Thursday, May 24, 2012


Really Good Books: Scandals of Classic Hollywood Edition

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film - David Thomson. Here is where it all begins. This is no typical dictionary — it’s a huge book filled with every important star and director (and a few screenwriters and producers here and there) to make a difference in the history of the movies. But again, this isn’t typical, which is to say it isn’t boring as shit. David Thomson — a journalist and critic who's covered Hollywood for longer than I’ve been alive — not only tells you the projects that featured the star, but why the star was/remains important (or overrated, as the case may be). He’s opinionated: he doesn’t like Paul Newman (BLASPHEMY!) and thinks Cary Grant is God’s gift. But opinion goes hand and hand with passion and insight, and Thomson is often very, very right. He covers classic and contemporary stars, and his writing is filled with verve. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, for example, was “the kind of adorable whore whom a respectable man could take to an operate and put through college; she was an Audrey Hepburn who’d give head.”

As for Frank Sinatra, “the surly charm of the runt’s ugliness made him too broody, too lazy, or too bored to pick films carefully or to attend to them with due seriousness.” I love to open it to a random page and explore. Pro Tip: The most recent edition is the Fifth. It is somewhat expensive. But if you want to go cheap, get a used version of the Fourth Edition — released in 2002. The majority of the entries are the same, and you get to see how people wrote about Kirsten Dunst, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kate Winslet on the cusp of ... something. 

Heavenly Bodies – Richard Dyer. Richard Dyer is my number one academic crush. He’s the father of star studies, which is to say that without this guy and his brilliant, groundbreaking work, there would be no Scandals of Classic Hollywood. There would be no AHP. Or, rather, AHP would be reaping the benefits of her high school mathlete skills instead of writing blog posts for free. The best part is that his brilliance is really f-ing accessible. His first work, Stars, is foundational, and really gets to the intersections between stardom, ideology, and the relation between the two. But Heavenly Bodies applies the theories of Stars to three extended case studies: Marilyn Monroe, Paul Robeson, and Judy Garland. These case studies are so good, so thorough, so authoritative, that no one has really written about those three stars since — at least not in an academic sense.

Bottom line: if you like my work, then you will love Richard Dyer.

Headline Hollywood – David Cook and Adrienne McLean.  For those of you who like the “scandal” even more than the “classic Hollywood,” but find smutty retellings too sensationalist and poorly written, this is for you. It’s an academic collection, but again, if you’ve gone to college, the essays aren’t above your reading level. My model for approaching scandal — what was the action, how was it “framed” as scandalous, how did the star and/or studio work to neutralize the scandal — is largely taken from this book, where various authors tackle everything from Hedy Lamarr to Jane Fonda. There’s also an incisive chapter on Confidential – which, if you’ve been paying attention, was the driving force behind most of the scandals of the 1950s. If there were “Further Reading” sections in my columns, this book would be there.

The Fixers – E.J. Fleming. There’s little way of knowing whether most of the assertions in this book are true. There’s lots of “as an inside source explained,” and other interviews with men and women reflecting on their time at MGM in the 1930s-50s. But MGM was “home to the stars,” and most of those stars — Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland — were notorious drunkards, sex fiends, and drug addicts. In other words, these “Fixers” spent a lot of time picking up after them, and hearing about how they did so is even more fascinating than watching George Clooney do his dirty work in the beginning of Michael Clayton. Bottom line: this book is far smuttier than the others. There’s no way I could’ve cited it in my dissertation. But you can certainly relish reading it.

The Star System – Paul McDonald. The Brits do many things better than us, including making slim little books about film history with aesthetically pleasing covers. I often bandy about words like “star system,” “seven-year contract,” and “loaned out,” and if you kinda sorta understand what they mean, but want to actually be able to talk about stars and the studios, this is your book. It starts in the very beginning — even before the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford — and extends to the near-present. I assign this book in my Hollywood Stardom class, but that doesn’t mean it should only be read by college juniors. It’s not “fun” in the way that, say, turning a doll head into a wine glass is fine, but it is well-written, cogent, and punctuated by fascinating case studies. If you’re authentically interested in what makes stardom happen, this is where you should start.

If you have questions about specific star/scandal-related subjects, ask in the comments — I’ll do my best!

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.

54 Comments / Post A Comment

Margaret Bristol

If you really want to burst a bubble, read Julie Salamon's "The Devil's Candy" about the making of the "Bonfire of the Vanities" movie. Tom Hanks is kind of a d.

