The 5 Best Novels on Hollywood

From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Joan Didion, some of the greatest writers have tackled the world of L.A. In time for the Oscars, Jane Ciabattari picks the 5 best on the subject.

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

Just in time for the Academy Awards, here are five novels that hold a mirror to Hollywood, crafted by authors with screenwriting chops. From the dawning of silent films, moviemakers have turned to books for grist. Think of Best Picture Oscar winners Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, Forrest Gump, The English Patient, and No Country for Old Men, to name a handful, and this year’s Best Picture nominees Precious and Up in the Air (based on novels by Sapphire and Walter Kirn). On the flip side, the oversize egos, wild antics, and creative chaos of the industry have proved to be irresistible for writers, making the Hollywood novel a genre of its own.

The Day of the LocustBy Nathanael West

The fourth and last novel by this acerbic American original is a mashup of grotesques, sketched from his experience as a Hollywood scriptwriter during the 1930s.

West’s ingénue narrator in the novel is Tod Hackett, a young artist from the East who is secretly painting “The Burning of Los Angeles” while learning costume design and set work. Tod’s first impression of L.A. sets the tone: “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” Among the strange creatures he encounters as neighbors in the down-at-the-heels San Bernardino Arms: Abe, a dwarf and depraved bookie; Faye Greener, a callous Hollywood starlet; her father Harry, a would-be comic who peddles Miracle Polish to support his impossible dreams; and Homer Simpson, a retired businessman who looks like he came to California to die (his “fever eyes and unruly hands” were rendered indelibly by Donald Sutherland in the 1975 film).

The explosive finale, when demonic fans run amok at a movie premiere, is hair-raising in its viciousness. Alfred Kazin dubbed West “the most despairing of Hollywood novelists.” The assessment still fits.

Nathanael West and his wife, Eileen McKenney, who inspired My Sister Eileen, died in a car crash on December 22, 1940, while driving back to Hollywood from Mexico for their friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral.

The Last Tycoon: An Unfinished Novel By F. Scott Fitzgerald

By the time he died of a heart attack at 44, F. Scott Fitzgerald had drafted a novel that reflected America’s obsession with movies, stars, and moguls. The Last Tycoon, based on the outline and 37,000 words of the first draft Fitzgerald had hoped to complete within the month, was published in incomplete form in 1941, with an introduction by Edmund Wilson.

Wilson called it Fitzgerald’s most mature piece of work, and noted the Monroe Stahr, the “last tycoon” of the title, “is really crafted from within at the same time that he is criticized by an intelligence that has now become sure of itself and knows how to assign him to his proper place in a large scheme of things."

The sometime narrator, Cecilia Brady, a producer’s daughter raised in Old Hollywood (Rudolph Valentino came to her fifth birthday party), sets the stage in the opening pages: “You can take Hollywood for granted, like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand. It can be understood, too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.”

The tragic workaholic “last tycoon,” Monroe Stahr, inspired by MGM’s head of production Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” of the movie industry, wound his way into Hollywood legend. Fitzgerald’s notes to himself in the latter part of the book include the poignant reminder, “Remember my summing up in Crazy Sunday. Don’t give the impression these are bad people.”

Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli resurrected and reconstructed the novel in 1993 as The Love of the Last Tycoon. Fitzgerald’s “gag title” for the novel was The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western.

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Play It As It Lays By Joan Didion

This early novel by Joan Didion, set in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert, establishes her firm grasp of Nathanael West territory with sometime actress Maria Wyeth’s opening salvo: “What makes Iago evil?... Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. …Just so. I am what I am.”

Maria is 31, divorced from a director, mother of Kate, 4, who has been institutionalized. She spends time driving the freeways, getting her hair cut, shopping, lunching with her friend Helene, who is married to BZ, and paid by BZ’s mother to tolerate his affairs.

In a series of set-pieces—the illegal abortion in a bedroom somewhere in Encino, the morning after the one-night stand with an actor, when she is arrested for taking his Ferrari into the desert, the morning after a drunken night with BZ and Helene—Maria’s crackup is etched in icy detail. Here’s a taste: “At first she thought she was alone in the room but then she saw BZ and Helene, sprawled together on a chaise. She had only the faintest ugly memory of what had brought BZ and Helene together, and to erase it from her mind she fixed her imagination on a needle dripping sodium pentathol into her arm and began counting backward from one hundred. When that failed she imagined herself driving, conceived audacious lane changes, strategic shifts of gear, the Hollywood to the San Bernardino and straight on out, past Barstow, past Baker, driving straight on into the hard white empty core of the world. She slept and did not dream.”

