Meticulously researched and endlessly engaging, Death Valley Superstars is tumbledown journey through Haney’s life in the film world of the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. We spoke recently on the phone and by email.
DAVID BREITHAUPT: How would Marilyn Monroe have handled Harvey Weinstein?
DUKE HANEY: In the book, I cite a story, possibly apocryphal, about why Marilyn was dropped at Columbia, where she was under contract in the late ’40s: Harry Cohn, Columbia’s widely loathed head of production, referred to her as a “fat pig” while viewing footage of her. But Cohn was a proto-Weinstein, like many moguls of Marilyn’s day, and she’s said to have rejected his advances, so there’s another explanation as to why her contract wasn’t renewed. As with so many things regarding Marilyn, her attitude toward the casting couch was inconsistent. On the one hand, she spoke privately of exchanging sexual favors for bookings in her salad days as a model, just as she dated influential men, such as the agent Johnny Hyde, in the spirit of quid pro quo, though she genuinely cared for Hyde, one of her several father surrogates. But she sought respect as much as she sought stardom — to some extent they were synonymous to her — so there were certain lines she was unwilling to cross. It’s difficult for me to imagine Marilyn in the same room as Weinstein, since she belongs very much to her time and he to his, but if, per his pattern, he had invited her to watch him shower, her response might have been so devastating, a comic puncturing of his infantile psyche, as to reduce him to tears. That was the outcome in one case with Weinstein: I’m acquainted with the woman who made him cry.
Is there hope for a man who can be reduced to tears?
If they were tears of remorse, I might say yes, but his were tears of self-pity. I always assumed he was an ogre because most industry kingpins are ogres, though I was around him just once — it was at a funeral — and he had undeniable presence. You could see why he was so successful. That isn’t a defense of him. Mussolini had presence, but with Mussolini it comes through in photos. It doesn’t with Weinstein. The camera is not his friend. Wise device!
I’m thinking about some of the actors you wrote about, Monroe, Taylor, and musician Jim Morrison. Despite their fame, they seemed to have outsider status.
In the sense that Elizabeth Taylor was famous from such a young age and insulated from ordinary experience, she might be seen as an outsider, but I wouldn’t classify her as one otherwise. But I don’t write about her at the length of some of my other subjects, like Morrison and Monroe and Christopher Jones, the “next James Dean” of the ’60s, and Mark Frechette, the troubled star of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. Morrison was a navy brat and therefore rootless; Monroe and Jones were both dispatched to orphanages after their mothers were institutionalized; and Frechette was himself institutionalized after being molested by a priest. So they were all entrenched outsiders from childhood or adolescence, and I’m sure, without realizing it, I was drawn to outsiders as subjects because I’ve always been one. My essays about others feel just as personal to me as the autobiographical pieces, as if I’m telling my story through theirs, which of course is what ends up happening. The dreamed are all aspects of the dreamer.
Is this why you wrote your book as a combo memoir/noir Hollywood history?
From the outset, I saw Hollywood as a kind of umbrella theme that could encompass a variety of approaches. I’m not a fan of uniformity, so I favor variety in a collection, and there are countless Hollywood books by people who never worked in the business, actors profiled by non-actors and so on, while I’m a Hollywood veteran who can function as both exhibit and guide, so why not embrace it? The risk there is that some may prefer the memoir pieces to the reportage or vice versa and regard the result as schizoid, but that was a calculated risk, and ultimately, to quote James Dean, I’d rather have people hiss than yawn.
What happened when you harnessed these pieces together? Did you encounter any revaluations you didn’t expect?
Only in that some of them clearly had to be rewritten. I completed my piece about Hugh Hefner three years before he died, for example, so naturally that called for a revision, and there was a terrible moment when the layout was nearing completion and I realized that another piece needed an overhaul that I figured would take two weeks. It took six. I can sculpt a sentence for hours, even days, but at some point I have to let it go or lose what mind I have left, and then I have to live with the pain of imperfection. That’s where I am now. Flipping through the book, I’ll stop at a phrase and think, “Damn, I should have changed that word, and this dash should be a colon, and if that’s a typo, I’m calling the Suicide Hotline.”
Other than technique, did you find out anything about yourself by mulling over your own history as well those of the celebrities you wrote of?
