Righteous Rage at the Hollywood Machine

It often seems that every few days a new story emerges about bad behavior in Hollywood. It’s a feature of the tabloids. It is in mainstream media, too, be it an alleged sexual assault, a lawsuit regarding discrimination, or straightforward awful behavior. From the rapes committed by Bill Cosby to the despicable behavior of Harvey Weinstein to the firing or resignation of this executive or that, it often feel like a recurring theme in the entertainment industry. It is not new news, either. Was Howard Hughes all that different from many other powerful men (it is almost always men) who used and abused? Assessing conditions over time is difficult but one wonders, as society works to provide more protection to people in their places of work, whether conditions have improved.

Reading Maureen Ryan’s Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood offers a damning picture to address that question. A journalist with decades of experience in the entertainment field, Ryan is well situated to catalog, reveal, and explain a long-standing culture and practice of bad behavior. Her book is fueled by rage at injustice. She knows many in the industry and as she recounts tales of exploitation and injustice, one can feel the heat of anger on the page. Burn It Down, though, offers more than anger. Ryan is explicit about ways that things could change for the better.

There is an immediacy to the text that engages, akin to long form journalism. That kind of writing brings with it a sense that we are insiders. We learn about this or that TV show, the people involved, and the culture and practice. One can imagine industry professionals talking in a similar way. We learn about the informal structures that go into making a production. I had not realized the extent to which many productions are created through extraordinarily hierarchic structures. Ryan’s descriptions remind one of stories of ships centuries ago, when a captain was a god with little or no accountability. A TV show run the same way? It was news to me that so much of Hollywood’s work, from the studio heads to the producers to the movies and shows, were organized and managed along those lines. The very organizational structures seem to facilitate the possibility of bad behavior.

Ryan’s book is full of examples, from underpaid and exploited lower level employees, to suicides and breakdowns. She has tales of bullying, toxic actions, sexual assaults, intimidation, blackmail, and out and out criminal activity. Reading Burn it Down makes one wonder whether the fame and money for those in the industry are worth the massive costs. More than a few supremely talented people have walked away. Or were paid to leave, thanks to negotiated settlements, NDAs, or less ethical means.

The heart of the book comes from many interviews Ryan had with actors and entertainment industry employees, mostly in 2021 and 2022. Many names and shows are kept anonymous. Ryan supplements the first-person accounts with lawsuits, depositions, arrests and old-fashioned journalism. She goes deep into the problems with several popular shows. Lost, Sleepy Hollow, and SNL loom large.

A short-coming of the book’s immediacy, however, is that it can be difficult to know the players, structures and stories around the many shows and movies and productions. Burn It Down is probably best read and understood by those that have first-person experience in the entertainment industry. Ryan does not offer much big-picture structure or data to help frame the industry or the scope of the problem. The book contains data and facts, to be sure, but without the structure, it is difficult to keep the timelines and players clear. I found myself searching for information about shows, actors, producers and the like to better contextualize Ryan’s histories.

The author is a fan, committed to the creation of good stories and entertainment. Ryan cares and her enthusiasm gives momentum to her writing. She wants us to realize, as she has come to understand, that there are important distinctions between the quality of a show and the quality of the conditions that informed the creation of that show.

Ryan’s recommendations range from the common sense to bigger shifts in how the entertainment business is organized. The absence of professional development for those in leadership position is striking, as are the guidelines that exist in so many other areas of the economy. Lawsuits and egregious behavior, which make the press, are not reliable guideposts to what is and is not acceptable. Ryan’s suggestions for ongoing and structured training, coupled with a deep commitment to diversity, make good sense. But how might they be implemented?

Another deeper question remains: would those who have been enjoying the wealth, power and influence for so many decades be willing to change? Ryan knows that it will take much more than exposes, law suits and well-written books to facilitate improvements. Burn It Down is a welcome step in the right direction.

David Potash

Wealth, Glamour and Hollywood Sleaze

Two approaches tend to shape biographical studies. Most common, especially when it comes to figures of historical significance, is a focus on what the subject did. Be it writing, actions, discovery, crime, salvation or creative creation, these works give most of their attention to the subject’s accomplishments, good and bad. The second approach and more complicated approach is to focus on the subject as a person. Where did the come from? What were the major contours of their life? Celebrities often are treated this way, as we already know about their accomplishments. The second approach offers us a peek behind the curtain, a promise of what the subject was “really” like.

Karina Longworth’s Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes Hollywood appears, at first glance, to fall into the latter camp, a celebrity focused tell-all. Beautiful movies stars adorn the cover and are featured in photographs. That, however, is not the case for Longworth has a much different story to tell. Her dogged research and informed eye focuses on many of the key women in Howard Hughes’ life. It is not a pretty picture, one that runs counter to glossy accounts of “womanizing” and glamour. Seduction, which is far from a simple biography, explores the practice and culture of exploitation in Hughes’ Hollywood. Howard Hughes was not alone. Though not its intent, it is easy to understand draw a line from Hughes to Harvey Weinstein and his crimes.

First, a brief refresher on Howard Hughes. The richest man in the world, or close to it, he profited from his father’s creation, Hughes Tool, and spun that into many other successful businesses. He was a record-setting aviator, the founder of Hughes Aircraft and later the primary owner of TWA, Trans World Airlines. Hughes produced movies and purchased RKO studios, as well as becoming a significant philanthropist. Eccentric, Hughes’ became increasingly psychologically disturbed after several aircraft crashes. His latter years were spent in self-imposed hermit-like isolation, afraid of human contact.

