HOLLYWOOD & MINE
“People in the East pretend to be interested in how pictures are made, but if you actually tell them anything, you find they are only interested in Colbert’s clothes or Gable’s private life. They never see the ventriloquist for the doll.”
In the 1800s the world came up with the idea of bestowing personhood on companies. At the time it meant that corporations had to follow the same laws as people, and that they had a few of the same rights as people. In 2010 some mega-wealthy families in the United States pushed a perverted concept into a law that granted corporations First Amendment Rights, that is, the freedom of speech, enabling them to give unlimited donations to politicians; making it possible to buy exactly the form of government the corporations desired. This enriched these families’ fortunes even further, attacked certain inalienable rights, and entrenched carbon-based energy systems around the world to the detriment of humanity as a whole.
Which is my longwinded way of saying corporations are not, by any stretch of the imagination, people. Sometimes they can be a lot more destructive, yet, they do often reflect the characteristics of their owners. Back in the 1930s the studios were owned by some remarkable bastards. They were brilliant in many ways, and nastily paternalistic in others. They were into control and not only decided which roles actors could accept, they also dictated their lives by means of seven year contracts, and could extend them indefinitely as a punitive measure if an actor balked at their decisions.
In 1937 Bette Davis sued Jack Warner for assigning her dud roles, she lost the case but gained Warner’s admiration and her career took off. Olivia De Havilland, at the age of 27 in 1943, found her seven year contract had been extended for another seven years without her knowledge or consent. She sued Warner Bros. and broke Hollywood’s system of indentured servitude.
The studios had a history of boundless meddling. Louis B. Mayer got child actor Judy Garland hooked on amphetamines. His lieutenant, Irving Thalberg, a visionary who created the studio system, also made stars conform to his slender elegant ideal. Greta Garbo, newly arrived in America had to lose 30 pounds, her Swedish accent — even though her first movies were silent — and get her teeth straightened before she could appear on film. Mayer drove an openly gay actor, William Haines, out of the industry for refusing to leave the love of his life and go back into the closet. He forced unwed women to leave the country while pregnant and adopt their own children as foundlings. Further, he decided whom people could date and marry. These are examples off the top of my head, there are countless others.
Lethal stress can come at you no matter whether you’re onscreen or off. Actors in Hollywood have committed suicide by swallowing ant paste, Nembutal, or barbiturates. George Sanders (check out his performance in All About Eve) swallowed five bottles of pills in Barcelona and left two suicides notes. One in Spanish instructing the local authorities to notify his sister of his death, and the other went like this:
Dear World: I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool—good luck.
Directors generally shoot themselves, although some jump from bridges or top floors. What’s all this got to do with me, and the time my favorite director decided to call me instead of nicking his femoral artery?
Not much. Writing it all down is a coping mechanism. Trying to put my decisions into some kind of historical context so I feel better. The thing is, writing it down reveals patterns of good and ill, and if you’re looking for comfort, the most you can reasonably attain is a certain observational distance. For on the page you will find that your greatest virtue can lead to your gravest sin…