Hollywood history, with a dash of sauce
Did Kenneth Anger’s gossipy Tinseltown tales, full of orgies and overdoses, inspire Brad Pitt’s ‘Babylon’?
‘Babylon’ is in cinemas now
Kenneth Anger’s interest in the macabre was fired at an early age. The actress Thelma Todd lived near his childhood home in California and when, in 1935 aged 29, she was found dead in her car of asphyxiation, Anger went over to watch them take out the body. He was nine years old. “I was always doing things like that,” Anger once told me. While, as he acknowledged, “other boys collected stamps”, Anger instead hoarded clippings from newspapers and movie scandal rags such as Confidential, studio stills and, later, police reports and morgue photographs. Anger, now 95, is a fascinating figure: a filmmaker and historian, whose long and highly eventful life bisects with characters as diverse as Jean Cocteau and the Rolling Stones, but who remains best known for his 1959 book Hollywood Babylon, an exposé of the hidden peccadillos and perversions of Hollywood stars, told in vivid, waspish, insinuating – and, let’s be frank, utterly compelling – prose. Written to answer its author’s dire financial need, it has gone on to become the defining cult artefact about the early years of the world’s movie capital: without it, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie’s riotous new film, Babylon – itself a giddy parade of sex, drugs and scandal that casts early Hollywood as a pit of corruption and decadence – would surely never have existed. Anger was a child of Hollywood. Born Kenneth Anglemyer in 1927 into a middle-class family (his father was an aeronautical engineer), he was closest to his grandmother whose friend Diggy, a sometime actress and wardrobe girl, would regale him with backstage tales and gossip – what Anger would later describe as “my Grimm’s fairy tales”. As a boy, he danced on stage with Shirley Temple, and appeared as the changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, scampering through an enchanted forest thrown up on the Warner Bros backlot in a spangled suit and plumed head-dress. The smell of shellac sizzling under the klieg lights was, he recalled, “almost like getting high”. By his teenage years, Anger was making his own films, inspired less by Hollywood than by European arthouse cinema. After finding acclaim on the underground movie circuit, in 1950 he was invited to France by his artistic hero Jean Cocteau, who had been impressed by Anger’s homoerotic film, Fireworks (1947). In Paris, Anger found work at the Cinémathèque Française, while struggling to finance more of his films, but by the late 1950s he was running out of money. Drawing on the scandalous stories he’d been gathering over the years, he wrote a series of articles for the cineaste magazine Cahiers du Cinéma and, in 1959, collected those stories into a book, published in French as Hollywood Babylone. In 1964, an English translation was printed in America by a lowrent huckster named Marvin Miller, who specialised in pin-ups and men’s magazines. Presented in a plain brown wrapper, it gained a cult reputation and reportedly went on to sell two million copies. The author didn’t see a penny, and brought a suit to halt publication. “Then fortunately,” Anger recalled, “Marvin Miller died.” I have interviewed Anger on several occasions over the years. He is fastidiously polite, guarded and mindful of the mythology that has grown up around him. He can, he admits, be “a rather difficult person” – and he’s certainly an obsessive. I first visited him in the 1980s when he was living in New York. His apartment comprised four rooms, alternately painted red and blue, the colours reflected in the furnishings, the walls, the blinds that shut out the daylight. His bedroom was a shrine to Erich von Stroheim, whom Anger identifies in his book as the “most disconcerting genius who ever challenged [Hollywood’s] cardboard dogmas”, a director whose orgy scenes were shot on closed sets, from which actresses would emerge “teetering on the edge of hysterics bearing evidence of whip marks and bites”. The sitting room was lined with posters of Rudolph Valentino, whom Anger reveres as the greatest of Hollywood stars. Hollywood Babylon opens with two striking images. One is a picture from DW Griffith’s 1916 epic, Intolerance, of the fantastical set of ancient Babylon that the director had built on the dirt road that later became Sunset Boulevard. The other is a still from the 1943 musical Thank Your Lucky Stars, which featured a galaxy of famous faces, including Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn. The image shows the film’s principals, Eddie Cantor, Dennis Morgan, Joan Leslie and Dinah Shore, in evening dress, flanked by showgirls. It is a perfect illustration of Tinseltown as a world of escapist fantasy and glamour. You have to look twice to notice the quotation tucked away at the bottom of the page: “EVERY MAN AND EVERY WOMAN IS A STAR” – ALEISTER CROWLEY. Crowley was the poet, occultist and mischief-maker once described as “the wickedest man in the world” whose life and writings were to have a powerful