“I am a camera with my shutter open, recording”, Christopher Isherwood from “Goodbye to Berlin”
Reading John Wight’s memoir of his time on Hollywood recalled for me Isherwood’s two novels set in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, chronicling the dramatic individual lives of the protagonists , but with storm clouds gathering .
“Dreams that Die” also looks at a fevered culture on the precipice of extraordinary events. However, while Isherwood’s hero rejoiced in the self-assured diffidence of an English patrician, our hero is a working class Scotsman, ill equipped for the self-abasing flunky culture of Tinsel Town.
Arriving in Los Angeles with nothing but a self-taught craft in screen writing, John has to navigate his way through the grinder of Hollywood’s ruthless film industry. For those interested in film, the entertaining account of how the movies are made will prove fascinating , with the hierarchy of non-union and union extras, Production Assistants, stand-ins, bit part actors, etc. The endless discourtesy, rudeness, self-delusion and puffed up egos.
Working in Security brings John into contact with the A-lister mansion parties, and the up-market clubs, in a city where celebrity status is a bankable commodity. The book includes several amusing vignettes of the stars who came across John’s path. The security industry is also populated by characters, comprising a parallel sub-culture to the swank of Hollywood.
But the real wold ruthlessly intrudes, with first the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, and then the relentless progress towards war. John very accurately captures the sense of urgency that gripped so many of us, where the anti-war movement became the key to our lives. His description of the Los Angeles anti-war movement is compelling, and also without sentiment; as the heroic and inclusive phase of the movement ebbs away once the war becomes real, and the hard core both becomes confined to the far left, but is also increasingly routinised.
John Wight has an easy prose style that is a pleasure to read, and has a strong technique of occasionally switching to bathos, the crude and the mundane, which deliberately punctures the lyrical flow, and reminds the reader that this extraordinary story is not a work of fiction, but a memoir from a real living person.
John’s beginning of a big break is to become Ben Affleck’s stand in, while his scripts still circulate around stars and producers. But it is a job hard to reconcile with either self-esteem or with commitment to radical politics.
Few who go to Hollywood get what they want, but John’s rags to rags story is indeed a success story. The story of a man who realized for himself that he didn’t want it. This is a well constructed, well written and facsinating book, that deserves wide readership.