Sex, Stupidity and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry
by Ian Grey
Published by Juno Books
235 pages, 1998
Roots of the Rich and Famous
by Robert Davenport
Published by Taylor Publishing
138 pages, 1998
The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown
by Robert Berger and Anne Conser
Published by Balcony Press
136 pages, 1997
January Goes to the Movies
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
This is the time of the year when the cinema-going world goes mad for Oscar. With millions of eyes trained on the movies it seemed like an appropriate time to look at a few movie-related books. As you can imagine, finding books about movies to review is about as difficult as finding a video store: throw a rock and you'll hit one. However, we wanted a bit of a challenge. No average movie books for January's readers: but titles a little extraordinary and perhaps even difficult to find. The three reviewed here met these requirements.
Sex, Stupidity and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry is a tough-to-find gem that's really worth the effort. Especially if you want the straight dope from Hollywood and you have the ability to ride with an author who keeps his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek most of the time. Sex, Stupidity and Greed is a delightful blend of interesting facts and behind-the-scenes anecdotes absolutely impossible to find in this form: especially packaged together with such an irrepressible wit and an absolute disregard for what anyone might think.
Sex, Stupidity and Greed is broken into roughly 14 chapter-like sections; each of those sections os broken still further into parts. So that in the Violence section, we find The Life-Affirming Qualities of Extreme Gore; Good Gore Highlights; Bad Gore Highlights; Violence has Consequences: Director Wes Craven; and The American Soul: Director Ulli Lommel. All subjects that, on the surface of things at any rate, don't seem that connected. Author Ian Grey connects them masterfully. Throughout the book, Grey has woven interviews, factoids, statistics and even his own personal essays quite beautifully. The resulting picture is an alarming one... if you happen to be waiting for the Perfect Film.
The ultimate effect of corporate monopolization of information is that you get a system that is not only invested in the dumbing-down of movies, but of the entire culture. Anything that rises an inch above the mediocrity-line and exposes the usual crap to be just that, crap, is either sound-bited into moronic levels or, worse, not covered at all by the press. This hastens the atrophying of intelligent conversation about reported events and the mutation of news gathering into simply another forum for the fine art of spin doctoring.
I like the way Grey spouts: it's clear, concise and without a pulled punch. A whole book filled with his rants wouldn't be a waste of time. However there's more here. A lot more. And if you're interested in modern film and aren't offended by strong words or language, you'll probably like it.
Not strictly about movies or even the medium's stars, Roots of the Rich and Famous is nonetheless filled with star connections. And some of this stuff is so obscure it can't help but be interesting. Written by Los Angeles-based writer Richard Davenport -- whom his publicists call "Genealogist to the Stars" -- the book is pocket-sized and not a weighty read. More fun here than substance. I can't, for instance, imagine needing to know that Brooke Shields, Christopher Lee and Glenn Close are all descendants of Lucrezia Borgia; or that Boris Karloff was related to Anna Harriet Crawford, the woman who put the "I" in The King and I. But it's entertaining stuff, anyway. And there's a reason Trivial Pursuit was so popular in the 80s.
Author Robert Davenport sums the book up quite well in his introduction:
Everyone has ancestors, and celebrities are no exception. And often the rich and famous have ancestors who were as well known as they are. Most celebrities today are creatures of the media, and so were their ancestors. Many historical figures are not famous so much for what they did as for the publicity that surrounded their exploits.... Therefore, it should come as no surprise that those historical figures who were good at self-promotion should be related to present-day celebrities.
Roots of the Rich and Famous is filled -- actually, entirely comprised -- of perfectly useless celebrity-related genealogy. And while this isn't a book that will overly tax your brain, what that relates to celebrities is meant to? It's enough, perhaps, to learn that Bela Lugosi was born in Transylvania (can you spell t-y-p-e-c-a-s-t-i-n-g?) or that Prince Charles is -- apparently -- descended from Count Dracula, Voivode Vlad Dracula the Impaler. And George Washington was more than the father of his country: a whole lot of people claim relation, including Tennessee Williams, Quincy Jones, Ginger Rogers, William Holden and Sidney Lanier.
The writing is not as in-depth as the research must have been for this book and even the acknowledgments read like a bit of a who's who: Luci Arnaz, Ginger Rogers, Robert Carradine, Cesar Romero, Joan Fontaine, Lillian Gish, Hugh Downs, John Lithgow: you've gotta figure that Davenport wrote an awful lot of letters to put this book together.
Camera work and passion are the real stars of The Last Remaining Seats: Movie Palaces of Tinseltown, a beautiful and intimate look at the palatial movie palaces erected in the Los Angeles area at the height of Hollywood's golden age. Photo team Anne Conser and Robert Berger are internationally known architecture and interior design photographers. "Their shared fascination with historic properties has led to this personal project that has consumed much of their time for the last six years." And it was a worthwhile passion: The Last Remaining Seats is as fine a tribute to the physical artifacts of Tinseltown as I've seen.
Stephen M. Silverman's introduction brings us face to face with the onset of Conser and Berger's obsession. It also touches lightly on the history of some of the venues included. But the photos themselves -- as well as the buildings they show us -- are central to this work. And they're breathtaking! It's not until you see the five-chandelier-illuminated lobby of Los Angeles' Orpheum (opened in 1926) or the starkly Baroque interior of the Tower Theater (1927) that you realize where America's real castles were. Frescoed ceilings, cavorting cherubs, painted backdrops, gilt walls: the opulence of one leads only to the richness of the next. And it's difficult, in this era of sterile cineplexes, to imagine a time when impresarios would build a venue like the Mayan Theater, complete with "the remarkable richness of its Pre-Columbian-wedding-cake facade." How wonderful, though, to have these details expertly preserved here, as Conser and Berger have brought their professional polish to their personal project and so given a closer insight than even a childhood spent in the balcony could have brought. | March 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.