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
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.
In the decade since then, I haven’t been back to LA. Not physically at least. When I drink a martini, I sometimes think of the city, poured like custard over its thousand square mile plain (yes it’s that vast). When I read in the newspapers of Steiger’s death, and Lemmon’s and Leigh’s, I was suddenly back in their lives, in our gentle friendships. In my work and thoughts I started travelling east rather than west; countries like Iran became my new bailiwick. I have charted this shift in cinema and in myself through a decade of writing in Prospect. If you’ve read some of those articles you’ll have noticed that I haven’t really been all that focused on American cinema, and when I have written about it, it has been with a rather distant eye.
That all changed recently because I went back to LA for a month, to film part of a history of cinema. The city is still vast, and moving, and redolent of other things, but I’d never before been there for so long. Also, I think, with age (I turned 45 this May), I can see it better and notice more. The distant star is a bit more distant now—Dennis Hopper has bone cancer, Marilyn’s grave is even more pearly—and I’m rather less pretty. I’ve lost some of my lustre too. Maybe we’ve just met in the middle? Maybe we understand each other more now? When I was last there I got to know the place through its people. What people I met this time!
Where to start?
How about with Robert Towne, who wrote Chinatown, and restructured Bonnie and Clyde, and wrote the famous scene between Brando and Pacino in The Godfather. His house is a surrey mansion-ranch hyphenate—big boned and hardy handsome, in Pacific Palisades, not far from the Getty Centre. He’s so tall and thin that he almost teeters, like he’s wearing stilettos. He’s become frailer in recent years, and still plays with his cigars like a baby plays with a rattle, but he remains the poet laureate of LA. Unlike Mike Davis or, say, Sean Penn, Towne clearly loves the city, the way that director Federico Fellini loved Rome—aware of its iniquities, but enthralled by its mythic properties, its transformation by night. He told me that writing is like a dance in which you start by leading your partner, the story, then it starts leading you. In Chinatown, he had a story with two rapes—a woman by her father, and the Owens Valley by the department of water and power. As the dance took place he came to realise that he had to deal with the former—the more direct and personal—after the latter. He said that the best detective stories are like Oedipus Rex —the crime is before the investigator’s eyes from the start, but she or he doesn’t realise it. So it is with LA. Its crimes are there, on the surface, in the sunshine.
After talking to Towne, I felt I was wearing mythic glasses. Driving away in the car, I thought of an old interview with Agnes de Mille, the great choreographer and niece of Cecil B DeMille, in which she recalls her first trip to Los Angeles in the early 1900s, before it was a city, before it was a movie capital. It was, she says, strewn with wildflowers; she would walk in the hills and gather armfuls of eucalyptus and orange blossom; the air was full of mariposa. Such talk is heady, and dreamlike in gridlock. The splendid-unreal gardens of Beverly Hills shows that its residents still buy the myth.
Still in the realm of the unreal, my producer, our fixer and I drove into the hills and climbed down the steep scrub to the back of the Hollywood sign. There are rattlesnakes around, and I was wearing a kilt, so I did a lot of tucking. The sign beeps because of motion detectors, and bangs as it cools when the sun sets. To try to avoid visual clichés, I filmed its rivets and bolts from the back. Even deglamourised in this way, it still has a degree of sublime. The size of the letters helps. The fact that people have killed themselves there adds tragedy. And there’s the unmistakable aura of the reliquary, tacky but fascinating, the close-up presence of a legend.
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, 1954: king and queen of Hollywood’s mythic bubble
Myth is an intoxicant, of course, but just when LA’s perfume was getting too charged, we met the extraordinary Judy Balaban. Her father, Barney, ran Paramount Pictures from its heyday of Dietrich and Von Sternberg to its partial sell off in the 1960s to former car bumper manufacturer Gulf+Western. She was engaged to Montgomery Clift, friends with Brando, and Grace Kelly’s bridesmaid. In Beverly Hills in the 1950s, her house was party central. If her landing light was on, Frank and Sammy and Dean and Gene and Judy dropped by, and the martinis flowed. Balaban described these salad days beautifully, but when I asked her where they went, she detailed how events in Alabama, the rise of television and the blacklist popped the mythic bubble. She and her friends raised money for Martin Luther King. Horizons widened and 1950s cinema showed the strain. The parallel universe of Doris Day and Rock Hudson started to seem like Oz.
The peripheral vision of someone like Balaban shows that Hollywood was never quite the deluded citadel waiting to be stormed by truth-tellers like Cassavetes, Scorsese and the children of the 1960s; and even a short time in LA induces the kind of social vertigo that fuelled Balaban’s activism. To be in the city can feel like being above it, so I asked my producer to walk with me from Echo Park in the east to Venice in the west; no big shakes in the history of epic walks, but enough to make jaws drop there.
We set out at 8am. There were almost no white people on the streets. Mexicans queued for jobs outside garden centres. African-Americans pushed shopping trollies full of plastic and cans that they’d gathered to recycle, or the stuff of their lives. Amid a bundle of bedding, a woman slept. I think she was white, but her face was tanned and ruddy—the mark of a life outdoors and, maybe, booze. Someone had emptied chow mein on her makeshift bed.
