In the original version of “A Star Is Born,” nearly every scene reinforces the movie’s function as an advertisement for Hollywood. Released in 1937, it was the story of a young woman named Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, who wants to leave North Dakota for Southern California. (It’s a different picture from its many remakes, though one that likewise piggybacked off another great film, “What Price Hollywood?” from 1932.)
At the beginning, Blodgett’s flinty Aunt Mattie is unfeeling about her niece’s ideas. “She’s just a silly little girl whose head has been turned by the movies. As soon as she forgets the whole thing, the better off she’ll be.” Blodgett responds, “Why will I be better off? What’s wrong with wanting to get out and make something of myself?”
Between 1890 and 1930, the population of Los Angeles grew from 50,000 to 1.2 million. The movie business transitioned at the same time, from silent films to talkies, low-class “flickers” to “the silver screen.” By the 1940s, there were more movie theaters in the United States than banks. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce actually took out notices discouraging people from moving to Los Angeles. One ad I found showed a crowd outside an employment agency. “Don’t try to break into the movies in Hollywood until you have obtained full, frank and dependable information,” it said. “It may save disappointments.” At the bottom it read, “Out of 100,000 Persons Who Started at the Bottom of the Screen’s Ladder of Fame ONLY FIVE REACHED THE TOP.”
The business of “Hollywood” had produced an odd vocabulary. An actor was “in” a movie but “on” a television show. In a screenplay, a character might be “aged up” or “aged down” or “colored up” if the character seemed too white. “Gaffers” were electricians, so were “best boys” and “best girls.” “Apple boxes” were, well, apple boxes, which for some reason remained a staple of high-tech productions.
When producers offered criticism of a performance or a script, they “noted it” or “gave notes,” and for both actors and writers, receiving notes was a burden but also a sign of existence; getting notes meant you were working.
My wife, Rachel, and I worked together as a screenwriting team. One night, we were invited to a dinner with a successful showrunner, a man who had created several big television programs. He told us his latest show’s team of writers wanted to invent a doohickey you could hook up to a telephone, so anytime you had a “notes call” with executives, you could press a button whenever an executive made a comment, and the phone would intone one of several prerecorded responses: That’s a great idea … I hadn’t thought of that … You might be right … That’s a great idea … You might be right….
The showrunner’s phone rang. He left the table with an expression of worry. When he came back, Rachel asked, “So, when do the notes stop?” He looked somewhat shocked and explained that the call he’d just received had been from the head of the network, to give him notes on the scenes they’d shot that day.
How people in Hollywood see themselves, or are seen by others, often requires labeling. One afternoon, a successful film director at a party complained about “karaoke movie stars.” A karaoke movie star, he explained, was an actor who wanted so badly to be a movie star that they came across as desperate; even if they became a star, they would always still only seem like one. Chris Pratt was the best example, he thought; in the sports world, Novak Djokovic?
At a New Year’s Eve party, an aspiring director, asked how the previous year had gone for him, said: “I was trying on the whole narcissism thing for a while. It was good, it was fine. But then I started losing my way. I just didn’t have a sense of who I was anymore.”
One day at lunch, a writer friend said she’d been told that morning by a major movie star, during a conference call, that she was the most desirable thing in town. (“Desirable” being a euphemism for the word he actually said.) This was a few months before the #MeToo movement began in earnest.
In the same call, the star asked if she’d go on a date with a studio executive they knew in common, to potentially secure their project’s financing. “You know how the town works,” the star added. The friend didn’t quite know how to answer. She told him she was busy; she was spending all day in bed writing. “Good, don’t move, I’ll send him right over,” he said.
To be sure, the city-state had plenty of vocabulary that wasn’t unique to Hollywood. A “SigAlert” was a traffic snarl. “May gray” referred to overcast weather, frequently extending to “June gloom.” As exposed on the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “The Californians,” a habit remained to invoke highways with definite articles, as in “the 405” or “the 101,” harking back to days when the freeways still had names, before they became just numbers. Like in the beginning pages of Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays,” published in 1970, protagonist Maria drives “the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura.”
And the pink vans parked around Burbank advertising Topless Maids did, actually, represent housecleaners who worked seminude. There were also billboards on Sunset that advertised “Sugar Models,” for anyone interested, either as sponsor or sponsee, in entering a transactional relationship. One near UCLA said, “Need a summer job? Date a SUGAR DADDY.”
