This is a transcription of Episode 25 — Hollywood.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season Three, Episode 25 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we are getting curious about Hollywood.
Melissa: I have two very vivid memories of Hollywood. We used to stay on Sunset Boulevard a lot because we would go to the House of Blues to see rock shows. And right down the street from the hotel was a Mel’s Diner. And I think the weekend that Varsity Blues came out, Ryan Gosling, before he was super-ffamous, Ryan Gosling, he was just a good-looking young actor in Hollywood, was in Mel’s Diner at the same time we were having brunch, and he was sitting at the table holding a football. And it just seemed a little on the nose for me.
David: A little, a little much, perhaps, Ryan. My memories of Hollywood are polarized. I remember having some really fantastic times just hanging out and having fun. Like when we did the AIDS ride, we finished in Hollywood, and that was just great.
Melissa: Yeah. So for people who aren’t familiar, the California AIDS ride is a bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Depending on the route, it’s somewhere around 580 miles. And in the 90s, they started it to help raise money for AIDS research. And David and I did it twice. And it is very demanding. And we are not fast cyclists. So we were doing, you know, 10 to 12 hours a day on the bike. You camp at night and then you get up and do it again the next day for a week. And just when you think you can’t go on any longer, you ride into West Hollywood and the streets are just lined with people cheering. And there are balloons and rainbow flags and live music. And it’s a huge celebration. And then we collapsed into a really fancy hotel.
David: Yeah, we did. We did. And you passed out and I went for a little walk and found some food and brought it back. And the next morning your parents bought us breakfast, which was really nice.
Melissa: They had room service and to our room and we sat out on this beautiful patio looking over Hollywood.
Melissa: That was nice. That felt a little bit like being a celebrity for a second.
David: Yes. The other memory I have of Hollywood is when you and I went to pitch Warner Brothers about doing the Harry Potter site.
Melissa: Yeah. So for context, the first Harry Potter book had just come out and everyone was losing their minds and they were about to make the movie and they needed a website. So they came to the company that we worked for who made corporate websites.
David: Yes. And we were invited to pitch. And everyone was like, yes, we’re going to fly down to L.A. And get there and we’re going to march in there, and we’re going to blow their socks off.
Melissa: And we are going to make the first Harry Potter website. It’s going to be amazing.
David: Fantastic. So we worked all week long on that. And the morning it happened, we —
Melissa: Pulled all nighters. We slammed the books into our brains. I was the creative director. I wrote copy for the website that mimicked the style of the novel. We hired an illustrator to draw pictures.
David: We put together a technical demo to show people what it might look like.
Melissa: We were on it.
David: Super excited about going to do this.
Melissa: And we were going to meet with big grown ups. We were not big grownups at the time and we were supposed to go with our managing director.
Melissa: Who is the head honcho of our office.
David: Head of the office,
Melissa: Because we were just, you know, engineering and creative directors in our late 20s. We were nobody.
David: So the morning we get to the airport, we’re all ready to go. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. Let’s do this. And right about then we found out that the head of the office would not be going with us and he would not be going with us because he stayed out late the night before, perhaps got a little drunk.
Melissa: Maybe too many cocktails.
David: Maybe too many cocktails.
Melissa: Definitely too many cocktails.
David: And had decided that he was going to stay in San Francisco and let us go pitch.
Melissa: Let me just point out how cinematic this is. Really. We are at the airport literally, I’m not exaggerating about to board the plane to Los Angeles when we find out he’s not coming.
David: So we fly down there and we’re still holding on to hope, a little rattled, but it’s going to be OK.
Melissa: We worked so hard on this, how could we fail?
David: So it was you and me and a project manager and I think an account manager.
Melissa: Yes. So basically, the client-facing people, not executives. Here’s your team that you’ll be working with should you decide to work with us. Now, let’s talk about big grownup up stuff.
David: So we’re going down there and we’re still kind of like, well, we can do this, we can hold on to this, and we walk into that room. And the minute we walk into that room, I was like, this is not —
Melissa: This is over.
David: Because in that room are, I think, 12.
Melissa: 10 or 12. Vice presidents.
David: Vice presidents from Warner Brothers, who are between 35 and maybe 50, yes, who look at us with the disdain that the movie industry was looking at the Web at that time.
Melissa: Yes. Also picture the stereotypical movie studio conference room, and that is exactly what it looked like. It was this big white room with a huge table down the middle, and they were all sitting around it. And as we were talking to them, they smelled blood in the water because we had no grown up with us. They were sending messages to each other on their Blackberries. So you would see one typing and then you would see the other one across the table and up four chairs, read it and then ask us a really mean question. [laughter] And I really wanted to stand up very dramatically and say, ‘Look, we all know this meeting is going nowhere. Let’s just call it a day.’ And then we pick up our stuff and we march out of the room.
Melissa: And then someone slow claps us as we walk out the door.
David: We wouldn’t be those people for another seven years.
Melissa: Yes. So we sat there and took their abuse. It was terrible.
David: Yeah. We left and we were dejected and we went and we had lunch at a nice place.
Melissa: We had a very expensive lunch on the company’s expense account.
David: And then we flew home and we didn’t get the account.
Melissa: Hooray for Hollywood.
David: But I feel like both of those things are true about Hollywood, right? It is both fantastic and lovely and awesome. And, particularly if you have money — oh, my goodness, the gates open. And also —
Melissa: It’s a tough town.
David: It’s a tough town. It’s a tough company town. Are you ready to talk about the Hollywood 101?
Melissa: I am ready.
