Thursday, September 6, 2012

Classic Hollywood Revisited

Iconic Hollywood stars have frequently been the subjects of books. There is always a new bio or photo book featuring the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, or a new biographical look at Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, or Joan Crawford; even Hedy Lamarr got her intellectual due in Richard Roades’ Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. In Fiction, there too have been glimpses into the possible lives of these larger than life figures; from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ look at Errol Flynn in Glitter Baby, Marilyn Monroe in multiple books, including Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde and the current The Empty Glass by J.I. Baker, Louise Brooks in Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, to Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason in Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The point is, celebrities, particularly those from the halcyon days of yesteryear are frequent subjects of the written word. Many of these works are interesting and informative, some preposterous and maddening, but mainly they are a type of book that draws readers looking for sensationalism or a glimpse at an era that never ceases to fascinate. So, I was not too surprised to come across several books this summer that dealt with the classic Hollywood scene, but I was surprised by their quality, particularly that of two novels, Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. The books are incredibly different in context and presentation, deal with two different eras of Hollywood, but both are well-written snap shots of a time and people that continue to fascinate us.

While Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures does not feature a real-life celebrity, it does perfectly recreate the feeling of the studio-machine driven age of cinema. From the height of the studio system in the 30’s and 40’s to the revamped look of the late 70’s, this is a novel that brilliantly evokes the life and times of a studio-made star. Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures follows young Elsa Emerson, a girl raised within her parent’s Wisconsin theater company who plots her way to Hollywood and is remade for eventual stardom as the glamorous Laura Lamont. This is more than a novel, it plays out like a 1950’s film, or even one of those epic studio stories (some true, some fabricated) of how someone became a star. In fact, I had a hard time not picturing someone like Lana Turner in my mind while reading this novel. It unfolds like a brilliant melodrama—a suicide, teen marriage, divorce, marriage to a studio head, stardom, age—and yet, this novel is wonderfully written, not a dramatic soap opera, but a sort of love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood and its products, the movie stars. A deceptively simple story, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is surprisingly gripping in its honest humanity, and cleverly written characters. Straub’s obvious love of this time period within the movie-making world helps to round it out presenting a well-thought out, interesting novel with remarkable understanding of the era, Hollywood studio system, and what it meant to be an aging female film star during this time period. In all it’s a fresh and charming new novel, perfect for classic movie fans.

Beautiful Ruins is an entirely different beast. Unlike the linear third-person limited narrative of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Beautiful Ruins is told via a multiple third-person narrative that bounces not only between characters, but also through time, place, and at points leaves the primary story to show excerpts from fictionalized books and screenplays. From 1962 Italy and the filming of Cleopatra (the most expensive US movie), to current Hollywood, with sections in Scotland, London, Seattle, and Idaho thrown in; Walter’s unique style creates not only a touching story of a love that could have been, but also a deftly drawn portrait of the demise of the movie star as an untouchable god (pre extreme-paparazzi), and the transition from epic films to reality garbage, lacking any sense of prestige and glamour. It adroitly shows the inner workings of film publicists and producers looking to exploit everything and anything to sell their products, the turmoil created by the desire to be famous, post-traumatic stress, and the general narcissism and technological dependence of the current generation. On the Hollywood front, actor Richard Burton is takes a co-starring role—his actions literally spur the plot of the entire story—his drunken escapades, remarkable talent, and on-set affair with co-star Elizabeth Taylor (prior to their 2 marriages) are imaginatively recreated, using much of the lore and fact that fans have come to associate with the couple’s tumultuous relationship. The addition of an ill actress (a fictional character who is part of the Cleopatra cast), an alcoholic former solider/writer, a canny and amoral publicity grunt, and a young Italian trying to save his dying hotel, help to create a setting that is almost film-like itself in its capture of drama and occasional bouts of comedic flair. The sections taking place in current times are less thrilling, far more irritating in view of the younger characters’ self-absorption—one is looking to sell a ridiculous screenplay based on the Donner Party, the other is a production mogul’s development assistant/lackey with a dependence on data fixes and a porn addicted boyfriend—but Walters uses them effectively in bringing together the threads of the story as it bounces between decades and characters. In all, Beautiful Ruins is intriguing, very stylized in its presentation, and a wonderful look at Hollywood’s transition from its Golden Age.

There are so many books published dealing with this theme that it can be daunting to take on the task, particularly for a fan of classic films, not looking to see their favorite star/era/movie diminished in stature, but taking up either of these novels, whether it be the stylized Beautiful Ruins, or the homage to the studio system of yesteryear within Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, readers are sure to find pleasure within their pages. Great reads for readers of varying styles and a love of interesting characters.

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