Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel

Mary Astor played Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She’s the pretty woman to whom Sam Spade says “You’re good. It’s chiefly your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice” and “I hope they don’t hang you, precious” and “You’re taking the fall”. She began her film career early in the silent era, easily transitioned to sound, won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, played the mother in Meet Me in St. Louis and Little Women, and was still appearing on TV and in movies in the early 60s.

She might have been a bigger star but, having a fear of failure, she chose to take smaller roles. She also mismanaged her money, drank too much and had sex with a lot of men, including her four husbands. She discussed all this in two well-received autobiographies. She also kept a diary. Reporters said it had a purple cover, but it was actually brown.

Edward Sorel is an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist who is best-known for his political satire. The story he tells in this short book is that he was tearing up the linoleum in his New York apartment one night in 1965 and found some 30-year old newspapers. They were filled with accounts of a Los Angeles child custody trial involving Mary Astor and her first husband. What made the trial such a big deal was that Astor had kept a diary that supposedly described her private life, including her many affairs, in lurid detail. Although the diary was never shared with the public, the nation’s imagination ran wild.

For reasons he can’t explain, Sorel quickly became fascinated with the trial, the diary, and Mary Astor. But it took him 50 years to finally get around to writing this book.

He isn’t a great writer, but he tells the story reasonably well. Unfortunately, he inserts his own life story here and there, which isn’t very interesting. It also wasn’t clear to me where exactly the diary was during the trial. Apparently, the lawyers for Astor’s husband claimed to have lost it, possibly so they could make the diary sound more incriminating than it actually was. After the trial, the diary and some photostatic copies (possibly altered by the husband’s lawyers) were placed in a safe deposit box. Years later, the court ordered the contents of the safe deposit box to be destroyed.

The story Sorel tells is entertaining but isn’t as racy as it sounds. His illustrations, however, are excellent, especially the one with Mary Astor, mostly naked, holding her diary while lying on a fainting couch, with the big Hollywood studios in the background.

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West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein

This is an oral history of Los Angeles, especially Hollywood. It focuses on the wealthy and powerful Doheny family, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, the troubled actress Jennifer Jones, and an unknown actress named Jane Garland. Some of it was interesting. Much of it wasn’t, which is why I didn’t read every word.

Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman

William Goldman is a novelist who became a successful screenwriter in the 1960s. His best-known screenplays include Harper (the Paul Newman detective movie), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men,  A Bridge Too Far and The Princess Bride. He wrote this book in 1982, partly as a memoir and partly as a guide to screenwriting. It’s a bit dated now, but it’s still a wonderful book for anyone who’s interested in how movies get made (and how many movies don’t). 

Goldman lists two key lessons for the novice screenwriter (the Roman numerals and capital letters are his):

I. NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING (i.e. nobody in the movie business knows for sure what will work and what won’t)

II. SCREENWRITING IS STRUCTURE (i.e. there’s more to screenwriting than telling your story in the right sequence, but you’ll never write a good one if you don’t get the story’s structure right).

The biggest lesson I took away from the book, however, is that screenwriting is extremely frustrating. You can make a whole lot of money at it, if you’re very talented and/or very lucky, but you’ll spend most of your time writing scripts that never get made into movies, and when one of your scripts does get filmed, you won’t have any control over what the director, producers, actors, et al. do with it. Film making is a collaborative medium, but the screenwriter is rarely invited to collaborate after filming starts. It’s unlikely you’ll even be invited to a sneak preview.

Myra Breckinridge by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal’s novel was quite scandalous when it was published in 1968. It’s the story of a man (Myron) who became a woman (Myra). She’s working in Hollywood now and has dedicated herself to something like reformulating the American concept of masculinity. She thinks she’ll accomplish this by having her way with an attractive young man who wants to be a movie star. Along the way, she falls in love with the young man’s girlfriend and schemes to take control of movie cowboy Buck Loner’s Acting Academy for Aspiring Young Actors and Actresses. As one would expect, her mission isn’t a complete success. 

It’s a satirical novel, so there are some larger-than-life characters, including Myra. She has an extraordinarily high opinion of herself, but eventually concludes that she “certainly went through a pretentious phase”. It’s worth reading, partly because Vidal was a talented writer with a gift for wry commentary. But it’s not terribly funny and nowhere near as shocking as it was in 1968.  

The Battle of Brazil by Jack Mathews

The Battle of Brazil tells the story of Terry Gilliam’s great movie Brazil, in particular the fight between Gilliam and Universal Pictures over the version of the movie that would be released. Executives at Universal, who hadn’t been working at Universal when the movie was in the planning stages, thought that Brazil was too dark, too confusing and too long. So they tried to re-edit it. Gilliam and his producer strongly objected and started a campaign to get the movie released in its original version. The director and producer won the battle. (Although Universal got the last word by doing a poor job marketing the movie.) 

This is an interesting story about how Hollywood worked in the 80s. Not much seems to have changed since then. Hollywood executives are still trying to maximize profits and still don’t know which movies will be successful, even though they claim to. They also probably continue to offer incredibly self-serving explanations of their behavior.

Having recently watched Brazil again, I think some of it could easily have been trimmed. Some scenes went on too long and interrupted the story. It also bothered me that the same actress was used in the initial fantasy sequences and the “real world” story. The “real world” actress could have been put in the fantasy sequences after the main character met her. I wouldn’t have given the movie the happy ending that the studio wanted, however. The bleak surprise ending is terrific.

I suppose if I ever run a movie studio, I’ll want to interfere with what gets released too. (4/6/12)