In Gigi, Vincente Minnelli’s stylish 1958 musical, Honore (Maurice Chevalier) and former lover Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) are reminiscing about the good old days. Cue: Lerner and Loewe’s witty I Remember It Well.
Honore sings, “We met at nine.” “We met at eight,” Madame Alvarez corrects. “I was on time,” he continues. “No, you were late,” she responds. The song’s title is clearly ironic, and it’s surely no coincidence that, 16 years later, when Minnelli published his autobiography, largely about his time in Hollywood, he called it I Remember It Well. Acknowledging that maybe he didn’t.
Meryl Streep is one of the contemporary voices heard in Hollywood: An Oral History.Credit:AP
Sam Wasson and Jeanine Basinger’s 750-page oral history about Hollywood never directly addresses the question of how well those it cites might remember their time in Tinseltown. But it’s everywhere implicit: in the often contradictory viewpoints they offer about what it was, and is now, like; and in the way apocryphal anecdotes frequently sit side-by-side with much more plausible historical information.
Veteran assistant director Ridgeway Callow delivers an amusing yarn about director Cecil B. DeMille, known for his serious approach to his work and for his autocratic dealings with extras for crowd scenes in big-budget films, from King of Kings (1927) to The Ten Commandments (1956).
Hollywood: The Oral History by Jeanine Basinger & Sam Wasson.
“One day, he caught an extra on set talking to her friend. ‘When I’m talking, young lady, what do you have to say that’s so important?’ The girl in question was a well-known extra by the name of Sugar Geise, an ex-showgirl and a great wit. Bravely, she spoke up. ‘I only said to my friend, When is that bald-headed son-of-a-bitch going to call lunch?’ There were a few apprehensive seconds of silence. Then Mr. DeMille yelled, ‘Lunch!’ So, he did have a sense of humour.”
The story might be true, but Callow never worked with DeMille (and I can find no record of Geise ever having done so either), so it’s highly likely that he’s passing on an anecdote he’s heard from somebody else. Which might or might not be true, however much one wants it to be.
Alongside it, Hollywood places the more reliable memories of some who did work with DeMille, including Charlton Heston, Edith Head and cinematographer Hal Rosson, as well as others who could speak with some authority about his standing in the film business, including fellow directors Allan Dwan, Tay Garnett and Mervyn LeRoy, and publicist Teete Carle.
Hollywood: The Oral History is full of often juicy and frequently informative stories about the place, mostly told by people who have worked there. It takes us from the era of the silents through to the present day, patiently guiding us across that very unsteady footbridge between the old Hollywood and the new one. And it’s an impressively ambitious endeavour, drawing creatively on the wonderful collection of material that came from the vaults of the American Film Institute.
Wasson, the author of a handful of books about Hollywood – on Blake Edwards, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Mazursky, Bob Fosse, and Chinatown – had the original idea. He took it to Jeanine Basinger, his former lecturer in film studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the author of a dozen books about the movies – their subjects include Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, director Anthony Mann, the war movie and the musical – and a trustee at the AFI.
With the institute’s approval, they gained access to 3000 guest speakers and nearly 10,000 hours of “intimate conversations between Hollywood professionals and AFI conservatory students”.
Gloria Swanson with Cecil B DeMille on the set of Sunset Boulevard. Did the director really have a sense of humour?
These aren’t the kind of interviews people involved in the industry generally do when they’re trying to sell us something. They were exchanges in which they were able to speak freely and openly about their work, taking us behind the scenes to provide insights into the joys and the pitfalls that have been a daily part of their work and to what the late producer Joseph E. Levine delightfully refers to as the “farkakte” film business.
Selected parts of these conversations are arranged more or less chronologically, Wasson recently telling Vanity Fair, “What we wanted to do was make it like a real conversation. So, we wanted it to be like Lillian Gish is in the room with Jordan Peele. And the way that we achieve that is by having people finish each other’s thoughts. It is one long conversation.”
It was also a mammoth task to edit all the material together, although, curiously, the credits to the book have Wasson and Basinger as authors rather than editors. Along with a few other film commentators – critics, historians and journalists – they do make guest appearances from time to time. But it has to be said that we could generally have done without their interruptions. They add little to what we’re able to glean from what the speakers have already or are soon to say.
The cast list is extensive. There are “old-timers” who have gone on ahead, such as directors Raoul Walsh, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Billy Wilder, Rouben Mamoulian and John Cromwell, producers Henry Blanke, Pandro Berman and Arthur Freed, actors Henry Fonda, Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, cinematographers Stanley Cortez, Floyd Crosby and Hal Mohr, as well as many others.
There’s also an abundance of comparatively new kids on the block, some of whom will need no introduction – Lucas, Spielberg, Beatty, Cameron, Scorsese, John Lasseter, JJ Abrams, Streep, Nicholson – and others who might, such as agent Michael Ovitz and producer Sherry Lansing. Two actors have their names misspelt (Margaret Sullavan and Joseph Cotten), and script continuity assistant Hannah Scheel (Blow Out) mysteriously appears to have become Hannah Sheeld, but these are minor blemishes.
However, to claim that the book is the oral history is a bit over the top. There are thousands upon thousands of stories that aren’t told here, thousands of people who didn’t contribute to its history. And the puzzling editorial decision not to provide a detailed index or information about exactly where the participants sit in the epic saga of Hollywood results in an approximate history rather than a precise one.
That said, though, the talk in Hollywood is often illuminating, consistently interesting and frequently entertaining. After all, these people all have one thing in common – they’re in show business. And I suspect that any reader who decides to dip into this hefty history will find it impossible not to want to read more … and then more.
Hollywood: The Oral History by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson is published by Faber & Faber, $49.99.
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