Behind the Celluloid Dream: A Conversation with Shawn Levy




SHAWN LEVY’S NEW BOOK, The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, a Los Angeles Times best seller, is dishy and deep diving. A seasoned film critic and biographer of Hollywood luminaries, Levy is careful to distinguish between fact and fantasy — no easy task when sifting through a century’s worth of sources about Tinseltown. A refreshing portrait of the Chateau emerges, more bohemian oasis than seedy skeleton closet.

The Chateau opened its doors at the genesis of talkies, shortly before the United States was plunged into economic depression. Unfailingly, Levy traces the effects of social and economic factors on the life of the Chateau and its inhabitants; if Hollywood wasn’t built in a day, neither was it sustained in a vacuum. Levy’s choice to begin each section with a change in the Chateau’s ownership is inspired, as these shifts signal cultural changes beyond the Sunset Strip, as well as shifts in managerial vision that colored the life of the hotel.

Peering behind the celluloid dream, Levy lends historical context to vitally important discussions, such as the role of immigrants in shaping American identity. After reading Castle, this role can be characterized as nothing less than integral. Via email, Levy and I discussed this, as well as topics ranging from the role of women in Hollywood to Bob Woodward’s treatment of John Belushi’s death in a Chateau bungalow in his 1984 Wired. Initially, I regretted not being able to have this conversation in person; ultimately, this was a boon disguised as limitation, as correspondence lent itself to glimpses of Levy’s energetic, engaged prose.

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SARAH COZORT: The Castle on Sunset is a departure for you, as it’s a biography of a place, rather than a person. What drew you to your subject, and how did you determine your approach? Do you have a personal history with the Chateau?

SHAWN LEVY: The idea came as an offshoot of something I’ve wanted to do for years: namely a history of the Sunset Strip in the ’60s, from the first moments when rock ’n’ roll found its place on the Strip to the “riots” of 1966. I gathered string on that idea for 20 years but never found a home for it. So when the folks at Doubleday blurted out a suggestion for a book subject — “What about Chateau Marmont?” — they hit on something that had long been close to my heart. It took a long time to figure out the shape. The book is, as you say, a biography of an inanimate object, and it wasn’t until I realized that I could break it down into a series of six eras defined by its owners that I knew I had a plausible structure for the book.

My own personal connection to the hotel corresponds to the period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when I was a film journalist in Los Angeles. In those days, pre-restoration, the Chateau was a place where out-of-town actors and, especially, directors and screenwriters stayed, and I conducted roughly 10 interviews there over the years. I remember in particular sitting with the Chilean surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who fixed me a vodka and pineapple juice and asked me to imagine a tiger walking through his bungalow with a doll in its jaws.

The scope of this project spans almost 100 years, and its reach fans out well beyond the walls of the Chateau. How did you conceive of the Chateau’s role in terms of the larger project of the book, which is also a kind of history of Hollywood? How do you describe your research process?

Part of me was so excited to be allowed to write a book about a key spot on the Sunset Strip that I wanted to tell the story of the whole Strip, which is a long-standing passion of mine. I also wanted to keep the book tight-and-bright, as one of my editors used to say, and I wanted Doubleday to get the book they imagined.

So I determined I would go beyond the walls of the hotel only if, in a sense, I still kept one hand on the place: I could write about its immediate environs (the Garden of Allah, Schwab’s Pharmacy, the Players Club), and the only times I venture further is when I discuss rival hotels on the Strip or in the area. So it’s not quite the book about the Sunset Strip that I once imagined, but it’s a damned thorough history of one portion of the Strip and the most prominent building in that bit of it.

Research is, obviously, a huge part of a book like this. All my books have extensive library work behind them. I traveled to Los Angeles and New York and spent many days going through clippings archives to do with the hotel, its owners, and its most famous denizens. I read extensively in back issues of the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and other publications. I dug into the lives of many of the famed residents of the hotel. I also spoke to former residents and employees, keeping in mind that I wanted to register a balance between the older days and the newer — that is, to not let the later chapters of the book dissolve into brief, disconnected stories of contemporary stars but rather to give the final chapters the same narrative solidity as earlier passages.

