The Ashes of Hollywood

Gore Vidal (1925–2012) contributed nearly one hundred reviews, articles, and letters to The New York Review between 1963 and 2006. The following is an extract from his two-part article “The Ashes of Hollywood,” a review of the ten books on the New York Times fiction best-seller list of January 7, 1973. In addition to The Persian Boy, Semi-Tough, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the list also included Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, Robert Crichton’s The Camerons, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, Victoria Holt’s On the Night of the Seventh Moon, Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction, and Marjorie Holmes’s Two from Galilee. Vidal’s articles, which appeared in the issues of May 17 and May 31, 1973, can be read in full in our archives.

Jill Krementz
Gore Vidal with The New York Review’s founding co-editor Barbara Epstein, 1974

“Shit has its own integrity.” The Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table in the MGM commissary used regularly to affirm this axiom for the benefit of us alien integers from the world of Quality Lit. It was plain to him (if not to the front office) that since we had come to Hollywood only to make money, our pictures would entirely lack the one basic homely ingredient that spells boffo world-wide grosses. The Wise Hack was not far wrong. He knew that the sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves perfect popularity cannot be faked even though, as he was quick to admit, no one ever lost a penny underestimating the intelligence of the American public. He was cynical (so were we); yet he also truly believed that children in jeopardy always hooked an audience, that Lana Turner was convincing when she rejected the advances of Edmund Purdom in The Prodigal “because I’m a priestess of Baal,” and he thought that Irving Thalberg was a genius of Leonardo proportion because he had made such tasteful “products” as The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Marie Antoinette.

The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century. An entire generation has been brought up to admire the product of that era. Like so many dinosaur droppings, the old Hollywood films have petrified into something rich, strange, numinous-golden. For any survivor of the Writers’ Table (alien or indigenous integer), it is astonishing to find young directors like Bertolucci, Bogdanovich, Truffaut reverently repeating or echoing or paying homage to the sort of kitsch we created first time around with a good deal of “help” from our producers and practically none at all from the directors—if one may quickly set aside the myth of the director as auteur. Golden age movies were the work of producer(s) and writer(s).

I think it is necessary to make these remarks about the movies of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties as a preface to the ten bestselling novels under review since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels appear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to re-create new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film maker) recall past success and respond accordingly. Certainly none of the ten writers (save the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn and the classicist Mary Renault) is in any way rooted in literature. For the eight, storytelling began with The Birth of a Nation. Came to high noon with,…

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