From our “Why’s this so good?” archives, a handful of great reads on Hollywood by Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, Ian Parker and Dave Gardetta, deconstructed for craft and significance by critic Maud Newton, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, Wired’s Jason Fagone and Vanity Fair’s Benjamin Wallace:
We tend now to think of Hollywood’s hackneyed, would-be blockbusters as a new phenomenon, one borne of desperation, unprecedented cynicism and the rise of narrative television. But Raymond Chandler’s wonderful 1945 essay-screed “Writers in Hollywood” reminds us that the motion picture industry was, by and large, as uninspired and ridiculous 65 years ago as it is today.
Writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Chandler brought to bear on his subject all the fury and surprising insights of the novelist who wrote “The Big Sleep,” the gimlet-eyed practicality of the storyteller whose first publications were for pulp magazines, and the staggering self-absorption of the depressive alcoholic.
Truman Capote’s profile of the depressive, incoherent, brilliant Marlon Brando is one of the greatest of all time. Published in 1957 in The New Yorker, it nominally takes place one evening in the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto.
One could point out many things about craft in the piece. The descriptions of characters are finely observed and sticky. A director “is a man balanced on enthusiasm, as a bird is balanced on air.” Or check out his description of how Brando transforms into Kowalski: “with what chameleon ease Brando acquired the character’s cruel and gaudy colors, how superbly, like a guileful salamander, he slithered into the part, how his own persona evaporated – just as, in this Kyoto hotel room 10 years afterward, my 1947 memory of Brando receded, disappeared into his 1957 self.”
There’s nothing self-consciously poetic or flashy about Parker’s story. No formal innovations. The prose style is New Yorker to the nth degree – elegant, exact. The tone is wry but not coy, with hidden layers of empathy and earnestness. The structure is direct. Parker comes right out with a clever image that immediately stamps his signature on the piece:
Alec Baldwin, who stars in “30 Rock,” the NBC sitcom that has revived his career and done nothing to lift his spirits, has the unbending, straight-armed gait of someone trying to prevent clothes from rubbing against sunburned skin.
The basking! It burns! Here’s the Baldwin tale in miniature: An extraordinarily talented actor has an amazing life, a life any of us would kill for, yet he’s unhappy. You could flake off this sentence, pot it in new soil, and it would grow a whole new story. Same goes for the full first paragraph, which, like most Parker leads, is both long (330 words) and dense (it includes three quotes, five references to people other than Baldwin, and one form of the word “fuck”), and establishes that the writer knows exactly what his story is and is in control of the telling.
Around the turn of the millennium, big changes swept Hollywood. Suddenly and as never before, screens were clotted with the teen-fodder likes of Scream and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Titanic and Dawson’s Creek. Where other journalists saw the business story in the pop-culture youthquake – an audience demographic shift, a celebrity trend – Dave Gardetta homed in on its civilian fallout, the influx of young women chasing their dreams of fame, often by dating Hollywood’s new generation of actors. And to portray that collision, aka “the L.A. Scene,” he told the story of two of those young women, in a Los Angeles magazine story called “Valley Girl, Interrupted.”