Melissa: But first, a short logistical note. We are focusing on Hollywood today, which is a neighborhood in Los Angeles. We will also be revisiting the city of Los Angeles because it has many stories that need to be told. Today, we are focusing on the moviemaking side of Tinseltown. So let’s talk about location. Picture your map — California stretches down the west coast of the United States. Los Angeles is on the far west coast, about two-thirds of the way down the state, and Hollywood is the neighborhood right in the center of that. It’s bordered by Laurel Canyon and Griffith Park. So when you see the pictures of Hollywood celebrities going on their hikes, that’s usually where they are. Yeah, And there are famous streets memorialized in song and movies.
Melissa: Hollywood Boulevard. Sunset Boulevard. Melrose Avenue. Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood, as we know, is also home to many movie studios and iconic landmarks like the Hollywood Bowl, which is a natural amphitheater that they’ve been using for concerts since 1922. There’s the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where many golden age stars are taking their long, permanent sleep: Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Fay Ray, Judy Garland, Yma Sumac, who you might remember from our Peru episode. Yma is buried in Hollywood and punk rock: Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone, which I find kind of delightful. The idea that those two are buried in a very glitzy part of Hollywood. [Blitzkrieg Bop by the Ramones plays in the background]
Melissa: There’s also the Dolby Theatre, which used to be the Kodak Theatre and is home to the Oscars. The Capitol Records building — that big iconic tower that looks like it’s made of a stack of records, and the famous In-and-Out Burger where all of the stars go after the award shows and you see them in their gowns in a limo eating a giant hamburger. There’s also Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Melissa: So that was created in 1958 to honor stars who had an impact on the entertainment industry. Do you know who the first star to get their star on the Walk of Fame was?
David: Charlie Chaplin.
Melissa: Joanne Woodward.
David: Joanne Woodward. Paul Newman’s wife.
Melissa: She got the first star in 1960. The Hollywood Walk of Fame now has more than 2600 5-pointed stars. They’re made of terrazzo and brass, and they’re embedded into the sidewalks at Hollywood and Vine. Do you know how Hollywood got its name?
David: I don’t.
Melissa: Would you believe me if I said it started with a grove of apricot and fig trees?
David: I would, because prior to the movie industry, it was just nice farmland.
Melissa: Exactly. A rich prohibitionist from Kansas named Harvey Henderson Wilcox moved with his wife Daeida to California in 1886, and they bought a big old swath of beautiful California farmland. And he bought it for just $150 an acre.
Melissa: And then he divided up the lots and sold them for a $1000 apiece. [laughter] Yay, capitalism.
David: Good for him.
Melissa: According to the legend, his wife, Daeida, was on a train to Ohio a year after they bought the land, and she was chitchatting with a guy who he said his estate in the Midwest was called Hollywood and she really like the name. So when she got back home, she told her husband she wanted to name it Hollywood. And she said, ‘I chose the name Hollywood simply because it sounds nice and because I’m superstitious. And holly brings good luck.’
Melissa: So let’s talk about that sign — the Hollywood sign on the hill overlooking the city. That now famous Hollywood sign was put up in 1923. But as I know you know, Dave and maybe some of our audience knows: It used to say Hollywoodland.
Melissa: Because it was an advertisement for a housing development and it was lit up by 4000 lightbulbs that would blink in different segments to draw your attention to it. In 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce took it over, remove the word land, so that would just advertise their neighborhood. And they removed the lightbulbs. And that created the iconic symbol that we now associate with movies.
Melissa: So I was curious about how this little patch of land, it’s about 50 square miles, became basically the sorld’s center for entertainment.
Melissa: Why Hollywood? So it starts with an argument over patents and the fact that California has lots of sunshine. So in 1897, Thomas Edison, who is in way less-glamorous New Jersey. No disrespect to New Jersey. He had the motion picture patent for what he called the Kinetoscope and was basically the first motion-picture machine. Film studios wanted to be using it, so they moved to California to get as far away from him as possible to try to outrun the lawsuits. They figured they were in California — they could just ditch over the border to Mexico and avoid being sued. So that was the original impetus to go there. In 1917, his control over the patent was ruled unlawful and against the public interest.
Melissa: So the film industry was able to take off after that. And Southern California was a great place to do it. At the time,you needed a lot of light to capture images on film. And Los Angeles has beautiful temperatures and lots of lots of sunlight. And the terrain could double for the Wild West or Africa or Australia or other exotic locales. So they could mimic lots of places in the world right there in California.
David: And they still do.
Melissa: OK, two fun facts before I wrap up. OK, documentaries were originally called Actuality Films.
Melissa: Yeah, I find that so charming. The first actuality film was produced in 1914 by Edward Curtis, and he is a photographer who took really famous portraits of Native American tribes, which I mentioned in an article on our website when I wrote about the Morgan Library in New York.
Melissa: Fun fact number two. Originally the term movies referred to the people who made the films, not the films themselves. And it was derogatory. [laughter] People who lived in Hollywood were, like, who are these movies moving into our neighborhood? And now the films are called movies. So that’s Hollywood.
David: OK! Now, are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie.
Melissa: I am.
David: OK, so let’s talk about the Academy Awards because I had to tighten up the scope because there are so many things you could talk about in Two Truths and a Lie in Hollywood. So here are three statements about the Oscars. Two of them are true. One is not. Here we go. One, there is a person who’s received two Oscars for the same performance in one movie. Two, the most awkward 11 minutes and 31 seconds on broadcast television ever was during the 1989 Academy Awards.
Melissa: I mean, I believe that.
David: And number three, there’s a man who’s been nominated for the Oscar 21 times and had zero wins.
Melissa: Just read me the first one again.
David: All right. There is a person who has received two Oscars for the same performance in one movie. So he’s he did one role in one movie and got two Oscars for it.
Melissa: Ok, first statement. I think it sounds just wacky enough to be true. I’m going to say true. It is true.
