Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hollywood Can be a Stage Set for the Art Novel (no. 41)

 by Larry Witham


ON OCCASION, THE Academy Awards season will prompt a movie critic to list the best American novels that “hold a mirror to Hollywood.” The number barely tops ten, and so novels about Hollywood and the art world are rarer still.
            There are at least three Hollywood novels with art themes. One of them, Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust (1939), has been ranked as a great American novel. Its two successors are far humbler, yet all three have some traits in common.
            One of them is the craziness of the film industry. In Day of the Locust, the hero, a Yale-trained artist named Todd Hackett, unmasks all the illusions of Tinseltown in the 1930s. The narrative also focuses on the career failures of Faye, a young bit actress. The story ends with the public rioting at a world premier movie, disillusioned by all it represents.
            The film industry does not come off much better in two contemporary novels. Hollywood Hills (2010) is one of Joseph Wambaugh’s wacky Hollywood-cops series. The plot tracks around a painting stolen from a B-movie director’s home. In The Monet Murders (2015), Terry Mort introduces Riley Fitzhugh, a “private investigator to the stars.” It is a humorous riff on the 1930s hardboiled detective and Fitzhugh’s habit of sending girl friends to have a “screen test.”
            That suggests the second common theme: the quest of aspiring talent to make it in the movies. At the heart of Day of the Locust is Faye’s quest, and in Wambaugh’s Hollywood Hills even the main cop character (“Hollywood Nate” Weiss) moonlights as a screen actor.
            A third and final feature of these three Hollywood-and-art novels is the ambiance of Southern California, focused on Hollywood mansions, poolside scenes, and coastal drives.
            So, what are the art elements in these three works?
            Day of the Locust is richest in this respect. The main character is an artist. Unable to find work after his fine-arts training, Hackett arrives in LA to draw costumes. He is recruited by telegram and grabs the Hollywood job “despite the arguments of his friends, who were certain that he was selling out and would never paint again.”
            In Los Angeles, Hackett sees a weary race of workers, disillusioned and bored. “They discover that sunshine isn’t enough.” They expected Hollywood movies to give them their silver lining. Hackett is fascinated by the illusions of large Hollywood sets and by this smoldering plebian population. They are “the people he felt he must paint,” but paint in the ominous style of a Goya or Daumier, or in the manner of the old Italian “painters of decay and mystery.”
            Hackett soon envisions a painting to be titled The Burning of Los Angeles. He sketches it over the following weeks, seeing in his vision the city on fire and an unhappy population that “sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.” 
            And so it happens in the end, ignited by the riot outside Kahn’s Palace Theater. The riot is indistinguishable from Hackett’s vision for the painting. In effect, he predicts Hollywood’s fate, even though he “was an artist, not a prophet.” If he ever completes the painting, though, it will “not be judged by the accuracy with which it foretold a future event, but by its merits as painting.” The artist escapes the riot with an injured leg.
            Like other authors who’ve put Hollywood in fiction, West had been a screen writer there in the 1930s. In our day, Wambaugh had been a member of the LAPD. He’s also helped write screen plays Hollywood film treatments of his novels.
            As an art-crime story, Hollywood Hills introduces us to a shady Hollywood art dealer (who eventually has his head blown off). The dealer has become a link between two different crimes. One is the doings of a young ex-con caretaker at the home of a “B-list director.” The art dealer, nearly bankrupt, sells art to the director’s heiress wife, and he persuades the ex-con caretaker to steal two valuable paintings and replace them with exact photo prints.
            At the same moment, however, two other petty crooks arrive. They are a loser and his girlfriend, both addicted to drugs. To support their habit, they decide to mimic what the newspapers are calling “bling ring” thefts from wealthy homes. On their first exploit up in Hollywood hills, they steal the van in which the ex-con caretaker had put the stolen paintings.
            As “Hollywood Nate” gradually figures out what is happening, the drug user has a final show-down with the art dealer during a painting-ransom exchange. Those two do not end well. However, the girl goes home to her Oregon family and into rehab; and the ex-con (who wanted to go straight as a cook-butler) happily escape any charges.
            Terry Mort’s The Monet Murders, a first person detective narrative, takes us back to 1934, the same era in which Nathaniel West wrote. We follow PI “to the stars” Fitzhugh after he’s hired by a married woman whose artist boyfriend-on-the-side has taken her Monet painting (and put a fake copy in its place). A day or so later, the woman shoots the artist and then (apparently) herself. We learn at the end, however, that her B-movie director husband was trying to get the painting to pay his gambling debts; at his behest, the mob killed her, apparently, and then will kill him once he’s paid up.
            Meanwhile, Fitzhugh meets UCLA art history professor Dennis Finch-Hayden. Their dialogue treats us to lengthy discussions on art forgery and art crime. “I’m best known for my work on the French Impressionists,” Finch-Hayden says. “As a sideline, I’ve often helped place artwork with private buyers.”
            Asks Fitzhugh: “Ever placed a piece of stolen art?”
            The art historian replies, “Not knowingly . . . [No] one knows the whereabouts of every piece of an important artist’s work.” It seems, in fact, that the art professor ends up with the real painting (the novel’s outcome is a bit opaque), since he comes to a movie-opening party in a new Rolls Royce that cost exactly what the stolen Monet would have brought on the black market. As an artist himself, he, too, may have just copied the authentic Monet and returned the forgery as a substitute. As Finch-Hayden says, “It is a wicked world, I’m afraid. You have no idea of the passion of a true collector.”

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