From hellhole to benign workplace, there’s a Tinseltown for everyone in new books about making movies.
Movie fans seem to think Hollywood is falling short this summer. “Barbenheimer” has helped turn around what was becoming a grim season, with other blockbusters such as the “Mission Impossible” and “Indiana Jones” sequels and “Elemental” not busting as many blocks as expected/hoped.
Maybe those fans are filling in the gaps with Hollywood-themed books? For whatever reason, a lot of current and upcoming fiction tackles moviemaking, ranging from Kathleen Rooney’s “From Dust to Stardust,” due Sept. 5 and mostly set in the silent film era, to Tom Hanks’ “The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece,” which takes place on the present-day set of a Marvel-like movie. There’s also Lindsay Lynch’s new “Do Tell,” whose main character is a gossip columnist in the era when “Gone With the Wind” was sweeping the Oscars, and James Ellroy’s 1960s-set “The Enchanters,” which hits stores Sept. 12.
Ellroy’s book is the best — and, maybe not coincidentally — darkest of the four. Hanks’ book presents its filmmakers with a couple of hurdles, but it’s mostly the tale of a merry band of hard workers who get the job done. Ellroy’s book, inspired by the death of Marilyn Monroe and her reputed relationships with John F. and Robert Kennedy, presents Hollywood as a violent cesspool, virtually the opposite of Hanks’ sweet tale.
“The Enchanters” also underscores one thing that might be a rule for Hollywood novels: Use real names. Ellroy’s profane, scuzzy, hilarious tale is crammed with dope — real or imagined — on dozens of celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor and the aforementioned POTUS. It gives his book a huge leg up because we know these “characters” the second he name-drops them.
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Lynch’s book could benefit from star names. A sort-of memoir by a fictional gossip columnist named Edie O’Dare, “Do Tell” has an entertaining point of view — columnists are usually the villains of Hollywood books, not the stars, and Lynch has compelling insight into why her protagonist slides from second-rate acting to first-rate tittle-tattling. But too much of “Do Tell” describes events, rather than enlivening them, and her dozens of Hollywood characters aren’t memorable. “Do Tell” reads as if Lynch wrote it using real names and then changed them. The effect is that we simultaneously know the characters too well and not well enough.
One thing “Do Tell” teaches us is that it doesn’t really seem like gossip unless you know who’s being gossiped about. Ellroy clearly knows that — it almost doesn’t matter if what he says is true about Montgomery Clift because, once Ellroy has mentioned it and dozens of other tawdry tidbits, it feels true in his book’s gritty world.
Kathleen Rooney’s Hollywood is, like Hanks’, a kinder one. Central character Doreen O’Dare (coincidentally, Rooney and Lynch chose the same surname for their protagonists) is a silent movie ingenue who is telling her story, many decades later, to a woman who’s putting together a museum exhibit about O’Dare’s career and the one-ton dollhouse whose pieces the actor collected over the course of it.
There’s not much narrative momentum but Rooney has done her research and she presents it gracefully, whether it’s how much makeup needed to be applied for early, black-and-white movies (a lot), what happened to Mary Pickford’s career (the Jazz Age didn’t fit her girlish image) and how showbiz has treated women during its more than 100-year history (badly).
Like Ellroy’s and other vivid novels about the movies, it works because it seems to be creating a movie in your mind.