Tuesday, June 14, 2011

#33: The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon by Leo Braudy

Yale University Press 2011: 225 pages

Leo Braudy is a Professor of English and American Literature at USC, so it may be a surprise to have him writing a book of history. However, he has long been an influential writer on the subject of fame and publicity (his most well known work, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, has a special place on my bookshelf) and this book is not history as such. This book is part of a series about "American Icons" such as the hamburger, John Cage's 4'33" and Gone With the Wind.

Braudy plays throughout the book with the Hollywood sign as not only an icon but also a sign in the linguistic sense. The Hollywood sign is itself the signifier since it is the word "Hollywood". It signifies Hollywood as a concept, with all the attached things (good, bad and indescribably nasty) that we place there. "Even though the sign that we see is no longer the original sign at all, it still carries the same weight of meaning." (10) This meaning is informed by what we collectively think about Hollywood. In Braudy's text, the Hollywood Sign cannot be separated from the history of the cesspool that it stares down at.

This book is very much a history not of the Hollywood Sign, but of the concept of Hollywood. I knew before hand that the sign originally read "Hollywoodland", but had no idea that it was once outlined in red neon. This was an attempt to get people to buy land, a California past time since forever. Braudy contrasts the ongoing destruction of old Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s with the restoration of the sign at the behest of numerous celebrities, including Gloria Swanson, Hugh Hefner and Phyllis Diller. For Braudy, the inclusion of Swanson in this movement is revelatory; her great role in Sunset Boulevard as an actress well past her prime jibes with the sign itself.

Braudy writes about images, and as such, nothing is straightforward. "Instead of celebrating one Hollywood, the sign celebrates them all." (190). I ascribe a negative meaning to Hollywood and its denizens. It is a place where fakery knows no bounds, where shallowness is deeply spread. It is a place where people are swallowed by monsters while the rest of us watch. For me, the sign is a symbol of that Hollywood. I am not sure that this needs to be celebrated, and quite frankly I don't care about the Hollywood sign. Why read the book? Because by the 1950s "Hollywood had become an abstraction, a metonym that seemed to refer to everything about the movies except for the town that supposedly gave them birth." (146) Well, that's not the reason, high handed as it sounds. I like Braudy's writing style, but didn't think much of this book.

Hollywood is an abstraction of our dreams, fears and desires. I may dislike 99% of movies made these days, think that most "movie stars" are horseshit, but by God I will read anything about Hollywood. Hollywood and its gossip is the long running car crash of my life. I can't turn away. I shudder when my favorite books get "The Hollywood Treatment" and think the best line in movie history is from My Favorite Year when Peter O' Toole yells "I'm not an actor! I'm a movie star!" Yea, it's fake, but in many ways what isn't? That's the real question.

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