Book Review

Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon

a (perhaps accidental) anti-gossip tract

I was given this very strange paperback book by a lover (I say “a lover” not because I have more than one (ewwwww, can you imagine???) but because I feel “my lover” sounds both possessive and also provincial (provincial in the pejorative sense rather than as descriptive of decentralised government organisation)) and they gave the book to me because it looked like an interesting object, as well as a sleazy one.

Visually interesting and also sleazy – exactly what I look for in a movie. Would the same thing in a book about movies reel me in and keep me reeled?


This book was originally published in the 1970s –  allegedly the sleaziest decade of all time – and purports to be a photograph-filled collage of rumour, anecdote and gossip about America’s own movie industry, from its beginnings before even the invention of sound recording (is that right?) through until a decade or so prior to the book’s publication.

It’s a tabloid-style, gossip columnist, movie hack look at a particular period of history, with a focus on celebrity, glamour, violence and sex.

The three things I suppose the book relies on are thus fiction, verifiable/evidence-based research, or that mantra of the English, the fact that “you can’t libel the dead”.

Hollywood Babylon is 400 pages of false equivalences, of allegations of heinous acts, all delivered with a jocular and “you won’t believe this, omg omg omg” red top gurn.

I’m not some weird creepy nerd, so I don’t know the names of actors from 100 years ago – and I’m very suspicious of anyone who talks about films from that era as if they do – so a good chunk of this book may well be – and possibly is – totally made up stories about totally made up people.

Even if it’s not, I struggle to understand why the gentle infidelities of people who’ve been dead since before my great-grandparents were born (that is an unverified statement) is presented as if interesting now.

All of the murders and violence, genuine crimes, are presented as if of the same calibre of mild cheeky indiscretion as a kiss shared with a wife that isn’t yours; a movie star called “Fatty Arbuckle” sexually assaults someone and they die as a result of the attack; Charlie Chaplin (who I have heard of, but have never before heard anyone mention that he was British, as Anger does) is shown to be a paedophile, regularly “seducing” and having sex with girls (as in children, I don’t mean young women, if I did mean that I would have typed it) who act in his films; these definitely despicable actions are, as I said, written about by Anger with the same tone as he uses for much more harmless things like some hot 20-year old fucking someone else’s hot spouse, or someone getting drunk too much, or someone sliding into addiction of the harder intoxicants available to the rich and glamourous.

It is the book’s amorality, then, that makes it both interesting as a cultural object, but also makes it a discomforting read.

One chuckles along with anecdotes of cheeky infidelity but is then faced with the same jocular tone – “Oh, so you thought that was scandalous, wait ’til you hear about this!” – when hearing an anecdote – and they are all presented as anecdotes – about suicide, about physical and psychological abuse, about addiction, and thus, maybe by accident, Anger quite bleakly exposes the whole cruelty and danger of gossip.

If we are to treat the lives of others as entertainment, then who are we to choose which elements of the lives of others are suitable for gossip and which are not?

The invasiveness isn’t any different, all that differs is the detail.

Hollywood Babylon is interesting, and – yes – deeply amoral.

Worth a look, if you see a copy around! is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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