On January 1, 1976, Tinseltown’s iconic sign read “Hollyweed” after art student Danny Finegood and 3 of his college pals used $50 worth of dark fabric to transform the famous Hollywood landmark temporarily. They had practiced it first on a scale model Finegood had crafted.
It was more than a simple practical joke, Finegood considered it a statement on the relaxed California marijuana law that went into effect that day.
He also turned it in as a school assignment which earned him an “A.”
If you’re thinking of attempting a stunt like this, think again. On top of being illegal, it’s also quite difficult to get near the sign these days.
Two years after the intial alteration, in 1978, the Hollywood Sign Trust was established as a way of protecting the sign and the fragile hillside surrounding it. They’re serious about it too. In addition to a razor-wired fence, there’s 24-hour surveillance, infrared cameras, motion sensors, regular helicopter patrol visits by the authorities, and other high-security measures.
A folk song was written in 1976 about the sign-changing incident, by a man named David Batterson, with such lyrics as follows:
Now it’s finally safe
to take a little toke
Beauty’s only skin deep, French artist Matthieu Bourel’s handmade collages of Hollywood stars seem to suggest. With his Faces series of collage, Bourel cuts holes into studio photographs of movie stars like Natalie Wood, Frances, Farmer, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, to reveal the hidden beauty of connective tissue, muscles, arteries and veins underneath.
Or, in his Duplicity series, he layers multiple “slices” of an actor or actress’s face one inside another, emphasising the falsity of image and beauty, or the possible truth of the character beneath. The affect is surreal, beautiful and disturbing, and “evoke a fake history or inspire nostalgia for a period in time that never truly existed.”
More of Matthieu Bourel’s collages can be seen here
Steve McQueen was one of several Hollywood celebrities placed on a “Death List” allegedly compiled by Charles Manson. The other names were Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones.
On August 9th, 1969, members of Manson’s “Family” carried out the brutal murder of Sharon Tate and 4 of her friends.
McQueen had briefly dated Tate, and had planned to visit the actress the night of her death.
In December 1969, Manson and the killers had been arrested.
When McQueen heard he might be targeted by Manson’s followers, he started carrying a gun. In October 1970, a still cautious McQueen wrote to his lawyer to find out if any “Family” members were still active, and to have his gun license renewed.
A SOLAR PRODUCTION
October 17, 1970
Mr. Edward Rubin
Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp
6380 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90048
As you know, I have been selected by the Manson Group to be marked for death, along with Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Tom Jones. In some ways I find it humorous, and in other ways frighteningly tragic. It may be nothing, but I must consider it may be true both for the protection of myself and my family.
At the first possible time, if you could pull some strings and find out unofficially from one of the higher-ups in Police whether, again unofficially, all of the Manson Group has been rounded up and/or do they feel that we may be in some danger.
Secondly, if you would call Palm Springs and have my gun permit renewed, it was only for a year, and I should like to have it renewed for longer as it is the only sense of self-protection for my family and myself, and I certainly think I have good reason.
Please don’t let too much water go under the bridge before this is done, and I’m waiting for an immediate reply.
Eclectic Method‘s montage of Hollywood’s vision of the future as seen through film.
I want to tell you something about the future. It will either be: A mind-bendingly awesome; utopian landscape where all of Earth’s problems have been resolved and technology and humanity have evolved to create harmony.
Or it might be a fucked-up dystopian nightmare. Where artificial intelligence has surpassed that of its creators. Or perhaps humans have ravaged the Earth to such a degree that it has gone into full revolt. Or a scarcity of resources has humans warring over water. It depends on which film you watch or what time of day you might have asked Stanley Kubrick’s opinion.
Kenneth Anger didn’t like Nigel Finch’s documentary on Hollywood Babylon. He thought Finch’s film ended up more about Finch than it did about Anger. It was like a test run for making a movie, which of course Finch went on to make. Anger told me this while we waited in my room, at the Standard Hotel, West Hollywood, Fall 2004. I was about to interview Kenneth for a documentary, and while we chatted, waiting for the crew to set-up, he tore stories out of tabloid newspapers to send to the Kinsey Institute, and I smoked on the balcony, watching the shimmer of eucalyptus trees in the late morning breeze.
When it was time for the interview, we walked along the orange-carpeted corridor only to be stopped by another film crew who were making a movie. At a half-corridor stood George Clooney and Brad Pitt, filming a scene for Ocean’s Twelve. Both looked smaller, their heads somehow bigger. They must have kept their magic for the camera, for it seemed that neither had the presence or, looked as grand a star as Kenneth Anger, who stood half in shadow, quietly waiting by the AD.
