, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.”

But instead of attempting a shift in subject matter, as another artist might have, Ruscha continued along his chosen path, creating images of the Hollywood Sign, palm trees and LACMA. (His iconic “The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire” is owned–in a delicious bit of irony–by the Hirshorn Museum in Washington, D.C.) As an artist Ruscha has always been his own man, resolute in his methods and subject matter. But along the way something interesting happened: the New York art world embraced him, and on his terms. His work was prominently displayed in the 2012 Met show “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years,” a blockbuster that probably influenced the High Line commission. Now a blue chip artist with a worldwide following, Ruscha hardly needs my promotion. But the High Line painting will be up until May, 2015 and is well worth a visit.

Along the High Line 6/22/14/Hope Anderson Productions

Along the High Line 6/22/14/Hope Anderson Productions

Wild Things of Hollywoodland

November 12, 2013 § 4 Comments

Hollywoodland Bobcat/Photo Courtesy Christine O'Brien, edited by Hope Anderson

Hollywoodland Bobcat/Photo Courtesy Christine O’Brien, edited by Hope Anderson

When I describe the wildlife in Los Angeles to people who haven’t lived here, I get comments like, “Oh, we have mountain lions in New York,” only to learn the mountain lion sightings took place forty miles north of Manhattan. There’s no comparison between that and, say, a coyote running alongside your car on Sunset Boulevard, which is what happened to me about nine years ago in Echo Park.

Since I moved to upper Beachwood Canyon in 2005, the deer have grown rarer while every other animal seems to have grown more common. Yesterday alone brought a fat squirrel in search of acorns to my door and a large red tail hawk to my deck–it was trying to get my lovebird, who was outside in a cage. On my way home last night at 7:30, I passed a coyote standing nonchalantly on the sidewalk a block north of the commercial district.

But the best recent animal sighting took place on the 3000 block of North Beachwood Drive, when the bobcat pictured above stopped to enjoy someone’s garden.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/wild-kingdom-an-unexpected-symbiosis-in-beachwood-canyon
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/humans-and-wildlife-in-beachwood-canyon-an-update/

King Vidor’s “The Crowd” (1928): Revelatory and Still Modern

October 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

"The Crowd" by King Vidor/Courtesy AMPAS

“The Crowd” by King Vidor/Courtesy AMPAS

I had never heard of “The Crowd,” King Vidor’s amazing 1928 film about a feckless young man’s progress in work, love and life in New York City, until a few days ago. It was shown at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last night as the opening film of the Mary Pickford Celebration of Silent Film in a handsomely restored 35mm print from Warner Bros. To put it mildly, it was stunning. Starring James Murray in the lead and Eleanor Boardman (Mrs. King Vidor) as his beautiful, long-suffering wife, the film contained more complex character development than any feature film in recent memory–and without dialogue.

As film historian Kevin Brownlow pointed out, “The Crowd” influenced many subsequent films and their directors. Billy Wilder owes the biggest debt to Vidor, as “The Apartment” contains not only its office scenario–the huge room full of clerks especially–but exterior shots of New York skyscrapers and thronged streets. (Not to mention that the Jack Lemmon character in “The Apartment” could arguably be seen as a more responsible version of “The Crowd’s” John.) In “The Hudsucker Proxy” The Coen Brothers used many of the same visual elements, along with a John-like wide-eyed clerk played by Tim Robbins. No less a genius that Vittorio DeSica told Vidor that he based “Bicycle Thief” on “The Crowd,” and clearly he took the street and theater scenes from it. Yet despite its influence, “The Crowd” was forgotten for decades and only recently reconstructed. I hope Warner Bros. will release it on DVD soon for the larger audience it deserves.

Those who missed “The Crowd” can still catch tomorrow night’s film, Ernst Lubisch’s “The Student Prince in Old Heidleberg,” starring Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer and Jean Hersholt. Released in 1927 from MGM, “The Student Prince” was the brainchild of Irving G.Thalberg, who hired Lubisch to adapt a 1924 operetta based on the 1989 novel of the same name. Those unacquainted with “The Lubisch Touch” will see it in action here. For tickets, go to http://www.oscars.org/events-exhibitions/events/index.html

“True Hollywood Noir” Indeed

October 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

True Hollywood Noir034
Those interested in old Hollywood and/or true crime will find Dina Di Mambro’s True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders (Classichollywoodbios.com Publications) a worthy addition to their library. Although the topics–mysterious deaths, from Silent Era director William Desmond Taylor’s to Natalie Wood’s–have been explored many times before, Di Mambro’s exhaustive research and attention to detail set her book apart from the rest.

