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The Bad And The Beautiful: Hollywood In The Fifties

Journalists Kashner and MacNair retell all the good stories, dish all the right gossip, and replay all the nastiest quotes. But their response to novelist James Ellroy's question, "Where is the 'City of Nets' for the 1950s?" doesn't synthesize familiar material in fresh ways that made Otto Friedrich's 1986 history of Hollywood in the '40s so enlightening.

How much you like this once-over-lightly portrait of Tinseltown during the decade of blacklisting and budget-busting costume dramas depends on how much you’ve read about it before. Journalists Kashner and MacNair retell all the good stories, dish all the right gossip, and replay all the nastiest quotes. But their response to novelist James Ellroy’s question, “Where is the ‘City of Nets’ for the 1950s?” doesn’t display the gift for synthesizing familiar material in fresh ways that made Otto Friedrich’s 1986 history of Hollywood in the ’40s so enlightening. Mind you, “The Bad and the Beautiful” is still a lot of fun.

One of the book’s best chapters, “Wink, Titter, and Flirt,” zestfully chronicles the sordid histories of ur-tabloid Confidential magazine, its publisher, girly-mag veteran Robert Harrison, and editor Howard Rushmore, an anti-Communist so extreme that even J. Edgar Hoover thought he was a “nut.” While cheerfully depicting Confidential’s obsession with commies, pansies, cheating spouses, and mixed-race romances, Kashner and MacNair remind us that this sleazy rag was a salutary kick in the pants for the Hollywood press, which “in the 1950s was about as autonomous as Tass … all the stories about stars were dictated by studio bosses.”

Chapters about “Sweet Smell of Success” (“a toxic little film, impeccably made”) and “Night of the Hunter” (notable for an unusually sympathetic portrait of director Charles Laughton) are also good, primarily due to the authors’ enthusiasm for the films in question. Similar enthusiasm, however, can’t disguise the fact that their chapter on “Rebel Without a Cause” has nothing new to say about this much-analyzed film. Director Nicholas Ray’s affairs with stars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (and maybe James Dean) are not exactly breaking stories, nor is the fact that Dean’s performance “would seal his status as an American icon.”

The book’s highly episodic structure does nothing to distract from the fact that most of its anecdotes are shopworn. Lana Turner’s bad taste in boyfriends (including one who had the bad taste to be stabbed by her daughter), the rivalry between Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, Kim Novak’s scandalous romance with Sammy Davis, Jr., the fact that Edward G. Robinson had to sell his fabulous art collection to pay his legal bills during a bitter divorce and a three-year battle with the House Committee on Un-American Activities — this is a good place to catch up on these stories if you’ve never heard them before.

If you have, you may find yourself annoyed by the authors’ clunky prose (ingenue Susan Harrison, they tell us,

“had been a former waitress”) and spotty fact-checking. Only historians of Depression-era culture will care that “the WPA Federal Theater of Action” was actually the radical Theatre of Action, which had no connection at all to the New Deal’s WPA program, but it’s symptomatic of a general sloppiness that attentive readers will sense even when they don’t know the particulars.

Those less demanding will thoroughly enjoy this capable enough rehash. After all, everyone has to start their Hollywood reading somewhere.

The Bad And The Beautiful: Hollywood In The Fifties

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Nov. 21, 2019.