This uneven collection focuses on issues of status and morality (or lack thereof) during the heyday of the studio star system.
One of the most popular and prolific writers of his era, O’Hara wrote novels that were adapted into movies (Pal Joey, 1957; Butterfield 8, 1960, etc.) and cashed some paychecks as a screenwriter, but he never devoted a novel to Hollywood. Yet his experiences there provided plenty of inspiration for his fiction, as this posthumous collection of 22 stories attests. Spanning 36 years, the anthology proceeds chronologically, starting with early 1930s pieces for the New Yorker that are barely stories at all, mainly vignettes or conversations of a couple pages or slightly more. In the 1960s, O’Hara progressed to longer pieces that are more engaging and compelling. Though editor Bruccoli in his introduction describes these—“Natica Jackson” and “James Francis and the Star” among them—as “primarily character stories,” O’Hara’s characters typically lack the depth and complexity of individuals and are more like stereotypes. He’s most concerned with actresses who are past their prime (or, occasionally on the verge), who invariably owe their success to accidents of looks and luck rather than to anything approaching talent. In 1969’s “The Sun Room,” a proudly notorious former star speaks for many in this collection when she says she’d like to teach an acting course where one week she’d “lecture on bust development” and the next “demonstrate the technique of the casting couch.” Writers in these stories are intellectually superior to actors, though not always morally so. Hollywood husbands are predominantly gay, even possibly the one in “In a Grove” who marries a hooker and offers her to an acquaintance for $100. Dialogue is O’Hara’s strength, though some of it dates these stories.
Readers might find this less compelling as fiction than as a glimpse into what Hollywood was “really” like.