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January 13, 2010

HOLLYWOOD BABYLON

by Kenneth Anger

Simon & Schuster, 1975

I used to have a minor obsession with supermarket tabloids. I picked it up from my late grandmother, who read everything from The National Enquirer right on down to the now sadly defunct Weekly World News. When I visited her house every weekend as a teenager, I looked forward to my standard lunch of a bologna and cheese sandwich with a glass of instant iced tea, relaxing in the recliner with a big pile of Hollywood rags. Looking back later, I wondered how much of that stuff she read did my grandmother actually believe, and came to the conclusion that she wasn’t the type of person who would buy that Elvis was working as a gas station attendant in Possum Trot, Alabama, or that Satan’s face was spotted in the ashes above Mount St. Helen’s. She also wasn’t particularly starstruck, which begs the question of why did she read them? For that matter, why did I read them? Even long into adulthood I kept up with them, eventually adding the glossier rags like Us and In Touch, both on a higher plane of trash because they never once claimed that Bill Clinton’s cabinet was staffed with aliens.

With the rise of the internet, however, tabloid “journalism,” if you want to attach such a lofty word to it, became an animal of a different kind, one that’s bigger, uglier and harder to escape. Now you don’t have to reserve your gossip fix to just once a week anymore, you can get round the clock coverage of your favorite and not so favorite stars, to the point where they literally cannot go to the bathroom without it being reported somewhere. The trouble with that kind of oversaturation is that what’s being reported is either not terribly interesting (“Sarah Jessica Parker makes a Starbucks run!” “George Clooney buys shoes!”), or just petty and mean-spirited. The vast majority of “news” involving celebrities seems to be unsavory–someone’s cheating or being cheated on, someone was spotted snorting coke off a hooker’s ass during a private party at the Viper Room, someone is either deathly thin or punishing the scales at a massive 150 pounds, someone is teetering precariously close to the edge of sanity. Often the stories are accompanied by mug shots, photos of starlets passed out half-dressed in the back of a limousine, hospital records, police reports, quotes from anonymous so-called friends and “insiders,” and they start to read like James Ellroy novels after a while, except shitty and appalling.

There’s now an unspoken but heavily implied suggestion that while we should pity these poor stars who are struggling with flagging careers, romantic relationships gone sour, emotional disorders, various addictions and/or weight problems, we should probably also point and laugh at them as well. After all, they’ve had a good run of glamor and excitement, and let’s face it, the majority of celebrities these days really don’t deserve the fame and riches they’ve gotten, so why shouldn’t they be brought down a few pegs? This, of course, is schadenfreude, similar to that feeling you had back in high school when you heard that the prom queen broke her nose, or that her parents were going through a messy divorce. You enjoy it for a few moments, and then you start feeling a little dirty and guilty about it. Or at least, I do, and that’s why I can only take tabloid reporting in very small doses now. I realized that I was dedicating entirely too much psychic energy and interest in people that either weren’t really all that fascinating, or whose existence personally offended me. Besides, has Reese Witherspoon ever given a single thought to what I’m doing? Does Paris Hilton know that I once would have paid to watch her torn apart by wild dogs on live television? No, they don’t, so it’s ludicrous that I would have wasted even a single brain cell at their expenses.

That being said, I find myself strangely missing the fluffier, kinder days of 80s and 90s tabloids, where the focus seemed to be less on the terrible things that befell celebrities and more on the fabulous lives they led. During the 80s it seemed perfectly reasonable for people like Joan Collins to have solid gold toilets in their 60 room mansions, and we loved hearing details like that. I’m not saying that was better, mind you, just different. Now, the only thing that’s more fun than worshiping a celebrity is mocking one. We’ve gone from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to TMZ. That’s definitely not better. However, it occurred to me that the Perez Hilton school of “we’ve come not to praise Fergie but to bury her” style of tabloid reporting is hardly new. There was of course Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, both of whom turned being nosy old biddies into lucrative careers during the 40s and 50s, not to mention a host of tabloid magazines both in the US and England. Check out this doozy of a quote from the UK’s Daily Mirror in 1956, about your great-grandmother’s favorite musician, the incomparable Liberace:

“…the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.”