Nigel Finch’s ambitious documentary uses Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon as its keystone to build a film about Anger’s life, his movies, his interest in Hollywood and its stars’ scandalous lives. But what is evident amongst all this is that Anger is too big a genius, too complex a character to be fitted in between dramatic reconstructions of Fatty Arbuckle, and tales of Hollywood death and disaster. Though there are some excellent moments, the documentary teases the viewer, leaving an unfulfilled desire to know more about the great Magus of Cinema. Still, it’s worth the price of admission, if only to catch Kenneth Anger on film.
The sign in the 1970s, during a particularly shaggy time
I have always found the Hollywood sign to be charmingly anachronistic— a dated landmark, but delightfully so. Built in 1923 to promote a housing development (originally “Hollywoodland”), the sign has gone through various stages of disrepair and restoration over the years. It was even defaced as “Hollyweed” a few years after the decriminalization of marijuana in California.
Seeing this much work go into something that was never intended to be permanent seems to go against the impression I have of Los Angeles as a high turnover city, dismissive of its own history; it’s oddly comforting to see this kind of effort go into its preservation.
VICE: Looking back at the films of the silent era, the way they were shot and cut make it seem like everyone was snorting massive lines right up until the director yelled, “Action!”
I find film style reflects it, particularly the Mack Sennett [the director largely responsible for the popularity of slapstick] comedies. And my research proves that they were taking cocaine. You can see a sort of hyper-influence there.
VICE: There are lots of tales that make reference to “joy powder” in Hollywood Babylon, which makes it seem as innocent as taking one of those 5-hour Energy shots. Another phrase you use in the book, in the first few pages, is the “Purple Epoch.” What is that? It sounds nice.
That was when there were very talented people who also had extravagant tastes and money. It was the 1920s, a reflection of the Jazz Age. And the Hollywood version of that was pretty wild.
VICE: Another topic you cover early on in the book is the circumstances surrounding the death of Olive Thomas, which is perhaps the first instance of “Hollywood scandal” as we know it. You write, and it’s long been rumored, that she was very fond of cocaine, which was apparently a fatal flaw when combined with alcohol and ingesting her husband Jack Pickford’s topical syphilis medication.
She was one of the earliest beautiful stars to die in grim circumstances. And so her name became associated with lurid [behavior]. Things going on in Hollywood.
VICE: Her death also seemed to pull the wool from everyone’s eyes. Olive Thomas’s image was so sweet and pure. It caused Hollywood’s reputation to snowball into something far darker than how it was previously perceived. People must have thought, “If Olive’s doing it, everyone else must be too.”
There were other ones too, like Mary Miles Minter [who was accused of murdering her lover, director William Desmond Taylor, at the height of her success]. She was a kind of version of Mary Pickford [Jack Pickford’s sister], but the great stars like Pickford were never touched. These scandals swirled around, but there were certain stars that weren’t implicated in any way by this sort of thing.
Other people’s homes movies, like their holiday snaps, can sometimes be terribly dull. But Roddy McDowall’s silent home movies are different, mainly because they have a cast list to die for - from Simone Signoret to Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara to Paul Newman, even Judy Garland and Dominick Dunne. Also, Mr McDowall was a film fan, and there’s a fine sense of his enjoyment and wonder at the Hollywood stars larking about at his Malibu beach home. These are fun artifacts, a last hurrah for a golden age of Hollywood.
The films were uploaded onto You Tube by soapbox, who was personally given the home movies by Roddy McDowall.
Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld, Anthony Perkins, Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Natalie Wood, Judy Garland, May 31, 1965.
Plenty more of Roddy McDowall’s Hollywood Home Movies, after the jump….
Two short clips from Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind (1957), a bizarre movie loosely based on the non-fiction book by Hendrik Willem van Loon.
The film tells of the trial of mankind by a council elders form outer space, who must decide whether humankind should be allowed to continue or be vaporized. For the defense, the dapper Ronald Colman as The Spirit of Man. For the prosecution, the camp Vincent Price as The Devil. The pair deliberate on the evidence, which is taken from key moments in human history, from Julius Ceaser to Christopher Columbus, Elizabeth I to Napoleon. You get the picture.
The cast was a Hollywood producer’s wet dream, which included Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra, Peter Lorre as Nero, Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Agnes Moorehead as Queen Elizabeth I, Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton and even Groucho Marx.
In the first clip, two very different acting styles come together, as Dennis Hopper presents his Method Napoleon, against Marie Windsor’s Hollywood Josephine. The two styles don’t quite gel, but Hopper’s speech about a “United States of Europe” is highly topical, considering French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s current ambitions.
The second clip has Harpo Marx as Isaac Newton discovering gravity and sliced apples with his harp.