In Hollywood, when a producer summoned you to their office for “a general”— a get-to-know-you meeting — their assistant frequently would inform you ahead of time whether or not you would be “validated.”
The word applied mostly to parking. Producers’ offices often had valet parking service, or were located in buildings with parking garages, and the phrase meant the producer would cover the garage or valet fee. But the broader meaning also had bearing. Producers perceived themselves as those who knew a good thing when they saw it. The best were curious and thoughtful. The worst ran on fear and envy. And some meetings with producers, being generally surreal, lacked labels.
One morning we drove to Santa Monica for a kinda general, kinda not: A successful pair of producers wanted to turn one of our screenplays into a TV show. A friend of ours, acting as a go-between, met us in the lobby. The producers, two middle-aged white men, escorted us all into their conference room and announced that they had bad news: They’d reread our script that morning and changed their minds; they weren’t interested in it, but since they booked the hour and we had parked in their garage, perhaps we would listen to some of their ideas? Ideas they didn’t have yet but would fashion on the spot? Because maybe we’d hear an idea we found interesting, take it home and fashion it into a script “on spec” — a phrase producers use to mean “for free” — and bring it back to them to consider? Was that cool?
The men spun around in their chairs and faced a large whiteboard.
“How about this,” the first said to the second. “Imagine a town from the 19th century that still exists today, undiscovered.”
“Sure,” the second said. “Is it in America?”
“It’s in America,” said the first. “Maybe in South America. No, America.”
“Like ‘The Land That Time Forgot.’”
“Yeah, ‘The Town Time Forgot.’”
“So, they have power? Electricity.”
“Let’s say they have power.”
“But no phones.”
“How’s this, they’re churning butter.”
“It’s like those Amish kids who get sent away for a year.”
The second producer turned to us. “You see what we’re saying?”
“We want to see what these people are doing,” the other one said. “The politics. Infighting and sex and stuff. What makes us tune in to the next episode? I need something to grab me, something to hold on to.”
Silence for a moment while they turned back to the whiteboard.
“About that —” the first said, in some confusion. “Do they know about the modern world? The people doing the butter churning.”
“Maybe. But no phones.”
“Maybe one or two people come in from the outside.”
“Because there’s a murder.”
“But it’s Shakespearean, it’s gotta be Shakespearean.”
“‘King Lear.’ You gotta get some of that in there.”
“They all want that,” the second said to us dismissively, and the first agreed, though it wasn’t clear here who “they” were — the audience, the networks, other producers. “Look, this idea,” he said, “maybe it’s no good, but here’s what you need to know: Give us a world we’ve never seen before. That’s what we want. That’s what they want. Give us that.”
After an hour more of this, the receptionist asked if we needed validation, we said yes, and she pasted several stickers onto a ticket stub to pay for our parking. Unfortunately, the parking attendant in the basement told us the receptionist had messed up; she’d applied only enough stickers for an hour’s worth of parking, but the meeting had run an hour and 15 minutes. An unvalidated parking space in their garage cost $50 per 30 minutes. The meeting had cost us 25 bucks.
“Really, the only thing you can hope for in a meeting like that is to not get screwed on parking,” our friend said. “Like we just got screwed.”
Hollywood is an interesting, strange place to work. In subsequent meetings, if things weren’t going well, Rachel and I would look to each other and mime operating a butter churn. But sometimes it was easy to get flustered.
One morning, we visited a big-wig producer at his offices in West Hollywood to pitch a film idea. In the conference room, six people sat around a modern coffee table. The table was dark and bare except for a small-mirrored coaster and three lines of cocaine. It felt like a trap. Should we acknowledge the drugs were there? Did someone forget to clean up a party? Were the lines meant for us, akin to coffee?
Later, Rachel figured out that it was something else: a coaster sold by the artist Nir Hod, printed with realistic-seeming white powder. “There is a certain magic in loneliness,” the artist explained in his statement about the piece. “It’s not about drugs or glamour — it’s about the inside world, where you can dream and love and seek a greater truth — it’s about a feeling of being connected to something so human.”
The churn is real.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of several books and the co-writer, with Rachel Knowles, of the documentary “Stone Locals.” This article is an adapted excerpt from his new book, “Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles,” which will be published on June 15.
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