Hollywood: The Oral History by Jeanine Basinger & Sam Wasson - review by Graham Daseler

Graham Daseler

LA Confidential

Hollywood: The Oral History


Faber & Faber 739pp £25

Compressing all of Hollywood history into a single volume is a daunting task, but Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson think they’ve found a way to do it, not by using their own words but by using the words of the people who lived through it. In their new book, Hollywood: The Oral History, they draw on the nearly ten thousand hours of interviews in the vaults of the American Film Institute to stitch together what they call ‘the true story of Hollywood’, as told by everyone from Lillian Gish to Quentin Tarantino. It’s a clever trick, giving the authors the chance to put people like Sam Fuller, Katharine Hepburn and Jim Henson together on the same page, seemingly carrying on a single conversation. Sometimes it works, and the speakers appear to complete each other’s sentences. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you feel like you’re on a crowded Zoom call with everyone just trying to get a word in edgeways.

Because the editors don’t fact-check their subjects, one must be careful not to believe everything that’s said. At one point, the writer Adela Rogers St Johns informs us that Louis B Mayer hated David O Selznick so much that he wouldn’t even permit Selznick to enter his house after he married Mayer’s daughter Irene. In fact, David and Irene were wed in Mayer’s house. Not long thereafter, Mayer hired Selznick to be one of the senior producers at MGM. And, naturally, many of the interviewees take the opportunity to settle scores. Gore Vidal bad-mouths Norman Mailer, George Cukor bad-mouths Marilyn Monroe and nearly everyone bad-mouths Jack Warner, who, in addition to being a tyrant on the Warner Brothers lot, never tired of regaling his employees with awful jokes.

Although the authors attempt to cover the entire history of Hollywood up to the present day, the lion’s share of the book’s 739 pages is devoted to the studio era, running from the late 1920s to the mid-1960s. The story of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the

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