Header overlay

Goodbye to Hollywood

Share this

It was around the time of the millennium, when there seemed to be a glut of apocalyptical books about Los Angeles crumbling away, that I first read Gavin Lambert’s The Slide Area. I was working as an editor on a website for a bookselling chain, and though my job primarily involved writing and editing book-related copy, I seemed to spend a disproportionate part of each day deflecting phone calls from unlikely sounding Internet start-ups. Keen to pursue what were genuinely referred to as ‘clicks and mortar cross-brand possibilities’, Kim, Toby or Saskia from dogschewybiscuits.com, throwmommafromthevolkswagencampervan. co.uk or eatmylaptopbitch.org would ring up and launch into an impassioned pitch for a site for which there appeared to be little earthly necessity let alone commercial purpose.

Entertaining as this was, the unending stream of wheedling, over-familiar voices soon began to get to me. Gradually I started to adopt Bartleby-esque ruses to get them off the line as fast as I could, as much to preserve my sanity as anything else (no easy task in an office where the technical staff were prone to conducting regular, lengthy and extremely tiresome discussions about the various merits of The Matrix as they tapped away). If callers pointedly refused to acknowledge my initially polite suggestions to go away, I discovered that the best and most enjoyable strategy was just to sit back and listen to their spiel, all the while imagining that I was the grizzled studio executive in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player. Why I stumbled on this persona, I don’t know. Reality was virtual. My life lacked glamour. The office was in Cyberia (well, Brentford anyway). Whatever the case, I found I could remain as deaf to entreaties to buy banner ads on lastminute.com as Altman’s tinsel-town tyrant had been to proposals to green light The Graduate, Part II.

So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that during this period I became inordinately, disproportionately, susceptible to books charting the seamier aspects of Hollywood. Having already run through Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, Nathanael West

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

It was around the time of the millennium, when there seemed to be a glut of apocalyptical books about Los Angeles crumbling away, that I first read Gavin Lambert’s The Slide Area. I was working as an editor on a website for a bookselling chain, and though my job primarily involved writing and editing book-related copy, I seemed to spend a disproportionate part of each day deflecting phone calls from unlikely sounding Internet start-ups. Keen to pursue what were genuinely referred to as ‘clicks and mortar cross-brand possibilities’, Kim, Toby or Saskia from dogschewybiscuits.com, throwmommafromthevolkswagencampervan. co.uk or eatmylaptopbitch.org would ring up and launch into an impassioned pitch for a site for which there appeared to be little earthly necessity let alone commercial purpose.

