Hollywood lives

Fri, Apr 27, 2012, 01:00

As the Dream Factory approaches its 100th birthday, LIAM BURKEtakes a tour around Tinseltown to find out how the old place is holding up

HOLLYWOOD’S recent, navel-gazing return to making films about films – The Artist, Hugo, My Week with Marilyn – may have made moviegoers feel like they have a degree in film studies. So with Universal, one of the first Hollywood studios, turning 100 on April 30th, it was a good time to pay a visit to the lots to find out how the Dream Factory is doing.

INTO THE WILD WEST

In the early years of the 20th century, moving pictures went from being a vaudeville novelty to being shown in dedicated movie palaces or Nickelodeons. Then, the vast majority of US films were produced along the east coast.

Recognising the financial possibilities of the nascent industry, and seeking to control it, light bulb inventor Thomas Edison – whose technicians had developed the Kinetoscope, a peepshow precursor to cinema – set up the Motion Picture Patents Company. To escape Edison’s cronies, and find a site with year-round sunshine and a wide variety of terrains, film pioneers headed west to the unsuspecting town of Hollywood, California.

QUITE A PRODUCTION

Among the first studios to set up in Hollywood were Universal and Paramount. Universal was the very first, and made its reputation through low cost, high-impact genres such as horror. It was quickly eclipsed by the “majors”– vertically-integrated studios that not only owned production facilities, but also theatre chains. Paramount, the first of these majors, began life as the Famous Players Film Company about a month after Universal was established.

Today, Universal Studios’ west coast location is a Disney-lite theme park with pre-planned pratfalls and dated Terminator stage shows. Paramount is the only studio that still has a backlot in Hollywood, and offers visitors a historical tour – although, since Kenny, one of its guides, thinks Johnny Depp starred in Rear Window, you may take some of the patter with a pinch of salt.

MAJOR ISSUES

Paramount was soon followed by the other majors: 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and RKO, which Howard Hughes squandered and Paramount ultimately annexed. The Dream Factory was born. The emphasis was on “factory”: actors, writers, directors and other creatives were kept under restrictive studio contracts, and genres were used like blueprints.

Kenny compares actors to professional athletes, claiming that if contracts were still in place “Tom Cruise would be on our team”. Under this system, studios would dictate what films their staff would make and Carlos Tévez-style behaviour would be punished with contract extensions and other penalties.

One might think that this Ford-like production would stifle creativity, but it allowed film-makers to hone their talents and produce the classics by which today’s films are measured.

THE SMALLER SCREEN

By the 1950s, with the power of the majors waning under competition from television, stars managed to wriggle out of their studio shackles, giving rise to independent contracts and, consequently, the agent. Today, with wannabe Ari Golds brokering deals for anyone with a headshot, costs have gone through the roof, forcing production levels to decline. Whereas Universal was lucky to produce a dozen films last year, during Hollywood’s Golden Age, the studio would annually turn out an average of 45 features.

On the Paramount lot, the appropriately named Production Park is a vestige of this bygone era. Four buildings, each one once housing key personnel – actors, writers, producers and the moneymen – face off across a narrow stretch of grass. It was here that classic projects such as Holiday Inn, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard relayed from building to building with a machine-like efficiency.

Today, it is television programmes that more often fill the soundstages, with Glee, Dr Phil and The Doctors all in residence at Paramount, while the Warner Bros tour name-checks teen drama Pretty Little Liars more often than Casablanca.

While it makes sense to give over a soundstage to a show that might achieve Friends-like longevity, it is disappointing to see the stage that once housed Citizen Kane preparing for a Hollywood remake of ITV’s “banged-up babes” series, Bad Girls.

STAR TURNS

With so many shows in production, one might expect to be constantly colliding with stars, but the biggest name you are likely to meet on the Warner Bros tour is Talyan Wright, the eight-year-old who plays the daughter of Ashton Kutcher’s girlfriend in Two and a Half Men.

Talyan has become a regular fixture on the tour because the tiny cabin in which she takes her mid-shoot classes was sensibly placed on a busy backlot junction, while Ashton Kutcher luxuriates in a massive satellite-topped trailer, which you must not photograph. Not that Talyan seems to mind the distraction: she uses it as an opportunity to direct visitors to her IMDb page. At the very least she will get an A for self-promotion.

