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BOOK REVIEW : Looking at Tinseltown From a New Zealand Point of View : SISTER HOLLYWOOD by C.K. Stead St. Martins Press $15.95, 224 pages

The best thing about watching movies--even bad ones--is that they catapult us immediately into another world. This is not a new idea, but it is always fascinating: Elmer Rice wrote about it in the 1930s, MacDonald Harris in the ‘80s, and many writers took their turns in between. Beyond the lure of the movies lies the lure of Hollywood itself--again, not a new idea; again, always fascinating. Steve Fisher and Horace McCoy wrote about Americans seduced by the idea of Hollywood and then dashed upon the rocks of its unforgiving reality, and so did Nathanael West and many, many more.

But this novel, “Sister Hollywood,” looks at the seduction from another point of view: literally another place. Young Bill Harper grows up in Auckland, New Zealand. He has three sisters--Edie, Ellie and Cassie. His dad is active in union politics. His grandma is an avid fan of movie magazines. And his mother--partly because we’re talking about the 1940s here--is depressed. The kids give her a hard time, merely by their existence; and her husband every once in awhile bashes her up against the wall. They don’t have the world’s greatest relationship. Not terrible, not terrible , but the kind of home where the children might be wakened in the middle of the night, and dad is bashing mum, and she’s screaming to beat the band.

Any child would want to get away, that goes without saying. Mentally and emotionally, all the Harpers escape when they go out at night to the movies, but one day, Edie, the oldest, really does escape. No one in the family talks about it: It’s one of those family secrets that is both “known” and “not known.” Bill’s mother gets worse; hard times come to his dad, and Bill himself takes up another, very well known form of escape. He buries himself in books, goes abroad to take a degree, returns, becomes a scholar, marries, “escapes” from his marginally squalid origins.

But what of Edie? One night, at the movies, the whole family sees Edie in a film. They’re sure of it. She plays a secretary and recites one line. But can it really be Edie? No one talks about it, but everyone knows it’s true.

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The family’s story is intercut with the story of Arlene and Rocky Tamworth, which spins out in a Hollywood location. Rocky hopes to become another Errol Flynn. But Rocky’s Australian accent is too rough. And his own personality is too vulnerable. He’s bluff, hearty and handsome, but Hollywood scares him to death. Rocky gets as far as being a crewman for Humphrey Bogart on his yacht, the Santana. Rocky goes to parties at Charles Laughton’s house on the brink of the Pacific Palisades. Through him, and his wife, Arlene, the reader is reintroduced to Salka and Berthold Viertel (of Christopher Isherwood’s “Prater Violet” fame), and to “Bert” Brecht, who cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and then flew out of the country the very next day.

That wife, Arlene? It’s Edie, of course. Not a starlet at all, but an increasingly successful Hollywood writer. Her husband, culturally orphaned, drinks himself into oblivion. Arlene/Edie falls in love with a Jewish producer/director. She realizes that her lover will never leave his wife because she, Arlene, is not only from New Zealand, but genteel.

So, Edie has escaped. But she’s orphaned, just as much as her husband. Bill Harper has escaped, in another way, but his way has its drawbacks as well. This is a very interesting book. But I would like to suggest to the author that he might want to check out the date that the San Diego Freeway came into existence. And I wonder where the place is on that freeway where you can see both the San Fernando Valley and the sea. And, finally I must suggest that the American expression is: “You take the cake,” not, “You take the biscuit!” These are little things, like the date and time of Charles Laughton’s party, that make the compulsive reader nervous.

Next: Thomas Davey reviews “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper & Row).

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