Toby Jug

@Margaret Bristol My sister attends college with Tom Hanks' son. He's a "rapper" who goes by the name Chet Haze. She goes out of her way to avoid interacting with him. And that's my cool Tom Hanks story.

Lila Fowler

@Toby Jug ahahaha. His twitter is hilarious. Is there anything less "gangster" than being Tom Hanks' son?

Casanova Frankenstein



@Margaret Bristol if it makes you feel any better I've met TH, and found him to be one of the most down to earth celebrities I've ever met. His wife is also adorable. I've done artwork for her in my capacity as a cartoonist/illustrator. Sometimes celebs have bad days, or years, just like the rest of us? That said, I still have it in for Roman Polanski for the full diaper he handed to me when I was a hostess at a fancy restaurant where he was lunching with his wife and brats. (As if I needed another reason!)


The David Thomson biographies entry on Cary Grant. I wish I had it here so I could laboriously re-type a great big chunk of it.


Oooh "The Fixers" sounds delicious!

Are They Biting Ducks?

@Megano! I was tempted to pick it up, but the Amazon reviews really put me off. I love some good salacious gossip, but I need to pretend it's at least feasible...


*adds everything to amazon wishlist*

Bon Vivant

Thanks for the prescriptions, doc!! :D

Patrick M

The David Thomson book is one of my favorite things. The entry on Sharon Stone reads, in total: "See Frances Farmer" (!)

Patrick M

@Patrick M And the Frances Farmer entry reads "if u read this u r gay" no, just kidding

Nicole Cliffe

Want everything.

Graydon Gordian


Katie Walsh


So good.

Katie Walsh

Also I am reading it right now.


@Katie Walsh Isn't it the best?? I know it's basically fiction, but so what. So what! That doesn't make it any less the best ever.

Katie Walsh

@leastimportantperson The best ever. I had to describe it as National Enquirer and not Us Weekly or something because of it's tenuous grasp on truth but total embrace of smuttiness, but oh what juicy smut it is.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Katie Walsh I am categorically against Kenneth Anger. He stalked/was a complete asshole to Gloria Swanson when she was an elderly lady -- I'm talking coffins of sugar and voodoo dolls. It sounds hilarious, and it sorta is, but he is a dick. There are no two ways about it. I refuse to promote his stuff. And unlike "The Fixers," the rumors he propagates are purposely malicious. And disgusting. Sure, you might know they're true, but as evidenced by the popular understandings of the scandals surrounding both Clara Bow and Fatty Arbuckle, they stick. He is bad smut.

Katie Walsh

I also highly recommend Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger. It's academic but written in a very accessible way. Jeanine (my former department chair at whose feet I will forever worship) is really funny and no- nonsense, the book includes a page of photos of male stars in cheesecake swimsuit publicity shots, and the word "sexy" appears on every page, usually referring to Cary Grant or Tyrone Power. It's not super scandal heavy, but if you like STARS of the studio system era, it's perfect.

Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter

@Katie Walsh - I love Basinger's "A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930 to 1960" because, as you say, she writes in such an accessible way whilst giving you all the information and it is SUCH a fascinating subject. Why the hell aren't there more "Women's Pictures" anymore? And who is our Stanwyck?

Anne Helen Petersen

@Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter Nicolas Sparks= today's women's pictures. They suck so much in comparison. Give me Stella Dallas over The Vow any day.

Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter

@Anne Helen Petersen

The appeal of Nicholas Sparks is just baffling to me. I'm much happier if I simply refuse to acknowledge that such a person exists or that films would be made based on his "novels". Bah!

Stella Dallas, now that is a movie!

Anne Helen Petersen

@Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter The last scene, looking the window....I DIE!

Jen Alien-Spouse@twitter

@Anne Helen Petersen - I cannot watch that without a fresh box of tissues next to me.

Chick flicks are what we have today, and they are but shadows of the glory that was the Woman's Picture - Melodrama has got such a bad name for itself, but at least those pictures showed women struggling with recognisable life issues and working damn hard to get what they want.

On the drive to work this morning I was actually outlining the plot to "Imitation of Life" (both versions) to my poor husband, to illustrate why I was SO disappointed with "Coco Before Chanel" which we watched last night.
In "Coco..." it appears that that Chanel became hugely succesful by having rich lovers and good taste, the film doesn't show how hard she must of worked (or, indeed, the whole Nazi sympathisisng bit either, but I can understand glossing over something like that).

It's most peculiar that modern chick flicks are more and more depending on the plot device of a rich man being the answer to every woman's problems. "Waitress" did the same thing if you think about it, and I was really annoyed by that.


Waaaaaant. I am making grabby hands at all of these.


