Sorry, TMZ: Much of today’s juicy gossip reads like puffed-up press releases compared with Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon.”
Originally published in France in 1959 and banned in the US, “Hollywood Babylon” had it all. Sex! Drugs! Murder! Decapitation! . . . And the grisly photos to prove it!
Sixty years later, the tawdry tome, by experimental filmmaker Anger, remains as controversial, shocking and irresistible as ever and continues to shape the public’s perception of Hollywood and its stars.
“It has had a long and lasting effect on the image of Hollywood as a hotbed of decadence and scandal,” UCLA film historian Jan-Christopher Horak told The Post.
It also changed the gossip game. Mainstream columnists such as Hedda Hopper had long kowtowed to studio fixers and the p.r. machine, while rags such as Confidential magazine moralized bad behavior. Anger ushered in in a new era of gossip as camp, making it OK for even high-minded types to indulge in.
And despite its “amalgamation of truth and rumor,” as Horak put it, “Babylon” has remained continuously in print, with its silver-screen gossip viewed as gospel. It is still the “Bible of Hollywood scandal.”
Anger, now 92, was a former child star who grew up in LA collecting titillating tales about Tinseltown. After moving to Paris, he began writing up these racy rumors for French film magazines as a way to finance art flicks.
It worked. “Hollywood Babylon” compiles the dirty ditties in heightened purple prose, along with crime-scene snapshots, ironic glamour shots and unflattering portraits of aging starlets.
A bootlegged copy of the French version — surreptitiously wrapped in brown paper — surfaced in the US in 1965 but was pulled from shelves within 10 days. It was finally published in America in 1975 and became a cult object.
‘You have post-Watergate America, where there’s this idea where everything you thought you knew about our institutions was wrong’
The time was right for Americans to devour this alternative “history” of Hollywood — and not just because many of its subjects were conveniently no longer alive.
“You have post-Watergate America, where there’s this idea where everything you thought you knew about our institutions was wrong,” film historian Karina Longworth told The Post.
Yet Longworth — who recently devoted an entire season of her podcast, “You Must Remember This,” to “Babylon” — said that many of its delicious details were “fake news.”
“It really stems from the community that Kenneth Anger came out of in Hollywood, of gay men and queer people sharing stories,” she said. “Like this game of telephone, so every time the story gets told it gets embellished a little bit more and exaggerated a little bit more.”
“Babylon” shored up several forgotten scandals: comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle’s rape-and-murder trial, Charlie Chaplin’s numerous baby mamas, Rudolph Valentino’s swishiness.
It also had some outrageous, dubious claims: Sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish were lovers! Jazz Age “it girl” Clara Bow had sex with the entire USC football team, including a young John Wayne! Mexican actor Ramon Novarro was found dead with an Art Deco sex toy — signed by Valentino — shoved down his throat!
Some of these fabrications are purely mean-spirited. Take the tragic tale of Latin star Lupe Velez, who committed suicide in 1944. In Anger’s version of the story, the “Mexican Spitfire” tried to overdose on sleeping pills but — after gorging on a gigantic Mexican feast — ended up with her head in the toilet, having choked on her own vomit.
“All of the police reports suggest that [Velez] was found in her bed,” said Longworth. “But it makes for a better story if she died choking on a burrito.”
Then there were the needlessly cruel photos, like Jayne Mansfield’s fatally wrecked car, or an unretouched Judy Garland with the catty caption: “Judy: old, old, old.”
“That’s kind of the simplest, most base example of what ‘Hollywood Babylon’s’ project is,” said Longworth. “The fake version of Judy Garland that Hollywood is trying to sell is of young purity, what ‘Hollywood Babylon’ does is say: ‘No: old, old old. Ugly, grotesque, dead.’ ”
In 1984, Anger published a sequel and has told interviewers that he has a third volume in the works. And in today’s post-truth, ultra-ironic world of reality TV and cable news, it probably won’t even bat an eye.
“It’s really a work of art,” said Horak of “Babylon” and its trumped-up tales. “And really ahead of its time.”
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