HOLLYWOOD: A Novel of America in the 1920s By Gore Vidal Random House. 437 pages. $19.95. Reviewed by Donnell Stoneman
Hollywood is the latest entry in Gore Vidal's list of historical novels - or novelized histories. Chronologically, it follows his Washington, D.C. Stylistically, it resembles Lincoln. Artistically, it's closer to Myra Breckinridge.Vidal's practice of mixing historical figures with fictional characters has its counterpart in today's television news programs that deliberately obscure the line between fact and re-created fiction. But with his customary flair for theatrics, Vidal pushes the limits beyond anything we've seen or are likely to see on television.
Vidal describes the political machinations that went on behind closed doors during the final stages of Woodrow Wilson's administration in such detail that it almost seems as if he were there. Consider the author a nosy, intrusive reporter with an eye and ear sharply attuned to the slightest suggestion of impropriety.
The title is somewhat misleading. The action takes place on both coasts, alternating between wartime Washington and D.W. Griffith's hand-cranked Hollywood. As the multi-layered story progresses, the two cities take turns in the spotlight, with Washington the most highly favored.
The cast of characters includes a wide assortment of politicians, both real and the product of Vidal's imagination, reporters, publishers and, in California, film producers, stars, and hangers-on.
The major portion of the narrative is told through the eyes of Blaise and Caroline Sanford, half-brother and half-sister, who are the editorial power behind The Tribune, Washington's foremost newspaper. As such, they are invited to intimate parties at the White House where they chat with the president, the first lady and their close friends and allies.
The first dissolve to Hollywood occurs when Wilson, acting on the advice of his newly appointed chairman of the Committee of Public Information, sends a personal representative to look into the propaganda possibilities offered by the film business.
An intrigued Caroline also makes the trek west. Acting on a sudden impulse, and responding to a request by her friend, William Randolph Hearst, she agrees to play the lead in a one-reel melodrama. True to the typical Hollywood legend, she quickly becomes an international star, famous for her portrayals of historical figures, under the assumed name of Emma Traxler.
Several pioneers in the film industry pop up and pass through the pages. Screenwriter Elinor Glynn, for example, trades quips with Hearst's mistress Marion Davies. Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand argue and make up. A visiting Blaise Sanford joins a naked Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks in the latter's private steam bath. (``He noted,' Vidal writes, ``that Chaplin was not, as everyone seemed to think, Jewish.')
Meanwhile, back in Washington, a defeated and dying Wilson has been replaced by handsome Warren G. Harding, an apparently happily married man who, like Hearst, keeps a not-as-well publicized mistress on the side.
The shady doings on both coasts fit neatly into Vidal's slightly prurient, lip-smacking purview. With no strong central character, his is the only sustaining voice throughout the narrative. Every character is shaped by his waspish temperament. Every piece of information, large and small, reflects his jaundiced view.
For those who appreciate the writer's personal brand of acerbic wit, it makes for enjoyable reading. But the pleasure, such as it is, is spasmodic and fleeting.