Longworth is a writer, scholar, and the creator/host of You Must Remember This, a popular podcast about early Hollywood. In Seduction, she is interested in “what it was like to be a woman in Hollywood during what historians call the Classical Hollywood Era – roughly the mid-1920s through the end of the 1950s, the exact period Hughes was active in Hollywood.” After a brief marriage, Hughes’ relationships with women were all products of Hollywood, begging the question whether his was really keen on making movies or in finding attractive women. The answer is “both.” Seduction a multi-person biography and a study of Hollywood exploitation and power.

Many of the women linked with Hughes were supremely talented and famous. Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Ida Lupino, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Russell, Ava Gardner, Faith Domergue, Jean Peters and Terry Monroe all figure prominently in the book. Not all these women were in serious relationships with Hughes, though he seemed to have pressed for sex and promised marriage to nearly all. There were many other stars, too, that may or have not been in a relationship with Hughes, from Marlene Dietrich to Joan Fontaine. Hughes could be generous, and his philanthropy to the medical research, remains important to this day. He could also be extremely difficult to those around him, especially women. Hughes lied consistently and constantly. It was a function of his interpersonal behavior. He did all that he could to control many of the women in the book, from promises and bankrolling projects (or not), to hiring detectives to spy on them. Some of the relationships ended well. Others did not. After he hit Ava Gardner, she beat Hughes with a bronze bell and then a chair, splitting his forehead and knocking teeth loose. Violence like that was “fixed” by Hughes’ wealth and the culture and practice of Hollywood.

It is difficult to determine how many stars, starlets and aspiring actresses’ careers were derailed by Hughes. He certainly helped some, though there were many others who fell into semi-professional purgatory, hoping for a break that Hughes would never provide. While Howard Hughes was not alone in this kind of power game, he seems to have done it at scale for decades.

Longworth treats her women subjects as fully formed individuals, with hopes, histories and challenges. She humanizes the stars, making sure that we have an appreciation for where they had agency and where they did not. Longworth is also a film critic. Her accounts of the key films referenced in the book are very well done, giving well-known movie classics a different critical review.

Making judgements about the behavior of an historical figure is almost always fraught. Humans are complicated creatures, mixtures of conflicting impulses and characteristics that rarely add up. Moreover, our behavior is greatly determined by our circumstances. All that said, despite his many accomplishments, it is impossible to read Seduction and come away with a positive feeling about Howard Hughes. He was a damaged person, and as a colleague once reminded me, “hurt people hurt people.” Hughes hurt many of those around him. The glowing press, the womanizing, the parties and excess were products of a media machine. Longworth’s research reveals a wealthy many doing what he could when he could with little consideration for others – especially women. Take a close look at this “playboy” and it’s clear that there was very little play and a definite absence of good cheer, care or love.

Seduction is valuable contribution and corrective to our understanding of the “golden” years of Hollywood and Howard Hughes.

David Potash

Film, Movie or Cinema, S’il Vous Plait

Mainstream Hollywood is stale. Why see one movie over another? With downloads, streaming and a decent television, we face an overwhelming number of choices of similar items. They are distinct identities, thanks to marketing, but they are very much the same. After being sorted into recognizable categories: Action, Romantic Comedy, Sci-Fi, Drama – with a little reflection we know what each film within the category will offer. The straight jacket of genre offers endless variations on what we, at deeper level, know all too well. Why do to the two cops bicker before realizing that they are deeply bonded? Why must the aspiring lover run to the object of their love five to eight minutes before the final credits? If the scientists get excited about the prospects of their innovation, why do we know that it will go terribly wrong? After so many models of basically the same thing, can a movie do more than deliver the expected?

The one category that defies categorization is foreign, for foreign films are more than different. It takes effort to explore foreign films, above and beyond language, for the films do not fit our understanding of genres and categories. They are unfamiliar in every sense of the word. I am curious, but a mixture of wariness and contrariness limits my exploration, for a¬†surefire way of making me cringe internally is to order me to see a movie. There’s absolutely no good reason to burden watching a film with an obligation.

Mick LaSalle, film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, understands this all too well. His disappointment with the familiar, however, is tempered with a deep enthusiasm for foreign films, especially the movies of France. He wants to be a guide, but he does not hector. In his latest book, The Beauty of the Real, LaSalle walks us through contemporary French cinema by focusing upon actresses. Subtitled “What Hollywood Can Learn From Contemporary French Actresses,” the book chronicles the roles and films of twenty some actresses, mixing reviews with interviews and broader social commentary. It is a fascinating read, not only for what we learn of French cinema, but for what it reveals about Hollywood. Sometimes contrast is the fastest way to understanding.

LaSalle highlights the wide range of roles that women have in French cinema with energy and passion, but not without his critical eye. He does not claim that these are necessarily good or great films, but he makes a compelling case that they are interesting. It is the role of women, LaSalle argues, that highlights the difference of genre in the two cinemas. Beyond the American career arc (ingenue to lover to district attorney to matron), French actresses play roles that reflect broader choices in life. Stories may not resolve into moral messages. Old women may have sex. Young women may not find love. And within this wide array of lower budget cinemas, a wealth of different kinds of films blossom.

Finding French movies is a challenge. Distribution is spotty and once you locate a film, there is no guarantee that it will meet expectations. LaSalle has convinced me, though, that it is well worth the effort. Bonne chance. Now, speaking of films, who is Val in inventing Anna? Are you interested in the show’s intricate storyline and Val’s intriguing role? It makes it a must-watch for any entertainment enthusiast.