David: Yeah. His name was Harold Russell. It was veteran in WWII. He lost both of his hands in the war during a training exercise in North Carolina. In 1946, he was in the movie The Best Years of Our Lives. That movie is about three service men readjusting to civilian life after they come home. He was cast to play a man who was recovering from PTSD. He did really well. He was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor, but he wasn’t a professional actor. So the Academy considered him a long shot to win, but they wanted to recognize his performance. So they gave him an honorary Oscar for, ‘Bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.’
Melissa: That’s really lovely. And then he won!
David: Later that same night. He won Best Supporting Actor. That’s so cool. According to reports of the time the theater erupted in applause.
Melissa: That’s really nice.
David: Yeah, The Best Years of Our Lives went on to be the best picture of that year. And Russell later served on the President’s Committee for the Employment of the Handicapped in a post that was appointed by John F. Kennedy.
Melissa: Good for him. That’s a really nice story.
David: Isn’t that nice? The next one, the most awkward 11 minutes and 31 seconds on TV ever. I’m going through this is of course subjective, but it is also scientific fact.
Melissa: [laughter] Tell us.
David: So there have been no shortage of awkward moments during the Oscars. To remind you: There is John Travolta destroying Idina Menzel’s name in 2014, where he said something like, Adela Dazim. [audio of John Travolta]
David: And the apology at the 2014 Oscars where he’s massaging her face, which somehow is worse. [laughter]
Melissa: It was worse. Just thinking about it made my palms start sweating.
David: Yeah, that. That’s what we’re going for here. There is Seth Macfarlane performing a song called We Saw Your Boobs in 2013.
Melissa: On the Oscars —
[Seth Macfarlane singing ‘we saw your boobs in Lawless. Jodie Foster in _The Accused.’]
Melissa: Super classy.
David: This is a song in which he and the Gay Men’s Choir of Los Angeles sing about actresses he’d seen topless in the movies.
Melissa: Nope. Hard pass.
David: And it’s presented as farce: ‘If things are going really poorly, I do something like this.’ But he still does two verses in two choruses of that.
Melissa: We will not be putting that video in the show notes.
David: But then there’s the 1989 opening act. I remembered it as being painful at the time. I saw it on YouTube recently. Time has not been kind to this. Let me let me paint a picture. [laughter] OK, so it starts with an actress dressed as Snow White —
[clip of Snow White talking at the Oscars]
David: And she introduces herself to the stars of 1989 by walking up and down the aisle. They all look aghast at this whole thing. She quotes the song ‘Memories’ and ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ substituting lyrics. The curtain goes up on a set that looks like the Coconut Grove, which is an old nightclub. Merv Griffin starts singing. He sings, ‘I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts’ in a horrible Cockney accent.
Melissa: It sounds like a fever dream.
David: Yes. He introduces a bunch of older stars who are on stage in this set.
Melissa: Oh, they dragged old stars into it?
David: And then Merv Griffin introduces Rob Lowe as Snow White’s blind date. And they flirt. And then they do a version of ‘Proud Mary.’ [loud laughter]
[clip of them singing Proud Mary]
David: And while they’re doing this, the tables and chairs of the Coconut Grove are revealed to be chorus dancers who stand up in table costumes and start dancing.
David: So it’s intended to be camp, but I don’t think camp at the Oscar ceremony works at all. Days later, 17 Hollywood stars, including Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, and Gregory Peck signed an open letter calling the program, ‘an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry.’ Disney pursued legal action. It was bad. It was bad.
Melissa: We will definitely put that video in the show notes.
David: So the third statement: There’s a man who’s been nominated for an Oscar 21 times and never won.
David: It is. That’s a lie, but only just. Kevin O’Connell is a sound mixer in Hollywood, and his job title is misleading. He is responsible for everything about the sound of a picture. And because of that, he leads the large team of people who are working on that aspect of the production. So he’s worked on everything from The Empire Strikes Back to Grease to Tenet and Little Women, the one that just came out, and Jumanji. This is the guy who made the Jets roar in Top Gun and made Carole Ann sound like she was in another dimension in Poltergeist. This guy has credit.
David: So when he was really young, he was a firefighter. He was an L.A. County firefighter. And his mother, her name is Skippy. Skippy was so worried about him that she got him a job working where she worked. And she was a secretary for the head of the sound department at 20th Century Fox.
Melissa: Whoa, that’s like a Hollywood movie.
David: So he starts his career and this is 1978 and he starts at the very bottom and he does well and he works his way up and he gets his first Oscar nomination in 1983 for Terms of Endearment. And he loses to The Right Stuff, and then he’s nominated again in 1984 and 1985 and he loses and then ‘86 and ‘89 and ‘90 and he loses and loses and loses. And in ‘96, he’s nominated twice for two different movies and he loses to The English Patient.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh.
David: On the occasion of his loss in 2006, after which he lost 18 times, which was a record, he was interviewed, and he said there’s 300 to 400 films every year. Five of them get that phone call. And I’ve gotten that call 18 times. I feel really fortunate.
David: So it’s 2016, and he’s been in the industry for 39 years and he’s been losing Academy Awards for 30 of those years. He’s 0 and 20, and he’s nominated again for the WWII movie Hacksaw Ridge. And that night they call his name and he wins his first Academy Award and he gets up there and he’s super grateful. And there’s footage of this. He gets up and he thanks his team. And then he says. ‘And a special thank you tonight to my mother, Skippy O’Connell, who 39 years ago got me a job in sound. And when I said, Mom, how can I ever thank you? She said, I’ll tell you how you can thank me. You can work hard, you can work really hard, and someday you can win an Oscar and then you can thank me in front of the whole world.’.