Richard Dyer really is the best! I can't even count the amount of articles of his I had to read in film school. Much more enjoyable to read than frustratingly vague philosophical French film scholar stuff.


Whoa, whoa, whoa. Who doesn't like Paul Newman??


@meetapossum ... FIRE!


I just re-read the SCH on Paul Newman, and seriously, how could anyone not like him?

Prostitute Robot From The Future

DYER! Whoooo Film Studies! That was a fun time, not like this work-stuff, icky pooh.


yay, thanks for these!

If you like the 20s, I also recommend to all Louise Brooks' autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood.


I want them ALLLLLLLL. Even your book recommendations are delightful, AHP!


'Whom a respectable man could take to an operate.' This is the most terrifying typo ever, I have an image of the bloke from The Human Centipede on a date with Julia Roberts.
(PS Great column!)


@questingbeast I so agree! I imagined them all dressed up at an appendectomy!!

Lisa Hanawalt@twitter

Anne Helen Petersen! When are YOU writing a book!!?


@Lisa Hanawalt@twitter Yeah seriously! I bought a copy of "My Story," Marilyn Monroe's autobiography, on Amazon the other day, only to be seriously puzzled by the odd-sized hardcover book that arrived. And it's a strange read, because she's not exactly chronological.

I just want hundreds of pages of dishy stories by brilliant AHP!


Audrey Hepburn wouldn't give head? I've never been disappointment like this before =\


Just um...if you search for "heavenly bodies" on amazon instead of clicking the link here you um....get a very different first result.

Carrie Ann

Wow, that photo above is awesome. How does it look like she's making two faces at once?


I LOVE all these! David Thomson FOREVS. I wanted to add a couple suggestions as a gal who has to deal with old Hollywood constantly in my chosen line of work (which is...dealing with old Hollywood?). Also, for the record, AHP, you are my hero.

1) Hedda and Louella by George Eells: I'm not going to say that this is the most academic, or maybe even accurate, look at the gossip machine from Hollywood's Golden Age, but damn, it is FUN. Those ladies! Making life hard for errryone. Such bitches, down to the clawing, backstabbing, Hearst-blackmailing bone. Of course, one can also read Louella's autobiography, The Gay Illiterate, but why would you ever read something with such an ill-advised title?

2) An Empire of Their Own by Neal Gabler is a totally perfect look inside the early studio system, which is the place to start for getting to the bottom of why stars are like, the way they are. It's really a gossipy soap opera all about Jews infighting, but that's like a standard dinner party for me, so I'm into it. There are a lot of furriers and fur fortunes involved in the making of early Hollywood, turns out. The Avengers film you love today was built on the back of a lot, and I mean A LOT of sable and mink. No vegan should be hanging tough with Hollywood, if you know what I mean.

3) This was Hollywood by Beth Day. This is an out of print memoir by a woman who was a journalist in Golden Age Hollywood (1940s era) who would go on to totally ditch that world to write books about cowboys and the Philippines. But back when she was into celluloid, she wrote gushingly about movie premieres and how when guests would arrive at Graumann's, they were "showered by chopped petals of hundreds of thousands of flowers." I mean, someone's job in Old Hollywood was professional flower chopper.

4) The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the 50s, by Sam Kashner, is a good premer for understanding the era that birthed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but also was shrouded in Communist blacklisting and fear, and ultimately, total decline before it would rise again (well, kind of). Lots of Marilyn in this one, and cutting, daggery anecdotes along the way that are (gratefully) backed up by sourcing, which is a lot more than one can say about most movie-lit.

5) Fifth Avenue, 5.A.M by Sam Wasson is essentially a behind-the-music episode in book form about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany's, but it is so much more than that. It's about the myth of Hepburn and the modern woman, and the Hollywood that created it, which was a crazy cocktail of suppression exploding into modernity, but put much more eloquently in the book. This is a bonbon jewel box book, the kind you tuck into your little bag when you thought a book wouldn't fit, but it does, and it goes about your day with you.

So many more! But AHP covered the tops. Listen to her, she's as grande a dame as Betty Davis.


Oh my God, totally just actually registered to say this: RICHARD DYER WAS MY TUTOR DURING MY MASTERS. Amazing, amazing man, who is also ridiculously lovely and nice. It makes me happy that everyone everywhere is so enthusiastic about him :)

Maria Vianna Santos@facebook

Could you please, please right a post on Gloria Swanson? I got a glimpse of her story in the extras of a sunset bd dvd and would really like to know more about her career. And thank you for the column, it's a fascinating read! :)


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