I have always been fascinated by the rules of survival in Hollywood. “Consistency is the key – always imagine yourself in the studio as a complete bitch,” Bette Davis once admitted. “Never fool yourself into thinking that a star can become a true personal friend,” advised Billy Wilder. “Since the studios always lie, it is the responsibility of the producer to come up with even bigger lies,” said David O. Selznick.
As a collector of Hollywood war stories, I was delighted to discover this week a new book (741 pages) with an intimidating title. Hollywood: Oral History – one that greatly expanded my list of intrigues.
For the past 50 years, AFI (American Film Institute) has been semi-secretly recording and now publishing interviews with famous stars and filmmakers, thus creating an intimate Hollywood story told in the first person (HarperCollins is the publisher).
Approaching a book of this size as a summer reading, I decided to focus less on thoughtful analysis and more on combat. AFI’s collection of interviews is thus akin to walking into a cocktail party with the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Natalie Wood, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Lemmon, Wilder and George Lucas.
They are all frankly the best at exploring their rivalries and conflicts. Our “native guides” in the AFI book are Sam Wasson and Janine Basinger, two gifted cinephiles who have curated the collection (he wrote big goodbye and she is a film historian and professor at Wesleyan University).
Case in point: Was Marilyn Monroe really emotionally disturbed? To contemporaries, her depression was a ruse. “Marilyn has always been able to get her way by faking nervous breakdowns,” says Lemmon, her Harvard-educated colleague.
Was Humphrey Bogart unapproachable both on and off the set? No, but by the fact that he repeatedly snapped at everyone in a row, “knocked down the shit”, survived in “a profession not suitable for adults” (his words).
How did the superstars of the 1930s and 40s deal with restrictive studio contracts? “They fucking owned us – you have to learn how to deal with it,” Wood said.
Signed as a child and having lived through nine Andy Hardy films with Mickey Rooney, Anne Rutherford concluded: “The only way to find decent scripts is to steal them from makeup or costume designers.”
Ultimately, De Havilland got so mad about her studio deal that she broke the rule – she sued Warner Bros and won: “They owned me and sold me like a commodity,” she said.
Only a few stars (like Cary Grant) have come out of this fight of being loved or loved by colleagues. Some were considered grossly aloof (Bing Crosby), hopelessly unpredictable (Judy Garland), or simply stupid (Montgomery Clift).
In coping with mood swings, each director of that period had their own strategy for dealing with narcissistic intrigues. “I stayed away from the stars on a social level – as far as possible,” Wilder said.
“If you are faced with an actor’s personality problem, an expensive dinner and a lot of wine is the only way to melt them,” says Elia Kazan.
Initially intimidated by director Betty Davis’ challenge, Ron Howard humbly pleaded, “Please just call me Ron, Miss Davis.” To which Davis snapped: “First I will decide whether I like you or not.”
The most effective way to settle an argumentative actor is to say, “How about we shut up?” advised George Cukor, a gifted director fired in week four. gone With the Wind. His style was not liked by Clark Gable, who considered Cukor to be basically a “female director”.
Selznick, the producer, brought in first Victor Fleming, then Sam Wood, then Fleming again to subdue Gable, as well as Vivien Leigh and de Havilland, the fierce sisters.
So, overall, did the studio system in its prime work for its outstanding employees? Each film factory produced from 40 to 80 films a year and had a huge staff of players. Fox had 76 writers under contract, while MGM had 250 actors under contract.
But while powerful studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer or Harry Cohn made big decisions, they lacked the structure to manage talent. A writer like William Faulkner signed with Fox, then disappeared for a year and still received weekly checks from the studio. Such outstanding talents as George Bernard Shaw or F. Scott Fitzgerald roamed the studios, but no one knew how to use them.
Studio advertising departments, run by tyrants like MGM’s Howard Strickling, were free to invent the careers and identities of would-be “talent”. Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Kiesler, was given the name of the deceased actress, which became her new name. She humbly protested, but no one cared.
Leslie Caron could never pose for a studio photo without a cat, but she hated cats. Lemmon was signed to audition for the role of a serious businessman, but was cast as a young comedian. Nelson Eddy, a singer and actor, remained under a lavish contract with MGM for five years, but was never asked to appear in a studio film.
Of course, many entertaining films have emerged from this chaos, as well as expensive knick-knacks. Thus, the AFI book opens with a quote from director Ridgway Callow stating, “Hollywood is the most violent and despicable city in the world.”
Co-author Wasson, wading through a treasure trove of interviews, had a different perspective: “Hollywood in its prime was a happy and productive place. Behind the scenes there was always a struggle, but the filmmakers were supported by pride in their work and a sense of community.
Mind you, I personally wasn’t there at the time.