January 21, 2021 § Leave a comment
Twelve years have passed since I began writing Under the Hollywood Sign. Conceived to promote my documentary of the same name and to further explore Hollywood history, UTHS soon grew to include my previous documentaries, magazine work and interviews. It also spawned two collections of essays. As time went on, my focus shifted to other people’s films, books and TV shows. I also wrote visual art, architecture and Japan, where I grew up, and its rich popular culture. All of this has been a labor of love, and hundreds of posts and pages later it’s time for me to try something new.
Beginning today, I’ll be writing on Substack. In addition to regular posts, subscribers will have access to my other writing–longer non-fiction and fiction–as well new projects, literary and cinematic. Subscriptions are $5 per month, and the link is below. I look forward to seeing you there.
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December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
Curious about the documentaries that inspired this blog? Here’s a good chance to see them at a bargain price, and to give them as holiday gifts. From now until January 1, 2021, each purchase of a full-length documentary on DVD will include a free companion documentary. Each order of “Under the Hollywood Sign” will come with “Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress”, while each order of “Jim Thompson, Silk King, 2015 Edition” will come with “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.”
This offer does not apply to digital downloads. To order, please go to: http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com/dvds/
April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
I first met Kate Johnson in 1999, shortly after I returned from Thailand with the raw footage for my first two documentaries–a suitcase full of BetaSP tapes that logged in at more than seventy hours. Documentaries are made in the editing room, and the time spent editing far exceeds the time spent shooting, writing and researching. Thus over the next sixteen years we spent countless days working side by side, and the resulting films were a collaborative effort. Weaving together interviews, footage, archival film and stills, music, sound effects and graphics is like making a giant tapestry, and Kate always kept track of the thousands of strands.
Kate edited both “Jim Thompson, Silk King” and its companion piece, “The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection.” Then came “Under the Hollywood Sign,” and its short feature, “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” which I later spun off into a separate film. Our last project was the reissue of of “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” which by 2014 had to be remastered because the original software was obsolete. For the new version, I filled the gaps in the score with new music that Kate composed and performed; it complemented the Thai classical music seamlessly. I also made two new shorts as DVD extras: one on Jim Thompson’s pre-Thailand architectural career and the other on developments on his disappearance since the release of the original documentary in 2002.
Throughout our time together, Kate was an invaluable source of ideas and guidance, providing the critical eye I needed. The fact that she was the only editor I’ve worked with says a great deal about her immense talent and range. Since she did it all, I never needed a sound editor, graphic artist or visual effects person, and only once did I use an outside composer.
In addition to editing my work and that of others, Kate was a filmmaker in her own right, and in 2015 won an Emmy for “Mia: A Dancer’s Journey.” Somehow she also found time to be a professor of Digital Media at Otis College of Art and Design, passing on her skills to a new generation of visual artists.
Because most of what I do is solitary, I found in Kate Johnson the longest and most significant working relationship of my career. My struggle to accept her passing includes the stark realization that I will never have a comparable collaboration, either in importance or duration. Brilliant and unique, she was also, for me, irreplaceable.
February 21, 2019 § Leave a comment
This week marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, which I started to promote my third documentary feature film, Under the Hollywood Sign. At that point, UTHS was in post-production, and my editor Kate Johnson and I were shaping scores of interviews, around eighty hours of footage and hundreds of archival images into a cultural history of Beachwood Canyon.
Wanting to explore the film’s many topics in greater depth, I wrote about the Theosophists, film stars and oddball characters who populated the Canyon in the early 20th century. I described Beachwood’s natural beauty and wildlife, and the California holly that blooms in the hills each December. I detailed the creation of Hollywoodland, California’s oldest hillside planned community, from its granite walls, gates and stairs to its most famous features: the Hollywood Sign and Lake Hollywood.
After exhausting Beachwood Canyon’s history, I moved on to present-day matters. By then neighborhood was becoming a mecca for GPS-guided tourism, and between 2010 and 2015 the number of visitors in search of the Hollywood Sign surged. Crowds overwhelmed the narrow streets, eroded the trails and drove the wildlife back into Griffith Park. Hollywoodland’s narrow streets, tricky to navigate in the best conditions, became chaotic and frequently gridlocked. Until permit parking was instituted a couple of years ago, residents were frequently trapped in or out of their houses by vehicular and pedestrian traffic that also blocked emergency vehicles. Writing about these issues brought me a slew of hostile comments, the gist of which was our right to use your neighborhood for recreation trumps your right to live here. Long after I stopped writing about local issues, angry and even threatening letters continued to roll in.
These days I write mostly about film–not mine but other people’s. I also write about Japan, where I grew up and whose history and culture I’ve studied for most of my life. As for documentary filmmaking, I’ve stopped. I’ll explain why in my next post.
November 13, 2017 § 6 Comments
From 1911–the year the Nestor Company set up shop at Sunset and Gower–until the early 1960’s, studios were vertically integrated businesses containing everything necessary for the creation of movies. Each studio owned its equipment– cameras, lighting, props and costumes. Crew members, actors, screenwriters, directors and producers were full-time studio employees. (This explains why credit sequences on old movies are so short: you don’t need a credit if you have job security.) If stars and directors wanted to make films elsewhere, they had to be “loaned out” by the studios that held their contracts. If they were not allowed, which was often the case, they had no recourse. The studio system favored those who preferred steady work to feast-or-famine opportunities. Though it often stifled creativity, it also fostered teamwork, consistency and an impressively large output.
Regardless of its merits and drawbacks, studio system has been dead for over fifty years, replaced by an army of freelancers, yet it’s alive and well in people’s minds. Until I convinced my mother that screenwriters now work at home, she thought they wrote in groups in cramped studio offices, probably on typewriters, but at least she’s old enough to remember when that was true. On social media, people with no memory of the studio system assume that “studios are mini-cities” where actors report for screen tests and meetings. In fact, casting is done by agencies, while meetings take place wherever people happen to be: at film festivals and press junkets, and on location. For a mobile population whose real office is often at home, doing business in hotels is unavoidable.
