Fame, if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minute.
 

— Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, “Make Someone Happy” 

The pure products of America
go crazy.

— William Carlos Williams, “To Elsie”

¤

DRIVE DOWN some of Hollywood’s major thoroughfares or visit some of its celebrated tourist attractions, like Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and you’re bound to see at least one mural featuring  bona fide pop icons like Marilyn, Elvis, and James Dean. Depending on the artist, the players joining Marilyn might include Sinatra, John Wayne, or Chaplin. If Duke Haney, the author of Death Valley Superstars, commissioned his own mural, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce might not approve. Yes, Marilyn would still be there, but her supporting cast would be a bunch of troublemakers as obscure as she is famous — Steve Cochran, Sean Flynn, Mark Frechette, Christopher Jones — as well as the notorious Lee Harvey Oswald and William Desmond Taylor, the victim of one of Hollywood’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

The personalities on Haney’s mural are just some of the subjects he profiles in his engrossing new collection of essays, Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland. All but one of Haney’s pieces were originally published on Brad Listi’s literary website The Nervous Breakdown, where I discovered his work in December 2013. Familiar with Haney’s experience writing screenplays and acting in low-budget films, Listi, who had published Subversia (2010), Haney’s first collection of essays, invited him to begin writing about Hollywood. Haney twice demurred, not wanting to be known as just another Kenneth Anger. “I had been struggling to start a novel for two years to no effect,” Haney recently told Listi on his podcast, “and it might rejuvenate me to work instead on a quirky tour of a neglected career and colorful life [tough guy actor Steve Cochran] — an appreciation with elements of biography.” He accepted Listi’s invitation and began writing biographical essays on some of destiny’s darlings, and a number of also-rans who briefly achieved a measure of fame only to see it undone by scandal, misbehavior, or malign fate. Superstars isn’t restricted to luminaries of the screen: Hugh Hefner, Jim Morrison, and the aforementioned Lee Harvey Oswald show up in its pages. Haney’s deep research, fresh insights, and engaging prose bring these subjects to life. He also includes several lively accounts of his own experiences working for legendary cheapjack producer Roger Corman and even more marginal Hollywood operators.

Haney leads his book with a powerful memoir, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” a real cri de coeur recalling how the New Hollywood films of the ’70s celebrated in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls inspired him to journey to Hollywood to make the same kinds of films, only to discover that the blockbuster success of Star Wars and its successors had already killed the New Hollywood movement, torpedoing the career Haney had imagined for himself in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he had immersed himself in movies screened at the palatial Paramount Theater and a local revival house. There, he discovered the Holy Trinity of Method acting — Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean — and their ’70s equivalents — Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, and Dustin Hoffman — all of whom he had hoped to emulate once he hit Hollywood.

Haney’s essay could easily be titled “Star Wars and Its Discontents.” He spends a hefty chunk of “Dinosaurs” expounding on the detrimental effect of that beloved franchise. Star Wars did more than merely change Hollywood’s commercial ecosystem, infantilizing movies. It became a cultural Death Star, Haney contends, whose puerility pervaded society, reducing adults to Peter Pans who are not ashamed to line up at the box office for movies that would once have been considered strictly kid’s stuff and to buy “adult” coloring books.

In the powerful conclusion of “Dinosaurs,” Haney recalls his childhood self going to see a movie (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth [1970]) for the first time:

I can picture him now, about to see a movie alone for the first time. He walks up the long corridor, carpeted in red, of the Paramount Theater, pausing at the concession stand to gawk at thumbnail photos of the posters for sale, and a voice in his head says, Don’t look. God doesn’t want you to look. But the voice is quiet in the darkness of the auditorium, where the boy watches a girl in a fur bikini cavort anachronistically with a dinosaur, and the boy thinks, Man, I would love to be that dinosaur, never dreaming that, when he’s a man, a dinosaur is just what he’ll be.