There are so many delicious gossipy stories here, as well as facts about how business — aboveboard and otherwise — was carried out. How did you make decisions about what to explore deeply and what to simply nod toward?

In some cases, there are famous stories that you simply can’t ignore: the tales of Jean Harlow, John Belushi, Lindsay Lohan, Helmut Newton, Anthony Perkins and Tab Hunter, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, and director Nicholas Ray and the making of Rebel Without a Cause. I knew a lot of those when I began, and they were always going to be staples. Then, there were stories about the hotel itself that had to be included.

Before you know it, you’re looking at a lot of material that you want to stuff into a 100,000-word box which you also want to keep level — as long and deep in the opening chapters as in the more contemporary passages. So, you wind up de-emphasizing some stories, albeit reluctantly. You also want to spend the most time on stories that illuminate something larger about the hotel — not just to tell gossip for gossip’s sake (although that’s not bad in and of itself). All the while, there are legal considerations.

What do you consider when writing about the living that you don’t when writing about the dead? What are the legal considerations?

You start asking for stories about Hollywood people, living or dead, and you hear things. Some of those things you believe and can verify independently, some you can’t verify, and some you can’t believe. If the subject is alive, you must avoid those latter two sorts of stories. Early in my career, I became well versed, for a non-attorney, in the principles of libel law, and I take them very seriously. If the subject isn’t alive, he or she can hardly ever be libeled, so the barriers are fewer.

Then, you get into questions of overall tone or intent or seriousness. I am pretty keen on reporting the truth and won’t tell stories I can’t verify. Sometimes, you have a story that you desperately want to use, and you can’t because the only source or sources can’t be trusted. In the end, I’d rather err on the side of “this happened and here’s how you know it happened” and leave out the stuff that entices but doesn’t pass the provability test.

I was surprised to find I was less familiar with many of the female actors than I was with the men mentioned, especially in earlier periods. I wondered if this was the case for other readers, or yourself, as you researched.

I think this is just the sad reality of Hollywood as a business, both historically and currently. Men have always run the town and benefited from the wealth it generates. Most studio bosses, producers, agents, directors, screenwriters, and big-money stars have been (and continue to be) men. Even though we can’t imagine the movies or the history of Hollywood without brilliant and talented women who have performed, written, or worked behind the camera there, the story of American movies remains a masculine story.

So, yes — for every Jean Harlow and Natalie Wood and Lindsay Lohan in the book, there are two or three men. I did, however, try to acknowledge the importance of a number of women to the history of the hotel itself: the general managers (Ann Little and Suzanne Jierjian), the founding owners (especially the formidable Mabel Walker Willebrandt), and, of course, the Marmont Ladies who ran the front desk, answered the switchboard, and so on. Sadly, they still feel more marginal than, say, the men who’ve owned the hotel (at least one of whom has been the subject of a #MeToo investigation in The New York Times, ahem).

There are vivid descriptions of Dennis Hopper and his pal, Maila Nurmi, a.k.a. Vampira, in the early ’50s, around the time Nicholas Ray was making Rebel Without a Cause. Nurmi emerges as a cool center of a bohemian social scene that included James Dean and Anthony Perkins. Later, you describe the youth culture that overtook the Sunset Strip in the ’60s, but that situation seems tame compared to this earlier pack. In many ways, the young Hollywood of the ’50s you describe reminded me more of ’80s L.A. punks — Hopper comes off as more Darby Crash than proto-flower child. Why was it important to convey the energy of that earlier milieu and the process Ray went through to harness it in the making of Rebel?

In the making of Rebel Without a Cause, vital streams of the DNA of Chateau Marmont and its history are on display: the fostering of bohemian creativity; the (hotel staff’s) discretion regarding sexual behavior and indulgence in booze and drugs; the rise of method acting and the New York actors who brought it to Hollywood, often by staying at the Chateau; the privilege claimed by Hollywood iconoclasts, regardless of whom their behavior hurt; the change of the Sunset Strip from a genteel haven of nightlife to a teen playground; and so on.

