Now, before we go any farther, I want to say a quick word about historical accuracy.
Namely that there isn’t any, and it doesn’t matter.
There’s a famous memoir/book on screenwriting by William Goldman (who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Misery and Chaplin amongst many, many others) called Which Lie Did I Tell? The title comes from an anecdote in which he’s in a studio office waiting for a meeting to start, the exec hangs up the phone, looks panicked for a second and says ‘which lie did I tell?’
In a way, though, that’s the point. Hollywood is all about telling stories. The stories it tells about itself, tell us a lot.
Look at celebrity gossip. Some decades, we’re supposed to believe that stars are other worldly beings who send private jets to pick up the hat they left at home. Then a recession hits and all of a sudden celebrities are just like us, going grocery shopping and pumping gas. Those actors aren’t any less rich than when glitz was more in vogue; it’s all about whichever narrative sells better.
As we’ve already discussed, look at the death of Virginia Rappé.
Throughout the twenties and thirties, it was widely accepted that Virginia was a victim and that Arbuckle got away with it. Then in the sixties, the narrative changed to innocent Arbuckle having his life ruined by malicious false accusations. The available facts didn’t change forty years later.
So what happened?
The pill happened. Rape is as old as mankind, but rape culture, the idea that women “ask for it” and/or have the power to merrily toss innocent men in jail for looking at them funny, really took hold once reliable contraception became available. If women couldn’t be frightened into staying pure and virginal with the threat of being left alone with a baby, then better control them by demonising their sexuality!
We see these shifting narratives throughout Hollywood history.
I am more than mildly obsessed with Greta Garbo. I won’t say that she is the only reason I lived in the same neighbourhood of Stockholm where she grew up, but I won’t deny she had nothing to do with it either. So I have read a LOT of biographies about her. In the vast majority, the story of how she was discovered goes something like this:
In 1924 she starred in a fairly seminal Swedish film called Gösta Berlings Saga directed by Mauritz Stiller. It was a huge smash hit, and when Louis B Mayer travelled to Europe on a scouting trip for his newly formed MGM Studio he caught a screening in Berlin.
Most versions of the story claim that he was blown away by the direction (which is unquestionably excellent), and that when he met with Stiller to offer him a contract, Stiller said he would only come if he could bring his protegé. Mayer agreed and she became arguably the greatest movie star who ever lived. However, according to Irene Mayer Selznick, Mayer’s daughter and future wife of David Selznick, who was there at the time, her father said:
Stiller’s fine but the girl, look at the girl! … I’ll take her without him, or I’ll take them both, but number one is the girl.
I’ve no idea when exactly that story changed. Stiller himself may have put out a version more favourable to himself (that would be in keeping with his character), or perhaps some reporter once upon a time just got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe even a publicist thought that the irony of the Divine Garbo initially riding someone else’s coattails to Hollywood would play better. Who knows?
But it is a pattern.
Whether we’re expected to believe that stars are bathing in champagne or doing their own housework might not matter a great deal. But, when female actors are repeatedly quoted as saying that they could give up acting tomorrow because what’s really important is their kids, or bemoaning that yes they’ve got a Golden Globe, but still single, it starts to mean something. Whether we like it or not, celebrities are role models for a lot of people, and when publicists dictate that women downplay their professional achievements to prize being a wife and mother above all… that starts to dictate culture.
During the age of the flapper, we have Mabel Normand giving interviews to fan magazines like this:
Say anything you like, but don't say I love to work. That sounds like Mary Pickford, that prissy bitch*. Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk.
*note: Mabel was also a wind up merchant. She and Pickford were good friends.
Gloria Swanson stated she may or may not believe in marriage, but she definitely believed in divorce (and she proved it: she married five times.) Clara Bow, Mae West and Tallullah Bankhead all went out of their way to shock the public with tales of glamorous orgies (Clara Bow was said to, err, entertain the entire UCLA swim team at once. Did she? Probably not, but who cares?) Yet as the Depression loomed in 1930, Norma Shearer announced that she would retire from movies to enter the “glorious business of motherhood” (she didn’t retire, but that doesn’t matter either.)
The narrative of the day is planned and strategised by teams of publicists and agents and salespeople.
It’s varies wildly whether they are selling it to the public of the twenties, the fifties, or today. That’s why it can tell us so much about where we are as a culture. Are we buying stories of plucky single women eschewing marriage and kids for independence and ambition, or are those exact same women become selfish monsters or tragic spinsters?
The story of Hollywood isn’t about what happened. It’s what they wanted us to believe happened... and why.