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Fiction reviews

 

Gore Vidal - Hollywood

4 July 1990

Hollywood
Gore Vidal
Andre Deutsch


Published in The Age


In Hollywood thesedays a screenwriter must - to get a script considered by a studio - condense it to 100 words (monosyllables preferred) and recite those words, with feeling, to a meeting of about a dozen script executives. This degrading procedure is known locally as a "dog and pony show". Hollywood script executives, who are paid to have the same tastes as middle-class adolescents, also share their attention spans. Thus if the writer fails to convince them of the value of his script within 60 seconds, the executives traditionally "do a MEGO". (MEGO is the industry acronym for "Mine Eyes Glaze Over".)

It is sadly ironic, then, that Gore Vidal's Hollywood, which seeks to explore the allure of the place in the 1920s, as well as its reactionary political propaganda, contains more MEGO potential than a Bill Collins homily.

The novel follows Washington wife Mrs Caroline Sanford, as she enters the movie industry to make and act in "anti-Hun" flicks. It also looks at her relationships with William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies and various US Presidents, past, present and future. It deals with her life in and around Congress and the White House - and the relationship between politics and the film industry, especially vis a vis propaganda-making.

The story is almost totally devoid of interest. This is because Mrs Sanford - even after Hollywood renames her Emma Traxler - is never anything more than a cardboard cut-out reciting historical facts, making second-rate witticisms at the expense of her enemies, sighing occasionally at the horrors of World War 1, and sharing gossip about high-ranking politicians. This, in fact, is largely what all this book's characters do.

Hollywood drops more names than Molly Meldrum on a bad night (Hearst, Harding, Roosvelt, Wilson, et al, ad nauseam). The sheer number of its characters induces MEGOs at a unprecedented rate. There are so many characters that - Presidents and magnates aside - you forget, and eventually cease to care about, their original connection to the story.

Despite its cast of thousands, and the scrupulous research behind it, Hollywood never really engages us as history. Physical facts and famous names are no substitute for human motivation - and Vidal seems to have little understanding of this. For the same reason it also, of course, fails a novel.

Virtually all Vidal's characters have the habit of making their dialogue an educational experience for us. As one of them tells President Wilson, on the question America entering the War: "I always thought you missed your chance - if war is what you want - when the Germans sank the Lusitania, and so many American lives were lost. The public was ready for war that day."

Such over-explanation puts the novel at times dangerously close to Jeffrey Archer territory.

But perhaps Hollywood's greatest failing is its enslavement to its detail. Vidal has a justified reputation as a researcher, and has obviously put hundreds if not thousands of hours into his background history. But the characters here never step out of that history's shadow: they never operate as anything more than its puppets.

Caroline Sanford doubts her lover's commitment to her. She falls into doubt about her career as a movie-maker. She wants to return to Washington - or go to France to grow old and disappear. Yet at no stage is the author's treatment of these crises more than perfunctory:

Caroline wondered if, perhaps, she were finished with everything; life, too.


That's the full text of her existential deliberations, before Vidal changes the topic.

Having admired Gore Vidal's politics for many years - after all, he's one of the few people who has stood up to the loopy right which now runs America - it comes as a sad surprise to discover that, on the evidence of this book at least, he is no novelist.


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