Thursday, February 18, 2021

Book 272: Seduction

"Howard Hughes was not the only mogul in Hollywood who profited off treating actresses as sex goddess flavors of the month, good for consumption in a brief window but disposable as soon as the next variety came along. As with so much in his career, Hughes did the same things that other men did—he just did them more crudely, and with even less of a regard for the person these actresses were before they came into his life, and what would become of them once he had moved on. And he always, eventually, moved on." 

Dates read: October 28- November 3, 2018

Rating: 9/10

If you're a girl, you've probably at some point considered whether you're a Marilyn or an Audrey. I was always a Marilyn myself...when you get bosoms early, you reconcile yourself to being a Marilyn. You lean in to "sultry", because that's the role everyone puts you in anyways. But I always admired the Audreys of the world, and of course Audrey herself. The elegance, grace, and reserve she projected onscreen seemed out of reach to me, and was something I wished I could be even though I knew full well I wasn't.

No matter who we are, female movie stars speak to us. They give us symbols to crush on, or idolize, or reject. For millionaire tycoon Howard Hughes, though, they were what he wanted to collect. Karina Longworth had put together several episodes of her excellent podcast, You Must Remember This, about women who'd been involved personally and/or professionally with Hughes, and compiled that information and more into Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes' Hollywood. For all that his public memory seems to be tied up with the Spruce Goose and being a famous recluse who at one point maybe wandered around the Nevada desert, he not only dated a string of Tinseltown's most famous women, but bought and ran a studio. He was a significant figure in the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Longworth mostly eschews the trappings of traditional biography, except for a relatively brief discussion of Hughes' early life. She's not trying to write that book. Instead, she's trying (and succeeds!) in writing a book that focuses on his connections to the movie industry and the actresses who populated it. From his romancing of silent star Billie Dove, to launching the career of Jean Harlow when he cast her to be "the girl" in the long-gestating aviation epic Hell's Angels, to a serious romance with Katharine Hepburn, to his discovery of Jane Russell and controversial ad campaign for The Outlaw, the movie he made with her, Hughes was deeply immersed in cinema and its world. Through the purchase of the studio RKO, he was also able to gain enormous amounts of control over young women who dreamed of being stars.

This control, that he was able to exert over his contracted actresses and that he attempted (and sometimes succeeded) to exercise over his movie-star girlfriends, tells us a lot about the person Howard Hughes was, how he saw himself, and how he saw women. This is what Longworth bases her narrative on. A clear pattern emerges, of the type of pretty, busty brunette he tended towards, of the Madonna/whore dichotomy in which he placed them, of the way he allowed many of them to disappear from view because he didn't have anything to give them but didn't want anyone else to have them. Hughes was not alone among studio runners in his neglect of contracted talent, or his attempts to run the lives of those women to a certain set of standards. That was par for the (gross) course for the time, but his was especially exacting and rigid. Things come to a close for Longworth's purposes not long after he divested himself of the studio and left California for Nevada, though his marriage to actress Jean Peters and continued obsession with film give some shading to that part of his life.

I found this a truly well-crafted, engaging work of non-fiction. Though my tolerance for "boring" history is substantial, I always appreciate a lively narrative that does more than recite a series of events, and Longworth accomplishes that here. Her background with podcasting does show itself a bit in the slightly episodic form of the book (which I didn't think detracted from it at all), but it also shows itself in her ability to think about the work as a storyteller with an audience to engage. She's very skilled at structuring her material to match a narrative arc, and despite being over 500 pages long it doesn't get dull or drag. Rather, it's a fascinating and sometime enraging portrait of a man with profound psychological demons who was able to mistreat women without consequences because of his wealth and position in the world. I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys not just Old Hollywood, but the movies/celebrity culture in general...a lot of what we see today is different more in scale than substance.

One year ago, I was reading: The Holdout

Two years ago, I was reading: The Silkworm

Three years ago, I was reading: My Name Is Venus Black

Four years ago, I was reading: Nefertiti

Five years ago, I was reading: The Namesake

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