Melissa: That gave me tears in my eyes.
David: And that’s what he did, and according to IMDB, Kevin O’Connell and his team are currently working on six films.
Melissa: Right on. That was a really good story.
David: That’s it. That’s two truths and a lie. Do you want to talk about books?
David: What d’you got?
Melissa: My first book is Valentino Will Die by Donis Casey.
Melissa: Yeah. This is a glamorous mystery thriller set in 1926 Hollywood, starring real-life silent film star Rudolph Valentino. It’s also starring a fictitious actress named Bianca LaBelle.
David: Oh, OK.
Melissa: And she plays a character named Bianca Dangereuse.
David: Bianca Dangereuse?
David: So exotic and foreign.
Melissa: So, Bianca is the heroine of this story. She was born in what’s described as ‘duller than dull’ Boynton, Oklahoma, as Blanche Tucker. She’s made it big in Hollywood. For herself and for her fans, she blurs the line between Bianca LaBelle and Bianca Dangereuse. People cannot separate those two people. It’s so iconic. In the same way that Rudolph Valentino was the Sheik to everyone.
David: He became the character.
Melissa: Yeah. So she and Rudy, she calls him Rudy –
David: That was a very different era, wasn’t it?
Melissa: Yes. Before social media when you get to see stars putting their face on and stuff.
David: Yeah. I’m not convinced getting to know stars better was a good idea for the culture.
Melissa: Definitely not for them. OK. She and Rudy, she calls him Rudy, I’m going to call him Rudy. She and Rudy are best friends — platonic best friends, and it’s really, really sweet. It’s the summer of 1926, and they’re really excited because they’re making their first movie together. One night after a few drinks, he confesses that he’s been getting death threats, and then he falls mysteriously ill.
Melissa: Bianca swears to him that she’s going to find out who’s responsible because deep down she thinks she’s Bianca Dangereuse.
Melissa: Is it one of his lovers? Is it a delusional fan, or is it mobsters? The only way to find out is for Bianca to team up with a P.I. and start investigating.
David: Does you wear a trenchcoat? Does he have a fedora?
Melissa: He’s a little jaded for sure.
Melissa: So the main plot is based on a true event. Rudolph Valentino did die suddenly in 1926 when he was just 31 years old. He was wildly famous for his role in The Shiek, which came out in 1921. Yeah. And people really thought that he was like this romantic swashbuckling womanizer. In reality, he was born in Italy and his first ambition was to be a farmer.
Melissa: But by 1926, when this story is taking place his finances were a wreck and he was forced to do the sequel, The Son of the Shiek, which he really did not want to do. Then he fell sick and he died really unexpectedly. Everyone in Hollywood kind of lost their minds. He was this huge star, so beloved, and boom, he was just gone. And it was tragic in more ways than one, because not only was he really young, but it turns out he was kind of caught in the vise grip of Hollywood — this kid who wanted to be a farmer. And he’s this huge star.
Melissa: The journalist H.L. Mencken wrote that Rudolph Valentino was, ‘precisely as happy as a small boy being kissed by 200 fat aunts.’ So that’s the backdrop for the action of the story. Having said all that, it could sound like it’s a little sad. It’s not.
Melissa: Because the story is mostly about Bianca. She is the archetype of the girl from nowhere who makes it in Tinseltown. She leaves her crappy roots in Oklahoma behind. She’s intelligent. She’s very loyal. Her character in this book is very sweet. And she has tons of integrity and she’s super brave. And when the chips are down, she does very daring ill-advised things to solve this case of what’s happening.
David: Is she’s spunky?
Melissa: She is, of course, spunky, glamorous, beautiful. So the action of the mystery and this is why I really love it for this episode of our show. The action of the mystery is intercut with stories about what’s happening on the movie sets. So sometimes when you start reading a chapter, you’re reading about the characters in the movie that they’re playing. And then the director yells, cut. And we’re back to Bianca LaBelle.
Melissa: The novel has the feel of one of those old Hollywood movies that’s about making movies.
David: Yeah, like Singing in the Rain.
Melissa: Exactly. The text of the story is actually punctuated by little title cards that comment on the action like the cards between the scenes of a silent movie. So it says things like ‘a night of respite from the glare of the spotlight’ and ‘events take an ominous turn.’ So the whole thing is a little tongue in cheek, but really fun. There are also some really fun set pieces that when I was reading them, played like a movie in my imagination. So there’s a very swanky dinner party with the Golden Age stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. They were like THE Hollywood it-couple at the time.
Melissa: There’s this big showdown on a casino that’s on a yacht floating off the coast of Los Angeles. There are gangsters and Hollywood gossip columns and sunny gardens in Beverly Hills. I mean, it’s just like the bookish equivalent of a glass of champagne, super fun. And it’s the second book in a series. So if you like these characters, you get to spend more time with them.
David: Sounds great.
Melissa: That is Valentino Will Die by Donis Casey.
David: My first book is William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. I’ve been wanting to read this book since I was in college the first time.
Melissa: We didn’t talk about that. That you actually went to film school.
David: I did.
Melissa: That was a little thing we could have dropped into the conversation.
David: It was, yeah. This book came out in March of 1987. Some of its references are pretty wonderfully dated, but it’s been on the list of the best books about screenwriting ever since. William Goldman is the Oscar winning screenwriter who wrote The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and Misery.
Melissa: Those are some really good movies.
David: Aaron Sorkin, The man behind The West Wing, called him the ‘dean of American screenwriters.’ Without Goldman, we never would have heard the line: ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’ or ‘As you wish,’ or any of the great lines from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And Deep Throat, the person who guided Woodward and Bernstein through the Watergate years never said, ‘Follow the money,’ huh?
