As excitement rises ahead of Sundays Oscars, a look at novelists treatments of the film mecca reveals a rather darker picture
Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. I can say this with confidence because three of the last five winners of the Oscar for best picture were largely or entirely about the film industry. And this year its La La Land, yet another ode to showbiz, that seems likely to sweep the board.
But its less clear whether Hollywood loves novels about Hollywood. After all, the great artform of the 19th century tends not to be so charitable to the great artform of the 20th. The books listed below are populated by hacks, cynics, crushed dreams, moral depravity and dead pets.
At least two of those things feature in my new novel, Smoke Over Malibu. Its protagonist is Lucius Lucky Kluge, an erstwhile screenwriter still skulking around Los Angeles, years after he quit the industry to avoid writing a superhero franchise.
He venerates the New Hollywood of the 1970s, but despises the modern blockbuster. He now works in antiques, but gets dragged back into his own past and into an unlikely neo-noir mystery when his former writing partner and ex-best friend goes missing.
Lucky is cynical about the film business, a sentiment he seems to share with almost every author on my list of the best novels about Hollywood. More than half were screenwriters themselves. Several were very successful. One even won an Oscar.
Which kind of makes you wonder why they all hated it so much.
1. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939)
Wests was the first great novel to catalogue the waifs and strays who made their way to Depression-era Hollywood in hopes of stardom, and who encountered only disappointment and disaffection. The books characters include a dwarf, a cowboy and a doomed starlet, but at its centre is Tod Hackett, a young artist and trainee production designer who is planning an apocalyptic painting called the The Burning of Los Angeles.
2. The Pat Hobby Stories by F Scott Fitzgerald (1940-1941)
Fitzgerald spent the last few years of his life as a Hollywood screenwriter, but died with just one credit to his name. He left behind a half-finished novel about the film business, The Last Tycoon, and 17 short stories about a derelict, ethically challenged screenwriter named Pat Hobby. First published in Esquire magazine and later collected as a single volume, these tragic and hilarious tales follow Hobby, a silent-era structure man, as he strives in vain to master the talkies.
3. What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg (1941)
Most Hollywood novels depict ambition thwarted. But here, in Schulbergs best-known book, the upwardly mobile Sammy Glick gets everything he wants. Does it make him happy? Take a wild guess. The narrator is the more personable (and much less successful) screenwriter Al Manheim, who gets a front-row seat to Sammys ruthless rise from newspaper copy boy to Hollywood studio boss, and who tries throughout to solve the mystery of the title.
4. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (1948)
Minor English war poet Dennis Barlow moved to Hollywood to write a biopic of Shelley, but, with the film stuck in development hell, he now works as a crematorium technician at a pet cemetery called the Happier Hunting Ground. Waughs brief, bitter satire of Californias film and funeral industries was inspired by a trip he took to LA in 1947, when MGM was wooing him without success to agree to a screen adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.