Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz

Eve’s Hollywood is labeled as fiction but it’s hard to know how much of it’s fictional. First published in 1974, it’s written in the first person and describes the author’s life growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and her adventures as a young woman about town in the 60s. It doesn’t have a plot. It’s a series of usually brief chapters that seem almost randomly placed. We learn about Eve’s parents, her junior high and high school days in Hollywood, various friends and lovers, with stops in New York City and Rome along the way. Perhaps the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.

The Eve of the novel, and probably the Eve of reality, are or were a lot of fun to be with. She communicates her love of Los Angeles and makes shrewd observations about human nature. She rhapsodizes about the taquitos you could get at Olvera Street and watching a terrific MacGillivray-Freeman surf movie at the Santa Monica Civic. She tells stories about people and places you’d have like to have known (or avoided). I doubt if some of the people she describes were as beautiful as she says, but maybe they weren’t real anyway.

Did Eve Babitz really let a guy who called himself Bummer Bob crash at her house for a few days, and later find out that he was Bobby Beausoleil, one day to be a key member of the Manson Family?

Did the three sentences that constitute the chapter called “Cary Grant” [269] actually happen?

I once saw Cary Grant up close.

He was beautiful.

He looked exactly like Cary Grant.

I’m glad her books are being reprinted. I’m looking forward to reading her second novel, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., and a collection of her journalism, I Used To Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz. There are much worse ways a person could spend their time.

Picture by Lillian Ross

Lillian Ross was a writer for the New Yorker magazine for many years. In 1950, John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, invited her to come to California and see how a movie was made. The movie in question was The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel of the same name. It’s the story of a young soldier who runs away from a battle but overcomes his fear.

When Ross arrived in California, Huston and the movie’s producer, Gottfried Reinhardt, were still working on the script. Ross closely observed the whole movie-making process, up until the film’s release in late 1951, spending hours with everyone invovled. She even lived in Huston’s guest house. The process may have changed since then, but I have a feeling the personalities and the power plays haven’t.

On one side, there was John Huston, the acclaimed director with a big personality, and the less flamboyant Reinhardt, an Austrian émigré from a theatrical family. They wanted to make an excellent movie that would also make money. On the other side were Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the management of Loew’s Theaters, the New York corporation that owned MGM. Mayer thought it was a mistake to make the movie, arguing that it had no stars and no story and wouldn’t sell tickets. Loew’s management was even less interested in the movie’s quality. They saw it as a pure business proposition.

The only reason MGM agreed to make the movie was the man in the middle, Dore Schary. He was Head of Production at MGM. He was enthusiastic about the project and convinced Mayer and Loew’s to fund it for $1.5 million, a substantial sum in 1950. Mayer probably agreed to make it so he could tell Schary “I told you so”. The head of Loew’s, who everyone called Mr. Schenk, probably allowed it so Dore Schary would learn a valuable lesson about art vs. commerce.

Ross describes how closely Huston and Reinhardt worked together, trying to keep the budget under control but still making something they’d be proud of. The suspense builds as the film is shot, mostly on location; as batches of film are reviewed at the studio; as the final product is scored and edited, with changes being made all along for both financial and artistic reasons. We see Huston, Reinhardt and Schary constantly reassuring each other that it would be a great picture and also sell tickets.

Finally, The Red Badge of Courage is presented to a “sneak preview” audience. The preview doesn’t go well. That leads to even more changes and more previews. Dore Schary eventually takes control and institutes bigger changes over Reinhardt’s objections, while John Huston sails away to make The African Queen.

The main things I took away from Picture are that a movie’s producer probably has a much bigger role than I realized; that most directors aren’t in total control of their movies, unlike what’s sometimes suggested; that people in Hollywood circa 1950 talked a lot, but rarely listened to anyone they didn’t think was important; and that nobody called it a “movie”, a “film” or a “motion picture” — it was always simply a “picture”, as in “It’s going to be a great picture, isn’t it, sweetie? It sure is, kid!”

Having spent so much time with The Red Badge of Courage, and having closely followed the addition of this scene and the elimination of that one, I want to read the novel again (it didn’t impress me in high school) and then see the picture again (I think I saw it once and it didn’t impress me either). As they say, that’s Hollywood!