Ray engaged in a lot of bad behavior — he sexually preyed on Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo when they were minors; he used and shared illegal drugs; he was a distant father whose indifferent parenting had catastrophic impact on his kids — but he seemed also, in some part of his brain and art, to be aware of the terrible cost of his deeds, and he was able to catalyze some of that awareness into Rebel. All of this took place in his bungalow at the Chateau, named The Director’s Bungalow by staff members, as Ray occupied it for nearly eight years.

Rebel is by far the greatest work of art that has its genesis woven into the story of the hotel. And the conception, writing, casting, rehearsing, and making of it involves not only the Chateau but also the Sunset Strip of the era: the all-night coffee shops, the Googie-style burger joints, the Beatnik underground, the waning of Old Hollywood, the not-quite-out-of-the-closet Gay Hollywood of the ’50s. It’s a really rich moment.

Fast-forwarding several decades, you write that John Belushi’s death, which became symbolic of a sea change in public perception of the hotel was “an unimaginable tragedy that almost everybody had seen coming and no one knew how to prevent.” You take to task Bob Woodward’s 1984 biography of Belushi, Wired, calling it frequently “tone-deaf,” suggesting Woodward had a message he felt was vital about the state of American culture but failed to effectively convey.

I think Woodward was and is a great investigative journalist who never should have been involved in writing about Hollywood. He absolutely nails the facts of Belushi’s final years and days and yet has no feel for the larger milieu of showbiz. I have no doubt that the material he reports is accurate — and the legal papers about Belushi’s death bear much of it out. But there’s an alien quality to Wired — it really does read like the report of someone who has parachuted into Hollywood having heard about movies but not really understanding the dynamics of how they’re made, what sort of people make them, or the flow and quality of the culture from which they rise.

It’s more valuable as a police report, in effect, than as a picture of a place and time. Woodward was approached, in part by the Belushi family, to write the story because he grew up in the same suburban Chicago town as Belushi, but those guys clearly didn’t run in the same circles, as kids or later on. Woodward is a bit too starchy and prudish to do this particular job truly well. Notably, even though Wired was a best seller and was made into a movie, he never tried to write about showbiz again.

You highlight ways immigrants shaped the Chateau and Hollywood. For instance, you follow director Billy Wilder’s trajectory from Berlin, where he established himself as a successful screenwriter, to Paris, where he fled persecution in ’33, and, eventually, to Hollywood. Was highlighting the immigrant experience a conscious goal or simply unavoidable?

In writing about any hotel, you’re writing about travelers and transience and rootlessness. In fact, I wanted to write a long meditation on hotels-qua-hotels, but I never really found a way to include it in the book. In the case of Chateau Marmont, which was built as an apartment house and only turned into a hotel after the Great Depression killed that dream, there’s a distinctly European and East Coast air to the place that was especially attractive to visitors who 1) needed to stay in Los Angeles for months on end (that is, to make movies or TV shows); 2) were comfortable with apartment living; and 3) wanted to work in Hollywood without “going Hollywood.” So, again, lots of Europeans and New Yorkers.

The single most important discovery I made was of a European owner, Erwin Brettauer, an anti-fascist German banker who funded some truly influential films in Weimar Germany, like M, Pandora’s Box, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. He owned the hotel from about 1942 to 1963, and he expressly fostered a small-d democratic culture in it. He countenanced openly gay clients when few in Hollywood would, and he broke the color line that had long pertained to Hollywood and Beverly Hills hotels; prior to his insistence on allowing black guests, the nearest hotel of quality that would rent rooms to the likes of Duke Ellington and Sidney Poitier was the Dunbar Hotel in South Central Los Angeles. So not only did Chateau Marmont appeal to immigrants, but its culture and history were importantly shaped by one.

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Sarah Cozort holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Memphis, where she currently teaches. She is the winner of the 2018 Deborah L Talbot Award from the Academy of American Poets, and her work can be found in the most recent issue of Barely South.


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