Daaaaamn, gurl, Perez only wishes he was that bitchy. Liberace successfully sued the Mirror for libel, the irony of which should but probably won’t be discussed in another post. Anyway, my point being, we’ve long made a hobby of building up famous people only to get an equal if not surpassing satisfaction out of watching their crashing descents. Some of these descents are recounted in near pornographic detail in Hollywood Babylon.

More like 'Hollywood BOOBYlon,' amirite?

Hollywood Babylon was written by Kenneth Anger, a former child actor and underground filmmaker. The book jacket breathlessly describes him as “the most original, influential and truly independent of all American film artists,” but Anger’s success since the 1950s has mostly been limited to the New York and Europe-based avant-garde film scene. If, like me and roughly 98.45324% of the world, you aren’t particularly well-versed in avant-garde films, it’s likely that if you’ve heard of Anger at all it’s because of Hollywood Babylon itself. Originally published in France in 1959, a US edition was released in 1965 and then promptly banned. It was released again in 1975 with extra material added, and became a minor sensation, mainly because it purported to rip the lid off the long-held belief that pre-1960s old Hollywood was a glamorous wonderland of high living and endless reward.

You know you’re in for a classy read as soon as you see the cover. Under the title is a photograph of Jayne Mansfield, her skimpy evening gown revealing what by today’s vernacular is known as a “nip slip.” Nowadays, you haven’t really made it in Hollywood as a C-list actress/singer/TV personality/reality star until your jahoobs have accidentally fallen out of the top of your dress in front of a bunch of cameras, but back in the day this was rather scandalous. To ensure that the reader notices the glimpse of Mansfieldian areola, it’s tinted the same shade of pink as her lips, the only spots of color on an otherwise stark expanse of black and gray. It fairly screams “WARNING! WARNING! TAWDRINESS AHEAD! TURN BACK NOW UNLESS YOU WANT FILTHY RUMORS AND TALES OF DESPAIR!”

Well, of course we want filthy rumors and tales of despair, we love that kind of shit, and Anger gives it to us in spades. He vividly portrays Hollywood as a soulless, relentless machine that chews up and spits out its performers, if not literally killing them then at the very least rendering them hollow, spent shells of human beings who make life hell for everyone around them. Depressed yet? Try reading the mind-numbing array of stories of drug abuse, mental illness, sexual perversion, suicide and murder. Director Erich von Stroheim? Whipped and abused his romantic partners. D.W. Griffith? Pedophile. Silent film actress Barbara La Marr? Hopeless junkie (Anger notes that she kept her stash in “a golden casket on the grand piano”). Charlie Chaplin? Liked underage girls. Actress Marion Davies? Covered up a murder that might have been committed by her sugar daddy, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Ziegfeld Girl Mary Nolan? Liked being smacked around. Rudolph Valentino? Closeted homosexual who obsessed over getting his cover, er, blown. Humphrey Bogart? Huge dick (literally as opposed to figuratively). Actress Marie Prevost? Died broke, drunk and alone, her corpse found partially chewed on by her pet dog. It goes on and on like this, for nearly 300 pages, one horrible tale after another, and the sole culprit seems to be Hollywood itself, or rather, the producers and moneychangers who dealt in humans like currency, and based their worth only in how much profit they made for their respective studios. It’s as much a cautionary tale as an expose’: “Don’t even think about trying to make it in show business, kids!” it says. “You’ll end up flailing in a gutter surrounded by dirty needles and sex fiends!”