Entertaining as this was, the unending stream of wheedling, over-familiar voices soon began to get to me. Gradually I started to adopt Bartleby-esque ruses to get them off the line as fast as I could, as much to preserve my sanity as anything else (no easy task in an office where the technical staff were prone to conducting regular, lengthy and extremely tiresome discussions about the various merits of The Matrix as they tapped away). If callers pointedly refused to acknowledge my initially polite suggestions to go away, I discovered that the best and most enjoyable strategy was just to sit back and listen to their spiel, all the while imagining that I was the grizzled studio executive in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player. Why I stumbled on this persona, I don’t know. Reality was virtual. My life lacked glamour. The office was in Cyberia (well, Brentford anyway). Whatever the case, I found I could remain as deaf to entreaties to buy banner ads on lastminute.com as Altman’s tinsel-town tyrant had been to proposals to green light The Graduate, Part II. So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that during this period I became inordinately, disproportionately, susceptible to books charting the seamier aspects of Hollywood. Having already run through Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust and Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon as a teenager, I now lapped up Lillian Ross’s Picture, John Gregory Dunne’s Playland, The Final Cut by Steven Bach, and Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But an old orange Penguin copy of Gavin Lambert’s The Slide Area was my most satisfying discovery. Lambert had been the editor of Sight and Sound from 1949 to 1955 and was almost single-handedly responsible for transforming it from, in his words, ‘an intolerably boring magazine’ into one of the most influential film journals of that era and beyond. The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life was first published in 1959. As the subtitle suggests, it’s essentially a series of interlinking short stories rather than a novel per se. The book is peopled by an ensemble cast of LA waifs and strays who glide in and out of focus and in and out of the life of a nameless narrator, an English scriptwriter for a Hollywood studio. Among this motley crew is Mark, an ex-British public schoolboy turned beach bum, a washed-up bisexual gigolo happy to flow with the tide as long as the sun is shining; Emma, a teenage ingénue from Illinois desperate to break into pictures; and Clyde, the delinquent son of a tycoon who surrounds himself with sycophantic flunkies. Best of all, there is the wonderfully grotesque Countess Marguerette Osterberg-Steblechi, a corpulent Austro-Hungarian multi-millionairess. This relic of the old Europe yearns only to take one last voyage around the globe. But now deaf and blind, she is at the mercy of her two parsimonious nieces. Rather than squander their precious inheritance, this rapacious pair resort to faking the trip, ingeniously using gramophone records, heaters and fans to carry  out the deception in the Countess’s own Californian home. Both the book’s structure and Lambert’s cool, effortlessly ironic prose owe much to Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, as its author readily admitted. In fact Isherwood, whom Lambert eventually befriended and with whom he collaborated on scripts in California, both envied and greatly admired it. ‘How I wish I had written this book’, he confessed upon its publication. One contemporary reviewer rather waggishly quipped that, in a sense, he already had, dubbing the book Goodbye to Hollywood. Artifice, understandably, is one of the book’s recurring leitmotifs. The slide area of the title, while also carrying a distinct whiff of elegant decay, refers specifically to the heights of Hollywood’s Pacific Palisades. Despite the Canute-like efforts of property developers, the land here persistently slides into the ocean. The cityscape, therefore, is as flimsy, artificial and impermanent as anything created by the movie studios. The point is forcefully underlined in the book’s opening sequence, a sort of literary equivalent of a tracking shot, where the narrator leaves his office, moves through prop-laden clapboard sets to reach his car and drives out into Los Angeles (‘not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes’), encountering imitation French provincial houses, falling rocks and several of the flakes on the make whom we’ll later meet on the way. Lambert himself had gone to Hollywood in 1956 at the behest of the director Nicholas Ray who employed him as a personal assistant. Born in Sussex in 1923, Lambert had attended Cheltenham College where he struck-up a lifelong friendship with the future film-maker Lindsay Anderson. At Oxford, Anderson and Lambert founded a film magazine called Sequence. Its success took Lambert to Sight and Sound, and favourable reviews of Ray’s output in its pages had led to a meeting with the director when he was in London to promote Rebel without a Cause. The pair became lovers and during their affair Lambert co-wrote scripts for Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956) and Bitter Victory (1957). It was while filming the latter on location in Tripoli and Paris that Lambert began to assemble his impressions of Los Angeles into a work of fiction. The city’s movie people, bar flies and flophouse mystics were included, as was a thinly veiled portrait of Ray as the hard-drinking Cliff Harriston, a thoughtful director lumbered with Judy Forbes, a tough vindictive superstar who deftly seizes control of his movie. The Slide Area was a critical success and in its wake Lambert’s status in Hollywood rose. Offers to write screenplays flooded in and in 1960 he received an Oscar nomination (with T. E. B. Clarke) for his adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. (In his memoir Mainly about Anderson, Lambert recalls that the studio once sent a memo asking them to change the novel’s coal-mining background to ‘something less depressing’.) Other film scripts followed (notably of Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone) and three further and equally fine Hollywood novels: Inside Daisy Clover (made into a so-so movie with Natalie Wood and Robert Redford), The Goodbye People (almost a movie but sadly scuppered in the early 1970s when one executive vehemently objected to its central character, a bisexual draft dodger) and Running Time. Lambert also wrote a study of the director George Cukor and fond biographies of two screen stars, Norma Shearer and Natalie Wood. But The Slide Area is, I think, Lambert’s best book and one of the greatest novels about Hollywood ever written. Lambert died in July 2005 but I managed to wangle an interview with him for that pesky website in 2001. At that point his memoir of Lindsay Anderson had just been published and Serpent’s Tail were reissuing The Goodbye People and Running Time. He chatted about taking LSD with Anaïs Nin, meeting Paul Bowles at Christopher Isherwood’s home in Santa Monica, his friendship with Lindsay Anderson and the critical maulings that the film-maker had suffered over the years. He even discussed the beleaguered British director’s unhappy spell in China producing a documentary for the pop group Wham! Tantalizingly he also mentioned that plans were afoot for a film of The Slide Area. A script had been written, meetings were in motion, but, as Lambert hinted, these things had a habit of turning to dust, just like the Pacific Palisades.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © Travis Elborough 2006


About the contributor

Travis Elborough is the author of The Bus We Loved: London’s Affair with the Routemaster. At the moment he is spending quite a lot of time with – and money on – old vinyl LPs, but Hollywood producers are advised that the option on a screenplay, Leave Me Alone Ahab (an inspired reworking of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick from the whale’s point of view), is still open.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.