Does Hollywood Think It's Not As Good As It Used to Be? Apparently So

Hooray for Hollywood now refers more to the past than the present. The movie capital has in inferiority complex when it compares itself to prior glories. Detroit (if that's still the generic term for the auto industry) would have you believe cars are better than ever. All other product industries are "new and improved." But in movie town, when they say "the Golden Age of Hollywood," they're not talking about the present.

There's no one in the world of motion pictures who doesn't regularly allude to and defer to the Golden Age of Hollywood in describing that prior time of undying films, adulated and enduring stardoms and higher aspirations. They remind themselves that there once was a a sky full of stars, truly grand and glamorous personalities who glittered on the screens, in the public's thrall and on the everyday streets of tinsel town 365 days a year, not just on Oscar and Golden Globe nights. The phrase the Golden Age of Hollywood is part of the vernacular, a commonplace of film commentary. The public knows the expression well understands that it means then and not now. Those addicted to Turner Classic Movies know it in their bones. By general consensus, such a time and place once existed and will never exist again.

The magic of the place was as tangible as the magic of its films. You were issued a passport to Camelot, not just we happy few who toiled in its gilded trenches, but the guy who dished out the corned beef at Nate And Al's and, the soda-jerk at Schwab's drugstore where Lana Turner sipped her Coca Cola the afternoon she was discovered there. The glamour and excitement of Hollywood tantalized the world and permeated the huge chunk of Southern California which shared that fabled name. The fellow who kept the Who's Who in Hollywood didn't write for Variety or The Reporter. It was Ken Hollywood, the gate guard at MGM who knew everyone by name. You felt truly inducted when Ken welcomed you with his joyful Mr. whoever you were, even if you were just a bottom-runger on the totem pole of the majestic Rogers & Cowan Publicity agency as was I.

The Golden Age doesn't need my testimony, but the golden aura of it does, because it was so much fun you can't even imagine it. So I sat down for five years and distilled 650 pages into a book called Starflacker: Inside the Golden Age of Hollywood to explain why it existed and why it will never exist again. Here it is in a nutshell, but I also invite you to have the fun of getting it straight from Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman, Greer Garson and Warren Beatty, Barbra Streisand and Clint Eastwood and the hundreds of other legends with whom I spent my life. They're pretty good company, especially when seen in the very human way a press agent sees these people.

A starflacker is what I am, a press agent to the stars. The book is not about the sad, slow decline of that era but rather about the high-octane characters who peopled it. That artistic high water receded not because the creative artists of Hollywood wouldn't have liked to keep churning out a full schedule of classics. Rather, the bottom line would no longer let them.

Yes, there is a cluster of fine filmmakers who still create daring, original films, swimming against the mainstream of big-bang special effects productions. There are enough such free spirits to keep the jockeying for Oscar nominations each year competitive. But the movie factory has splintered out across the world in runaway production and it's placing its money on big blockbuster action films, with less emphasis on the occasional films of excellence that each year squeeze in between the tent poles.

Gone is the village that so excitingly throbbed with stars and with a production mind-set that demanded the best of its art and of its artists, that guaranteed them careers and opportunities, a chance to soar, a chance to fail and still get on another horse tomorrow. When I came to the business in the mid-fifties, we were celebrating the end of the contract star system. Under that indentureship, fine actors and directors and writers were brutally deprived of freedom, true. But of film excellence they and we had a generous helping.

The studio moguls who built and dictatorially dominated the industry and constructed its stardoms during that flowering were justly despised. So, too, was their oppressive "contract system" of stardom-building and willfully casting assignments in a manner which made even those who emerged as legendary stars feel very much like contract laborers yearning to be free. However, It is also true that those omnipotent studio czars who controlled the lives of their serfs, had an immense taste for deeply human films that touched their audiences in a real and inspiring way. In evidence are the hundreds of films like "The Grapes Of Wrath," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Sullivan's Travels." "How Green Was My Valley," "Mrs. Miniver." Great waves of them each year. The output in 1939 alone justifies the imperious and heavy hand of the bosses. Ten classic films got nominated. And another ten classics didn't make the Oscar cut..

When my PR firm handled the Academy Award campaign for "Save The Tiger," Jack Lemmon, who won Best Actor for it, told us that Billy Wilder had assured him he would keep giving Jack films until one made him a star. And many of Billy's films did. That's what the studios had done. Actors and their management didn't consider that trade-off when they snapped their chains. The successful star-building had been as crucial to studio profits as the film-making. There are still fine films and remarkable filmmakers, but it's a little like our dying oceans. The fish used to jump into your boat, and now you have to go out and try to find them with radar. And so the Hollywood which once lovingly created and sustained a thick forest of glamorous and noble stardoms lost the knack. As result, you can't see the forest for the tent-poles.

There are 25 Google pages of Golden Age of Hollywood contemplations. That sacred time threw off stars that have lasted and will last forever. How? They accomplished that most fantastic thing of all... they lived up to their publicity.