Really Good Books: Scandals of Classic Hollywood Edition

by Anne Helen Petersen

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film— David Thomson. Here is where it all begins. This is no typical dictionary — it’s a huge book filled with every important star and director (and a few screenwriters and producers here and there) to make a difference in the history of the movies. But again, this isn’t typical, which is to say it isn’t boring as shit. David Thomson — a journalist and critic who’s covered Hollywood for longer than I’ve been alive — not only tells you the projects that featured the star, but why the star was/remains important (or overrated, as the case may be). He’s opinionated: he doesn’t like Paul Newman (BLASPHEMY!) and thinks Cary Grant is God’s gift. But opinion goes hand and hand with passion and insight, and Thomson is often very, very right. He covers classic and contemporary stars, and his writing is filled with verve. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, for example, was “the kind of adorable whore whom a respectable man could take to an operate and put through college; she was an Audrey Hepburn who’d give head.”

As for Frank Sinatra, “the surly charm of the runt’s ugliness made him too broody, too lazy, or too bored to pick films carefully or to attend to them with due seriousness.” I love to open it to a random page and explore. Pro Tip: The most recent edition is the Fifth. It is somewhat expensive. But if you want to go cheap, get a used version of the Fourth Edition — released in 2002. The majority of the entries are the same, and you get to see how people wrote about Kirsten Dunst, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kate Winslet on the cusp of … something.

Heavenly Bodies — Richard Dyer. Richard Dyer is my number one academic crush. He’s the father of star studies, which is to say that without this guy and his brilliant, groundbreaking work, there would be no Scandals of Classic Hollywood. There would be no AHP. Or, rather, AHP would be reaping the benefits of her high school mathlete skills instead of writing blog posts for free. The best part is that his brilliance is really f-ing accessible. His first work, Stars, is foundational, and really gets to the intersections between stardom, ideology, and the relation between the two. But Heavenly Bodies applies the theories of Stars to three extended case studies: Marilyn Monroe, Paul Robeson, and Judy Garland. These case studies are so good, so thorough, so authoritative, that no one has really written about those three stars since — at least not in an academic sense.

Bottom line: if you like my work, then you will love Richard Dyer.

Headline Hollywood — David Cook and Adrienne McLean. For those of you who like the “scandal” even more than the “classic Hollywood,” but find smutty retellings too sensationalist and poorly written, this is for you. It’s an academic collection, but again, if you’ve gone to college, the essays aren’t above your reading level. My model for approaching scandal — what was the action, how was it “framed” as scandalous, how did the star and/or studio work to neutralize the scandal — is largely taken from this book, where various authors tackle everything from Hedy Lamarr to Jane Fonda. There’s also an incisive chapter on Confidential — which, if you’ve been paying attention, was the driving force behind most of the scandals of the 1950s. If there were “Further Reading” sections in my columns, this book would be there.

The Fixers — E.J. Fleming. There’s little way of knowing whether most of the assertions in this book are true. There’s lots of “as an inside source explained,” and other interviews with men and women reflecting on their time at MGM in the 1930s-50s. But MGM was “home to the stars,” and most of those stars — Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland — were notorious drunkards, sex fiends, and drug addicts. In other words, these “Fixers” spent a lot of time picking up after them, and hearing about how they did so is even more fascinating than watching George Clooney do his dirty work in the beginning of Michael Clayton. Bottom line: this book is far smuttier than the others. There’s no way I could’ve cited it in my dissertation. But you can certainly relish reading it.

The Star System — Paul McDonald. The Brits do many things better than us, including making slim little books about film history with aesthetically pleasing covers. I often bandy about words like “star system,” “seven-year contract,” and “loaned out,” and if you kinda sorta understand what they mean, but want to actually be able to talk about stars and the studios, this is your book. It starts in the very beginning — even before the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford — and extends to the near-present. I assign this book in my Hollywood Stardom class, but that doesn’t mean it should only be read by college juniors. It’s not “fun” in the way that, say, turning a doll head into a wine glass is fine, but it is well-written, cogent, and punctuated by fascinating case studies. If you’re authentically interested in what makes stardom happen, this is where you should start.

If you have questions about specific star/scandal-related subjects, ask in the comments — I’ll do my best!

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.