Hollywood, California, is a city which is deeply ingrained in our consciousness. The word ‘Hollywood’ invokes images of sun-scorched studios, rolling film projectors, red carpets and of course, that iconic sign, loudly broadcasting the region’s consequence to the planet.
This past summer I visited Los Angeles, and was extremely eager to observe Hollywood – that iconic pillar of Western culture – with my own eyes. However, I was struck at how the Hollywood of our imaginations, curated through years of glamorised film and filtered photos, differs from the messy, tacky reality. For a city that has led an artistic industry to the point where its own name is synonymous with success, it certainly seems to have lost its way in its own mythology. Perhaps that’s fitting for a place that has defined itself on fiction.
Yet there was a point, in the distant past, when Hollywood didn’t have those confused, conflicting connotations it has now. Established in 1853, it became a fertile agricultural community, distanced from Los Angeles by seven miles of orange groves.
By the turn of the century, a population of about 500 resided in the sleepy village. But later that decade, filmmakers began to venture out to Hollywood, attracted to the West for its varying landscapes and simpler bureaucracy. 1910 saw the first feature filmed there, DW Griffith’s In Old California, a Spanish colonial age adventure. Charlie Chaplin arrived in 1917, along with famed Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. By 1919, Hollywood was recognised as the centre of the new film industry and the flourishing prestige which accompanied it.
The Golden Age of cinema arrived from about 1920 to 1950. During this period, hundreds of movies were being made each year, produced and distributed by the same studios which owned the cinemas in which exclusively their own films were screened. The major studios of the time are ones still familiar to the accomplished moviegoer today: Warner Brothers, Paramount, MGM, Universal, Columbia, Disney. The first Academy Awards were held in 1929, while the ‘Hollywoodland’ sign was built in 1923 to advertise a housing development, before being restored from disrepair in 1943.
With the introduction of sound in The Jazz Singer (1927), new genres arose such as musicals, westerns, and horror. Technicolor burst onto the scene in 1939, giving rise to iconic reels like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. As the spotlight began to fall on the actors themselves, the most popular became superstars: John Wayne, Clark Gable, later on, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
The 1940s saw production turned towards the war effort, with studios lending a hand with propaganda, documentaries, and educational features. Patriotism was celebrated, the enemy vilified. In the late forties, film noir skulked in, with 1946 marking an all-time peak in cinema attendance and profits.
In the following decade, however, television began to take over. Ticket sales dropped, the film industry was divided by a deep suspicion of Communist influencers, and anti-monopoly laws forced studios to separate themselves from their cinemas. Thus began a slow decline in Hollywood’s fortunes – made for TV films and formulaic thrillers abounded. Costs spiralled as more special effects were demanded, increasing numbers of studios began to produce overseas, and massive media conglomerates bought over others. Nowadays, Paramount is the only studio left in Hollywood. Although some production work is still done in Hollywood, the old relics of the Golden Age, such as the Walk of Fame – which was started in the mid-Fifties – are simply tourist draws for an area which has seen its defining core exodus to further flung parts of the Los Angeles region.
Today, Hollywood – the city – is a far cry from the mythological metropolis rising above the Californian hills as it appears in the imagination. Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard, trodding over the faceless names of bygone eras, stifled in the humid Californian sun, I sometimes found it hard to imagine that this was the fabled home of icons like Gene Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Walt Disney. People in character costumes vied for tourists attention (for a fee), the traffic was deafening and never-ending. I tried to envisage the creativity that had flowed within the walls of those decaying buildings, the glimmering eyes of hopefuls that had searched that same sign for inspiration, the Americana drop-top cars which had rolled down those palm-lined boulevards – all replaced by a dodgy, dingy reminder of past grandeur. Much like Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower, or even – dare I say it – Temple Bar, it seems to be a run-down representation of a wider cultural keynote, rehashed for visitors who are hounded by gift shop owners, preaching Scientologists, and – of all things – other annoying tourists.
It seems that this dubious, seedy exterior is magnified when it comes to the inner workings of the Hollywood machine too. Recently the media has exposed dozens of accusations leveled at Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who allegedly sexually assaulted dozens of actresses. Furthermore, his revolting misconduct went unreported for decades, despite the number of victims. According to The New Yorker, sixteen employees of the Weinstein Company “witnessed or had knowledge of unwanted sexual advances and touching at events associated with Weinstein’s films and in the workplace”. It’s not just the victims that remained silent either: “I knew enough to do more than I did,” the director Quentin Tarantino told the The New York Times.
The treatment of women in this industry has long been a disturbing debate: on the list of the highest paid actors from June 2016 to June this year, the first woman came in at a measly fifteenth – and far less than half the compensation of the highest paid man ($26 million to $68 million). It’s the same old story with other minorities: in the top 100 grossing films of 2014, 72% of speaking or named characters were male, and 73% were white. The image that surfaces from the underworld of backstage Hollywood is one of a depressingly unequal archaism.
It is possible that this lack of social development is harming the creative process behind the scenes too: in 2015, six of the top ten, and 11 of the top 20 films were sequels. Disney has 14 live-action remakes in development, with several already released. At the same time, in October it was announced that one of its original animated features was being cancelled. Even the blockbuster sequels aren’t guaranteed successes – Blade Runner 2049 only made $32.7 million on its opening weekend, far below expectations, and indicating its unlikeliness to profit on its $300 million budget.
The convergence of these deep-set fractures both within Hollywood and its audience have led to a public humbling of its image. According to The Guardian, Paul Haggis, an Oscar-winning director, recently fled California for New York, arguing that Hollywood “is a town run by a group of powerful corporations, the studios, and they inevitably want to make what they know they can sell. This means they often lag a few years behind creatively.” The article continues, stating that Haggis “said a desire to make grown-up films had led him to leave Hollywood. The insular nature of Los Angeles both concealed bad behaviour like Harvey Weinstein’s and inhibited creative risk-taking.”
Despite the clear divisions simmering in the Californian heat, there are signs that ‘Tinseltown’ may be able to regain some of its former glory. The strong growth of streaming platforms, which despite damaging cinema ticket sales, allows a greater audience for a film after it leaves the theatre. Platforms such as Netflix have demonstrated that original content can be extremely successful – ploughing $7 billion of an investment in original content in 2018 – and indeed, that consumers are prepared to pay for it. Meanwhile, Disney is showing that a major Los Angeles studio can compete, planning its own streaming service for 2019. Furthermore, advances in technology such as visual reality may provide a renewed interest in the cinematic form, as new, immersive creative pathways open up.
Hollywood itself has that privilege of being synonymous with film – it has the name, the money, the creative talent. The world’s eyes and cameras are constantly turned out West, at that beating heart. Hollywood itself is a brand, an idea: films from Singin’ in the Rain (1952), to Mulholland Drive (2001), to La La Land (2016) celebrate Hollywood, a character in itself. For all its flaws, I personally truly enjoyed my visit there, to see a place cast in such a prominent role in our cultural psyche.
Undeniably, within the city, there is a vast need for change. But there is also a will, and now, an open discussion. According to Tom Hanks, Weinstein’s “last name… will become an identifying moniker for a state of being for which there was a before and an after.” While time will only tell if this statement will hold true for the fortunes of the industry as a whole, it seems the sun hasn’t set on Hollywood quite yet.