“Twilight in the Smog” by ORSON WELLES – ESQUIRE (March, 1959)
Here is Orson Welles on Hollywood, that appeared in Esquire Magazine, in March, 1959. Strangely, even though Welles hadn't been in Hollywood for over ten years, he feels that he needed to point out that fact, even though he had left Los Angeles for Europe in 1948.
Twilight in the Smog
Solemn suburbia crowds out the raucous old circus
By Orson Welles
It used to be easy to hate Hollywood. For me it was no trouble at all. But that was years ago. I don't think either of us have mellowed very much since then; but we are getting on a bit and our feelings for each other are scarcely as passionate as they were. For one thing, I no longer live there; I'm not just saying this—I really don't. Formerly this claim was the purest affectation; now it's a fact. It was my melancholy pretense that I was a transient, temporarily employed. There was nothing original about this self-deception. In the film colony a good half of the working population, including many of the oldest inhabitants, keep up their spirits by means of the same ruse. People buy houses and spend half their lives in them without unpacking all their bags. By now, however, I think it's safe to announce that I am one of those who got away. I chose freedom—and that was quite a while ago. Nowadays, if I do venture back behind the chromium curtain, it's never without a return ticket to the outside world. Also, I'm very careful about sitting down. This is important. In that peculiar climate one is haunted with the possibility that standing up again might suddenly exceed one's aspirations. Hollywood is a place where a youngish man is ill-advised to indulge in a siesta. Leaving a call for four-thirty won't do him any good. The likelihood remains that when he wakes up he'll be sixty-five.
It was Fred Alien who said, in his fair-minded way, that "California is a wonderful place if you're an orange." I guess what Fred was actually referring to was the general region of Los Angeles, or, as it's called, Greater Los Angeles (greater than what?). Like so many of us, this was the part of the state he knew best and liked least. Anyway, as the citrus people are the first to admit, smog has taken the fun out of life even for the oranges.
When we speak of Hollywood we take in, of course, more than the community of that name: we mean the movie and TV studios in the San Fernando Valley; we include the beach houses, villas and palazzi in Santa Monica and Malibu. We mean the film colony which is spread so wide and thin, and the "industry" itself, which no longer dominates the scene as it once did. In the stately homes of Bel Air and Beverly Hills, oil millionaires are at least as numerous as movie stars, and nowadays the luckier studios bristle with oil pumps.
According to the map, Hollywood is a district attached but not belonging to the City of Los Angeles. But this is not strictly accurate: Los Angeles—though huge, populous and rich—has never quite made it as a city. It remains a loose and sprawling confederation of suburbs and shopping centers. As for downtown Los Angeles, it's about as metropolitan as Des Moines or Schenectady.
The metropolitan air is what one misses. Neither the theatre nor its artists are at their best in a suburb. Or a gigantic trailer camp. Whether we work before a camera or behind the footlights, actors are, by nature, city people. Hollywood is most precisely described as a colony. (Colonies are notoriously somewhat cut off from reality, insular, bitchy and cliquish, snobbish—a bit loose as to morals but very strict as to appearances.) One expects a colony to be an outpost of empire. Hollywood might be called an outpost of civilization (a word which means, after all, "city culture"), but it's also the heart of its own empire of the movies: a capital without a city, yet among its colonies are numbered the great cities of the world.
What is best in any branch of theatre must always have a certain flavor of tradition. Dear, shabby old Times Square, for instance, has its roots in Rome and the Middle Ages. It was, after all, a kind of marketplace, and in the old tradition. The saloons and bars of the Broadway area are still the sorts of places where show folk have always gathered in Athens and Madrid, in London and Paris and Peking. But Hollywood, which boasts the largest population of actors ever concentrated in a single community, is also the first show town in history without a pub or a bistro in the traditional sense. In California the tradition of the Mermaid Tavern has given way to the country club. A rigidly standardized middle-class suburbia is replacing the raucous and circusy traditions of the recent past.
Is Hollywood's famous sun really setting? There is certainly a hint of twilight in the smog and, lately, over the old movie capital there has fallen a gray-flannel shadow. Television is moving inexorably westward. Emptying the movie theatres across the land, it fills the movie studios. Another industry is building quite another town; and already, rising out of the gaudy ruins of screenland, we behold a new, drab, curiously solemn brand of the old foolishness.
There must always be a strong element of the absurd in the operation of a dream factory, but now there's less to laugh at and even less to like. The feverish gaiety has gone, a certain brassy vitality drained away. TV, after all, is a branch of the advertising business, and Hollywood behaves increasingly like an annex of Madison Avenue.
Television—live, taped or on film—is still limited by the language barrier, while by nature and economics moving pictures are multilingual. Making them has always been an international affair. Directors, writers, producers and, above all, the stars come to Hollywood from all over the world and their pictures are addressed to a world public. The town's new industry threatens its traditional cosmopolitanism and substitutes a strong national flavor. This could not be otherwise since our television exists to sell American products to American consumers.
And there's the question of money.
Millions of dollars are being made in television, but a million dollars has never been spent on any television show. Some few of the most lavish "spectaculars" are budgeted at the cost of a B-picture. All the rest of the TV product is made for "quickie" prices, the big money being spread thin to cover the whole season. If there's any conspicuous waste in this new industry it's only in the area of talent. A half-hour television western multiplied by three equals the playing time of a "program picture." But add the total price of all three and you have less than half the minimum budget for a negotiable second feature. Some TV stars are paid about as much for a week's solo appearance in Las Vegas as the complete production cost of one of their TV programs—and this includes full cast and crews, script, sets, photography, raw stock, wardrobe, music, scoring, mixing, processing, insurance—even their own star salaries. This penny-pinching grind runs counter to the town's most venerable instincts, but now, with the biggest of the big film studios limping along on economy programs administered by skeleton staffs, the gold-rush atmosphere which once was Hollywood's own dizzy brand of charm is just a memory.
