There is so much true wit and big observation in David Freeman's "A Hollywood Life" that I found myself underlining choice bits more than I thought possible in a Hollywood novel. Or a novel by a screenwriter. But if you know Freeman's first book, "A Hollywood Education," you already know he's too good to be a screenwriter.
That's the irony. We don't even know his film credits; they're not on his book jackets. Yet with these two books, Freeman proves he's a real author in a company town. That the town (on some levels) prizes screen writing more than book writing is a fact of life. Freeman knows that, and writes his heart out anyway.
Granted, the only way to tell the truth in Hollywood is in fiction. Jackie Susann understood this, and evoked show business in her novels as well as any historian, past or present, has done. Her books were \o7 felt, \f7 her characters were real. What made her the best-selling novelist of her time was not her playing around with Judy Garland's life, or Grace Kelly's, but her creation of composite characters.
Neely O'Hara in "Valley of the Dolls" was ultimately more fascinating than Carla Tate in "A Hollywood Life," precisely because Neely was the real turtle soup--and Carla is merely the mock. She's mock Natalie Wood.
By basing Carla so completely on Natalie, the author has tipped his hand. You never really get on the movie-star roller coaster with Carla Tate--you merely find yourself wanting to know what Natalie Wood was really like. Or you see the easy, obvious parallels: See Carla Tate's career slipping away; see Carla Tate die off the Pacific Coast in a boating accident. You want to pick up the phone and call Roddy McDowell or Gavin Lambert or Mart Crowley, friends one and all, and get the real story. (Which, by the way, they would not tell you.)
No matter. Read David Freeman for something other than character development. Read him instead for some very fresh observations about how Hollywood really works. So maybe he should have created a heroine from scratch. Overlook that, because David Freeman is giving the reader something worth having: a close-up look at the movie colony, shrewd and knowing.
"Libidinal energy," he writes, "is one of the major forces that shapes a performance." These 12 words tell you as much about stardom as all of Charles Higham's books put together. Or, as Carla puts it in a candid moment, "Directors are supposed to be thugs with vision." In the post-\o7 auteur \f7 age, it's as accurate an explanation of movie directors as we'll get. (Directors without some thug in them are directors without a track record, going back to Hitchcock and Hathaway and even Natalie Wood's favorite, Elia Kazan.)
Every real star has a kind of narcissistic radar about herself. She knows where she stands, always. Freeman's heroine shows real self-awareness when she says, "The audience is 17 years old! They go to shopping malls. They don't know who I am. There's no sense of me out there anymore."
That's how movie stars talk. Freeman's narrator Gabe Burton, who finally agrees to write Carla's memoirs (largely out of an unrequited love), listens, and nails down his star. But how movie stars make magic, and survive, is more difficult to conjure up.
Carla, he writes, "embodied a character. It wasn't a matter of mimicry or performing, but rather the creation of a person. Her gift was to be able to fully imagine the way a character thought. Carla entered into the dreams and fantasies of a fictional person. From there, the character's inflections and posture followed naturally. It wasn't simulation or a comment, but the thing itself."
The thing itself is what Freeman is after in this debut novel. In "Hollywood Education," he was writing to make his bones, to create a reputation. In "Hollywood Life," he's going for a bigger reward. He wants nothing less than to be a Hollywood authority. When his narrator begins to write Carla Tate's memoirs, he goes full-throttle. "What couldn't be learned through diligence and investigation I would trust myself to dream," he says bravely, with stars in his eyes.
Yet the author goes beyond dreaming, which is what moves this book beyond other Hollywood \o7 romans-a-clef. \f7 He gets close to reportage when he quotes Carla's lover, the powerful fixer Jack Markel, saying of her death, "Nobody just falls off a boat." Similarly, at the beginning of Carla's life, he gets the exact avarice of parents who push their children into the movies.
Natalie Wood's real-life mother, Maria Gurdin, was a classic stage mother, one for the books. But she had nothing on Carla Tate's father, Milton, who sends his 6-day-old daughter from Queen of Angels Hospital to Paramount to play "a newborn for seventy-five bucks a day." The studio sends a car to the hospital, and a baby star is born. The foundation is laid. It could be Carole Lombard's foundation, or Elizabeth Taylor's, but who cares? It plays.