Responding to the exponential production of the Golden Age, Hollywood developed around the studios, with many landmarks springing up along Hollywood Boulevard. With their eyes fixed firmly on the pavement, tourists wander like poorly trained actors searching for their mark, frequently butting heads over the cement-preserved handprints of Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Joan Crawford at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Since its opening, with Cecil B DeMille’s The King of Kings in 1927, many talented actors, and the Twilight cast, have placed their handprints, footprints and, in the case of Whoopi Goldberg, their hair, in the cement outside Grauman’s..

More recently, superheroes have dominated: Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey Jr are recent additions.

But the caped wonders are not confined to the pavement. Preying on misguided tourists like spandex-clad vultures is a host of costumed opportunists who corral tourists for photo-ops and charge them for the privilege of standing beside a slightly soiled Spongebob Squarepants, an overweight Green Lantern or a midget Mr T.

PAPARAZZI PICTURES

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, however, still welcomes real stars, regularly hosting Hollywood premieres. If you don’t want to crane your neck like a crazed gazelle to see Tara Reid, Seann William Scott and Jedward sashaying up the red carpet for the American Pie: Reunion premiere, you could always book into the nearby Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It has CCTV cameras trained on the theatre, which it wires directly into your room. This is hotel accommodation in the era of the paparazzi.

Partly financed by silent stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the Spanish-style Hollywood Roosevelt opened in 1927 and quickly became a cornerstone of Hollywood. It was the home of the first Academy Awards, where Bojangles taught Shirley Temple to dance, and the site of one of Marilyn Monroe’s first Hollywood photo shoots, bikini-clad by the hotel’s pool.

Not all the sites along Hollywood Boulevard are so well maintained. The oft-cited Walk of Fame extends down Hollywood and Vine, taking in some of the neighbourhood’s more rundown areas. The 2,400 sidewalk stars often contrast ironically with their surroundings. For instance, stars for Dr Seuss and The Rugrats flank an adult store, while Marilyn Monroe tans under the glow of a golden “M” that signposts cheeseburgers rather than the former Norma Jean.

HILLTOP HISTORY

Weaving up into the Hollywood Hills, companies such as Starline offer tours of sites more in keeping with Hollywood’s reputation, including the rarely less-than-ostentatious stars’ homes. Among the earliest mansions here was the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Proving that celebrity name fusion did not start with Brangelina, the 56-acre estate still bears the Pickfair name on its gates, though the original house was torn down long ago.

In fact, Hollywood shows little regard for its own history. Many stars’ homes have been demolished, and guides recite a litany of historical defacement: “That’s where Jimmy Stewart lived for 50 years. Gone!”

Nonetheless, peculiar sites abound. Denzel Washington resides in an off-pink palace, while Jennifer Aniston’s pad has surprisingly large windows for a the home of a regularly snapped celeb.

Coming down from the Hills you can take a paparazzi tour run by the gossip website TMZ. The tour’s sense of history only goes back as far as Lindsay Lohan’s first arrest, as it moves about West Hollywood, Rodeo Drive and other celebrity hotspots such as the Beverly Hills Municipal Court and local police stations.

BEHIND THE SCENES

The 2001 opening of the Kodak Theater rejuvenated much of Hollywood, as it became the dedicated home of the Oscar ceremonies. However, Eastman Kodak’s recent bankruptcy, which prompted Billy Crystal to describe the Kodak as the “Your name here” theatre during the most recent awards, may quell this revival.

It is currently titled the “Hollywood and Highland Center” and is actually part of a shopping plaza. Movie magic hides the Kodak’s civilian identity on Oscar night, so viewing the venue outside of award season somewhat shatters the illusion.

“A duck on water” is how our Paramount Pictures tour guide described Hollywood. For all its surface coolness, there is a lot of mud being kicked up underneath. Indeed, when one realises that the Walk of Fame is a homeless hang-out or that the Oscars are held in a glorified shopping plaza, some of Tinsletown’s sparkle does begin to fade.

Yet, you have to respect the ingenuity of it all. Movie studio soundstages can house Xanadu or a women’s prison while, outside the backlot, a shopping mall can become the pinnacle of glamour. The product may have changed, but the factory-like production lines first established by studios such as Universal and Paramount a century ago still produce dreams with a seamless finish.

Liam Burke is a media studies lecturer at the Huston School of Film Digital Media, NUI Galway