Nobody’s Perfect (except in Hollywood)
I have been obsessed with movies since I was a teenager and my Gone with the Wind obsession morphed into an old movie obsession. So it follows that I love the Oscars. I pretty much know who won best actor or actress in any given year, even posthumously (forget Heath Ledger: Peter Finch for Network, anyone?), what year Judy Garland was given a special small Oscar statue for her work on the Wizard of Oz (1940. If I was Quvenzhané Wallis I’d demand one), who gave the longest Oscar acceptance speech (Greer Garson for the way too sentimental Mrs Miniver. It came in at about 5 min 30 secs – NO GREER) and what Woody Allen was doing when Annie Hall won best picture (in New York, playing clarinet as he did every Monday night at a jazz club in the Village).
There was a glorious period of about five years when the BBC owned the transmission rights to the full telecast and I’d always take the next day off work and stay up all night to watch it, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. Now it’s on Sky movies I have to wait for the highlights the next day (on a lesser sky channel which I have) and it drives me up the wall, because it’s introduced, topped and tailed by Alex Zane with contributors and endless ads, meaning the Oscar time is about 50 minutes, all chosen extremely badly. If you love the Oscars what would you rather see, Barbra Streisand singing a tribute to Marvin Hamlisch and Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum dancing to the Way You Look Tonight? Or Adele and Shirley Bassey singing Skyfall and Goldfinger for the umpteenth time. Don’t get me wrong, I love both those songs but if time is precious, do we need to watch them both the whole way through? I want evil cutaways and awkward co-presenting and the dude with long hair winning for Cinematography and A-listers pretending to be interested in the winner of best Animated Short.
My new book is set in Hollywood, both present day and in the 1950s, when the Golden Age of movies was coming to an end. It’s about two film stars, both women, both from the same part of England, separated by 50 years and a big secret. The old Hollywood star, Eve, has long gone missing and the young rom-com starlet Sophie is realising life at the top isn’t that great, and also that something links her to the past and to Eve. I loved writing Not Without You, but what I loved most of all was the tension between how the stars want to come across to us, the great unwashed, and how they really are. It’s their night to showcase themselves, like a car in a shop window, and sometimes it works (check out Charlize dancing, she’s amazing, or Jennifer Lawrence falling and being cool about it) and sometimes it is just painful (‘It came true!’ Anne Hathaway coos to her statue… blerugh, blerugh.) The brilliant Richard Lawson at the Atlantic Wire’s recap of the Oscars is all you need to know if you didn’t see the show.
What I found weirdest is trying to write the truth about Sophie, the modern day star’s life. She is one of my favourite characters, but I had to edit her so much, because she was coming across as super unsympathetic when I gave any details of her life as a star. I think we want to read about these people in gossip mags and in sex and shopping bonkbusters, but we don’t want to think of them as real people (her story’s in the first person, so it’s important we stay with her). There was a lot more detail about her ridiculous life – the armpit Botox, the stylists, the ‘casual’ snaps of her doing yoga on the beach, the fake relationships, the incredible wealth and luxury but I took it out so that not much of it remains. She had to be, for the purposes of this book, someone you could relate to, even if her life wasn’t like ours. And that’s where the tenison comes. We want to love our movie stars. People don’t want to know that people like Reese Witherspoon aren’t perfect so when you read something about her like this cringeworthy letter to Naomi Watts about her performance in The Impossible and see how famous people really talk (‘I could not speak for 24 hours after seeing the film’ – that must have been a bit of a bummer, Reese), you can’t really root for them. But being famous must be pretty hard. You go mad, unless you’re a Buddhist or you were mad to begin with. Back in the old days, it was more brutal: Rita Hayworth had electrolysis on her hairline to create a widow’s peak; Vivien Leigh, a manic depressive, had electric shock treatment that left singe marks on either side of her face; reading anything about the cycle of uppers and downers Judy Garland was given from an incredibly young age is enough to make you cry. This excellent book about Confidential, the truly grubby rag that at its height was read by millions, and the stories it dished in an attempt to uncover the truth about various stars and the secrets they were keeping, poses an interesting question: was the magazine hypocritical, or the studios, or the stars themselves for hiding the fact someone was gay, or married, or beats his wife, or a drunk? Or was it the movie-going public , ie us, who are complicit in all of this? Do we want our celebrities to be a perfect, glossy, false reflection of us lesser mortals?
When the Oscars gets it right though, it’s just the best. This is my favourite ‘Oscar bit’, the great will ferrell, Jack Black, and others. ‘It’s an honour to introduce a close friend of Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell’. Enjoy.