Self-absorption is an occupational hazard, if not a prerequisite, for an actor, and now that I’m no longer an actor, I don’t ponder myself much, so that even if I mined self-knowledge while writing Death Valley Superstars, I would have noted it in the book and promptly ignored it. That’s probably a bad idea, because remembering knowledge of any kind is finally more important than discovering it. As to the other people in my book, I put considerable effort into researching them and I should hope that research results in discovery, though I often had to speculate about states of mind and motives. For instance, I write about Steve Cochran, a film-noir heavy who died aboard a sailboat with an all-female crew, none of whom knew anything about sailing. Did he hire them to staff a sort of floating harem? That’s what many have assumed, or many of the few familiar with Cochran, but none of the women alluded to hanky-panky and he didn’t live to explain, so I provided an explanation based on what I learned of his final cryptic weeks.
Nathanael West famously wrote in The Day of the Locust that “nothing is sadder than the truly monstrous.” Can you apply this to your time in Los Angeles?
I’m still in L.A., so I lack the rear-view-mirror perspective that benefits generalizations, and there’s only so much overlap between today’s L.A. and Nathanael West’s. He was fascinated by the grotesquerie of Hollywood, the tawdry hustlers and gorgon stage mothers and swinish studio executives who all helped to manufacture toothless movies for the booboisie. That may be a valid representation of Hollywood in the ’30s, but Hollywood has been run for decades now by corporate reptiles who are no different than the reptiles you find in boardrooms anywhere, and many Hollywood aspirants are the kind of niche nerds who turn up in costume at Comic-Con, which makes them the same as contemporary audiences. I’m at odds with such people, and at a certain point I disengaged. I eked out a living as a screenwriter while working on a novel, and went to underground music venues four and five nights a week, and socialized almost exclusively with guys in bands with names that evoke their sound: Die Princess Die, A for Attack, Federation X. So I don’t recognize The Day of the Locust in my experience of L.A., but I do recognize Banned for Life. I tried hard in that book to capture something of L.A. in the ’90s, when I realized that Hollywood and I were incompatible.
Can movies be a form of nihilism?
One of my standard aphorisms a few years ago was that the internet is the most nihilistic medium ever conceived, draining everything it touches of mystery, poetry, scope, subtlety, and — ultimately — meaning. Movies, certainly at their best and sometimes to a fault, have done the opposite. How can that be nihilism?
I’m thinking more for the participants than the audience. But I do see a trend away from books and heading to random films, like that video in Infinite Jest that viewers can’t stop watching until they die. I sometimes fear it’s the wave of the future.
The decline in book readership didn’t start with movies; it started with television and accelerated alarmingly with the internet, and if it makes me a Luddite to say so, fine, I’m a Luddite. If you want to discuss nihilism, we should shift the topic from movies to the internet or to “I Can’t Get that Monster out of My Mind,” Joan Didion’s 1964 essay about the myth of Hollywood as “a kind of mechanical monster, programmed to stifle and destroy all that is interesting and worthwhile and ‘creative’ in the human spirit.” I believe there’s a touch of truth to that myth, despite Didion’s whip-smart deflation of it, and I would take her over David Foster Wallace in an intellectual slugfest any day. As a child, I watched an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies in which Granny leaps into a wrestling ring and pulverizes Boston Strong Girl, a decades-younger colossus. That’s my fantasy of a Didion versus Wallace matchup.
I don’t know if you have to pit Didion against Wallace. I think it has become popular to diss Wallace. I enjoy both writers and I think they both contribute to the malaise of Hollywood in their own way. I grew up reading Kenneth Anger and didn’t hesitate to believe the worst of the seamy side of Hollywood living. It’s a rubbernecking kind of pleasure to see other lives in glorious disarray.
Oh, come on, isn’t it fun to picture Didion choke-holding Wallace? Does no one have a sense of the ridiculous anymore? And I’ll have you know that I was dissing Wallace way ahead of the trendy pack, though he’s still deified by legions of gullible Lit majors. And, yes, of course, it’s a pleasure to witness lives, famous lives especially, in disarray. In fact, nine out of 10 nutritionists recommend a daily dose of Schadenfreude to keep a body healthy and strong.