Children of Light By Robert Stone

Welcome to Heebiejeebieville. Cross-addicted star-crossed lovers converge on a film set in Mexico in the late 1970s, before Hollywood embraced 12-step programs.

Walter, a fortyish actor turned script writer, is an unwelcome guest to the set; he arrives drunk, bearing cocaine and Quaaludes. Louisiana-born actress Lu Anne has gone off her meds; she thinks they damage her work in the starring role. She is hallucinating “Long Friends” and offering her “secret eyes” to the camera. The film being shot? Get this: Walter’s adapation of the feminist classic The Awakening by Kate Chopin, in which Edna commits suicide by walking into the water. Lu Anne is basing her mood on Walter’s notes, which have Edna dying for “life more abundant.” “She has come beyond despair to a kind of exaltation.”

Among those watching from the sidelines: the Drogues, a father-son director duo focused on getting the work no matter what (“She has a way of being crazy that photographs well,” the elder Drogue says); Lowndes, a New York-based journalist who falls off the wagon out of lust for Lu Anne, and Billy Bly, a bisexual stunt man who serves as her emotional anchor.

Stone’s dialogue is sharp, his eye for corruption, spoilage, and backbiting acute, as in this comment Walter makes to Lu Anne: “Funny about last night. You’re with Lowndes, you go off with me. You’re with me, you go off with Bly. Lots of La Ronde, entrances and exits, bedrooms and closed doors and nobody really gets any. Very Hollywood.”

With Children of Light, Stone freeze-frames a Hollywood era in crystalline prose.

P.S. “High Wire,” a short story in Stone’s new collection, Fun with Trouble, reprises the plotline: an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter is addicted to a bipolar actress.

The Player By Michael Tolkin

Screenwriter Michael Tolkin's first novel is a debrief on the game as it was played in New Hollywood in the decade before the Internet intruded, when the debate was between the “people who still believe in Capital-A Art,” as Griffin puts it, and those who believed in the “player’s credo: ‘I love the audience, I am the audience.’”

Griffin Mill, head of production, lives handsomely off studio largesse and worries continually about losing status: “Just as Griffin suspected, there was a meeting in Levison’s office without him.” Griffin’s thrusts and parries with Larry Levy, his new in-house competitor, are models of office infighting.

Tolkin knows the territory. In the course of 50 years in the business, his father, Mel Tolkin, was head writer for Your Show of Shows (1950), a writer for Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, and Bob Hope, among others. Michael Tolkin’s script for The Player was nominated for an Academy Award; his most recent screenwriting credit is for Nine, which is up for four Academy Awards this year. He’s got the details right on the meetings, the screenings, the parties, the restaurants. “Is this what it’s all about, the best table?” Griffin muses while sitting at a front booth in the Polo Lounge. “All of history, all of power, to have the headwaiter’s respect?”

The Player takes its plotline from a screenwriter’s revenge fantasy. An anonymous Writer sends Griffin a string of increasingly threatening postcards, variations on the theme, “You said you’d get back to me.” The Writer stalks, harasses, shoots at him. And Griffin, played with finesse by Tim Robbins in the 1992 Robert Altman film, shows he will literally kill to keep his place in the studio game.

But he’s a killer shark with a heart of gold. Beneath the surface, Griffin has a sentimental streak that reflects a nostalgia for Old Hollywood: “The end of his job was inevitable. There would be other work, other studios, but the glow around him was probably lost, and he would never be the head of production, not for a major studio, not for this studio or Universal or Disney or Columbia or Paramount or 20th Century Fox. These were the last studios with property, with soundstages and back lots, where you could point to a building and say “that was Alan Ladd’s dressing room,” or “Over there we shot Bringing Up Baby.’”

If you’ve time for more, take a look at Elmore Leonard’s crackling dialogue in Get Shorty, Joyce Carol Oates’ lush homage to Marilyn Monroe, Blonde, and onetime limo driver and now screenwriter/novelist Bruce Wagner’s dark and dirty cellphone trilogy, I’m Losing You, I’ll Let You Go, and especially the last, Still Holding.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in Bookforum,The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost Magazine.