I had been reading Anne Helen Petersen’s columns on The Hairpin for years, with articles analyzing classic Hollywood lives with a great deal of wit and insight. When this book was published, I ordered it right away, read the first few chapters, and then just let it sit. It just wasn’t as compelling as I thought it was going to be. However, I went on a work trip this week and had to spend hours in layovers, so figured I would use my captive audience situation to finally finish it. Once I really got into it, it was really kind of interesting, although much more measured than her similar articles online had been.
Petersen is a thoughtful writer with a degree in media studies, and she has selected a range of celebrities ranging in time from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to James Dean. While some of the celebrities she discusses are pretty obvious choices, including Dean, Judy Garland and Mae West, some are seem less so, such as Clara Bow and Montgomery Clift.
In this book, Petersen dissects how their private lives, and the scandals they endure, are managed by the studios in terms of their careers and the larger Hollywood business scene. Although not getting into meticulous detail, she quotes studio placed articles in movie magazines to illustrate how the studios were controlling the narrative (and the lives of the stars) in an effort to protect their investments and the star making machinery that churned away in the background. Petersen talks about sexuality, affairs and marriages, and the very real effects of sexism and racism on the industry as a whole. While nothing is in the book is enormously surprising, it is always a bit depressing to see how heartless and calculated big business can be, even if that business is making movies. She draws analogies to current celebrity experiences, which was a bit thought provoking. All the problems that have been prevalent throughout the years still hold true today – the difficulty of older women to get good roles; the factory experience that is the Disney tween franchise machine; media manipulation with controversial relationships such as with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; the challenges facing black performers trying to get leading and/or non-stereotypical roles, etc. It’s a bit sad that it seems the movie industry seems unable to make any real changes, and also that audiences remain so gullible.
The book was well written, although it wasn’t as funny as Petersen’s online work has been in the past, thoughtful but without some of the slyness I had previously enjoyed. I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in celebrity culture and media studies, as well as to those who are interested in fairly non-salacious details of stars like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. However, it is less a book on classic Hollywood scandals rather than musing on the cold manipulation of people, both stars and audience, by the larger Hollywood industry.