You can tell a lot about a society by looking at its suicides. That off-handed comment from Emile Durkheim becomes the animating principle for Jon Lewis's Hard-Boiled Hollywood, which studies, as the surrealists would have it, the “exquisite corpses” of those left behind by the collapse of the studio machine. Lewis details the cases of aspiring actresses, young women seeking to break free of the repressive domestic imperative of the postwar baby boom, who came to Hollywood seeking classic era fame and fortune and were instead victims of a declining industry whose lack of a material setting encouraged the comingling of gangsters, rigid moralists, corrupt cops, and bit players. This combination, in Lewis's telling, proved lethal for many of these women beginning in 1947 with the famed Black Dahlia murder case and ending, at the close of the studio system, with the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962. The writing in this book is, in the Surrealists' terms, exquisite as well: a combination of penetrating analysis of the decline of the industry and jaunty, laconic, and funny description of the fish swimming in this infested sea; a prose rendering of the loss of illusion that David Lynch captured poetically in Mulholland Drive (2001). The overall thesis—that you can tell a lot by the nature of suicide—does not always hold up and sometimes leads to too much elaboration of the suspects in the various cases. However, the book's description of a Hollywood in decline is superb and includes a detailing of the political use of gossip during the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and McCarthy eras and the deepening of one of Lewis's persistent themes, present in his earlier book Hollywood v. Hard Core (2002): the Foucauldian idea that the industry is a glamor factory whose above-ground morality is the inverse of the porn industry's underground lasciviousness and that the two feed off each other. Lewis explains how the studios, after being weakened by the 1948 Paramount consent decree, which forced them to divest their theaters, regained their swagger in the time of HUAC by adopting (along with the gossip columnists) a new moralistic rightward turn, using the columnists Hedda Hopper's and Louella Parson's red-baiting (both fed information to J. Edgar Hoover) as a disciplinary practice. In the crossing of the two, supposedly unrelated, forms of Hollywood—features and porn—Lewis details the moment when nude photos of Marilyn Monroe appear in the new magazine Playboy, which hit the newsstands the same day as the opening of Monroe's breakthrough film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). The crevices of this fascinating study detail the strivings and ingenuity of its heroines' attempts to escape the rigidity of the life assigned to them in postwar America. You can hear it in Marilyn's creative response to reporters' grilling on the nude photos. “Didn't you have anything on?” “Only the radio,” she replied. You can see it in the title of the autobiography of Barbara Payton (once called Hollywood's most beautiful woman but whose career ended in prostitution), I Am Not Ashamed (1963). More often, though, these, as John Updike termed them, “technician[s] in the industry of romantic illusion,” were spit out by a ruthless machine and thought of themselves, as did Sandra Dee, whose ten-year career ended in alcoholism, as “a has-been who never was” (p. 198). © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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