Melissa: Huh. That was in the screenplay?
David: Goldman wrote that for him to say.
Melissa: So he takes the story and finds the truth in it and turns it into dialogue. That’s awesome.
David: Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa: What a cool skill.
David: Yep. Adventures in the Screen Trade is a book he wrote to explain the moviemaking process, and it’s in three sections. So in the first section he introduces you to what all of the different roles are. If you’re not sure what a producer does, you’ll have a better idea after you read this. He writes about who everybody is and what their responsibilities are. He talks about working with agents and movie stars and studio executives and kind of what their motivations are. He tips his strategies on getting through meetings in Hollywood. I wish we would have read that.
Melissa: That would have been helpful.
David: He talks about the fragile ego of movie stars and how even the screenplay needs to support their self-image. He talks specifically about how you should be very vague when talking about the hero of a movie so that the actor can insert themselves into a role.
Melissa: That’s awesome. Yeah, I mean, that makes sense.
David: Yeah. The first section is also where he introduces this quote for which he’s since become famous. ‘Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for certainty what’s going to work every time out. It’s a guess and if you’re lucky, an educated one.’ It reminded me a bit of some advice on songwriting I read once, which is if anybody knew how to write a hit song reliably, they would do it every single time.
David: In the second section, he tells you a bunch of stories about his life in the movie business and he talks about how he got involved in the business, which was almost by accident and who he met and what he learned. He writes about working with Laurence Olivier and Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. He tells you why he thinks some of his films failed. And there’s this bit which I love, Goldman writes, ‘There are a lot of dreadful jokes about movie funerals. The most famous, I guess, dealing with Harry Caan, the head of Columbia and perhaps the leading ogre of his era. At the services somebody expressed surprise at the number of people present to which the reply came: Give the public what they want and they’ll turn out. [laughter]
Melissa: That’s so brutal.
David: And then there’s the third section, which is easily the best part of this book for me. So for the first two-thirds of the book, he’s telling you stuff like he’s talking to you at a coffee shop or a bar. He’s just rambling through his life in Hollywood. And it’s a pleasant ride. There’s surprises and jokes. And he’s pretty charming on paper, as you might imagine. Then it’s like you get to the end of that evening and he says, ‘You know what? I like you. Drop by my office tomorrow and I’ll show you how the work gets done.’
Melissa: That’s awesome.
David: Yeah. So the third section, he takes a short story he’s written and adapts it for the screen.
Melissa: Oh, that’s so cool.
David: Yeah. He gives you the story. He gives you the finished screenplay. He tells you about each of the decisions he’s made and why he made them and how he thought about it. Do we need this character? When should we introduce this problem? All that kind of thing. And then he hands that screenplay to a bunch of movie makers to get their take. So he talks to a set designer, a cinematographer, an editor, a composer, a director, and he asks them about how they would treat the story.
Melissa: What a great way to teach people how to do that.
David: Yeah, it’s amazing. So you hear their voices and you get a better sense of how they approach what they do. And each of them brings their own problems to the screenplay. The cinematographer worries about making some of the visual moments work emotionally. The composer attaches instruments to some of the main characters and talks about how you would build that. The director argues with the writer about this story itself, like, does this work? I don’t think it works and is it worth doing? And suddenly the whole project is in question. [laughter] I’m not alone in my excitement about the third section of this book. In a review, the filmmaker John Sayles wrote that the book’s final section is ‘the best discussion I’ve read on the pitfalls of tackling a screenplay.’ And it’s a fantastic read if you’ve always wondered about how movies are made or if you’re interested in the life of a Hollywood screenwriter. That’s William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade.
David: I also want to mention that Goldman wrote 20 novels in addition to his screenplays.
David: Yeah. And I think he considered himself a novelist first and a screenwriter second. He also wrote two other books about the entertainment business, 1990s Hype and Glory, which is about his experience while serving on the juries at the Cannes Film Festival and the Miss America pageant —
Melissa: Whoa… diametrically opposed.
David: Yeah, and in 2000 he published _Which Lies Did I Tell?’ In that book, he talks about how he decided not to write a movie about the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa that we talked about in our Paris episode.
Melissa: My next pick is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This is a historical novel set in 1950s Hollywood and present day New York. And it’s fictional, but it reads like a tell-all Hollywood memoir with love stories and betrayals and movie set rivalries. It is a delight. I loved this book. Here’s the setup. Evelyn Hugo is a beloved Hollywood icon, and she’s finally ready to share her life story, including the truth about her scandalous seven marriages and the one true love of her life. So this is the story of a lifetime for the right journalist.
David: It feels a little bit like Sunset Boulevard. The aging star comes and wants to tell areporter everything that has happened.
Melissa: Yes. So everyone is very surprised when Evelyn chooses a pretty much unknown magazine writer named Monique, including Monique. She’s like, Why do I have this job? And Evelyn is basically like, Stop asking me questions. Do you want it or not? [laughter] So Monique takes the job. Because a) it’s a great opportunity for her and b) her life is kind of bottoming out. She and her husband are getting a divorce and her career at the magazine has kind of stalled a little bit. And she’s thinking this could be the thing that turns my life around. So we have two women who are at kind of turning points in their lives and come together to make this book happen.
David: And is this book charming or is it hard edge?
Melissa: The word that came to mind when you asked me that was enthralling. I mean, it really does feel like sitting down with an actress and having her tell you secrets that she’s not told anyone before.
