Recent revelations about Hollywood’s culture of sexual harassment and violence might come as a surprise to many Americans.
After all, Los Angeles – home of what some call “the American image factory” – has long carried the allure of glamour, wealth and fame. Beckoned by the iconic Hollywood sign in the Santa Monica Mountains, the city, in many regards, has become synonymous with the American dream.
People familiar with the industry, however, might tell a more complicated story. That group includes writers who have made Los Angeles and Hollywood their subjects: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Evelyn Waugh, Gore Vidal, Joan Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. All have chronicled a seamier side of the California dream, a world awash with drugs, sex, violence and abuses of power.
So how did so many of us miss this? Could it have anything to do with the fact Americans who read literature recently fell to a three-decade low?
At the very least, the works of these writers show that literature can play an imperative role in our culture – that novels can give us a means of facing difficult issues that many of us may prefer to ignore, or don’t want to believe exist.
A city of vampires
In numerous novels since the 1930s, Hollywood’s underbelly has been revealed as a landscape rife with peril. And while many writers have laid bare the vice, corruption and disillusionment at the heart of Hollywood, few have gone deeper into the shadows than Nathanael West and Bret Easton Ellis.
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West’s 1939 novel, “The Day of the Locust,” depicts the struggles of Faye Greener, an aspiring actress in pursuit of Hollywood fame and fortune – a dream laid waste by the men she meets along the way, who see her as little more than an object of their desires.
Pursued and stalked throughout the novel, Greener eventually turns to prostitution to make a living. Worse yet, to the novel’s protagonist, she’s the subject of disturbing rape fantasies. The story ends in a frenzy of violence at a Hollywood movie premiere – a scene that acts as a metaphor for the city and its corrupt culture.
In “Less Than Zero,” billboards emblazoned with the words “Disappear Here” loom over the landscape. They’re apparently advertisements that invite a blissful escape to some far-off resort. But for the novel’s main character, they become a menacing warning of a city that devours all who live and work there.
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The novel’s main character, Clay, descends into the darkest recesses of this world – a journey to, as he puts it, “see the worst.” And indeed he does.
Although some of the horrors he witnesses occur in back alleys and basement clubs, the most shocking forms of violence – rapes, the viewing of snuff films – transpire at ritzy hotels and posh homes in Malibu, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. We are led to the realization that self-destruction, dehumanization and violence are built into the very fabric of Hollywood’s being.