In its golden age—in the first years of the movie boom—the mood and manner were indeed much like that of a gold rush. There was the frenzy and buccaneering hurly-burly of an earlier California: the vast fortunes found in a day and squandered in a night; the same cheerful violence and cutthroat anarchy. All of that Western turbulence has been silenced now; the wild and woolly charm is just a memory.
Architectural fantasy is in decline, the cheerful gaudiness is mostly gone, the more high-spirited of the old outrages have been razed or stand in ruins. In the "better" residential and business districts a kind of official "good taste" has taken charge. The result is a standardized impeccability, sterile and joyless, but it correctly expresses the community's ardent yearnings toward respectability.
Right down to this last moment in a long, long history, show folk have been kept quite firmly segregated from respectability. Significantly, the theatre profession had no contact (or contamination) with the middle class. Indeed, ifs just recently that we began to employ that very middle-class word, "profession." This was when the mention of art began to embarrass us, and this was the beginning of our fall from grace: when we suddenly aspired to the mediocre rank of ladies and gentlemen. Before that, and in common with all other artists, we had no rank at all, and stood in our own dignity outside of protocol.
Something of what's ailing the new Hollywood, its movies, and us who make them can be traced, I think, back to that first fatal descent into polite society. It really started on that disastrous morning in the last century when the great English tragedian Henry Irving knelt before Queen Victoria to accept the theatre's first accolade. For Irving, knighthood seemed a giant step out of the old gypsydom, a deliverance from vagabondage; he thought of it as dignifying his "profession"—as sanctifying it with respectability. We can't rebuke him from this distance for imagining that the receipt of royal honors immeasurably elevated the social status of the theatre. Too many of his compatriots today agree with him. For my part, I'm convinced that this famous elevation was, in its consequences, nothing less than an abdication from royalty. I don't think that the great leaders of the stage in any country deserve to be ranked with the minor nobility. I think they deserve more. Sir Henry, rising from his knee a dubbed knight, dragged us all, not upward, but sideways—into another dimension, embedding us squarely and forevermore in the middle class.
What had been invulnerable in our position was the fact that we really had no position whatsoever. For just as long as there was no proper place for us—neither above nor below the salt—an actor was at liberty to sit wherever he was welcome, and this way very often next to the king. (It may be noted that our most distinguished cousins in the British theatre are not today the easy intimates of royalty.) I hold that we had more to give our art and to our audiences when we ourselves were royal bums, draped in our own brand of imperial purple. Our crown was tin, but it was a crown, and we wore it, with a difference, among such other diadems as happened to be gold. For decades after Irving, the new stage gentry on both sides of the Atlantic made private imitation and public representation of the bourgeois their paramount concern. Then came the movies.
This was an institution "legitimate" actors could look down on with all the priggish contempt formerly lavished by middle-class respectability on the playhouse itself. Hollywood became a word in the language, and in this unlikely outpost—unfettered, unbracketed and largely unconsidered—a motley crew of show folk, in spirit far closer to the circus, to burlesque and the commedia dell'arte than to the starchy stage world of that epoch, was gaily producing a new art form, and celebrating in the process a brief but exciting renaissance of the old royal nonsense and glory.
That glory had all but died out as the theatre reduced itself into a mere profession. Now—as the making of motion pictures began to be spoken of and to be organized as a mere industry—the glory started dimming in Hollywood.
What’s valid on the stage or screen is never a mere professional effort and certainly not an industrial product. Whatever is valuable must, in the final analysis, be a work of art. There should be no need to repeat that originality is one of the essential definitions of any work of art, and that every artist is an individual. Just as obviously, the industrial system cannot accommodate originality. A genuine individual is an outright nuisance in a factory.
There's Method in Their Madness
There used to be something spoken of as "the Hollywood influence." What is more noticeable today is that the rest of America is influencing Hollywood.
As always, much fun is provided by the current sex symbols, but Jayne and Elvis are too patently creatures of the publicity experts—fuzzy carbon copies of the old freewheeling originals, the vamps and sheiks who invented themselves and lived up so gorgeously to their own legends. The recent crop of "Method actors" and the official representatives of the beatnik constituency are rather too sullen in their personal style to add much color to the pallid scene. The biggest noise they make is on their bongo drums and their gestures of protest are no less standardized than the conformist patterns they pretend to reject. They have their own conformism, these eagle scouts of The Actors Studio—there is no madness in their method.
Of the authentic mavericks the youngest, men like Mitchum and Sinatra, are in their forties. Rock 'n' roll throws up an occasional oddball of a minor sort, but such types are "cool" in the dictionary sense of the word and do nothing to the tepid temperature of the new Hollywood one way or another. Their kind of egotism rages in a sort of monotone and with no exuberance. They hold the mirror up to their own generation. So do their pseudosuburbanite elders in the film colony. These two groups, the T-shirts and the sports jackets, are more accurate reflections of today's America than were those dazzling pioneers who blazed screenland's frontiers.
One of our producers, by way of explaining the school of neorealism in the Italian cinema, told me that over there, instead of actors, they use people. For good or evil it's certain that the town is overrun with characters who are quite reasonable facsimiles of today's people. It's a solemn thought, but maybe that's what*s wrong with Hollywood.