Melissa: o some of it is sad. Some of it is very exciting when she’s talking about going to awards shows. But it also very clearly depicts how she’s wearing this gorgeous custom gown and these amazing jewels. And she goes in a limo to the awards show and she has champagne. And you would look at that and think this woman has the world by the tail. But then you’re also seeing her real life and no one who goes through that many husbands has a happy life. So we also see the downside of being a star in Hollywood. The thing that I liked about it is that she’s not, ‘Oh, poor me. My life is so hard. It’s very difficult being a star.’ Like she is not self pitying at all. She wants to tell the truth of her life and find some peace. So the two women sit down in Evelyn’s stunning, luxurious penthouse apartment in New York, and she talks. I am not a Hollywood memoirs person, generally speaking. Because I like the idea of hearing the stories, but I always feel let down by the quality of the writing because actors and actresses are not necessarily gifted writers or storytellers.
David: Yeah, that’s not where their skill lies.
Melissa: Yes. This was wildly entertaining for me because you have the content of a Hollywood memoir, and then you have the very capable hands of the author shaping the story, choosing the language. So it’s like the ultimate memoir because it’s beautifully written. I just really, really loved it. Beyond the personal aspects of Evelyn’s life in Hollywood, we also see how hard it was for her to be a movie star. And be a woman of color. She is Cuban. She has a bombshell body that nobody can get over. It comes up all the time, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, got it. I know. Like, look at. Yes, yeah, I see it too.’ When she gets to Hollywood, she bleaches her hair blonde to better fit the idea of a golden Hollywood girl.
David: Of course.
Melissa: his is not going to be news to anyone, but it’s very poignantly described in the book. Her beauty is very obviously a blessing and a curse. It’s the thing that gets her in the door. It’s the thing that gets attention. It is the thing that ultimately gets her to success. She is a great actress, but people paid attention to her first because she was beautiful.
Melissa: That makes other women jealous. It causes men to underestimate how intelligent she is. She’s criticized for being too ambitious. So we really do get to see kind of the nastier underbelly of how Hollywood works.
Melissa: While all of that can sound heavy, I feel like this is also very dishy and fun. Evelyn is a character that you can really root for, even when she’s being unlikable. And there are things that she does where I was, like, ‘Whoa, girl, what are you doing?’ Because she was very ambitious and she was trying to escape a really yucky past. She was wrestling with having this great love for one of the people in her life and not really knowing how to make that work. Her voice when she’s describing her life is perfect. It’s wistful, but also steely, sometimes she can be really vulnerable. She can be very hard edged. She felt like a real person. I had to keep reminding myself, ‘Evelyn Hugo is not a real actress.’ Some of the things that happen in the story are things that you might expect when hearing the story of a Hollywood bombshell. But there are plenty of surprises and little twists and quirks of character that are unexpected.
Melissa: So even though it has the feel of a Hollywood memoir, it is not cliche at all. Parts of it feel really, really fresh. I was really surprised at how much this story moved me. I was expecting it to just be like a sexy Hollywood romp and be glitzy. And it definitely has that like it has those fun parts, but it’s really full of — she is full of — different kinds of love. In her relationships with the different people, so there’s platonic love and romantic love and passionate, desperate love for her children. It was really, really moving. At one point, she actually says ‘Uou do not know how fast you’ve been running, how hard you have been working, how truly exhausted you are until someone stands behind you and says it’s OK, you can fall down now. I’ll catch you.’ I feel like that really summarizes her character. She’s outrunning her past, she’s trying to run towards fame and really she just wants to sit down with somebody and feel safe.
Melissa: So the author’s name, Taylor Jenkins Reid might be familiar because she also wrote Daisy Jones & the Six, which was huge when it came out in 2019. And that’s the story of a 1970s rock group. She is really, really gifted at recreating these kind of iconic eras in time and pulling stories that you can personally connect to out of those kind of larger-than-life moments. I was also very excited to learn that this book is being adapted into a TV series.
David: Right on!
Melissa: And Taylor Jenkins Reid is writing the adaptation.
David: Oh, great.
Melissa: So I feel like the story is being protected in very safe hands. That is The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
David: My second book is The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz. This is the book for you if, like me, you’ve been to a movie theater in the last couple of years and stopped and thought, What is happening right now? What is going on? Why are all the movies about superheroes and why do I feel like I’m being spoken down to all the time? And what happened to little dramas or comedies or movies with any original ideas at all? And why is TV a better place for story right now?
Melissa: I have had those thoughts.
David: Yeah, it’s hard not to.
Melissa: Remember when Knives Out came out and everyone collectively lost their minds because it was a story we had not —
David: Seen in the last 20 years?
Melissa: With lots of atmosphere and great acting and a fun story and surprises. I feel like that movie felt like I’m going to the movies.
Melissa: It had that ‘I’m going on an adventure’ feeling.
David: Yeah. The author of this book is Ben Fritz is an editor now for The Wall Street Journal. He previously covered Hollywood for the Los Angeles Times and Variety. He knows something and his writing is very approachable. This book explains why the last 20 years in movies have played out the way they have. This book is also a great introduction to the inside baseball of movie studio production, you really get a sense of how movie executives think about things. Most of the time, that’s not pretty,
David: But I found it interesting. Fritz talks about sort of four major forces that have pushed the industry in the last 20 years. So first, there’s the collapse of the DVD market. So, like, if you remember when we used to go to Target and there were DVDs in the back row and you’d buy those? That meant that Hollywood could make a guaranteed profit on almost any movie that they put out. And that all collapsed about 15 years ago with streaming mostly because of Netflix and Redbox. And nothing’s really made up for that since then. Two, there’s the growth of the international audience last year, China surpassed us for movie ticket sales for the first time.
David: Yeah, and that’s been coming for a long time, but it’s here now. China is now the world’s biggest film box office, and this has been building for years. That means that movies have to play to a much wider audience than they have previously. Also, studios will please the country’s censors if it means getting a film released in the country. Three, there’s been the aggressive takeover of the franchise movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe demonstrated that you could have a blockbuster each time, every time.