There’s just one problem with all this: the large majority of the stories Anger writes about simply aren’t true, or at the very least inaccurate. Many of them are tired old urban legends that had already been discounted by the time the second edition of Hollywood Babylon was released in 1975, such as comedian Fatty Arbuckle raping a woman with a champagne bottle, causing her bladder to rupture and kill her (in reality it was more likely she died of complications from a botched abortion), Clara Bow engaging in a gangbang with an entire college football team and B-movie actress Lupe Velez drowning in her own toilet after a failed suicide attempt. Anger’s sources seemed to be mostly rumor and old tabloids, and if those didn’t work he occasionally made up stuff entirely on his own, such as claiming that actor Ramon Novarro, robbed and murdered by two male hustlers in 1968, was found with a lead “Art Deco dildo,” a gift from Rudolph Valentino, shoved down his throat, an object whose existence seemed to be known solely to Anger himself.

Noted pedophile Charlie Chaplin

That salacious item is what makes Hollywood Babylon difficult to take as a hard-hitting look at the “real” Hollywood. Novarro, who by all actual accounts was a kind man whose biggest mistake was paying for sex, was beaten and tortured for hours before being killed, it seems unnecessarily cruel for Anger to attach a completely false detail to the case in order to make it even more sleazy. He also suggests that sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish were incestuous lovers, devoting exactly one sentence and one caption to it and then neither providing evidence nor ever mentioning it again. If you haven’t figured out that Hollywood is a dreadful place by page 20 or so, then Anger is more than happy to beat you senseless with debauchery, deviancy and death until you do.

The trouble is, it’s pretty obvious that while Anger wants you to feel sorry for many of these poor souls, he’s also sneering at them as well. The story of Fatty Arbuckle’s career being ruined by accusations of rape and murder is hard to take seriously when it’s littered with fat jokes, such as “the Prince of Whales had been harpooned.” The tragic tale of Judy Garland’s death due to a nearly lifelong addiction to painkillers is quite morbid on its own, without Anger gleefully mentioning that she died on the toilet. What happened to any of these sad individuals is bad enough by itself, but he has to go several steps further by providing catty remarks about how their looks went to hell, or the grotesque circumstances surrounding some of their deaths, even including a photograph of cover girl Jayne Mansfield’s dead dog, killed in the same car accident that took Mansfield’s life.

Judy Garland, sensitively & tastefully portrayed in 'Hollywood Babylon'

If it was better written, Hollywood Babylon might have squeaked by as a compellingly dark tale of a golden era with a dark underbelly, even if you still feel like you may want to wash your hands after reading it. However, Anger tries for purple prose (“Genius and Madness compose Janus-faced creativity”), hard-boiled journalism (“Bugsy Siegel lay on the couch, his ex-pretty face veiled in a thick sheet of blood, three bullets through his skull”) and juvenile titillation (“The names of those love goddesses were bandied about whose devotion to Priapus required having their cunts surgically ‘taken in'”) all at the same time, and doesn’t do any of them well. His attempts at pithy, clever commentary just come off as inappropriate and spiteful, and immediately pull you out of what could be an interesting read, fictitious or otherwise. It’s unclear if Hollywood Babylon was meant to be serious or irreverent, but it fails at both.

A sequel, not surprisingly called Hollywood Babylon 2, was released in the 80s, and the best that can be said for it is that it’s slightly more accurate than its predecessor, if for no other reason than this time more of its subjects were still alive and able to sue at the time of its publication, including Elizabeth Taylor, who appears on the cover in a hilariously unflattering photo that makes her resemble Divine. A third book was released last year without the now 82 year-old Anger’s participation, and went nowhere. That’s surprising, given the current climate where the concept of TMI no longer exists, particularly when it comes to famous people, you’d think a modern version of the ‘Big Book of Depressing, Gross Celebrity Gossip’ would be a smash. After all, anecdotes such as the stomach contents of the recently deceased Brittany Murphy upon her autopsy are available to read along with updates on the state of Brad and Angelina’s relationship and whether or not Nicole Richie’s latest look is a fashion “do.” On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to know what sort of details would be saved for a book.

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