By Gerald Peary
Hollywood Babylon II is almost as addictive, seductive, compulsively page-turning as its inglorious Hollywood Babylon predecessor.
The photo on the front cover of Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon II is, even for shameless paparazzi member Ron Galella, extremely unkind. It’s a snapshot catching an Elizabeth Taylor so squat, so obese, so darned ugly that even Joan Rivers would have been struck speechless. 26 years ago, Anger struck anew in 1984 with this sordid sequel to his original bad-taste, gross-out Hollywood Babylon. That one was printed first in France in 1960 with Jayne Mansfield as the bosomy cover girl falling out of her brief blouse. Babylon wasn’t published in the US until 1975, considered too seedy for Americans. How wrong! Anger’s outrageous compendium of sex and violence among the hallowed studio stars sold and sold. The sequel, Babylon II, didn’t do quite as well, but both volumes were underground favorites among those with trashy minds and gutter sensibilities. I guess that’s me, because when Anger came once to speak in Boston, I was there to get both my books autographed.
As Anger is still alive at age 93, also a legendary subterranean filmmaker, I want to give him some credit. He was the first writer daring enough to open the peephole onto the long-sequestered 1921 murder trial of film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. In Babylon, the original, he exposed the ostensible death-by-icicle (in her female parts) of Virginia Rappe at an Arbuckle party. Anger was also the one to gossip in print about James Dean’s hush-hush nickname: the Human Ashtray.
The further adventures of the Human Ashtray were featured in Babylon II. According to Anger, Dean avoided the Korean War by informing his draft board back home in Indiana that he was homosexual. As Dean became a Hollywood fixture, Anger continued, “The predatory night prowler, who dug anonymous sex… had gotten into beatings, boots, belts, and bondage scenes.” For those compelled to know, Anger cleared up the mystery of Dean’s Brando-like scratching in Rebel Without a Cause. Method acting tics? Not at all. “James Dean was host to a thriving colony of crabs.”
Can you trust Kenneth Anger? Both books are a dubious mix of gossip, innuendo, and shaky research. Still, some of the stories are probably true. Which ones? And why was he penning these crass exposes anyway? It could be argued that his motivation was sheer jealousy. The far more famous John Waters told me that Anger hates him, but he has no idea why. Anger grew up in Hollywood and appeared as a child actor in Warner Brothers’ 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But that was it for his fledgling acting career. Hollywood spurned him. He took off for Paris and for ten years watched thousands of movies at the Cinematheque Francaise. He emerged an underground film director. His most famous achievement is the 1963 homoerotic Scorpio Rising combining macho motorcyclists and bubble-gum rock songs. From the ’50s into the ’70s, he made a few cult shorts including variants of a devil-worshipping film called Lucifer Rising. And then he turned to authorship.
The big issue in Anger’s two books is the now-tired question of who in Hollywood is closeted gay. It was, of course, a bit bolder than now to provide answers in 1975 and 1984. Pick up Babylon II and turn to the chapter called “Odd Couples.” There’s AC-DC Tallulah Bankhead taking up with the forgotten comedian Patsy Kelly. This dalliance probably occurred. But did Tallulah also do it with Gone With the Wind’s portly mammy, Hattie McDaniel? Who knows. The part of Babylon II which had traction in subsequent years were the five suggestive photos of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott supposedly cavorting about in their shared home. Draw your own conclusions about “roommates” Randy-Cary.
Do you want to know who in classic Hollywood committed suicide? Check out Anger’s chapter, “The Magic of Self-Murder.” The writer served up alphabetized obits of more than 70 show-biz personages–and a dog—said to have ended their own lives. These sad finishes were placed in convenient sub-categories based on method of death: carbon-monoxide poisoning (“the Gas Girls”), drowning, hanging, and, finally, “jumpers.” Much of the death-trip trivia won’t mean much to current-day Babylon II readers. Frankly, who cares that silent movie character actor Herman Bing shot himself in 1948, or that Arthur Carew, Lester Cuneo, and Karl Dane all took their own lives. Who were they anyway?
But let us praise Anger for coming up with one dandy morbid fact: Otto Preminger heads all directors in the number of his leading ladies who committed suicide. Four, count ‘em, four. Jean Seberg (Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse), Dorothy Dandridge (Carmen Jones), Maggie McNamara (The Moon is Blue), Marilyn Monroe (River of No Return). Or were some of these only possible suicides? Not for Kenneth Anger.
So what’s the verdict on rereading this 1984 book? Hollywood Babylon II is almost as addictive, seductive, compulsively page-turning as its inglorious Hollywood Babylon predecessor. Not that I believe much of either, fake news before their time. Nevertheless, if ancient Kenneth Anger should be up to it, I would look forward to a book about, say, more recent Hollywood with the keenest interest. What really goes on between “close friends,” Matt and Ben?
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.