David: This did not go unnoticed. Every studio in Hollywood reacted to that. And four, there’s the rise of good television and particularly Netflix and the reluctance of people to leave their homes to see a good drama when there’s one on in the living room. A lot of Fritz’s research comes from a hack of Sony Pictures. So back in 2014, a North Korean hacker group broke into Sony Pictures and leaked a ton of material, online. Emails, salary info, screenplay notes about then-unreleased movies. And it was said that they were driven to do that because Sony was about to release a movie called The Interview. The Interview is a movie from James Franco and Seth Rogen where they make fun of North Korea.
David: If you were going to ask me in 2013, which two stars are the least likely to cause an international incident that will lead to the hacking of Sony Pictures? I probably would have gone with the two laid-back stoners who like to do bro-coms. But these are the times we live in. So in any case, tens of thousands of emails were leaked and the author spent about a year reading them.
Melissa: I feel like I would feel really oogey after even an hour of reading them.
David: And impressively, he sort of like takes all that information and uses it. And it doesn’t feel exploitative. As a result, a good chunk of this book focuses on then Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal. She is failing through this period of Hollywood becoming all about the franchise. They are not keeping up. He uses her own emails to illustrate how it’s happening. So you get used to hearing her email voice, which is frenetic and 24/7 and usually punctuation free.
Melissa: You know, it’s really interesting as you’re talking about this. I’m realizing how, for example, Eric Larson goes to archives to see primary materials — people’s journals, newspaper accounts of the time.
Melissa: And thinking about how people’s emails and texts and tweets are now the primary research. Wow. With weird acronyms and no punctuation and maybe some meems or gifs attached.
David: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So Pascal comes off in this book as a studio executive who loves movies and is mostly loved by the people she works with, which we are led to believe is rare. But she sort of still takes a fall because she wants to make mid-level, adult-driven dramas. So like I said, the book presents executives thinking about movies. Some of that’s unpleasant; some of it’s really interesting. For an example of both, here’s a bit about the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fritz writes, ‘To decide which film to make first, Marvel convened focus groups, but they weren’t convened in order to ask a random cross-section of people which storylines and characters they’d most like to see on screen. Instead, Marvel brought together groups of children, showed them pictures of superheroes, and described their abilities and weapons. And then they asked the kids which one they would most like to play with as a toy.’
Melissa: Oh, no.
David: And the overwhelming answer to the surprise of many at Marvel was Iron Man.
Melissa: And is that how we got the first Iron Man movie?
David: That’s how we got the first Iron Man movie. There is a section of this book that’s about the fall of movie stars. People used to go and see Will Smith and Adam Sandler and Tom Cruise and Sandra Bullock, and that’s not what it used to be. What happened, audience’s loyalties shifted not to other stars, but to franchises. Today, no person has the box office track record that Tom Cruise once did, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone will again. But Marvel Studios does. Harry Potter does. Fast and Furious does. And then there’s Disney and how they seem to have come to own the world through Pixar and Marvel and Lucasfilm and Star Wars, Fritz writes, ‘Disney approaches movies like Apple Approaches Consumer Products.’ He goes on to say that Disney’s secret to success has been slashing the number of movies made per year by two-thirds and largely abandoning any type of film that costs less than $100 million.
David: vOr is based on an original idea or appeals to any group smaller than all the moviegoers around the globe. I think if you love the movies, I think you’ll find this book informative and fascinating and frequently enraging. But I definitely think it’s worth your time. This book is The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz.
Melissa: OK! My last book is Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth. The description is a whopper. I don’t know if you’re ready.
Melissa: This is a lesbian Gothic haunted house novel featuring a story within a story within a story. Set in Rhode Island and Hollywood. With black-and-white illustrations done in a Gilded Age style and yellowjackets as characters in the story.
Melissa: I feel like my work here is done. [laughter]
David: That’s a lot to hang a book on.
Melissa: It’s a pretty big book. Yeah, it’s 630 pages. But it’s so engrossing, you don’t even notice like. It takes the perfect amount of time to tell the story it needs to tell. Let’s put it that way. Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 1902. We’re in Rhode Island at a private girls school called the The Brookhant’s School for Girls. And we meet Clara and Flo. They are completely infatuated with each other the way only adolescent people can be. They live and breathe for each other. And they also share a love for Mary MacLane, who is a real person. So let me tell you about Mary MacLane, because I was not familiar with her.
Melissa: Mary MacLane was a controversial Canadian-American writer. She was nicknamed The Wild Woman of Butte. And she wrote an infamous memoir when she was 19 called The Story of Mary MacLane.,
David: Butte, Montana?
Melissa: Yeah. So her memoir is sexy and self-aware and all about her own ego and her own self-worth and her sexual attractions, including her love for other women. It sold 100,000 copies in its first month when it was published in 1901.
David: That’s amazing.
Melissa: OK, so that is all true. So back in the novel, we have Clara and Flo and they are obsessed with this book. They’re into each other.
David: I can imagine this would be to this book, very powerful book in 1991.
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah. So they create a secret club called the Plain Bad Heroines Society. And the rationale is described like this in the novel: ‘There never seem to be any plane heroines except _Jane Eyre), and she was very unsatisfactory. She should have entered into marriage with her beloved Rochester in the first place. I should have let there be a dozen mad wives upstairs. But I suppose the author thought she must give her heroine some desirable thing — high moral principles — since she was not beautiful. I wish someone would write a book about a plain bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.’
Melissa: So this is what Mary MacLane gives to these girls. So one day, our two students, Clara and Flo, are having a romantic tryst in the orchard by the school when they are attacked and killed by a swarm of yellowjackets.
