Delta, 1975, 300 pages, C$6.95 tp, ISBN 0-440-55325-3
I have been curious about this book for years, ever since first seeing the name “Kenneth Anger” and wondering what kind of person went by that name. As it turns out, this writer/director is probably more famous for this book of vintage celebrity gossip than for any of the films he has made.
A detour by Wikipedia (the first of many) is useful to establish the context of the book: Raised in well-connected Hollywood circles, Kenneth grew up knowing where all the bodies were buried. Uncharacteristically for a Hollywood child, he wrote it all down and ended up with a big trashcan of celebrity gossip. Attempt to get it published in English failed (the first edition of the book, in 1965, was reportedly taken off the market after ten days) whereas a translation had no problems being published in France. After lengthy delays, Hollywood Babylon was published in English in 1975, and legend has it that it revived interest in all things Hollywoodish. In 2004, The Guardian attributed him nothing less than the responsibility of jump-starting celebrity tabloids: as they write, he “swung open the gates to a world of gossip in which our media now wallows”. Impressive!
But how does the book fare decades later?
Well, it’s still a great ride through the celebrity scandals that rocked Hollywood between the twenties and the fifties. Through saucy and hyperactive prose, Anger describes a “tribe” of hedonists, dominators, rapists and murderers. Starlets rise and fall with monotonous predictability, what happens behind closed doors would scandalize even the most progressive among us and human folly is in never-ending display. A typical page of Anger prose has UPPERCASE headlines, underlined dialogue for emphasis, a generous sprinkling of “scare quotes” and more names than you can look up in a phone directory. To say that this remains lively reading is to understate the fun of wallowing in such go-for-broke rumors; while modern tabloids don’t shy away from such things, I wonder how much of it was a real shock to readers back in 1975.
The other aspect of Hollywood Babylon that still works is the avalanche of pictures that complement the text. It remains, in that regard, a time machine leading us back to an era of strange old hairstyles, gowns and make-up.. Nearly every page has an illustration of some sort; the full-page or even dual-page spreads are plentiful, but be warned that graphic black-and-white violence is more plentiful than the occasional nudity: Anger seems to think that you can’t have a book about tragic murders and suicides without showing the bodies.
The real question, of course, remains what -if anything- of this is true. As I was reading Hollywood Babylon, my growing sense of familiarity with the content was answered by taking a look at my treasured Big Book of Scandals and finding out that Anger’s book had been used as a primary source. Much of what Anger writes about can be corroborated with little effort: In fact, chances are that you will page through it with a finger on your mouse to go and look up entries on Wikipedia. There are plenty of fascinating stories in this book, and the truth (properly cited) can be amazing. On the other hand, much of what the book says remains hearsay both in 1975 and in 2009: In most cases, Anger had the advantage of writing about the safely dead.
This may not be a profound book, but it does lead one to semi-serious thoughts about the fleeing quality of fame and the meat-grinder that Hollywood can become. It’s tough to read about then-celebrities whose names are now completely unknown without sparing a thought for those current celebrities whose lives will end up as nothing but a chapter in some future gossip book. It’s not hard to jump from the black-and-white photos to the desperate lives of those who want to be part of the Hollywood tribe, and the cruel irony when stories that wouldn’t warrant more than three paragraphs in a busy metro newspaper end up splashed on tabloid headlines because then happen to involve rich, famous or at least familiar people. Hollywood Babylon may have been published thirty years ago and discuss people eight decades removed, but it’s being read by exactly the same readers.