Let’s get back on track before we start talking about Kanye West. I enjoyed your chapter on working with Corman on Daddy’s Boys. You wrote the script and acted in the movie in what was your first nude scene. How difficult was that? Is it something you might regret down the road?
First, I should stress that I only performed two nude scenes, both for the Corman movie. I knew I wasn’t physically or temperamentally suited to nude scenes, so I thought I would emerge from them a braver, better actor, if you can follow that tortured logic, but I learned that some inhibitions have a solid basis and should never be disturbed. It was a priceless lesson, so, no, I don’t regret doing those scenes. Now, my mom has a different outlook. She was all set to read Death Valley Superstars, and I said, “Well, okay, Mom, but I should warn you that I wrote about doing a nude scene, and it’s pretty graphic.” She said, “You did what? Why did you do that? And, just once, couldn’t you write something I can read?”
One of the pieces in the book tells of your search for Sly Stone, who was reportedly living in a white van in an L.A. neighborhood. Amid your search you encountered even more bizarre episodes than Sly himself: a Chinese tourist stretching out on the location where Elizabeth Short’s (Black Dahlia) body parts were dumped and offbeat characters in old dive jazz bars equipped with their own strange histories. Is L.A. a town where you find everything but what you are looking for, as a character in this chapter surmises?
The internet is where you find everything, which of course is a fallacy. If you want to know about a subject in depth — and who does these days? — there’s but one dread option: books. You and I lived in New York in the same approximate period, and before New York was ruined by money, it was much more an “everything” sort of city than L.A., with the obvious exception of movie-related stuff. But one thing L.A. has always lacked was expressed succinctly to me years ago by a young transplant from Paris: I asked what she thought of the people in L.A., and she said, “They don’t have any wit.” She was referring to acuity, not humor, and by now there’s a dearth of wit everywhere, it seems to me. The California sensibility — “Awesome!” — has spread like a pandemic.
Looking through the varied experiences you have had, writing films, acting in them, writing a novel and a collection of essays, almost getting killed in an accident, what can you say to sum up your time in the land of reinvention?
I don’t think it’s possible to sum up my time here, except that I didn’t reinvent myself as the Brandoesque movie star I set out to be; I finished much lower, certainly in Hollywood terms, meaning I became a writer. My high school guidance counselor prophesied that I would be a writer, and I had my handwriting analyzed when I was an actor of 20 or so, and for what that’s worth, the graphologist said, on seeing my scrawl, “Oh, you’re a writer. Now, let me guess what you write. Mysteries?” And, in a way, I do write mysteries, whether they’re factual or fictional. I think all lives, even the dullest, are finally mysterious. None of us are without secrets and contradictions, so I’ll often balk at summing up people and experiences. I prefer to offer impressions with few firm conclusions. There’s room for imagination in impressions. Conclusions — opinions — seem reductive and sometimes evasive to me.
Is there any noir left in L.A.?
Like so many big cities, beginning with New York, L.A. has been gentrified to such a degree that the vice and sleaze that inspired classic noir aren’t as blatant as they used to be, not on a street level; but wherever you find greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and so on, noirish outcomes are inevitable, and the seven deadly sins are holding their own in the 21st century, as any glance at your news feed will confirm. Unfortunately criminals these days don’t have the style of criminals past, so that even Weegee couldn’t make magic with a shot of a handcuffed meth peddler in a loud tee, cargo shorts, and sneakers. Even wealthy criminals, like Putin’s American sweetheart, don’t know how to dress. No, butterball, that long tie does not camouflage your girth.
I’m not letting you go until you tell us who the woman was that made Harvey Weinstein cry.
I would rather describe her than name her. She’s tall, dark-haired, and so distractingly beautiful as to cause traffic accidents. Here’s a digressive but hopefully fun anecdote: Marilyn Monroe didn’t like to drive because other drivers would instigate fender benders just to meet her. I was mowed down by a car in a crosswalk on Sunset Boulevard — that’s the accident you mentioned earlier — but I don’t believe the driver had a meeting in mind when he sent me to the hospital for six weeks. I’ve got scars all over my body, and I don’t even know the name of the man who gave them to me. I bet he never cried.
David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and others.