Seven Books That Explain How Hollywood Actually Works

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Written By Pinang Driod

Some people sing in the shower; I practice my awards speech instead. In it, like so many movie stars before me, I’m alternately breathy, teary-eyed, grateful to family, friends, and—who could forget—my team. I don’t remember learning about Hollywood, with all its warts and wonders, so much as I absorbed my love for it: I used to stay up past my bedtime to watch the Oscars, laughing at Billy Crystal jokes I didn’t understand. The glamor of awards shows and film sets mixed with the lurid tabloid affairs that lined grocery-store checkouts to create an intoxicating image of the industry. As a young person, I worried I’d only ever get a look at the real thing on a Hollywood Hills double-decker tour bus.

But thankfully, my fascination with the silver screen is not a solitary yearning, and writers have long unveiled its secrets and stories in books. For as long as we’ve had stars and motion pictures, we’ve published celebrity tell-alls and reported peeks behind the curtain, plumbing Tinsel Town for its greatest tales and pumping stars for their biggest confidences. The seven titles below, published across six decades, are some of the most memorable accounts of what Hollywood is really like—and they offer fans an authentic chance at seeing how the magic is made.


Harper Paperbacks

Oscar Wars, by Michael Schulman

The yearly circus of the Academy Awards is easy to cast aspersions on. Do the voters really pick the best movies of the year? Of course not. Are all of the winners the most deserving? Not often. Then why do so many viewers, casual movie fans and high-brow skeptics alike, pay so much attention? Schulman’s reported epic from last year makes a compelling case: The Oscars are Hollywood’s never-ending battle with itself. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as his book explains, was ostensibly founded to bring different branches of the industry together, but in practice was used to push against unions and dissent in the name of maintaining “harmony.” Schulman’s work follows the past century’s contentious Oscar races and awards narratives, and explores how the show has both changed and cemented all that is good and bad about the industry, from its inaugural party to, yes, “the Slap.” With every well-earned triumph (think Get Out) or less-than Best Picture winner (think Crash), the Oscars have made actors into stars, turned films into legends, and ushered a sense of urgency and excitement into the industry. Schulman proves that winning an Oscar does mean something, even if that something isn’t always “best.”

Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears
By Michael Schulman
Finding Me
HarperOne

Finding Me, by Viola Davis

Davis is not infrequently considered one of the finest actors in the history of film and television. Many other actors’ memoirs fall victim to recounting petty anecdotes or leaning on emotional platitudes, but Davis’s solidifies all the good that can come out of a performing career. Finding Me details her poor upbringing and how she survived childhood abuse as she pushed to get herself out of Rhode Island and into Juilliard. The memoir chronicles the long years she spent in smaller parts in movies as she built up her theater bona fides through the 1990s and early 2000s, when the industry was enveloped in an overwhelming whiteness; it also offers an emotional account of Davis’s long struggle with the idea that she was not worthy of success. Her role as Annalise Keating on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder was crucial to her development as both an actor and a Black woman, she writes. It became a signature part for her, despite ungenerous suggestions that she was perhaps too dark-skinned for the role. Davis is clear about what a game of chance making it can be, and that even though she’s talented and driven, she has been lucky. Her sharp and direct writing style oscillates between thankfulness and self-assertion as she sums up her time thus far: “Everything had been hard for me. I mastered hard. Now, I wanted joy.”

Finding Me
By Viola Davis
Postcards From the Edge
Simon and Schuster

Postcards From the Edge, by Carrie Fisher

Fisher was royalty in two senses of the word: Her mother was the great Debbie Reynolds, known best for her appearance in Singin’ in the Rain, and Fisher herself was perhaps most recognizable to millions (if not billions) of people for her role as Princess Leia in George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy. Beyond her claim to the Hollywood throne, Fisher was known for her acerbic wit and frankness about the rough-and-tumble nature of the industry. Before her unexpected death in 2016, she was a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, but her debut novel, Postcards From the Edge, remains one of her most meaningful contributions. The semi-autobiographical plot follows an actor struggling with drug addiction and recovery (Fisher’s own public battles are mirrored in those of protagonist Suzanne Vale), and the narration provides sharp, funny anecdotes—about how Vale’s manager wants her to do a TV series to manage her manias, for example, and how she copes with being a product of, and within, Tinsel Town (or at least, which drugs she takes to cope). The book is a loving punch-up, dark and biting, about how the film industry makes and breaks its own, but there’s nothing better than a comeback story. Upon finishing, you can enjoy Mike Nichols’s fantastic 1990 adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.

