Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. I can say this with confidence because three of the last five winners of the Oscar for best picture were largely or entirely about the film industry. And this year it’s La La Land, yet another ode to showbiz, that seems likely to sweep the board.
But it’s less clear whether Hollywood loves novels about Hollywood. After all, the great artform of the 19th century tends not to be so charitable to the great artform of the 20th. The books listed below are populated by hacks, cynics, crushed dreams, moral depravity – and dead pets.
At least two of those things feature in my new novel, Smoke Over Malibu. Its protagonist is Lucius “Lucky” Kluge, an erstwhile screenwriter still skulking around Los Angeles, years after he quit the industry to avoid writing a superhero franchise.
He venerates the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s, but despises the modern blockbuster. He now works in antiques, but gets dragged back into his own past – and into an unlikely neo-noir mystery – when his former writing partner and ex-best friend goes missing.
Lucky is cynical about the film business, a sentiment he seems to share with almost every author on my list of the best novels about Hollywood. More than half were screenwriters themselves. Several were very successful. One even won an Oscar.
Which kind of makes you wonder why they all hated it so much.
1. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939)
West’s was the first great novel to catalogue the waifs and strays who made their way to Depression-era Hollywood in hopes of stardom, and who encountered only disappointment and disaffection. The book’s characters include a dwarf, a cowboy and a doomed starlet, but at its centre is Tod Hackett, a young artist and trainee production designer who is planning an apocalyptic painting called the The Burning of Los Angeles.
2. The Pat Hobby Stories by F Scott Fitzgerald (1940-1941)
Fitzgerald spent the last few years of his life as a Hollywood screenwriter, but died with just one credit to his name. He left behind a half-finished novel about the film business, The Last Tycoon, and 17 short stories about a derelict, ethically challenged screenwriter named Pat Hobby. First published in Esquire magazine and later collected as a single volume, these tragic and hilarious tales follow Hobby, a silent-era “structure man”, as he strives in vain to master the talkies.
3. What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg (1941)
Most Hollywood novels depict ambition thwarted. But here, in Schulberg’s best-known book, the upwardly mobile Sammy Glick gets everything he wants. Does it make him happy? Take a wild guess. The narrator is the more personable (and much less successful) screenwriter Al Manheim, who gets a front-row seat to Sammy’s ruthless rise from newspaper copy boy to Hollywood studio boss, and who tries throughout to solve the mystery of the title.
4. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (1948)
Minor English war poet Dennis Barlow moved to Hollywood to write a biopic of Shelley, but, with the film stuck in development hell, he now works as a crematorium technician at a pet cemetery called the Happier Hunting Ground. Waugh’s brief, bitter satire of California’s film and funeral industries was inspired by a trip he took to LA in 1947, when MGM was wooing him – without success – to agree to a screen adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.
5. The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)
Chandler’s novels have been adapted into at least two great movies and, as a screenwriter, he wrote at least one great movie himself – 1944’s Double Indemnity. But of all the Phillip Marlowe books, only The Little Sister takes the wry private eye into Hollywood’s orbit, as he investigates the relationship between a budding screen star and a notorious local gangster. Marlowe seems about as impressed by the film business as he is by organised crime: not very.
6. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion (1970)
Didion’s nonfiction collections The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem are perhaps the most vivid portraits available of the west coast amid the cultural tumult of the 1960s and 70s. In this haunting novel, Didion depicts the era through the eyes of a troubled actress, Maria Wyeth, who shares her traumas and trysts with several more of southern California’s wounded souls.
7. Force Majeure by Bruce Wagner (1991)
Struggling screenwriter Bud Wiggins, Wagner’s semi-autobiographical antihero, is a direct spiritual descendant of Pat Hobby. Driving a limo to pay the bills, dining out on the sole screenplay he almost got made, Wiggins endures repeated and abject humiliations, from knocking himself out cold on the Oscars red carpet to performing sexual favours for a senior film exec. A bleakly funny insider’s perspective on the motion picture business.
8. This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes (2006)
More a novel about Los Angeles than about Hollywood per se, This Book Will Save Your Life nevertheless features, in a major supporting role, an action-movie star who pilots his helicopter to airlift a stranded horse from a mysterious sinkhole that appears in the back garden of a depressed and lonely stock trader. This is a book I tell visitors to read on the flight to LA: a surreal and panoramic satire of privileged, contemporary southern California.
9. Me Cheeta by James Lever (2009)
Hollywood memoirs can be tedious, but this one is irresistible: the autobiography of Cheeta, the chimp from the Tarzan movies. As imagined by Lever, Cheeta is a charming, profane guide to Hollywood’s golden age, bearing witness to the least forgivable behaviour of its biggest stars. The section when he crashes Douglas Fairbanks’s Rolls-Royce is a comic tour de force, while his lifelong bond with Tarzan co-star Johnny Weismuller is unexpectedly moving.
10. American Dream Machine by Matthew Specktor (2013)
Specktor is Hollywood royalty, the son of legendary Hollywood agent Fred Specktor. He plainly drew on that experience for his second novel, in which screenwriter Nate Rosenwald narrates the rise and fall of his father, super-agent Beau Rosenwald, against the backdrop of the New Hollywood and the blockbuster era that followed. The book’s prologue is especially memorable: Nate comes across a young and not-yet-famous George Clooney, puking into a pot plant at a beloved industry eatery on the Sunset Strip.
- Smoke Over Malibu by Tim Walker is published by Cornerstone priced £18.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £16.14 including free UK p&p.
- If these books haven’t put you off, the Guardian will have comprehensive live coverage and comment on the Oscars, from Sunday night into Monday morning, here.