You have to be blind not to see this street life, but even the high life has its caste system. I was ignored in a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, until they saw that my dining partner was Buck Henry, who wrote The Graduate. Next day, in the same place, compliments about my appearance flowed. I was dressed exactly the same as the day before.
It’s tempting to say that Hollywood was always thus, but was it? And has its main industry, film, always excluded the way society excludes? The film historian and author Cari Beauchamp—wisecracking, thoughtful and generous in equal measure—reminded me that half of the films made there before 1925 had women writers, directors and/or actors: people like Frances Marion, Alice Guy Blaché, Mary Pickford and Lois Weber. Only when Wall Street noticed that there was big money in movies did men shove the women out. Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, told me that Hollywood was and is a citadel, and has almost always excluded other sensibilities. When I met African- American director Charles Burnett, who made Killer of Sheep, perhaps the first masterpiece made by a black American, I asked him why it took the country that co-invented cinema so long to give the means of production to its black citizens. His answer was simple: racism. The African-American actress Juanita Moore, who was Oscar nominated for her role in the daring liberal weepie Imitation of Life, said: “I spent the 1950s holding open doors for white actors.”
And then there’s the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Rod Steiger once boiled with rage when I mentioned Elia Kazan, who directed him in On the Waterfront and named names to the HUAC. Even today, blacklistees like Abraham Polonsky, one of America’s greatest filmmakers, are not on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Nor is Frances Marion. And cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who shot One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, told me that when Kazan was nominated for an honorary Oscar in 1999 he, Wexler, who had shot Kazan’s film America, America and who was on the nominating committee, wrote to Kazan asking if he might say a word of apology for co-operating with HUAC. Kazan wrote back “Fuck You.” Hollywood is only a lifetime old, and HUAC is only half that. You can still smell the whisky breath of those awful days.
Too many stories like this, and Los Angeles starts to become the sort of place you wouldn’t want to meet in the middle, or walk across, or see yourself in. Yet talking in the car with Cari Beauchamp, we concluded that there’s a lot of stuff you’d need not to be interested in—movies, books, buildings, race, Mexico, gender, ecology—to be not interested in LA. Two more people confirmed this for me.
The first was director Gus Van Sant, who’s made mainstream films like Good Will Hunting, as well as avant garde work like Elephant and Gerry. Somehow, about 15 minutes into my interview with him, as he lounged on his blue sofa in his house in the hills, we were talking about the Japanese master director Yasujiro Ozu, the brilliant Belgian formalist-feminist Chantal Akerman, videogames and how they don’t cut to get a character from one place to another—you just walk them there—and how all these things led to his walking film Elephant, about the Columbine shootings, and to Last Days, which channels Kurt Cobain. I know this sounds pretentious, but it wasn’t. As I listened to Van Sant, and as I chatted to Buck Henry a few days later about a screenplay he wrote for Antonioni, and as I thought back to the richness of Robert Towne’s talk and the insights of Beauchamp and Balaban, I suddenly realised that, as with Oedipus, the truth about the kind of sensibilities that LA houses was staring me in the face. Yes, Hollywood is a citadel of sorts, built to repel—but as a bauble it is built to attract, not only audiences, but talents, types, selves, classes, genres, styles and even ideas that might burnish it. All the above people got in because of their own ability to shape shift and because the citadel is like a heat shimmer. It’s impressive, and more like itself, seen from afar.
The other person who, at the end of my trip, reminded me that LA is fertile ground, was Stanley Donen, who directed Singin’ in the Rain. He rarely gives interviews, but Buck Henry lied and said that I was worth talking to, so he did. I went to his office in Manhattan, where I met his son—unshaven, handsome, caustic. Yet it wasn’t his son. It was Donen himself. It’s still a shock to realise that he was the joymeister of MGM, then formed a production company with Cary Grant, then went through his Hitchcock phase with comedy thrillers like Charade, then made great, wry films about sadness and despair like Two for the Road and Bedazzled and, after all this, 21 films, he was still only 43.
I said to him, “when the French critic André Bazin talked about Hollywood he referred to ‘the genius of the system.’ Had the studio system any genius in it?”
Donen’s reply was that it wasn’t about genius. The system was simply a garden, a fertile patch of ground, on which many different things grew. Donen was one of those things. I’d already mixed my metaphors with citadel-bauble, but here was another image, the garden. It felt right but, also, it took me back to Agnes de Mille’s description of the flower-strewn place that she remembered long before it became a concrete pasture.
As I flew out of New York, I wondered whether, as in a movie, I had changed as a result of my adventure in LA. I think the answer is that I haven’t, partly because I did a lot of my changing there the first time round, and partly because cities like Tehran change Europeans like me far, far more. But also because, in its admixture of detraction and attraction, of pleasure and reality, of glamour and the gutter, LA is a zero-sum game. And zero-sum games change you in ways that cancel each other out.