It is difficult for anyone living today to fathom what life would truly be like without the film industry. Sure, we devour historical fiction and romances, dress up like characters from Bridgerton, and maintain a (probably unhealthy) fascination for what life was like before the advent of a 24-hour news and entertainment cycle. Sometimes I think about the fact that the film industry is only a little over 100 years old, and that my great grandmother was a part of the first generation in history to go to the movies.
For an industry so young — the first storytelling movie was completed in 1908, and the industry was firmly established in Hollywood, CA by 1915 — it has had what can only be called a profound impact to life on Earth. Film takes us places that the average person would never be able to go: the polar ice fields, the Amazon rainforest, the moon. Humans are intensely visual creatures, so the addition of moving pictures to what was previously only available as at best a still image has changed the way we interact with the world around us.
So let’s dive into books celebrating Hollywood and the fame it can bring to those involved with it, shall we?
This Was Hollywood: Forgotten Stars and Stories by Carla Valderrama
First up, a delightful offering by the charming mind behind @thiswashollywood on Instagram. This book pairs well with Valderrama’s feed and goes into more depth behind stories that have been floating around Los Angeles for decades.
Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story by Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin’s beloved Tramp character is well known even a century after he created it, and his name is one that everyone knows. His personal character, however, is more controversial. He is without a doubt a founding father of Hollywood, founding United Artists in 1919 with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith. He was also exiled from the United States during the HUAC trials, somewhat of a rake, and had a 36-year age gap between himself and his third wife, Oona O’Neil. Reading the story of the birth of Hollywood from one of its founders is an experience I would recommend to any film buff.
The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography by Sidney Poitier
Another iconic figure in film history, Sidney Poitier explores multiple aspects of his life in his autobiography: as an actor, a man, a father, and an immigrant. Poitier only accepted roles that said something positive, useful, and lasting about the human condition, and his determination was rewarded as he shattered multiple glass ceilings for Black actors in Hollywood. If you haven’t seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, please do so immediately. And after that, I strongly recommend the audiobook of this book: Poitier narrates it himself.
Vivien Leigh: A Biography by Anne Edwards
It is virtually impossible to separate Vivien Leigh from her iconic portrayals of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois. The woman herself was a study in contrasts; she suffered from bipolar disorder in a time when it wasn’t well understood. She was also half of a tragic romance with Laurence Olivier, and an accomplished stage actress, and a pivotal character both on screen and off during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Marilyn: Norma Jeane by Gloria Steinem
Just the names on the cover make me want to read this book. Steinem is a feminist icon — not without issues; all our faves are problematic — who takes on the story of a woman not usually identified with feminism. She adroitly skips all of the conspiracy nonsense, focusing instead on Norma Jeane and how her upbringing left her both savvy and vulnerable in a world that wanted everything she had to give.
The Mother of Black Hollywood by Jenifer Lewis
Jenifer Lewis is an absolute delight. I follow her everywhere, and as a white woman, have learned so much about Blackness and fame from her. The memoir she wrote in 2018 is exactly what one might expect: bubbly, hilarious, clear-eyed, and the epitome of candid warmth. Her story of bipolar and sex addiction is one that echoes the stars who came before her and a reminder that there are and always have been real people behind the famous personas we know and love.
The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin
Inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and told from the multiple viewpoints of a musician, her fanbase, and her lover, The Giant Dark is a deeply beautiful novel about the dangers of making your lover into your muse and the cost of your every move being analyzed and watched by your fans.
Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe
Historical fiction based on three people as iconic as Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl could easily coast on just the characters themselves, but Koe goes beyond that. She has created a quirky, prosy tale around a chance encounter of these three groundbreaking women who — in their own times and to this day — helped define modern womanhood in all its complicity.
And there you have it: enough books on the denizens of Hollywood and the fame it can bring. Pop yourself some popcorn and settle in to your newly-expanded TBR.