Someone once wisely said that participation in sports doesn’t create character, it reveals it. The same can be said of the effects of fame and its pursuit, something personified by Marilyn Monroe and Lee Harvey Oswald, Haney’s most famous subjects. They were both pathetic wretches who thought that fame would enable them to escape the pain of anonymity. Monroe was a perpetually unhappy woman who never knew her father and whose mother had a disordered mind. The response she got for modeling for some rather chaste cheesecake photos set her direction. With considerable effort, she became a worldwide sex goddess, but her fame only exacerbated her unhappiness. She finally found release in a bottle of Nembutal one lonely night.

In “Golden State Girl,” Haney argues that Monroe was a genuine artist whose greatest creation was her inimitable screen persona.  “There’s no pathos in the image they propose,” Haney writes, after describing several instances of her hateful behavior,

but there’s pathos aplenty in the image of Marilyn as a wounded stray, as the candle in the wind of Elton John song, as a martyr of celebrity, of Hollywood, of men and patriarchy and the male gaze. This image — and it’s finally a single image — excludes those traits it can’t, and doesn’t want to, accommodate: opportunism, toughness, willfulness, petulance, all of which, and then some, can be found in a convoluted woman with a genius for appearing the opposite.

Lee Harvey Oswald was born two months after his father died. His mother was a kook. He believed that he deserved to be a major actor on the stage of history, not just some nobody sweating his life away stacking boxes of schoolbooks in an old warehouse. The secret delight he must have enjoyed after making himself the focus of the world’s attention lasted only two days before a .38 bullet in his belly ended his life. In “Oswald Has Been Shot,” Haney explores the possibility that three movies that Oswald saw — We Were Strangers (1949), Suddenly (1954), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) — may have inspired him to kill the president.

As his essay on Oswald demonstrates, outsiders fascinate Haney. And that fascination extends to Hollywood’s outsiders, the nearly forgotten actors who were deserted by fame in their own lifetimes. Haney is their champion. In Superstars, he tells the stories of Sean Flynn, Mark Frechette, Steve Cochran, and Christopher Jones in captivating detail and provides us with the most complete biographies these men are ever likely to get. 

Sean Flynn inherited the handsomeness of his father, legendary screen swashbuckler Errol Flynn, but lacked his casual élan in front a movie camera. Sean sought adventure as a photographer in war torn Vietnam and Cambodia, where he disappeared in 1970. Steve Cochran possessed a kind of oily charisma that suited his portrayals of shady characters in films like White Heat (1949) and Private Hell 36 (1954). He was an uncomplicated man who cared only for masculine luxuries — exotic sports cars and boats — and women: he had an insatiable sexual appetite. He could also be physically violent with them. He died horribly when a mysterious disease suddenly struck him as he was sailing his yacht Rogue in the waters off Guatemala, while a crew of barely legal Mexican women he had hired to help him promote a film project could only look on helplessly.

Mark Frechette never wanted to be an actor. He didn’t know what he wanted to do until he fell under the spell of cult leader Mel Lyman in Boston. After a talent scout for director Michelangelo Antonioni spotted Frechette in New York, Antonioni cast him as a campus radical running from the law in Zabriskie Point (1970). Frechette often sparred with Antonioni during the shoot. It didn’t matter; he was only doing it for Mel. Frechette’s misbegotten idea of a revolutionary political statement was to rob a bank, which got one of his accomplices killed. Frechette died in prison when a barbell fell on his neck, asphyxiating him. He was only 27.

Christopher Jones rocketed to stardom in only his second film, Wild in the Streets (1968), a political fantasy about a 22-year-old rock star who becomes president. He bore a striking similarity to James Dean, with the same mesmeric ability to seduce an audience. Jones quit acting abruptly after filming Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and became an enigmatic recluse until his death in early 2014 at age 72. In what may be the most fascinating piece in Death Valley Superstars, Duke Haney does much to unravel the shadowy mystery of Jones’ post-Hollywood years for the first time.

“I think Hollywood is the true Death Valley,” says Haney, “because it’s where dreams go to die, and sometimes the dreamer.” Fortunately, Haney is still with us — and we owe him our thanks for Death Valley Superstars, a dream of a collection.

¤

Peter L. Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011) and the editor of The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best (Chicago Review Press, 2016).