The Germs’ Pat Smear & Lorna Doom get touchy-feely with lead singer Darby Crash in The New Wave
“Not exactly wholesome, you might say,” notes slick & laid-back narrator Andrew Amador at the end of this weird and rather incomplete look at the burgeoning new music scene in Los Angeles.
Inexplicably opening up with the highly New York sounds of Patti Smith’s version of “Gloria,” The New Wave seems to have been a quick segment put together by erstwhile TV host Amador and shot by someone called Andre Champagne. I wonder if and where it actually aired. It’s an interesting enough artifact in that it features:
Footage of The Germs with Darby Crash in full feathered-and-waxed Bowie mode
A Sunset Strip marquee within the first 30 seconds featuring Pasadena’s Van Halen!
A bit too much footage of The Quick’s heartthrob lead singer Danny Wilde dreaming of stardom. He’d later do the music scene proud by forming the Rembrandts and recording “I’ll Be There For You,” the fittingly excruciating theme for the TV show Friends.
It was about Nuclear War. Of course. What else could it be about? Director Alex Cox on his first major movie, Repo Man. Yes. It was about Nuclear War:
And the demented society that contemplated the possibility thereof. Repoing people’s cars and hating alien ideologies were only the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg itself was the maniac culture which had elected so-called “leaders” named Reagan and Thatcher, who were prepared to sacrifice everything—all life on earth—to a gamble based on the longevity of the Soviet military, and the whims of their corporate masters. J. Frank Parnell - the fictitious inventor of the Neutron Bomb - was the central character for me. He sets the film in motion, on the road from Los Alamos, and, as portrayed by the late great actor, Fox Harris, is the centrepoint of the film.
Alex Cox is cinema’s great wayward genius who has continued to make films against the odds and on ever decreasing budgets. After Repo Man (1984) came his flawed punk biopic on Sid and Nancy (1986), which owed more to Cox’s imagination than fact. But let’s be fair, it’s Cox’s imagination that makes his films so interesting, even when it is demented, as was seen in his 1987 romp, Straight to Hell, which starred Dennis Hopper, Shane MacGowan, Elvis Costello, The Clash and Courtney Love in what was really a semi-autobiographical home movie as comic Spaghetti Western. The film was hated, but not quite as much as his next, the politically weighted Walker (1987), which paralleled the America’s involvement in Nicaragua in the 1800s with American foreign policy in the 1980s:
William Walker was an American soldier of fortune who in 1853 tried to annex part of Mexico to the United States. He failed, though his invasion contributed to the climate of paranoia and violence which led to Mexico surrendering large areas of territory shortly thereafter. Two years later he invaded Nicaragua, ostensibly in support of one of the factions in a civil war. But his real intention was to take over the country and annex it to the U.S. He betrayed his allies and succeeded in making himself President. He ran Nicaragua, or attempted to run it, for two years. In the U.S. he had been an anti-slavery liberal, but in Nicaragua he abandoned all his liberal pretensions and attempted to institute slavery. He was kicked out of Central America by the combined armies of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras.
Walker tried to go back twice and was eventually caught by the Hondurans and executed…
...Walker was made in 1987, in the middle of the US-sponsored terrorist war against the Nicaraguan people. We made it with the intention of spending as many American dollars as possible in Nicaragua, in solidarity with the Nicaraguans against the yanks’ outrageous aggression against a sovereign nation. Then, as now, this was not a popular position with certain people in power. But it was the right one.
Denounced by critics and politicians, Walker finished Cox’s Hollywood career - a damn shame, as it is Cox’s masterpiece, a brilliant piece of cinema, that exhibits the kind of intelligence, humor and political film-making Tinsel Town desperately needs.
While Repo Man may be Cox’s best film, it can only be hoped that the future will see Alex Cox given the opportunity to bring his own particular vision to the mainstream, and not tread water with the so-so follow-up Repo Chick (2010), or gimmicks like Repo Pup.
After the success of his B-movie The Delinquents, Robert Altman was given the job of co-directing (with George W. George) this documentary on James Dean. The association of Altman’s surprise hit, about out-of-control kids who just “gotta have action”, and the young actor, who appealed to these troubled teenagers, was considered by Warner Brothers as too good an opportunity to miss.
Made in 1957, two years after the actor’s death, The James Dean Story is a well-constructed documentary composed from archive and photographic footage, interviews and out-takes, which gives a sense of Dean’s life and talents. The film was also a key piece in the actor’s mythologizing.
According to Forbes magazine, the James Dean estate makes $5m a year, which is more than the star made his lifetime. That his fame has lasted so long says much about Dean’s ability to epitomize that certain something generations of film-goers have identified with over the past six decades. As Dennis Hopper once said about Dean:
“He seemed to capture that moment of youth, that moment where we’re all desperately seeking to find ourselves.”
Or, as Dean himself said, in a line from Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince: