It was the late 1990s. I was in California, mixing with some of the movie greats in the twilight of their careers—Steiger, Lemmon, Leigh. Now I’m back in LAby Mark Cousins / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Bronson gate at Paramount studios. Built in 1926, it was the citadel of LA’s golden age
I spent chunks of my thirties in Los Angeles. I had a television show on which I interviewed movie actors and directors, many from Hollywood’s golden age. Sometimes there would be a week between filming, say, Jack Lemmon and Janet Leigh, so rather than fly back home to Scotland, I’d check into a cheap hotel at the beach in Venice, buy hippie bracelets, hire a bike and cycle the boardwalk.
I was not yet at my best in those years—the late 1990s—and the city of angels was way past its. We met in the middle. I couldn’t drive, and didn’t have a car, so felt like a Martian, or a Mexican, walking those streets. LA taught me a lot about life and living. Dennis Hopper told me how to drink Martinis—Tanqueray gin, straight up, with olives. I read Mike Davis’s angry, political books about the city’s urbanism, its ecology, the design of its street seating—convex, so homeless people can’t sleep on them. I started to call Rod Steiger a friend—did I stretch the word?—and, as he told me of his depression, as I got to know of Jack Lemmon’s drink problem, I came to associate the city’s smell of eucalyptus with an overwhelming sense of the parade having gone by. My dad was still alive back then, but a melancholia entered my soul, a sense of life not being endless after all. Maybe it was because endings are everywhere in LA. I went to the grave of Marilyn Monroe—the marble is pearlised, like the grotto at Lourdes, from years of touching—and almost choked at the realisation that she died aged 36. 36! The same age I was as I placed a gardenia on her grave. An age at which I was still “coming up,” as the song says. The age by which she had given up.
I remember realising, back then, that the movie stars in the hills were not much happier than the Mexicans in the malls. They had swapped material problems for existential ones. Steiger and Leigh and Lemmon and the rest were lovely people at the end of their lives in a lovely city at the end of its life—or, rather, its first life as the host of the 20th century’s great bauble, Hollywood. The bauble had lost its lustre by the time I got to it but, somehow, this made me feel close to Hollywood, its receding sheen, the light from its distant star. Not physically close, but emotionally so, across the decades. And somewhere in this emotion, its objective correlative, was the silly-serious fact that LA made me feel sexy. I was youngish and prettyish and had “the especial slenderness of youth.” It could be argued, of course, that for us 20th-century kids, Hollywood invented young and pretty and slender. They came out of its test tubes. Maybe I had an inkling of that. Great Garbo swam naked in the pool at the famous Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard in the 1930s and, so, in my thirties, did I. I wanted to spend my whole time in LA, like the character of Neddy Merrill in John Cheever’s short story, swimming naked through the backyard pools that Mike Davis so abhors and which are the sign of the crime in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.