Book Review: ‘Hollywood: The Oral History,’ by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson – The New York Times

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HOLLYWOOD: The Oral History, by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson
It’s not quite “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” But “Hollywood: The Oral History” swings equally big in ambition and marketing approach. Which Hollywood history is this, you ask, and whose? The! This is it!
OK! Don’t break stride for killjoy contemporary questions of race, gender, socioeconomics and unconscious editorial bias in the shaping of historical narrative and maybe it is. At the very least, here is testimony by over 300 industry professionals, some of whom made silent movies and are now dead, others of whom are Steven Spielberg and Jordan Peele. And the result is a fat, showbiz-nerd-satisfying tome with something for every showbiz-nerd taste: on-set stories, technical details, funny anecdotes about actors, the echoes of studio executives kvetching and various people complaining about critics. Hooray for Hollywood!
The material, which was assembled by the veteran film scholar and professor Jeanine Basinger and her collaborator, the movie journalist Sam Wasson, comes from the deep resources of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. There, since 1969, a series called the Harold Lloyd Master Seminars has brought in industry professionals to talk about their work to AFI conservatory students eager for their own careers in moviemaking. (The silent-film genius Harold Lloyd was the school’s first guest. O lucky AFI students.)
The sessions weren’t off the record, certainly. But something about the relaxed setting — peer to peer, with no scholar-with-a-theory, journalist, critic (eww) or pop-culture blogger asking questions, hankering to publish the answers embellished by descriptions of the talker’s wardrobe or salad-eating habits — has resulted in a trove of direct, un-self-conscious observations about the times and ways in which these pros worked. Cinematographers, makeup artists, camera operators, editors, screenwriters, casting directors and costume designers came to talk, along with a credit-roll of directors, producers and actors whose famous names, strung together, signify Hollywood at its most recognizable, both past and more-or-less present.
With the conversations of more than 3,000 guest speakers to choose from, of course, the organizing structure is key. And in this, Basinger and Wasson have done a snazzy job of folding topics into a timeline that begins in the era of silent movies and calls it a wrap with up-to-the-minute show folk throwing out words like “digital,” “social media” and “globalization.” In between, seminar guests talk about budget bloats and business trends, changing acting styles and changing audience tastes. Naturally, someone quotes the screenwriter William Goldman’s Yoda-like, regularly cited industry summation, “Nobody knows anything.”
More on the authors’ structural origami skills in a moment. But first: The savory opening chapter draws on anecdotes from some of the now-gone greats of classic Hollywood, including Raoul Walsh, Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks and Lillian Gish, schmoozing about their starts in the business. The award-winning costume designer Edith Head (1897-1981) describes getting a foot in the door by showing a portfolio of drawings that weren’t hers. The cinematographer George Folsey (1898-1988) remembers parties at San Simeon with Marion Davies at which Theda Bara’s husband compensated for her poor eyesight by whispering in her ear, “Coming up on your right is Mary Pickford, and over here will be Joan Crawford. …”
Then the authors bring in folks who describe the transition to talkies, the growth of the studio system and differences in studio styles. With old-timers being some of the most generous, nothing-to-lose talkers and Old Hollywood being the most, well, Hollywood-y, the greater portion of these 700-plus pages is given over to how the system worked, who worked in it and how some of the glories of that era got made.
This nerd was delighted by the long chapter called “The Studio Workforce,” which gets those crucial below-the-line people talking — the ones who actually ran the cameras and designed the clothing and kept beautiful movie stars looking beautiful during Hollywood’s Golden Age. I could listen to the costume designer Walter Plunkett (1902-82) go on forever about Ginger Rogers and how “you’d always have to go into her dressing room before shooting because she would have found some artificial flower to pin in her hair and a bracelet or two to put on, because she just loved to overload herself.”
Interview director X today about working with actor Y and expect to hear that Y was a joy to work with. Get King Vidor (1894-1982) talking about what it was like to work with Jennifer Jones and it’s this: “You had to tell her the whole story every day from beginning to end. … She saw herself as a little girl and was scared to death about what she was doing. So you had to get her in the mood and tell her the fairy story about what was going on up to that point, and then she could do it, but you had to do it every day.”
Those who can never get too many stories about the making of “Gone With the Wind” are in luck because there are many here, including a howl of hurt from the director George Cukor (1899-1983), who was fired very early into shooting. “It’s a boring goddamn subject, and I don’t give a s— why I was replaced,” he wails. “I was replaced. David Selznick was a friend of mine, and I still really don’t know. Gable, if it was Gable, thought that I couldn’t handle him, that I only knew how to handle ingénues. I thought it was rather stupid. I prepared the whole picture, and I was there when it started.”
The eager reader wants to know, when did Cukor say this? What was the date of the seminar at which the director was speaking, so we can figure out his age at the time? Was he alone on the AFI stage with an interlocutor, or were there other participants with him? For that matter, later, when Jane Fonda says, “I haven’t felt any resentment because I’m a woman. Crews have said to me they can’t wait to work with me because they like the idea of a woman running around. And I want to wear short skirts and do the whole thing, too,” wouldn’t it be useful to know when in her long life Fonda made that time capsule of a statement?
And all these rolling stories, many of them told in a relay by all these people, about the end of the studio era and the making of “Easy Rider,” about the rise of New Hollywood and the era of talent-packaging agencies — when in the history of the AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminars were these words spoken? Who was where onstage when he (it’s mostly he) said what? When, in the course of any of these talkers’ marvelous careers, did they make these observations, have these feelings, think about a Hollywood past or consider the shape of a Hollywood present and future? Show me the index!
There is none.
In “Hollywood: The Oral History,” we have the provocative or amusing or illustrative words of hundreds of insiders to entertain us. But without the context of time and place, an important piece of scholarship is missing. This is Basinger and Wasson’s and the AFI’s oral history of Hollywood, and it’s a fine one. But remember, as the man said, Nobody knows anything.
Lisa Schwarzbaum, a former critic at Entertainment Weekly, is a freelance journalist.
HOLLYWOOD: The Oral History | By Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson | 739 pp. | Harper/HarperCollins Publishers | $37.50


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