David: That’s horrible.
Melissa: Over the next few years, there are a few more deaths and the school gets a reputation for being both cursed and haunted. So far, so Gothic.
David: This is so Edward Gorey all the way.
Melissa: Yes! Now we jump to the modern storyline. The school has become the set for a movie based on the Brookhant’s story. And three young women who are involved with the movie get caught up in a sexy, messy relationship with each other.
Melissa: It’s fabulous. So our three girls are the hilariously named Harper Harper, OK. The book explains why she’s named Harper — I don’t want to ruin it. It’s very amusing. She is a crazy-famous actress and lesbian it-girl of the moment. There’s another actress who’s the daughter of a former scream queen, and she herself is a former child star and she’s trying to make a comeback and build a reputation as an adult actress.
Melissa: And then there’s the author of the book on which the film is based. All of these women have something to prove. All of them are bringing their own baggage with a capital B to this movie set and to their relationships, and it is awesome.
David: When’s the movie being filmed?
Melissa: Now. So the threads of the 1902 story and the modern story continue to intertwine as we follow these three women and their experiences making the film.
And weird stuff happens because again, we are in a Gothic novel, even though we’re talking about modern Hollywood.
David: Right. And you can’t have a Gothic novel without having a few ghosts around.
Melissa: Exactly. So is the set haunted and cursed? Are they hallucinating? Is someone pulling pranks and just making up the supernatural happenings? You have to read every page to find out.
Melissa: So here are things that I love about this book — and there are a lot of them.
David: Beyond the obvious.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s very self-aware in a way that I found super-entertaining. The narrator addresses the reader in a Victorian fashion. So every once in a while, the narrator says, ‘dear reader’. The narrator is really smart and snarky and kind of becomes another character in the story, even though they’re not in the story.
Melissa: There are footnotes.
David: Oh really?
Melissa: I love novels with footnotes because like having a little Greek chorus commenting on the action. And they’re funny. They’re really funny and snarky. Here’s an example of a footnote from early in the book: ‘Everything else to come in these pages comprises the story of three heroines from the present and more heroines from the past and how they all collided around Brookhants, and a book, and also a book about Brookhants. I’ll say it again: Brookhants, and a book, and a book about Brookhants.’
Melissa: So you see what I mean? It’s like it almost knows it’s being over the top and ridiculous. And it’s, like, this is so much fun. It’s like a villain twisting his mustache. You could choke on the Gothic atmosphere. It is very rich. It’s very eerie and moody. And sometimes when I was reading it at night, I got little tingles up the back of my neck. I wouldn’t say that it’s scary necessarily, unless you have a low threshold for creepy stuff. There are a lot of yellowjackets. The Yellow Jackets are harbingers of doom and they show up from time to time. It reminds me a little bit of The Turn of the Screw in that you’re never quite sure if it’s a physical haunting or if it’s everything is just happening in the characterss minds, because they’re maybe losing their grip on reality.
Melissa: I whooped out loud with joy while I was reading it a couple of times.
David: It’s a whoop-worthy book?
Melissa: For me, it’s a whoop-worthy. So even though a big chunk of it is set on the coast of Rhode Island in this Victorian school, it’s always a Hollywood story. There are big chunks of it where they’re in Hollywood preparing to go make this movie and then they go to Rhode Island. But even when they’re in Rhode Island, it is not about Rhode Island. It’s always Hollywood. They can’t escape social media. They can’t escape the pressures of making this movie. They can’t escape the hierarchy of the actresses on set. And none of them can let go, even when things get really scary for them, none of them can let go of their pursuit of fame.
Melissa: So if you like Gothic bibes and you like sentences like this one: ‘There was that in the air, which is there when something is going to happen.’ This is the book for you. This is Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth.
Melissa: It was one of those books that when I was reading it, I would get between chapters and have to take a break to just think about how great it is. Do you do that when you’re reading? You have to take a little rest because it’s so good?
Melissa: This is like that.
David: Those are five books we love set in Hollywood. That’s a really good set, too. You can visit our show notes at StrongSenseofPlace.com for links and details and videos and all kinds of wonderful stuff.
Melissa: I feel like we have so many good things to include in the show notes. This time we do have lots of good videos, glamorous Hollywood stars.
David: Do you want to talk about the blog post you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: We have something fun and new for us. We surveyed our audience and asked them what books they would like to see adapted into movies. And who they would like to star in them. So I have taken that information and whipped it into a confection of a blog post. I also am really excited about Food+Fiction this time because we’ve got a story about the Cobb salad which was invented at the legendary Brown Derby in Hollywood in 1937. The recipe is super easy. It’s really delicious. And you get to feel like a superstar while you eat it. What can be better than that?
Melissa: That’s all on our blog.
David: Fantastic. So this is the first episode of Season 3. We are going to have 11 more episodes, once every two weeks from now until I believe October.
Melissa: That is a long stretch.
David: It is a long stretch of work. If you would like to support us in this long stretch of work, look no further than Patreons. We have a Patreon where you can give us a couple of bucks a month to say ‘nice job, and I hope you guys keep going with this.’ And there’s a link to that from our show notes. If you sign up for the Patreon, you’ll also get access to special bonus content that we put on our Patreon site that isn’t available anywhere else. So if you can help us out and that would be very much appreciated. Mel, can you talk about where we are headed in our next episode?
Melissa: So this is a big thing, kind of… we are visiting virtually our first Central American country on the show. We are going to the land of sloths and the pura vida in Costa Rica.
David: Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Ysbrand Cosijn/Shutterstock.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
If you like the work we do, you can help support us through our Patreon! That'll unlock additional content, too — like Mel's recipe for Banh Mi Bowls, and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is © 2021 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.