Friday, February 11, 2011

A Little Hot for Heaven: Lessons from Hollywood Babylon

How to describe the book 'Hollywood Babylon'? (1965) written by child actor turned avant-garde filmmaker, Kenneth Anger. Well I suppose i can start by saying it paved the way for every single contemporary trashy gossip magazine. And I mean this as complementing an astounding accomplishment. It also makes you realize that no matter how many times Lindsay Lohan goes into rehab, or amounts of cocaine and prostitute Charlie Sheen manages to go through every week, what transpired in Hollywood's 'Golden Age' (1930's to the end of the 1950's) was so much more 'juicy'. It elevated gossip into an art form and exposed all the dirty little secrets that Hollywood money men took great lengths to cover up on the media.
 The book's cover is adorned with an infamous picture of Jayne Mansfield with her nipples showing, while inside there is thorough coverage of her grizzly car accident with even a more infamous photograph of her body post-crash. You may ask, why is this necessary and why do we need this? I personally am not interested in those tragic and mysterious deaths, but more in Rudolph Valentino's sex life, or Marilyn Monroe's pill habit. I yearn to learn about all of those details that remained hidden from the public for so long. When a movie star was photographed at a premiere or a Hollywood party back in the day, they couldn't be holding a glass of anything, even if it was orange juice. So it's not only shocking but titillating to read about how much boozing, fucking, and general hedonism went on a lot of the time. 
As you may expect, the book was of course banned and re-released a long 10 years later, with all of the scandals, suicides, and sex completely intact.
A lot of people are completely unaware of just how dirty Hollywood used to be. Sheen would come off as a priest if compared to the excessive wild orgies that regularly transpired at Errol Flynn's estate, or the weird kinky sex capades between Joan Crawford and second husband Franchot Tone.
Kenneth Anger's cinematic career when coupled with both volumes of Hollywood Babylon can arguably be seen as perhaps not the 'birth' of camp, but the establishment of it as a powerful sub-culture force. It is all very deliciously naughty, and wholly fulfills our craving to satisfy our guilty pleasures, with an emphasis on the pleasure part. It is pretty much the equivalent of a dirty film, except these are people we all know and idolize, worship, and obsess over. Anger opens the cupboard to all of their dirty little secrets, and that's what makes this book interesting even now that all of those people are long dead. 
Below is a 1970's television retrospective of Anger's experience and inspiration in writing 'Hollywood Babylon'. the full film can be found on youtube. The book sells for 2 pounds or so on
I highly recommend you spending your starbucks money on this.

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