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all meetings could take place in studio offices, as in days of yore. When Shirley Temple was summoned to Louis B. Mayer’s impressive office at MGM as a twelve-year-old, she probably thought she was safe. But Mayer, after telling Temple she would be the studio’s biggest star, promptly exposed himself to her.
May 20, 2016 § Leave a comment
The production was both a celebration of Shakespeare’s birth and a benefit for the Actors’ Fund, and starred such luminaries as Tyrone Power, Sr., Douglas Fairbanks, William Farnum and the young Mae Murray. A fuller account can be found in these posts:
Last night’s commemoration in Beachwood Village featured the local historian Greg Williams and the actor Stephen Fry, who read the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from Act III.
Because a fully built neighborhood now stands where the sets and stands were located, it’s a challenge to visualize the 1916 production, which featured chariot races, gladiator fights and dancing girls, as well as hundreds of extras recruited from Hollywood High School and Fairfax High School. But “Julius Caesar” was performed here to critical success, and the fact that it drew such a crowd should dispel the notion of early 20th century Los Angeles as a cultural backwater.
January 31, 2015 § 2 Comments
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.
December 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
Thanks for reading this blog, which I began nearly six years ago to promote my work; it has been a labor of love. Nevertheless, if a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who’ve read my posts and pages would watch my films or read my ebooks, I’d be much happier. The documentaries are available for sale (via DVD or Vimeo download) or rent (via Vimeo); the ebooks are available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other ebook sellers. All are linked through my website http://www.hopeandersonproductions.com
Under the Hollywood Sign
Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of an Actress
The Jim Thompson House and Art Collection (available on DVD; downloadable in 2015)
Jim Thompson, Silk King (New edition coming on DVD and download in 2015)
Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign
On Blade Runner: Four Essays
November 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last Tuesday we went to Hollywood Forever, my favorite cemetery. It was an appropriately overcast day, and as we wandered through the Garden of Legends I realized that–with the exception of a screening of “Chinatown” and a Johnny Marr concert, both held at night–I hadn’t been there in twelve years. (Last time I was showing it to a friend from Hawaii; he said it was his favorite place in LA because he couldn’t hear the sound of traffic.) Although it was late afternoon when Heath and I arrived, we managed to see some of the highlights–the Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, Jr., and DeMille memorials–but not the Valentino crypt, as the mausoleum is being worked on and was locked. But its outside wall featured a new addition–a stone for Mickey Rooney, who died earlier this year. Nearby stood Johnny Ramone’s statue and Hattie McDaniel’s pink oblong stone. One headstone caught our eye simply because it was unlike any memorial we’d ever seen–a sculpture of a man lashed with steel cable to a jagged rock. Staring at the inscription, we were startled to realize that it was Tony Scott’s grave.
By then it was getting dark, so my efforts to pay respects to John Huston, whose excellent autobiography An Open Book I’m reading, had to be postponed. Along the way we had picked up a couple of fellow travelers–a woman and her live wire four-year-old son. The little boy grabbed my sleeve, showed me his blankie and attached himself to our self-guided tour, saying “We need more people!” Unlike us, he didn’t mean dead ones.
September 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
Hollywood went from mostly unsettled land to a metropolis in a matter of two decades. Most of what is now the district of Hollywood was purchased in 1877 by Harvey and Daeida Wilcox, a wealthy Kansas couple who came west to Los Angeles and, after the death of their only son, went looking for a rural retreat. After laying out streets and building a home, they deeded property to churches and enticed other like-minded Christians to move to their town. New residents opened businesses and grew citrus and exotic fruits like pineapples and avocados. But by the turn of the century, Hollywood was more than a farm village: it had become a resort for city dwellers who came by bicycle and streetcar from downtown Los Angeles. Two restaurants catered to daytrippers, and the rather grand Hollywood Hotel provided lodging for those who wanted to stay longer. Among the town’s charms was its microclimate: noticeably cooler than downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood was known for its ocean breezes. (In spite of Hollywood’s tall buildings, these can still be felt near Sunset and Vine, and sometimes carry a whiff of salt.)
In 1903, Hollywood was incorporated as a dry, Godly city: the un-Los Angeles. Its first laws were sumptuary: no alcohol for any purpose, either at home or in businesses; no gambling, no brothels. Its dryness was absolute: liquor going west from downtown had to be transported around Hollywood, a substantial detour that pleased neither merchants nor the Los Angeles City fathers. Though Harvey Wilcox, the stricter of Hollywood’s founders, died in 1891, his widow Daeida (despite her remarriage to Philo Beveridge, a bon vivant who enjoyed flouting the law by drinking wine) kept up her husband’s teetotaling tradition.
Things might have continued along these lines for a while longer if not for the problem of water. Hollywood had very little, and more often than not found itself in drought. The start of construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1905 allowed City Hall to present the town with an ultimatum: either become part of Los Angeles or make do without its water. Knowing the town wouldn’t survive without access to the Aqueduct, Hollywood gave up its independence, becoming part of Los Angeles in 1910. Today, in the fourth year of a severe drought, it’s difficult to argue with the decision.
Yet Hollywood still feels distinct from Los Angeles, even in the midst of its current building boom. In 2000, a referendum was launched to return Hollywood to independence, but Los Angeles fought hard against it and it failed. Today Hollywood’s seven years as an incorporated city are remembered through its bylaws, which reside in bound volumes the Los Angeles City Archives. But Hollywood’s larger legacy is quotidian: its customary use by residents when giving their address.