William Desmond Taylor’s murder–notoriously unsolved since 1922–provides a good example of her technique. After describing the crime scene–“once he was turned over, it was evident that he was lying in a pool of blood…shot once in the back”–Di Mambro painstakingly describes the possible suspects, as well as those who obstructed justice. The list is mind-boggling: Paramount Studios, the LAPD, the actress Mary Miles Minter and her mother Charlotte Shelby, his “sociopath” houseman Edward Sands, the actress/prostitute Margaret Gibson, his younger brother Denis Deane-Turner, a professional hit man. (No wonder the crime remains unsolved.) In sifting through the various theories, Di Mambro makes a good case for Margaret Gibson, who after changing her name to Pat Lewis twice confessed to the murder, the second time on her deathbed.

Other chapters shed new light on old crimes as well. I had always thought Thelma Todd’s death–her body was found in her car, in the garage of her Pacific Coast Highway house/restaurant–was a murder, possibly mob-related. Di Mambro makes a good case for accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly abetted or covered up by Todd’s on-again, off-again lover, the director Roland West. As with Taylor’s murder, the case was muddied by a studio cover-up–in this case Hal Roach’s decision “that letting the matter go was in the best interest of his studio and the film industry as a whole.”

More recent cases–Natalie Wood’s, Bob Crane’s and Robert Blake”s–are not only thoroughly reviewed but updated. After a new inquest into Wood’s 1981 drowning, Di Mambro notes the actress’s death certificate was amended from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” She adds a welcome familial angle to Bob Crane’s sordid 1978 murder by noting that the 2001 biographical film “Auto Focus” sparked a fight between his two sons (from different marriages) over Crane’s portrayal. The murder of Robert Blake’s wife Bonny Lee Bakley–in which Blake was found not guilty, though he subsequently lost a civil case–contains a poignant transcript. Blake and Bakley’s teenaged daughter, adopted and raised by Blake’s older daughter Delinah, no longer has contact with her father “because Delinah thought it was better that way.”

Not being a true crime fan, I sometimes felt overwhelmed by this litany of untimely deaths, whether accidental or homicidal. Yet I enjoyed the book’s unexpected theme: that fame, however big or resilient, is no match for the Grim Reaper, whose Hollywood work is some of his grimmest. Those who relish such tales will love True Hollywood Noir.
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True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders is available at http://www.amazon.com/True-Hollywood-Noir-Filmland-Mysteries/dp/0615572693

“Salinger”: Not the Worst Movie I’ve Ever Seen in My Life

September 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

Reading and hearing the reviews of Shane Salerno’s misbegotten documentary “Salinger” has been more of a revelation than anything contained in the film. It’s not often you hear critics retching in print, but they do over “Salinger,” and it’s amazing to see. Here’s a roundup of reactions:

A.O. Scott, The New York Times: “…less a work of cinema than a byproduct of its own publicity campaign.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “…make sure you bring a barf bag when you watch this doc’s tacky re-enactments, hear its cheeseball score and endure literary posturings so florid they’d embarrass Baz Luhrmann of The Great Gatsby.”

Dana Stevens, Slate: “[Th mystery of J.D. Salinger] is certainly hardy enough to withstand the voyeuristic onslaught of this self-aggrandizing, lurid documentary, which leaves the viewer feeling that we’ve been given a tour of Salinger’s septic tank in hip waders….”

Julia Turner, Slate Culture Gabfest: “The single worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Turner’s remark was particularly striking, not because I think she’s exaggerating but because she obviously hasn’t been to enough film festivals. Festivals specialize in assaultive movies, and it’s not unheard of for viewers to faint or vomit during screenings. More commonly they walk out. Fortunately, the Palais des Festivals, the main theater of the Cannes Film Festival, offers an effective revenge on badly received films and their directors. Whenever someone leaves early, the unusually tight springs on the seat make a loud pop. A mass exodus sounds like gunfire.

I’ve walked out of a lot of bad films at festivals, but the Worst Movie I’ve Ever Seen in My Life is one I saw in a studio screening room in the late 90s. To protect the hapless director, I won’t mention its name but the film was shot on an island and involved a crime of some kind. (I’m foggy on the plot not because it was a long time ago, but because I didn’t understand it at the time.) As I recall, there was a lot of driving and an exploding car on a bridge. After the explosion the film abruptly stopped–not because it was over, but because the producers had run out of money and couldn’t afford an ending. I wanted to laugh but the director was sitting an arm’s length away, still hoping that the necessary funds would be forthcoming. They weren’t, and the film was never released. I don’t know what happened to the director, who had mortgaged his house to finance the project, but last I heard some of the footage was sold for stock.

Compared with this, “Salinger” is not half bad, though it certainly doesn’t deserve its high-octane release. It occurs to me that if the documentary makes money, Salerno might be encouraged to make another feverish literary tell-all, in which case Thomas Pynchon should lawyer up immediately.

Thomas Pynchon

Watch out, Thomas Pynchon

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