I Lost It at the Movies by Pauline Kael

Before she became a famous film critic for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote about movies out in San Francisco. She also offered her opinions on radio station KPFA. I Lost It at the Movies includes selections from her criticism between 1955 and 1964.

The single word that best describes her writing is “provocative”. She slams a number of movies generally considered classics (West Side Story, Hiroshima Mon Amour, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, This Sporting Life). She also strongly criticizes other film critics, especially Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and the group of critics who subscribed to the auteur theory (film is all about the director). Her favorite films from this period include Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, Godard’s Breathless, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (“perfect”). She loves Antonioni’s L’Avventura but hates his La Notte.

Kael appreciates many popular American classics but thinks the films of the 50s and 60s that have mass appeal tend to be formulaic. She loves a number of movies that appealed to “art house” audiences but makes fun of art house patrons who take obscurity and complexity to be artistic or “deep”. Here she is on her chosen profession:

The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others [308].

I disagreed with a number of her opinions (in some cases, she seems to think a movie misfires because she would have preferred it to be about someone else), but she certainly communicated her enthusiasm to me. So far, I’ve watched a relatively obscure Japanese film she recommended, Kagi or Odd Obsession, about a husband who tries to regain his sexual powers by getting his wife to have sex with their prospective son-in-law, and I’m planning to watch another one, Fires on the PlainThe latter is about Japanese soldiers undergoing pain and privation and doing horrible things in the Philippines at the end of World War 2. She called it a “masterpiece”, writing that “it has the disturbing power of great art: it doesn’t leave you quite the same”. 

After watching Odd Obsession, I read her review again. She did indeed see more in the movie than I did (not a surprise). If I make it through Fires on the Plain, I’ll see if she saw more in that one too.

Note:  Someone identified as “Not Pauline Kael” has posted what certainly seem to be Kael’s reviews from I Lost It at the Movies, including the ones for Odd Obsession and Fires on the Plain. They are worth reading.

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel

Mary Astor played Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She’s the pretty woman to whom Sam Spade says “You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice” and “I hope they don’t hang you, precious” and “You’re taking the fall”. She began her film career early in the silent era, easily transitioned to sound, won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, played the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, and was still appearing on TV and in movies in the early 60s.

She might have been a bigger star but, having a fear of failure, she chose to take smaller roles. She also mismanaged her money, drank too much and had sex with a lot of men, including her four husbands. She discussed all this in two well-received autobiographies. She also kept a diary. Reporters said it had a purple cover, but it was actually brown.

Edward Sorel is an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist who is best-known for his political satire. The story he tells in this short book is that he was tearing up the linoleum in his New York apartment one night in 1965 and found some 30-year old newspapers. They were filled with accounts of a Los Angeles child custody trial involving Mary Astor and her first husband. What made the trial such a big deal was that Astor had kept a diary that supposedly described her private life, including her many affairs, in lurid detail. Although the diary was never shared with the public, the nation’s imagination ran wild.

For reasons he can’t explain, Sorel quickly became fascinated with the trial, the diary, and Mary Astor. But it took him 50 years to finally get around to writing this book.

He isn’t a great writer, but he tells the story reasonably well. Unfortunately, he inserts his own life story here and there, which isn’t very interesting. It also wasn’t clear to me where exactly the diary was during the trial. Apparently, the lawyers for Astor’s husband claimed to have lost it, possibly so they could make the diary sound more incriminating than it actually was. After the trial, the diary and some photostatic copies (possibly altered by the husband’s lawyers) were placed in a safe deposit box. Years later, the court ordered the contents of the safe deposit box to be destroyed.

The story Sorel tells is entertaining but isn’t as racy as it sounds. His illustrations, however, are excellent, especially the one with Mary Astor, mostly naked, holding her diary while lying on a fainting couch, with the big Hollywood studios in the background.

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein

This is an oral history of Los Angeles, especially Hollywood. It focuses on the wealthy and powerful Doheny family, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, the troubled actress Jennifer Jones, and an unknown actress named Jane Garland. Some of it was interesting. Much of it wasn’t, which is why I didn’t read every word.