What is William Shakespeare doing hanging out in modern-day Burbank?
This is a question perhaps best answered by Diane Haithman, whose first novel, “Dark Lady of Hollywood” that’s being released this weekend is actually set not in Hollywood per se but that funny little community a bit northeast that we all know and love. And this is hardly an accident and entirely by design.
“If you look at the entertainment industry, the books always focus on the glamour of the film business,” points out Haithman, a longtime very respect journalist who know of what she speaks. She worked both the television and later the fine arts beat for the Los Angeles Times and is now a major contributor to the hot industry website Deadline Hollywood while also being a member of the adjunct faculty at USC’s renowned Annenberg School of Journalism.
(Full Disclosure: I am friends with Haithman and also spent time working with her for Deadline. But that’s not relevant when I tell you that her book is at once hilarious, sly, cynical, sublimely entertaining and spectacular, crafted with an irreverent flair and an insider’s self-assurance. You absolutely need to purchase a copy — or, as Haithman says, “If you buy two copies, it’s twice as funny.”)
But no matter. Where were we? Oh yes, too many showbiz books focus on the movie glam and not TV reality. Right, Diane?
“Yes,” she reiterates, “and it makes no sense because TV especially lives in the San Fernando Valley, in that workaday world. And Burbank is the center of that workaday world. What’s more, TV is bigger than film. It generates more money. It’s less well-known and has less glamour. But in fact it’s more interesting.”
Not that Haithman exactly harps on locale in her new novel. The idea is to keep it as anonymous as possible. We don’t know, for instance, for whom her chief protagonist Ken Harrison works. It’s basically a big studio lot that might be NBC or ABC or Warner Bros. or who knows?
“The reality is that the big studio lots all have new and old buildings and past and present that are all kind of jammed together,” Haithman stresses.
The darkly amusing “Dark Lady of Hollywood” is a great read in part because it has both a timeless feel and is crafted with the knowing hand of someone who cynically understands this world as Haithman does. It’s a contemporary tale mashed-up with the sensibility of Shakespeare.
“Dark Lady’s” main dude, Harrison, is a 36-year-old VP of comedy development at a Big Three network who is suddenly ousted from his job and into oblivion in a job that has no future and, in fact, not much present either. He finds solace in his unread, undergrad’s copy of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare,” discovering the Bard’s mysterious “Dark Lady of the Sonnets,” a 16th century enigma whose identity has baffled scholars for centuries. Harrison believes he has found Hollywood’s answer to that Dark Lady in Ophelia Lomond, a horridly dreadful biracial actress.
A cancer storyline and a murder plot also course through the novel, whose rat-a-tat dialogue holds the reader in its thrall. But it’s the Burbank angle that will add an extra element of reliability to the brew.
Haithman recalled a specific lunch conversation during her years at The Times that inspired “Dark Lady.” It was with an executive much like Ken Harrison who was taking his marbles and moving on with his sanity and generous severance package intact.
“I remember him saying very bluntly, ‘Yeah, I was a white male in the right place at the right time, and I was very aware of that’,” she remembers. “He told me, ‘I was in the club. I fit the mold.’ And I guess a light bulb sort of went off in my head.”
From such light bulbs are great first novels born.