The genre bloomed early in the 20th century, fomented by the grousing of those East Coast writers like Ben Hecht coming to the promised land to make their fortune writing for the talkies (and who probably saw themselves in the water reflecting the bright sunshine). It culminated in the ’40s with “What Makes Sammy Run?” (introing Sammy Glick) and “The Day of the Locust,” (pace Homor Simpson) both dark turns that illuminate the unspoken Faustian deal that seems to lurk at the heart of fame. The genre had found a new lease and angle in the early ’60s, with non-classics such as Allison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” (specifically about outsiders) and Fitzgerald’s “The Pat Hobby Stories” (also pointedly about an outsider (and first collected in 1962, perhaps finally of its time)) leading the way towards a more existential outlook that suggests while no one is innocent no one is particularly guilty either.
Maritta Wolff’s “The Big Nickelodeon” (1963) seem inspired by “Peyton Place” more than any real thing and her reluctance to go full-bore in the milieu she must know existed – she was invited to Hollywood to write screenplays after the success of her “Whistle Stop” – is mitigated by her valiant attempt to introduce a wide and decadent swath of characters – from divorcees trying to break into the movies to rentboys parking cars on Sunset to cops finding bodies on the beach.
That same year “The Surprise Party Complex” by Ramona Stewart follows a trio of young women in various states of denial and undress having moved to Hollywood and trying to negotiate auditions, parents who don’t believe in them and horny next door neighbors. Mentioned earlier, Allison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” (1965) elevates the corruptible outsider to literature following two small-town rubes who move with big dreams of success (or in the case of the wife, not) and how expectations and morals are confounded by intangible seductive powers more in the air and due to fate rather than to any malicious antagonist or force.
Wolf Mankowitz’s “Cockatrice” (also 1963) focuses on an anonymous assistant to an arrogant big-time producer who will steal talent, ideas, and girlfriends to make a picture and a name for himself. You become what you despise. What makes this one more insightful may be that Mankowitz worked with Broccoli and Saltzman during the beginnings of the Bond franchise. Yet even this insider expose has more winks than tooth. He’s along for the ride as much as any of the girls he beds.
Something happened in the late ‘50s and early ’60s. TV had officially been declared not-a-fad and Universal was bought by MCA, the biggest deal involving talent, land, a back catalog and the potential to rewrite the future of show business before or since. 20th Century Fox, meanwhile sold 3/4s of their lot to developers giving rise to Century City for $43 million. The worst real estate deal in history and making public the voracious appetite of the glass teat, the money at stake, the careers made and broken and only brightened the allure of a career in show business.
Part of this also has to do with the economics of paperback books being widely available and exploiting a cultural unease after the Eisenhower ’50s before the sex-and-nothing-but trade supplanted these innocent tomes. But these cycles of books, a clutch of forgotten potboilers that seemed to peter out around 1970 as Hollywood players felt more comfortable not hiding their confessions behind fictional names and projects (“Play It As It Lays” being the avatar of the milieu of behind-the-scenes disasterpieces), freeze in amber a cultural moment in which Hollywood was incredibly alluring, dangerous, innocent of its faults, and success was still possible. Make no mistake, in none of these books does anyone succeed on sheer talent or without selling out their most closely held morals. At the conclusion of at least one, characters lay dead in a burning mansion.
But the “watch out – don’t let this happen to your daughter” panic of the 1930s and ’40s books (including those hammerhead noirs by West and McCoy) have softened as more and more writers realize that the business of show is as disfunctional as any paper-printing corporation. No one’s in charge, and no one’s stealing any daughter’s virtue that isn’t already for sale.
And they all use ripe metaphors as their entrypoints – the cockatrice is a fanciful dragon/griffith with a colorful plume and a poisonous bite; one of the characters in “Surprise Party Complex” keeps expecting someone to bust in and yell “surprise!” – the reward for always being ready, always photogenic, on the constant edge of expectation; “nowhere city” and “love-jungle tigress” speak for themselves.
The ’80s would bring the breezy Jackie Collins beach reads that seem strangely unplugged from show business reality we’d learned by that point from TV. And the Leonard and Ellroy meta-noirs “Get Shorty” and “L.A. Confidential” (both 1990) are more affectionate pastiche than scathing attacks.
In spite of the dark heart of most of these books, they seem at the time to be ceding the post-depression anxiety of an earlier age and embrace the Kennedy era and go-go promise of the ’60s. By the end of the decade UHF would increase the # of channels on the dial to over 50. A new world in which the possibilities have become a foregone conclusion and resistance is futile.
These are sexy yet moral, chaste and yet trashy. Deliciously seductive, in spite of good intentions they can’t quite keep their hands to themselves.
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A version of this post appeared on my other writing-centric site, On Or Around Roger Leatherwood.