Top 10 books about Hollywood

Kim Basinger and Guy Pearce in the film version of LA Confidential, the third volume of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet.

A town that shills the truth … Kim Basinger in the film version of LA Confidential, the third volume of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

The idea for my novel Bindlestiff riffs on my own experiences of Hollywood as a director; the place, the machine, the people, the elusive enigma that is the “City of Angels”. A place that is as much about not having money as being rich. The desperation of so many bit players and their proximity to fortune is the true tragicomedy of a city out of which, in spite of everything, so many great stories come.

Hollywood is a factory that feeds our addiction to story, gossip, celebrity, fame and fortune. It also supplies the schadenfreude we enjoy when all of the above crash and burn. As Judy Garland once mused: “We cast away priceless time in dreams, born of imagination, fed upon illusion and put to death by reality.”

It is a spectacle in itself, and has therefore been the subject of many books and films, fiction, non-fiction and hybrids of the two, a place that generates its own gravity around which so many of us spin, whether we like it or not. So here, out of so many, are 10 favourites of mine.

1. Blue Movie by Terry Southern (1970)
A novel about a famous auteur who decides to make a big-budget arthouse porn film, written by a famous screenwriter whose screen credits include Easy Rider, Dr Strangelove and Casino Royale. It’s dedicated to Stanley Kubrick. You can’t get more insider than this. A front row seat on the madness, it reads like a mashup of Heart of Darkness with Fellini’s Satyricon. All of Hollywood’s discontents are woven into the fabric of the story, swirling around the character of King B, the maestro who exerts a centrifugal force on all.

2. Flicker by Theodore Roszak (1991)
From insider to outsider. This strange novel sets up imaginary sect Oculus Dei as devout enemies of the darkness that lives between each frame of film negative. A darkness that literally allows the devil to spring into our world. This is the book that Darren Aronofsky has long dreamed of directing, a novel the digs deep into the deepest meanings of cinema … it’s also got disappearing Nazi U-boats in it. Roszak is famous for coining the term “counter-culture”, and this book certainly qualifies.

3. Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams by Donald Bogle (2006)
This entertaining book reconstructs how black American actors and technicians carved a space for themselves in Tinseltown. The rules, pecking order, magazine heart-throbs, hot spots and hangouts populated by agents, managers, stars, crew – a world centred on the thriving South Central Avenue. Peppered with names we know, including Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr, and names we should, such as James Edwards, Madame Sul Te Wan. This book reclaims Hollywood for a black America that has historically been whitewashed from the picture.

4. Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? by Rachel Abramowitz (2000) 
The date of this book is telling. Most feminists saw #MeToo a mile off. This book nailed the misogyny and prejudice of the business almost two decades ago, and has not lost its relevance. A startlingly honest rejoinder to those who say, “We didn’t know it was that bad.”

5. You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Julia Phillips (1991)
Phillips’s producer credits include Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This gleefully insulting account is her story of life in the heart of the Hollywood machine. More than that, reading between the lines of her story, we are treated to an insight into an ecosystem that values money as the only yardstick creating a very odd and unstable “liberal elite”.

Christopher Walken in a scene from Heaven’s Gate.
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 White-knuckle ride … Christopher Walken in a scene from Heaven’s Gate. Photograph: Productio/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

6. Final Cut by Stephen Bach (1985)
Or, how making Heaven’s Gate brought down United Artists. A white-knuckle ride on a runaway train driven by director Michael Cimino and the studio execs who waited too long to say “no”. It explores the world of budgets, overspends, contracts, how a desperate and increasingly marginalised studio way past its glory days backed the house on a director coming off the success of the Deer Hunter to remake their fortune, but signed away budgetary control on a movie that went off a cliff, destroying them in the process.

7. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion (1970)
The laconic glamour of late 60s Hollywood, before the deluge of 70s self-destruction, through the eyes of a heroine straight out of psychiatric hospital. Didion’s writing combines the luminous, focused prose of a world-class novelist with the visual direction and plotting of a top-flight screenwriter. An actress dealing with age and decline, a classic trope of Hollywood from Sunset Boulevard to A Star Is Born, is recast by Didion as a searing portrayal of a mother’s love for a daughter in the world where men and their cameras destroy them.

8. LA Quartet by James Ellroy (1987-1992)
Quintessential. Hardboiled hard-luck stories from the underbelly of the city. Written with such maverick prose, such anger and non-judgmental brutality that what you think you already know you don’t, at all. Taking the louche noir detective B movies and books we do know to their logical hyper-violent conclusion, Ellroy sometimes reads like a speedballing Ballard. Ellroy explores the eruption of organised crime and political black ops into Tinseltown. Ellroy combines fictional and real historical characters to weave together a paranoid, conspiratorial portrait of a town that shills the truth.

9. Making the White Man’s Indian by Angela Aleiss (2005)
Westerns are some of Hollywood’s biggest exports, and this book takes clinical aim at how Native America has been represented in movies since the very first silent films. A hotbed of racism and stereotype, yes, but also of the rewriting of history and erasing of culture on an existential level. In Bindlestiff, I quote Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar acceptance speech about Native American rights delivered by Sacheen Littlefeather. Here the unpaid debt Hollywood, and US society by implication, owes its First Nation fellow citizens is laid out in black and white.

10. Hollywood Notebook by Wendy Ortiz (2015)
This poetic and fragmentary memoir of being a writer in LA is suffused with the heritage of the city as a place for writers, and Ortiz quietly observes the day-to-day life of the writer, the smell of food in the diners, the heat, the locales where writers hang out. An optimistic book that also reveals the hinterland and grain of a writing culture that goes back 100 years, this book gives the lie to all the others above, and lets us in on the prosaic everyday of a working writer in Los Angeles.

 Bindlestiff by Wayne Holloway is published by Influx Press, price £9.99. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.

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