influence on Anger and his work. Referring to that Crowley quotation, Anger told me: “He meant that every individual has the potential to be a blazing star, but not in the Hollywood sense. I twisted it around so it was ironic.” (Crowley himself visited Hollywood in 1916, taking note of “the cinema crowd of cocainecrazed sexual lunatics”. More irony: Crowley used drugs throughout his life and died a heroin addict.) Anger describes himself as a pagan, a practitioner of ritual magic who talks of his films as spells and incantations. In the 1960s he was an exotic part of the salon that gathered around the London art gallerist Robert Fraser, and was an intimate of the Rolling Stones. It was Anger who introduced Marianne Faithfull to the Mikhail Bulgakov book The Master and Margarita, which in turn inspired Mick Jagger to write the Stones’ song Sympathy for the Devil. Anger then asked Jagger to play the title role in Lucifer Rising,a passion project in which Lucifer is portrayed not as the fallen angel of Biblical lore, but, as he puts it, the bringer of light. Jagger politely declined. In writing Hollywood Babylon, Anger likens his role to Suetonius, the Roman historian whose 12 volumes on the Roman emperors, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, chronicled their lives with unflinching candour. It’s the oldest morality tale of all, hubris and nemesis, in which the stars are playthings of the gods, the price of fame and riches exacted in tragedy, failure and public shame. Anger is particularly fascinated by those stars who simply couldn’t take it anymore: Lou Tellegen, for example, a leading man in the 1920s but washed up by 1934, who committed suicide by ritually disembowelling himself with the gold scissors he’d once used to cut out his press notices. Or Peg Entwistle, the Port Talbot-born actress whose bit part in the 1932 film Thirteen Women marked the beginning and end of her career, and who jumped to her death from the 13th letter of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign. There is a sense, Anger told me, in which he regards the movies as evil itself. “Although, of course, my definition of evil is not everybody else’s. Evil is being involved in the glamour and charm of material existence … enchantment with the look of things, rather than the soul of things.” Let us be clear that Anger’s book should not be relied upon as an altogether accurate historical document. Karina Longworth is the producer and presenter of You Must Remember This, a podcast about the secret and forgotten history of the first 100 years of Hollywood, which features a series of episodes presenting a revisionist view of Hollywood Babylon. A “huge fan” of Anger’s films, Longworth describes his book as “a crucial text” in igniting her interest in the movies of the silent era when she first read it in the 1990s. “But I came to understand over the years, doing my own research, that there were inaccuracies and distortions, and I wanted to go back and interrogate what was verifiable and what wasn’t.” Her conclusion is that Anger’s book is littered with errors and exaggerations. Among the most notable, and certainly the most lurid, relates to the story of Lupe Velez, the 1930s actress known as the Mexican Spitfire, whose affairs with actors including John Gilbert and Gary Cooper, as well as, in Anger’s words, “Hollywood he-men hangers on” and “studs on the take whose gig was gigolo”, were fodder for the gossip rags, and who in 1944 took her own life at the age of 36. In Anger’s telling – which has long since become part of Hollywood lore – Velez had planned a “Sleeping Beauty” suicide, after which she would be discovered laid out on her bed in a silver lamé gown, surrounded by candles and flowers. But, in the event, the Seconal tablets she swallowed reacted with the Mexican last supper she had eaten earlier, and her corpse was instead found the next morning in her bathroom, “plunged head first into her Egyptian Chartreuse Onyx Hush-Flush Model Deluxe”. There is no evidence, Longworth suggests, to corroborate Anger’s account of Lupe Velez’s death. Indeed, a contemporary report in Time magazine described her wearing “blue silk pajamas” at the time of her death, and being found, not with her head down the toilet bowl, but between “white silk sheets… [her] blond hair in a circle on the pink silk pillow”. “She looked so small in that outsize bed,” the first policeman was quoted as saying, “that we thought at first she was a doll.” That version of events may be the more factual. But there is no disputing which is the more memorable. And therein lies the irresistibly compelling appeal of Hollywood Babylon. If sometimes less than scrupulous in his research, and occasionally given to fanciful flights of the imagination, in writing the book Anger, one feels, was utterly true, at least, to the spirit of his subject. It is Tinseltown in all its colourful, crazed excess and decadence, Hollywood in excelsis. One thinks of another quotation from Anger’s eminence grise, Aleister Crowley, that could serve as the book’s final footnote: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”