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HEARTS of the CITY | Essay / Robert A. Jones

Tales From the Dark Side of Hollywood

August 21, 1996|Robert A. Jones

At the personal-crisis level, Hollywood is having a season like none since the summer of 1921. In that fateful year, Fatty Arbuckle drove up to San Francisco for a three-day toot and ended up in jail, charged with the murder of a starlet.

No sooner had the Arbuckle affair hit the scandal sheets than director William Desmond Taylor was found shot to death in his Hollywood home. Then Mabel Normand's chauffeur knocked off a visiting industrialist. Still another director died from a drug overdose, and an ingenue committed drug-related suicide.

A messy time, 1921. In terms of personal carnage it may outshine 1996, but not by much. This year we've had producer Don Simpson dying at his Bel-Air home from a mix of cocaine and 20-odd prescription drugs provided by feel-good doctors.

Simpson's death followed that of friend Stephen Ammerman in the same house from the same cause only five months previous; Ammerman's family has now sued, claiming that Simpson's friends and associates covered up the vast flow of drugs at the estate in hopes Simpson would return to making hit movies.

Meanwhile, Margot Kidder was pulled, incoherent, from the bushes in Glendale, and a crazed, disoriented Robert Downey Jr. was pulled from inside a stranger's house in Malibu.

Then, yesterday, the county coroner revealed that Margaux Hemingway, whose body was found in her Santa Monica apartment this summer, died from an excess of phenobarbital. The granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway and an actress trying to revive her career, she had returned to Hollywood a year ago only to kill herself with drugs.

Mind you, all this is happening in the same year when Bob Dole and the Republicans have decided to make Hollywood a prime target in their campaign against moral decline. And the same year when the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16 million members, the Assemblies of God, with 2.5 million members, and other organizations have announced boycotts of the Walt Disney Co. for its cultural sins.

The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, one of our local upholders of virtue and the chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, predicted recently that the boycott would bring Disney to heel. "It will grow," he said. "This will force Disney . . . to live up to the values of its founders."

In short, there is evidence that an America of rectitude has begun one of its periodic marches against Hollywood and its many crimes. Hollywood, in return, appears to be playing its mangy role with great gusto, compulsively showing its very worst when under attack.

If real life were a movie, Hollywood would pay dearly for this bad timing. But life does not operate as a movie, especially here. For its own peculiar reasons, America needs a bad-boy Hollywood, and wants it to be so. The industry likely will suffer as little from this year's indulgences as it has in the past, and may even benefit.

"The scandals that rock the film industry only destroy those whom audiences have grown tired of," writes film historian Scott Siegel. He describes the trial of Errol Flynn for having sex with an underage minor. Such a charge could have been catastrophic, but Flynn's devil-may-care attitude in the face of the accusations actually enhanced his career and sold millions of tickets at the box office.

Such was also the case in the 1930s with Mary Astor, who was forced to open her diary to public view in a divorce proceeding. The diary described, in exquisite detail, her many adulterous affairs. You might suppose, in the 1930s, that the public would shun a beautiful woman who had so betrayed her marriage vows. But no. It added to Astor's allure as a femme fatale and she went on to star in such movies as "The Maltese Falcon."

A few, of course, have been destroyed. Even though he was acquitted of the murder charges, Arbuckle himself was punished severely by the public for the scandal. Most likely, Siegel writes, that was because the charges against Arbuckle seemed to contradict the public's fantasy of him as a good-natured bumbler. And so he paid.

But the vast majority are forgiven. Some, like Elvis or Judy Garland, actually are forgiven posthumously when their frailties are revealed after death, and their legend only grows.

After all, there is no other place where America can find these darkest corners of life. You can't go to Washington for them, you can't go to Wall Street. Only the gorgeous, outsized world of Hollywood serves them up year after year. Don Simpson, like Elvis, died in the bathroom pumped full of drugs. Hugh Grant, like Errol Flynn, found himself in the wrong place with his pants down. And so on.

Any supermarket tabloid, on any given week, will testify to the power of these dark stories. They serve up tangible proof of the dangerous, destructive streak within all of us. They also provide the great satisfaction of seeing the rich and famous suffer miserably.

Can Liz, so rich, really need that many bon-bons? Could Margaux, so pretty and famous, have been so lonely? Yes and yes.

So let the Baptists boycott. Little will change. America needs the dark side of Hollywood, just as Hollywood needs America. It is an old relationship that comes with a certain cost. But both sides are willing to pay.

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