Postcards From the Edge
By Carrie Fisher
Mike Nichols: A Life
Penguin Books

Mike Nichols: A Life, by Mark Harris

Once you’ve read Fisher’s book and seen the subsequent film adaptation, you may find yourself curious about the life and career of the improv and stage comedian turned acclaimed director Nichols, whom Harris wrote about with great affection and detail in 2021. Harris has written three books on the film industry in the 20th century, all of them excellent, but the Nichols biography is perhaps the most resonant. It begins with the director’s early years in the Chicago improv scene with the actor and director Elaine May and moves to his role in achievements such as The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nichols worked with everyone––everyone! Elizabeth Taylor, Andrew Garfield, George C. Scott, and Julia Roberts are among the stars who pass in and out of the biography’s pages. Nichols’s projects varied from taut thriller to adult drama to broad comedy, and he operated in a range of genres that the major studios now struggle to make. Harris’s biography is not only a joyful (and gossipy) celebration of Nichols’s life and achievements, but a glimpse into a half century’s worth of films that are now on the verge of going extinct.

Mike Nichols: A Life
By Mark Harris

I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten, by Eartha Kitt

The actor, singer, and activist Eartha Kitt lived so storied a Hollywood life—including such moments as speaking out against the Vietnam War at a luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson—that the U.S. government found her singular celebrity threatening, and the CIA supposedly branded her a “sadistic nymphomaniac.” She did have a laissez-faire dating philosophy, but that label does a disservice to her work and her music, timeless as ever, as well as her friendships (or situationships, to borrow a modern term) with notable hunks such as James Dean and Paul Newman. She knew everyone, she talked with everyone, and she couldn’t wait to talk about it all. Kitt wrote three memoirs over the course of her adult life, but her last book, I’m Still Here, focuses on her relationships throughout the 1950s and ’60s and the rise and fall of her stardom. More than three decades later, I’m Still Here proves Kitt’s staying power as a diva and celebrity for the ages.

I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten
By Eartha Kitt
Hollywood Babylon
Dell

Hollywood Babylon, by Kenneth Anger

Anger, a director who started shooting films when he was only a kid, published his book Hollywood Babylon in 1959 (in France—it wouldn’t be widely released in the U.S. for years) to universal fascination and occasional repulsion. His controversial, gossip-laden tell-all was lurid and nasty, detailing the debauchery and violence of the first 50 years or so of Hollywood. (The tall tales and rumors perpetuated by Anger also served as the inspiration for much of the characterization in Damien Chazelle’s recent Babylon.) Anger was an industry outsider, making experimental queer films, and his disdain for Los Angeles is felt through every page. While much of Hollywood Babylon has been disproved in the years since its publication, it’s responsible for the longevity of a number of urban legends, such as Fatty Arbuckle’s supposed involvement in the death of an aspiring actress, and it arguably was a forebear of photo-hungry tabloids, like TMZ, that will stop at nothing to publish a less-than-savory shot. The “celebrity scandal” is now an industry unto itself, a reflex perpetuated by the internet and Notes-app apologies, but the business’s messy egos and frantic partying date all the way back to the early 20th century.

Hollywood Babylon
By Kenneth Anger
You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again
Random House

You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, by Julia Phillips

Phillips’s autobiography is a strong counterpart to Hollywood Babylon, as it focuses on the days of New Hollywood, which arose after the 1950s ended. She produced classics such as Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Sting, which made her the first female producer to accept the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Producers get to hold the Best Picture statue, as a thanks for the effort they put in, and the money they moved, to get the movie made.) The book shows how she and her husband, Michael, came up through the industry, including such experiences as Phillips’s story-editing tenure at Paramount, where she once mistook the famed producer Bob Evans for a hairdresser. It also provides a guide to all the ins and outs of what producers actually do (besides having their names come up first in the credits). Most of this job, at least for Phillips, is to make phone calls in which she plays hardball, oversells, or undersells; to read books that might make splashy pictures; and to take those titular lunches. Before the narrative spirals into drugs and addiction, Phillips crosses paths with all of the major players in 1970s Hollywood, and her writing offers a great inside look at the early years of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Paul Schrader (whom she refers to as nerds). It is a bracing read, unputdownable in every sense, and full of the cynicism and wonder that defined that era of filmmaking.

You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again
By Julia Phillips


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Fran Hoepfner is a freelance writer in New York City.

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