The history of Hollywood is a history of 20th century America — more precisely, it’s a saga of mass-produced fantasy co-starring the folks who made the movies and those who consumed them. No single book can hope to tell the story. “Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the first chapter of his Hollywood novel, “The Last Tycoon.” Still, these books, published over seven decades, even as the movie industry itself become a legend, offer a prismatic view of what used to be called the Dream Factory. Each is a part of the equation.
‘Picture,’ by Lillian Ross (1952)
Originally published in The New Yorker, Lillian Ross’s coolly reported character-rich account of John Huston’s 1951 adaptation of “The Red Badge of Courage” demonstrated that the story of how a particular movie came to be made (and unmade) might be more interesting than the movie itself. Observing the exotic life forms found on movie sets, in studio offices and at Hollywood parties, Ross is the prose equivalent of a fly-on-the-wall documentarian.
The movie stars of classic Hollywood were sacred monsters as well as cash cows. A French sociologist, sometime filmmaker (best-known for co-directing the cinema verité classic “Chronicle of a Summer”) and virtuoso stylist, Edgar Morin ponders the great ones and their fans: “Behind the star system there is not only the ‘stupidity’ of fanatics, the lack of invention of screenwriters, the commercial chicanery of producers. There is the world’s heart and there is love, another kind of nonsense, another profound humanity.”
‘The Movie Moguls,’ by Philip French (1969)
And behind the stars, the moguls. The outsized figures, many of them immigrant Jews who built the Hollywood studio system, enacted their own behind the screen human comedy. One of the most urbane of British film critics, Philip French recounts their foibles with a mixture of irony, affection and awe.
‘Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks,’
by Donald Bogle (1973)
Donald Bogle’s groundbreaking work addressed a void in Hollywood history, providing another focus on the industry by examining all the ways in which American movies treated racial issues as well as the ways in which African-American actors eked out a modicum of representation. The book originally ended with the dawn of blaxpoitation; it has since gone through three new editions.
Film critic Molly Haskell refracts the classic Hollywood movies she loves through a feminist lens. Her then-controversial thesis argued that, rather than liberating, the permissive movies of the 1960s and 1970s were fundamentally sexist and even reactionary, undermining the tradition of the strong women stars like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck who flourished in previous decades.
‘Naming Names,’ by Victor Navasky (1980)
The tale of the screenwriters, directors and actors purged by the movie industry during the Cold War for their real or imagined Communist affiliations is among the most compelling of Hollywood back stories. The longtime editor of The Nation, Victor Navasky draws heavily on interviews with both blacklisted and blacklisters. The book is as psychologically acute as it is historically resonant.
‘Lulu in Hollywood,’ by Louise Brooks (1982)
Kansas-born Louise Brooks was a teenaged Broadway chorus girl who had her greatest success in two silent German films — attaining screen immortality as Lulu, the unworldly, self-destructive femme fatal in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 “Pandora’s Box.” A bit of a Lulu herself, albeit as intelligent as she was diffident, Brooks absorbed enough of Hollywood in her relatively brief career to write a spectacular series of reminisces, published in the 1970s and anthologized thereafter.
‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,’ by Peter Biskind (1998)
Peter Biskind’s riotous, overstuffed, gossipy account of Hollywood’s last golden age — the 12-year reign of the brash film-school educated young directors known as “the movie brats” — depicts a group of prodigies as self-confident as they were self-indulgent. Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese and De Palma brought the counterculture to Hollywood but while they appeared to remake the movie industry in their image, Biskind suggests that it might have been the other way around.
‘Hollywood’s Censor,’ by Thomas Doherty (2007)
The exemplary social historian Thomas Doherty has repeatedly revisited the Hollywood of the 1930s, exploring the studio system from various angles. Here his subject is Joseph I. Breen, the feared enforcer of the Production Code and, given his absolute power, arguably the most single influential individual in the movie industry from 1934 through 1954.
‘We’ll Always Have Casablanca,’ by Noah Isenberg (2017)
Noah Isenberg’s is not the first book on “Casablanca” but, published on the occasion of the movie’s 75th anniversary, it is likely to remain definitive — deftly exploring the making, the reception and the afterlife of classic Hollywood’s quintessential production.
J. Hoberman is the author of the “Found Illusions” trilogy: “An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War”; “The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the ’60s”; and “Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan.”